Science, defence and strategy

Without strategy, the science of war overtakes the art of war.

Adam Elkus
6 January 2010

War has always been such a tremendously complex undertaking that every force waging it has sought to simplify and standardize. At the same time, this simplification and standardization is usually inimical to the kind of creativity needed to win. Finding a balance between the art and science of war has always been difficult, especially in an era thoroughly dominated by science in all major areas of everyday life.

Some critics charge that counterinsurgency has become a new “progressive” science of war rooted in an application of social sciences to conflict. While this charge has some truth, the real issue is that science is being substituted for strategy. Without guiding strategic direction, the temptation to elevate pat formulas and simplistic doctrines becomes overwhelming.

Alchemists of war

The “science of war” originated as a product of the Enlightenment’s positivist pretensions. Like many other human activities of the era, military thinkers assumed war could be mastered through the exercise of reason. They developed a set of ideas that delineated universal theories of war that changed over time and differing scientific paradigms. The common characteristic of the “science of war” is an idea that eternal, unerring common characteristics of conflict exist and can be utilized to reduce or eliminate the fog and friction inherent in conflict.

The Enlightenment gave rise to 18th century “geometric” school thinkers such as the English military theorist Henry Lloyd and the Prussian Heinrich von Bulow. “Geometric” strategists devised intricate means of calculating conflict, influencing the later French-Swiss theorist Antoine-Henri Jomini. Jomini, bitterly criticized by Carl von Clausewitz for simplifying war, nevertheless found a wider audience among his contemporaries than the more abstract Clausewitz.

By the end of World War II, massive automated systems had been set up to manage progressively larger aspects of the globe-spanning war effort.  Complicated mathematical equations were used to calculate repetitive aspects of combat such as aircraft loss ratios and the best means of beating the U-Boat offensive against the North Atlantic convoy system. The science of war would come to dominate almost every aspect of Cold War defense.

The Cold War-era science that French general and theorist Andre Beaufre dubbed “total strategy” encompassed not only dueling nuclear forces but their connection to the actions of worldwide conventional air, land and sea forces, North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies, and countless Third World proxies. Needless to say, the slightest slipup could lead to the devastation of entire nations. Computers came to manage many aspects of the nuclear effort, and civilian academics debating concepts of rational-choice theory replaced military strategists.


Science, Counterinsurgency, and Strategy

Critics of American counterinsurgency (COIN) theory have often charged that it is a new “science of war” rooted not in systems analysis or technobabble but “progressive” sciences such as anthropology or sociology (See Edward Luttwak, “Dead End: Counterinsurgency as Military Malpractice,” Harper’s, February 2007 or Gian P. Gentile, “A Strategy of Tactics: Population-centric COIN and the Army,” Parameters, Autumn 2009).  There is truth in this charge, though more so in the political than purely military arena. Charges to intervene in Yemen and ritualistic calls to pacify every “ungoverned space” with a combination of development and surgically applied force show that policy elites have misunderstood both the nature of counterinsurgency warfare as well as the relationship between operations and strategy.

The issue is not necessarily the merits of counterinsurgency or conventional warfare, but the substitution of science for strategy. The post-Cold War strategic vacuum of American grand strategy allows vacuous concepts and management-speak to take the place of detailed strategic plans and concepts. Everyone is favor of “smart power” and the “whole of government approach” for example, but no one agrees about how to properly implement such concepts.

Adding to the problem is the unpleasant fact that the more the Army necessarily specializes in counterinsurgency, the more attractive a notion the idea of a “global counterinsurgency” will be to policymakers. As Mark Safranski predicted in a review of David Kilcullen’s book The Accidental Guerrilla, even doctrines that eschew heavy foreign involvement can be co-opted by those looking for an easy fix for complicated issues in foreign policy (“The Kilcullen Doctrine,” Zenpundit, May 28, 2009). Most COIN gurus do not favor committing general-purpose forces to pacify foreign lands, but their wishes are meaningless if their political masters see COIN as a substitute for strategy.

Of course, a golden age of American strategy never really existed. The very structure of divided American government and fractious politics prevents the kind of centralized strategymaking seen in Bismarck’s Germany, the wet dream of many nostalgic devotees of realpolitik. Instead of Prince Metternich and the Congress of Vienna, America has Ultimate Fighting Championship.  The cable-TV screaming matches that dominate American political discourse are more important than careful policy papers in determining the future direction of American strategy.

