Small Wars Journal

Design and the Prospects of a Design Ethic

Fri, 03/04/2011 - 9:40am

Design and the Prospects of a Design Ethic

by Christopher R. Paparone

Download The Full Article: Design and the Prospects of a Design Ethic

Neil Sheehan, in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, tells a remarkable side story of Edward G. Lansdale. Lansdale's quest illustrates the paradoxes of studying history. Lansdale, equipped with a positivist philosophy that still dominates thinking today in military circles, sought to apply strategies and lessons he learned while helping Philippines President Ramón Magsaysay fight an insurgency in 1952 and 1953 and apply them to Ngo Dinh Diem's regime in Vietnam in 1955 into the early 1960s. Lansdale, an US Army major general and later a senior CIA official, exemplifies the problem of iatrogenesis-- intervening with good intentions when presumably applying professional learnedness while unintentionally causing more harm than good. Sheehan concludes:

Lansdale was a victim in Vietnam of his success in the Philippines. Men who succeed at an enterprise of great moment often tie a snare for themselves by assuming that they have discovered some universal truth. Lansdale assumed, as much as his superiors did, that his experience in the Philippines applied in Vietnam. It did not.

In retrospect, Sheehan speculates that Lansdale,, who apparently had a positivist view of knowledge about countering insurgencies, that may have, iatrogenically, contributed to starting a second war of independence in Vietnam that, by 1975, was a debacle for the United States.

The main character in Sheehan's history is John Paul Vann who represents a marked juxtaposition to positivistic thinking and acting. Vann arguably was immersed in the situation and realized that the doctrine of the day (how to deal with insurgencies in foreign nations) was not working with the uniqueness of the South Vietnam situation. Rather than towing the institutional line, Vann-the- whistleblower chose to eventually give up his career in the US Army to become a USAID senior official. His effectiveness in influencing the war was cut short when he was killed in a helicopter crash in Vietnam in 1972.

The interrelated histories of Lansdale and Vann are important, not as a source of lessons learned, but more toward the appreciation for the exposed fallacies that military professional knowledge is progressively improved and that military doctrine will be appropriate in wicked situations. This poignant, illustrative statement is oft attributed to Vann: "We don't have twelve years' experience in Vietnam. We have one year's experience twelve times over."

The story of John Paul Vann (as with other so-called "whistleblowers" in US military history) is largely about bucking the institutional ethics -- how institutions frame situations. In retrospect, the military institution was not receptive to Vann's discontented ideas about wartime strategy. It was later in the role of a more senior civilian government official that his creatively deviant framings were brought into action, culminating in the 1972 battle of Kontum that was arguably a win for the Republic of Vietnam (Vann died thinking the war was won).

Interestingly, if one examines how the issue of ethical reasoning is approached in the US military institution, the focus of attention seems to be more on the individual rather than the reflexivity of the institution as the frame of reference. The Vann story exposes that the institutional propensity is to orient on ethics of progressivism, compliance, and equality. Progressivism is revealed in the institutional portrayal of convergent and assimilative knowledge artifacts to include published doctrine and regulations and a vast array of organizations devoted to "lessons learned." The institutional ethic on compliance seems strongly favor that, under normal circumstances, an officer shall not question the decided stratagems of the hierarchy (perhaps the assumptive underpinnings are that the higher you go, the more you know and the more accountable you are). At the same time, there are institutional cross-pressures to accommodate equality -- (at least apparently) treating those of the same position and rank equally; albeit, the talents and wisdom are diverse. We will address these sequentially.

Download The Full Article: Design and the Prospects of a Design Ethic

Christopher R. Paparone, Colonel, U.S. Army, Retired, is an associate professor in the Army Command and General Staff College's Department of Joint, Interagency and Multinational Operations at Fort Lee, Virginia. He holds a B.A. from the University of South Florida; master's degrees from the Florida Institute of Technology, the U.S. Naval War College, and the Army War College; and a Ph.D. in public administration from Pennsylvania State University. On active duty he served in various command and staff positions in the continental United States, Panama, Saudi Arabia, Germany, and Bosnia.

