Archive for the ‘Strategists’ Category

Bin Laden’s Legacy

May 4, 2011 Leave a comment

So, Osama bin Laden was, by any measure, a murderous son of a bitch who got exactly what was coming to him.  Although the thought of incinerating him with a missile strike is attractive in a eye-for-and-eye kind of way, the thought of him cowering in the dark as vengeance in the form of Navy SEALs methodically hunted him room by room is oddly satisfying.  I enjoy knowing that the last moments of his pitiful life were filled with fear.

So it is done.  Now what?

Aside from the strategic implications, to which I may devote a future entry, there has been some discussion on bin Laden’s legacy.  Specifically, does he take his place among the most influential strategists/theorists of history?  Did he invent/perfect/introduce a “Jihadist” way of war? Read more…


How Does Libya End?

March 21, 2011 3 comments


“The first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish . . . the kind of war on which they are embarking.”

Carl von Clausewitz, On War

Upon which kind of war are we embarking in Libya?  Have we answered Clausewitz’s question?  The answer would appear to be a resounding no.

Read more…

Rest in Peace COL John Boyd

March 9, 2011 Leave a comment

On this day in 1997, COL John Boyd passed away.  I’m sure that God was surprised, as COL Boyd almost certainly arrived inside God’s decision cycle….

Categories: Boyd

Happy Birthday Col. John Boyd

January 22, 2011 1 comment

John Boyd (January 23, 1927 – March 9, 1997) would have been 84 on Sunday.  If you are familiar with Col. Boyd and his work, raise a glass today.  If not, I recommend the following sources:   Read more…

Categories: Boyd, Strategists, Strategy

New Online Strategy Publication: Infinity Journal

November 16, 2010 3 comments

image Infinity Journal is a new peer-review journal dedicated to strategy.  According to the Infinity Journal website:

Infinity Journal (IJ) is a peer-review electronic journalzine dedicated to the study and discussion of strategy. The intent of IJ is to assist in greater awareness, as well as a better understanding and education of what strategy is, to whom and how it is being applied, how and why it is created, how it works, or why it fails.

Infinity Journal aims to make the discussion of strategy accessible to the widest possible audience, because today strategy is widely misunderstood not only by the layman but also by students, senior soldiers and politicians. Therefore, we aim to keep rigid language and complexity to minimum and comprehensible language and simplicity to a maximum.

Articles from the current issue:

Assumptions: A Fatal Oversight – T. X. Hammes
The End of a Strategy-free Decision Making Environment? – John Mackinlay
Targeted Killings Work – A.E. Stahl and William F. Owen
Israel’s Strategy (or Lack of) Towards Iran’s Forward Rocket Deployments in Lebanon and Gaza – Ron Tira
Lynchpin: The U.S.-ROK Alliance after the Cheonan – Abraham M. Denmark and Zachary M. Hosford
Strategic Culture: A Look at Europe – Jonathan Dowdall

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.

The Culture of Decentralized Decision Making

October 2, 2010 Leave a comment

Starbuck has an interesting post on his Wings Over Iraq blog talking about issues with implementing decentralized decision making in the U.S. Army.  I offered my two cents in the comments:

You won’t find the answer in doctrine, training, leadership, or any other of the DOTMLPF domains. This is a cultural issue. Army culture does not support decentralized decision making, primarily because of our concept of the commander’s role as a chess player rather than a leader (Boyd captured this well in his examination of Command and Control vs. Leadership and Assessment).

This cultural dynamic is highly influenced by another cultural value: Soldiers do not want to accomplish the mission, and therefore cannot be trusted. This is perhaps best represented by the slogan “Mission First, People Always.” Operating from this assumption, commanders cannot trust subordinates and therefore must assume the role of compliance enforcer. In contrast, under the decentralized model, commanders are leaders, and leaders align the purpose of subordinates with organizational goals (mission first=people first), thereby generating trust.

Until we change this culture which assumes the false dichotomy between the goals of the people and the goals of the organization, we will never be able to have decentralized decision making.