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Carl von Clausewitz: Out of Date, or Needed Now More Than Ever?

November 6, 2010 1 comment

MAJ Grant Martin (USA) has an interesting article on Small Wars Journal about the current relevance of Carl von Clausewitz’s concept of Center of Gravity (CoG).  MAJ Martin contends that, “new scientific concepts, such as complexity theory, offer better insights into unconventional warfare than does CoG analysis.”  Though I agree that complexity theory can inform our understanding of warfare, I do not believe the CoG and complexity theory are incompatible.  Why?  Because Clausewitz embraced complexity theory before it was even a theory.

To understand Clausewitz, one must first understand the circumstances surrounding the man.  Clausewitz lived at the very end of the Age of Enlightenment.  Sir Isaac Newton had arguably kicked off the Age of Enlightenment with the publication of Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica in 1687, less than 100 years before Clausewitz was born in 1780.  The idea that the universe could be understood through scientific reason and rational thinking, rather than superstition, had swept through the first world.  Clausewitz, like many others, was fascinated with science and he consequently borrowed heavily from Newtonian physics to describe his ideas.

Of course, there is a problem with Newtonian physics.  Although it describes the world reasonably well in everyday life, we know that it breaks down both at the micro level (quantum theory) and the macro level (relativity theory).  More importantly, Newtonian physics is deterministic. Determinism is the idea that if we know enough about the universe, we can predict exactly what will happen in the future.  However, quantum theory tells us that at the sub-atomic level the universe is actually probabilistic. In other words, we can never predict exactly what will happen – we can only express the probability that something will happen.  Likewise, the larger universe is relativistic. Time and space are intertwined, and are relative to each observer.  In short, the universe is much more complex that Newton’s original theories suggested.

The issue with Clausewitz’s use of Newtonian concepts isn’t mathematical; it is philosophical.  In a deterministic universe every event is caused by events that preceded it.  In order to predict outcomes, therefore, we only need to know enough about the previous events or states.  In such a universe, heaps of information, combined with linear, reductionist thinking are they keys to success.  For example, the physical center of gravity of a given object can be mathematically calculated within a high degree of precision.  If I can apply sufficient force to the center of gravity of an object, I can move it any way I like.  This literal interpretation of calculable CoG is understandably attractive from a standpoint of war and strategy.  However, the idea that one can calculate his way to victory is fundamentally flawed.

Clausewitz knew that war was not a deterministic endeavor.  For example, he described a theory of war as a “pendulum” between the three “magnets” of the “paradoxical trinity” (people, nation, and military).  When this experiment is actually done, the path of the pendulum is unpredictable, chaotic, and most certainly non-deterministic.  Yet, the US military has largely chosen to close its collective eyes to this part of Clausewitz.  US military doctrine is riddled with linear, reductionist methodologies that attempt to reduce warfare to a neat and predictable science.

CoG is not the only Clausewitz concept to be misinterpreted as deterministic.  Clausewitz’s “fog of war” has been subject to much misinterpretation, particularly during the so-called “Revolution in Military Affairs” (RMA) in the late 1990s and early 2000s.   Clausewitz wrote, “War is the realm of uncertainty; three quarters of the factors on which action in war is based are wrapped in a fog of grater or lesser certainty.”  The RMA promised to change the battlefield fundamentally by giving information superiority to US forces through computer-based networks.  In 2001, William A. Owens and Edward Offley wrote a book whose title neatly summed up the attitudes of RMA believers entitled Lifting the Fog of War. The back cover predicts that “[The] RMA would transform the way that America wages war, bringing about a smaller, stronger, and more flexible military better able to monitor enemy forces in real time and thereby counter the ‘fog of war’ that has bedeviled commanders throughout history.”

The RMA was predicated on a flawed assumption: that the fog of war is “liftable.”  That the unknowns of war are, at some point, knowable.  However, in the years since 2001 we have found the fog of war is not a problem to be solved; it is a fundamental and enduring characteristic of warfare.  Clausewitz wasn’t talking about unknowns when he coined the term “fog of war”; he was talking about unknowables. Had Clausewitz lived 150 years later, he might very well have chosen to use the language of quantum physics to describe the uncertainty associated with war.  According to Werner Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, certain physical properties of particles cannot be simultaneously known with precision.  In fact, John Boyd, like Clausewitz, used scientific concepts to explore uncertainty.  Of course, Boyd had nearly 200 years of additional science to draw from.  He used the Uncertainty Principle, along with Kurt Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, and the Second Law of Thermodynamics as the foundation for his OODA loop:

According to Gödel we cannot— in general—determine the consistency, hence the character or nature, of an abstract system within itself. According to Heisenberg and the Second Law of Thermodynamics any attempt to do so in the real world will expose uncertainty and generate disorder. Taken together, these three notions support the idea that any inward-oriented and continued effort to improve the match-up of concept with observed reality will only increase the degree of mismatch. Naturally, in this environment, uncertainty and disorder will increase as previously indicated by the Heisenberg Indeterminacy Principle and the Second Law of Thermodynamics, respectively. Put another way, we can expect unexplained and disturbing ambiguities, uncertainties, anomalies, or apparent inconsistencies to emerge more and more often. Furthermore, unless some kind of relief is available, we can expect confusion to increase until disorder approaches chaos— death.

– Excerpt from Boyd’s presentation Destruction and Creation

We must recognize that Clausewitz used the language and metaphors he did because they were all he had available to him.  No doubt, if Clausewitz had the language of modern science, he would have described his concepts differently.  This doesn’t mean that his concepts were wrong; it simply means we have to work harder to interpret them.  The very idea that Clausewitz saw war as a complex endeavor before anyone was even thinking about complexity theory gives us an indication of just how insightful he really was.    We should not be seduced by the idea that because the CoG of a physical object can be calculated with precision, so too can war be reduced to a series of formulas.  Clausewitz knew better, and so should we.

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The Question of Legitimacy

January 2, 2010 Leave a comment

An article on strategic legitimacy by retired Marine LTC Robert J. Weimann was posted yesterday on Small Wars Journal.  It addresses the issue of legitimacy, which is included as a new Principle of War in the new JP 3-0.  The author offers the following abbreviated excerpt of the definition of legitimacy:

…Legitimacy … The purpose of legitimacy is to develop and maintain the will necessary to attain the national strategic end state…Legitimacy is based on the legality, morality, and rightness of the actions undertaken. Legitimacy is frequently a decisive element. Interested audiences may include the foreign nations, civil populations in the operational area, and the participating forces.

Here is the big problem with legitimacy; it is a subjective judgement.  It is the domain of the population, not the military or government.  Legitimacy is clearly something we need to be attuned to, however, I think we still don’t get it.  We tend to confuse legitimacy with justification, but these two terms are not interchangeable.  A justifiable action is not necessarily a legitimate one.  Justification is largely a legal issue, whereas legitimacy is a moral issue.

The new definition of legitimacy as a Principle of War uses the terms legality, morality, and rightness – legality is clearly incorrect.  This dynamic was at play during the run up to Iraq.  The administrations push to war was an exercise in building justification, culminating in Colin Powell’s briefing and the UN.

Justification does not equal legitimacy.  Of the two, legitimacy is the most important.  But as long as we think of it as a justification/legal principle, we are doomed to fail.