Editor's Note: This essay is the last in Paparone's series on design.

About the Author(s)

Chris Paparone is a retired US Army Colonel who served in various command and staff positions in war and peace in the continental United States, Panama, Saudi Arabia, Germany, and Bosnia.  He is a graduate of the US Naval War College and received his PhD in public administration from The Pennsylvania State University, Harrisburg. He has published numerous articles, book chapters, and in 2013 published a Bloomsbury book titled The Sociology of Military Science: Prospects for Postinstitutional Military Design.  He considers himself a burgeoning "critical military epistemologist" and will feature an article on CME in a forthcoming Journal of Military and Strategic Studies special issue.



Sun, 01/30/2022 - 11:14pm

Design trends do not stand still and are constantly evolving. There is a certain difficulty in this, because you need to constantly monitor changes and learn new information and technologies, but on the other hand, it is very interesting. For example, recently I found a great web design platform called Master Bundles which I hadn't heard of before. And I was impressed by the wide selection and quality of graphic sets that can be used when developing the design of your project.

bz (not verified)

Mon, 05/16/2011 - 10:29am

Chris- agree 100%. So, we are talking about transforming our entire PME to at least recognize our own logic, and perhaps acknowledge that other logics are out there that might do a better job at times of "solving the problem at hand."

It is going to take a new generation of leaders to make this happen...I think that the tactical emphasis throughout the first 12-15 years of an officer's career makes it harder to break away from that logic later.

Have you looked at Anatol Rappoport's introduction to the 1968 Penguins Classic edition of 'On War?' I think he does a fantastic (and largely forgotten job) of laying out Clausewitzian detailed plannning logic and how there are many other rival and incompatible logics.


The Pap

Sun, 05/15/2011 - 11:02am

In light of Ben Z's "in conclusion" essay on design, I thought this might be a good time to revisit the issue of institutional deviance.

As my comprehension of what "design" means has changed over time, I had an epiphany.

We seem to be setting design as a challenge to the status quo of MDMP (systems engineering).

The real debate is whether systems engineering should be our only source of logic for design.

That is, we have a army of designers already -- however, they are institutionalized into the engineering sciences as the source of logic.

So, permit me to reframe the debate -- WHAT WE SHOULD BE DEBATING IS THE LOGICS OF DESIGN. We have a very elaborate way to design now -- it's called systems analysis/engineering. The logic is singular -- it relies on scientific method, reductionism and so forth. The designs we get from this logic is arguably inadequate for the situations we find ourselves in.

Instead of trying to make the systems engineering approach BETTER (i.e. assuming we have misapplied the logic of systems engineering), we should (and this is the counterargument) be searching for OTHER logics to make BETTER sense of situations we are in.

So the definition of "design" is based in a broader view -- searches for other paradigms for sensemaking. They may include a host of sources for logic:

-- other utilitarian disciplines of study
-- the fine arts
-- deeper appreciations of historic examples
-- fictional stories (e.g., war novels)
-- and so forth...

I tried to capture these other sources of logics (

I am not suggesting throwing away the Newtonian systems engineering logics, just subordinating them to a wider selection among others.

This is why the "ethics of deviance" is essential to "design."

G Martin

Tue, 03/08/2011 - 3:28pm

On the paper:

Great paper, Chris- and great series. I must admit that I was frustrated to see Design "doctrine" that contradicted Design literature. The literature talked about emergence while the doctrine discussed reverse engineering. Design literature included punctuated equilibrium while the doctrine described logical lines of operation. The literature introduced many to the fallacy of one perspective while the doctrine encouraged a Center of Gravity analysis.