Instead of accepting this reality and seeking to plan around it, Washington policy grandees busy themselves waxing nostalgic for the beginnings of the Cold War and the resolute decision-making of figures such as President Harry Truman, foreign policy theorist George Kennan, and statesman and hawk Paul Nitze. If the military can sometimes be accused of turning strategy into gadgetry, fetishism of Cold War-era statesmanship turns American diplomacy into a worship of foreign policy as a rational science conducted by sober, pipe-smoking figures. Such figures are as relevant to contemporary American life as British Victorian-era period dramas. But unlike the hordes of middle-aged American women who flocked to see the latest Queen Victoria biopic, nostalgic policy elites cannot seem to grasp that their anachronistic heroes are (extremely fortunate) outliers of a bygone era.

Destruction and Creation

For the military, the quest for doctrine and training adaptive enough to create a military capable of carrying out complex conventional and irregular missions is likely to be a decades-long pursuit. It took thirty years for the Army to experience a post-Vietnam renaissance in doctrine and training that would eventually result in the lopsided victory over Iraq in the first Gulf War. But military needs will be ultimately driven by the nature of American strategy. And when strategy is absent, science, whether rooted in technology, operational art, or social science, will take over. So what is to be done?

One of America’s greatest (but little-known) strategic thinkers ironically found the answer in science itself. Air Force Colonel John Boyd busied himself with an expansive reading list after retirement, synthesizing insights from the emerging discipline complexity science along with the timeless lessons of classic military history. An iconoclastic figure, Boyd is known for declaring “If you've got one doctrine, you're a dinosaur.” While Boyd’s insights are often reduced down to the idea that one should simply be faster than the enemy, his real ideas were far more complex.

In Boyd’s paper “Destruction and Creation,” the widely read Colonel synthesized mathematicians Kurt Gödel and Werner Heisenberg’s insights in pointing out that inward-oriented efforts to force observed reality to mesh with internally derived concepts only increase chaos and destruction. It is impossible to determine the consistency and character of an abstract system within itself (See John R. Boyd, “Destruction and Creation,” September 3, 1976). Boyd noted that this had potentially dire consequences for rigid closed systems:

“The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that all observed natural processes generate entropy. From this law it follows that entropy must increase in any closed system—or, for that matter, in any system that cannot communicate in an ordered fashion with other systems or environments external to itself. Accordingly, whenever we attempt to do work or take action inside such a system—a concept and its match-up with reality—we should anticipate an increase in entropy hence an increase in confusion and disorder. Naturally, this means we cannot determine the character or nature (consistency) of such a system within itself, since the system is moving irreversibly toward a higher, yet unknown, state of confusion and disorder. …Furthermore, unless some kind of relief is available, we can expect confusion to increase until disorder approaches chaos— death.”

The human decision-making process, Boyd argues, deals with this conundrum through a constant dialectic of creation and destruction of mental patterns and perceptions in response to a changing and complex observed reality. We cannot escape from chaos, rather we are most successful when we embrace it by shattering the rigid mental patterns that have built up and then synthesize the new realities we observe to create a new understanding. Such a process of structuring, dissolving, restructuring, and dissolving again must be repeated endlessly.

Contemporary American strategic problems flow from the fact that we cannot adjust the ossified thinking of Washington D.C. to the constantly shifting observed reality of the outside world. A failure to match concepts to observed reality has amplified the already formidable entropy of the American political system. The corresponding failure to make strategy results in a search further inward towards the “science” of war.  Better strategy will come about only when the process by which strategy is made becomes supple, flexible, and less dominated by sacred cows and special interests.

Critics of American foreign policy often undermine their own case with conspiracy theorizing about the “military-industrial complex.” The real problem, however, is not James Bond villain-style secret plans and hidden agendas but basic human frailty. A largely homogenous group of people is not going to have all the answers to questions of war and peace because they are necessarily limited by their experience, specialization, and biases.

Widening the circle of discussion is a necessary step for improving American strategy. Largely absent, for example, from the uninformed debate about counter-terrorism measures in Yemen are regional experts who have studied, lived, or worked in the region. Another happy outcome would be the breaking of the political double standard that marks skeptics of intervention abroad as “unserious” and grants the aura of statesmanship to those who reflexively call to send in the Marines. Until the process of conceiving strategy is characterized more by “destruction and creation” than closed debate, the science of war will continue to substitute for realistic strategy.

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