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“Clausewitz, Center of Gravity, and the Confusion of a Generation of Planners”: A Response
In his Small Wars Journal article entitled “Clausewitz, Center of Gravity, and the Confusion of a Generation of Planners,” Col Robert Dixon continues a general theme popular among many military theorists which advocates for immediate change to longstanding principles of military doctrine and science. The changes within military doctrine and science advocated by Col Dixon and others range from the possibly useful application of updated systems theories to the adoption of highly abstract methodologies of post-structuralism and speculative physics. The prudent thinker should understand the need for careful analysis and evaluation prior to the dismissing of any existing doctrine and the adoption of new approaches. This demand of prudence should be the very minimum required in this discussion. (A demand that is unfortunately overlooked. And, in fact, the perversion of the demand is seemingly made: that the existing doctrine must prove its continued usefulness, or be abolished and promptly replaced. At play is the frenzied logic of the revolutionary, rather than the cool logic of the reformer.) Beyond that demand of prudence, however, there exists a more ominous concern, namely the role (and risk) of post-modernism within our military.
September 11, 2001, and the aftermath of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, introduced post-modernism as a competing (and I'd argue now dominating) paradigm within American society, and especially foreign and military policy. Western Europe began its slow death spiral with post-modernism after the Second World War. Post-modernism completed its stranglehold on Western European institutions and thought in the late 1960s and 1970s, under the influence of the likes of Michel Foucault.
However, perhaps as the Enlightenment's Eldest Daughter, America, rejecting post-modernism, carried the banner of the Enlightenment far longer: defeating Nazism, Imperial Japan, containing and defeating Soviet Communism, landing and returning men from the Moon, leading a multi-generational period of peace and global prosperity, etc. Now, at the hands of some backward semi-literate tribes, we are apparently prepared to call our operating paradigm into question, and quickly race to join Western Europe's death spiral with post-modernism.
Newtonianism is far from perfect. But, it had a profound impact on not only war (as Col Dixon alludes), but the entire Enlightenment, and thereby Western Europe and especially our country, founded deliberately as a grand Enlightenment project. In his criticism of the concept of “center of gravity,” Col Dixon states the following with regard to the influence of Newton, “Clausewitz used Newtonian physics to describe the focal point for warfare.” And, Col Dixon concludes with, “Just as the language of science has evolved from the mechanistic, Newtonian roots of the 19th century, it is far past time for the military language and concepts to enter the age of quantum physics and systems theory. As science begins to describe the world in ways that reveal and rationalize its complexity, so should military doctrine.”
Newtonianism was used by the fathers of the Enlightenment as the lens through which not just the mechanics of physics were interpreted but pretty much everything: economics (free markets), politics (separate but equal branches of government competing not only among themselves but among a free press and people), and of course, war. Adam Smith, James Madison, and Carl von Clausewitz all were applying a version of Newtonianism when they developed their respective theories.
The application of the Newtonian model within these other fields of human society is not perfect. But its saving graces are twofold: the Newtonian association with empiricism and rationalism: that we can fix ourselves based on observation and evaluation over time; and, the orientation to order: brining function out of seeming dysfunction.
The new models proposed under post-modernism are highly speculative within even the field of physics. Physicists will admit that many of these areas of speculation (chiefly within the extremes of the observable universe [at the cosmic and sub-atomic levels]) are not open to the scientific method of empirical observation, testing, evaluation, falsification, etc. They will remain speculative until better speculations are developed. Furthermore, these theories are not oriented to order; in fact to a one, they are oriented to disorder and even chaos. Are these the models that we want to tie our military or foreign policies to? Rashly abandoning models tried and tested over centuries and replacing them with models that are not only nearly (if not entirely) impossible to test and evaluate, but also are oriented toward disorder, is madness. On the grand scale, post-modernism as a civilizational paradigm invariably leads to some flavor of Nihilism: replacing the Enlightenment eschatology of a mankind on a journey toward greater liberty, understanding, order and harmony, with…. what?
The end-state of post-modernism within foreign and military policy is a weakened military. It's a logical conclusion. If we break the hold of the Newtonian worldview (and we may already be well past that point [e.g., the world now apparently is "unknown and unknowable" -- a phrase as contrary to the Enlightenment as probably possible]) and determine that Newtonian mechanics (force) is no longer the central governing principle of the universe, what need we of a military? This has been the logical conclusion within Western Europe. The military exists to apply force. If the Newtonian Laws of Motion no longer have central application in human events, what need we of a large capacity for generating and applying force?