I first heard Lieutenant General Paul Van Riper speak at the Boyd ’07 Conference at Quantico and came away impressed. General Van Riper has a new article posted at Infinity Journal (registration required but always free….):
….While Clausewitz alludes to this nonlinearity through much of his opus On War, he speaks to it directly in Book One, Chapter 1, Section 28. This section, which hardly takes up half a page, summarizes many of the essentials of Clausewitz’s theory of war. He begins the section noting: “War is more than a true chameleon that slightly adapts its characteristics to the given case.”[vii] His use of a biological metaphor indicates war is not mechanistic and therefore not a controllable or predictable phenomenon. He then lays out the dominant tendencies of that phenomenon, which strategists often sum up as passion, probability, and reason. He mentions that most often the three tendencies are the concern of the people, army, and government.[viii] Continuing, Clausewitz makes a strong claim: “A theory that ignores anyone of them or seeks to fix an arbitrary relationship between them would conflict with reality to such an extent that for this reason alone it would be totally useless.”[ix]
In other words, to be valid any theory of war must incorporate war’s intrinsic dynamism. He goes on to say: “Our task therefore is to develop a theory that maintains a balance between these three tendencies like an object suspended between three magnets.” This analogy points to a cutting-edge scientific experiment of his era, that demonstrates the nonlinearity of any system where there is freedom of movement among three or more elements.[x] The virtual impossibility of duplicating the path of a pendulum as it moves among three equally spaced magnets tells us that despite our desire to balance passion, probability, and reason—the three central tendencies of war—it is simply not possible.[xi] War is a nonlinear phenomenon.
As with all nonlinear phenomena, we can only study war as a complete system, not as individual parts. Clausewitz is clear in this regard claiming that, “. . . in war more than in any other subject we must begin by looking at the nature of the whole; for here more than elsewhere the part and the whole must always be thought of together.”[xii] This advice runs counter to Americans’ preference for using an engineering approach to solve all problems. Reductionism tends to be part of the national character. We persist in using linear methods even when the evidence shows their limitations.
John Lewis Gaddis described the difficulties this approach has caused the U.S. national security community in a ground-breaking article questioning why political scientists failed to forecast the end of the Cold War.[xiii] His convincing conclusion is that while members of the physical and natural sciences were incorporating the tools of nonlinear science into their various disciplines those in political science were adopting classical linear practices, which blinded them to the dynamics that led to the Soviet Union’s demise. In the end, we confront the reality that as with war, international relations is nonlinear. Indeed, so also are most things that flow from it, including strategies and strategic thinking. […]
Read the rest here.
I particularly liked Van Riper’s later comment as going to some of what ails us:
….Good strategists know how nonlinear systems such as nation-states, non-state actors, international relations, politics, economics, wars, campaigns, and a host of others work in the real world. More importantly, they use this knowledge of a nonlinear world when they ponder strategic questions or recommend strategies. Good strategists don’t depend on analytical tools to uncover the future security environment or potential enemies. Rather, they look to history and economic and demographic trends to inform their judgments of what might happen in a nonlinear world.
If you look at the biographies of the men who were “present at the creation” or made the transition from World War to Cold War – Stimson, Acheson, Harriman, Marshall, Bohlen, Kennan, McCloy, Forrestal, Nitze, Eisenhower, Dulles, Lovett – they had overlaps of background in international business, diplomacy, banking, law and war. While this did not mean policy harmony – for example Acheson, Kennan, Bohlen, Harriman and Nitze had disagreements among themselves in regards to the Soviets – they possessed a shared understanding of strategy and the historical context in which they operated.
Today, high level discussions of strategy between the military, policy and political worlds are too often exactly that – communications between different planets rather than a dialogue within one small world.