What you (and the underlying Design literature) call for is nothing short of a fundamental philosophy shift for all individuals and the institution writ large. That this key concept is largely ignored- if not actively fought- by doctrine and the Army as a whole is telling. The natural inclination of the underlying philosophy doesn't just apply to military subjects, but to life in general. This is very difficult for people to do.

Because of that there are greater paradigms at work as obstacles to this philosophy than just the Army culture. Western culture, the Judeo-Christian ethical "narrative", religious orthodoxies, the American cultural "narrative", the current U.S. educational system etc.- all represent roadblocks to successful implementation of the Design concepts. These have manifested themselves quite transparently in the doctrinal attempts to introduce Design to the rest of the Army. More subtly, these manifest themselves in obstacles to even discussing these subjects in academic forums.

I would say the greatest "Army-centric" obstacles to the philosophy behind Design are:

- The current love affair between the Army and reverse-engineered solutions that offer (on paper at least) an easily-communicated logic and plan for action during contingencies.
- Our own systems
- The environment of military operations that lend themselves to complexity, difficult-to-trace sufficient causes, and political-sensitivity (to criticizing us).
- The strong cultural vein in the Army of comformity, Christian "One Truth" worldviews, and past military success.
- A love of all things tactical.
- Anti-intellectualism and "blue-collar worship".
- A preference for experience over education.
- A growing bureaucracy.
- The lack of pressure to change (no external threat that forces us to change).

If you are implying, which I think you are, that it will be seen one day (not that it shouldn't today) to have been unethical for us NOT to apply Design principles in our operations- then I wholeheartedly agree. All the great intents in the world won't make ultimate failure any more palatable. We may really believe in our paradigms, but if they fail us, then our nation won't forgive us for being ignorant or unwilling to learn new things.

I almost typed "then our nation won't excuse the avoidable loss of soldiers during wartime."- but that is what really makes this the most pressing: we arguably have guys dying in Helmand, Kandahar, and other places because we think we are doing the right things, but are not. If it is simply because we refuse to question our assumptions and paradigms, then shame on us.

On the comments:

Z: "...there are so many modes of explaining MDMP/JOPP/MCPP yet at the tactical level where action must occur, they still are the best option for orchestrated action)? I feel that while conceptual planning (design) requires unique and unbounded lexicon, processes, and discourse, the design deliverables must cross the divide and, with the delicate hand of the adaptive practioner (Commander), convert the form but retain the content into executable detailed planning products..."

Ben- I wonder if Design, if properly implemented, would necessarily always result in the commander doing much of anything, detailed planning driving much- if anything, and deliverables even necessary?

I subscribe to Eric Beinhocker's (The Origin of Wealth) description of nimble teams exemplifying the Learning Organization in acting within broad swaths of intent (Mission Command?), almost totally independent, and rewarded for mission success and cross-functional, coordinated action. He argues this is needed to be successful in the business world- and that it follows biological evolutionary principles. I recognized many of the characteristics of SF teams when I read his solution to success in a rapidly-changing business world.

Outside of resourcing, setting priorities, and providing the bridge between the politicians and the executors, I'm not sure "the commander" does very much (I'm assuming a battalion (or maybe brigade) or higher commander here).

Bill M.:

Where I agree with you that in its current form Design isn't easily stomached, I'd say explaining why the current concepts are flawed should be very apparent based on some of our most recent military forays:

- Bosnia
- Haiti
- any country we are doing "Counter-drug" ops in
- Vietnam
- any country we are doing "Counter-insurgency" in

If we were a business with these efforts on our balance sheet I'd imagine we would have been bankrupt/fired a long time ago.

Bill M.

Sun, 03/06/2011 - 10:11pm

Had to run off to watch Fareed on GPS, but wanted to follow up that the greater take away is we need to gain greater understanding before acting. Our current approach is to template a doctrinal approach over the perceived problem and then blindly adhere to our doctrinal approach.

Arguments over doctrine are generally arguments what about what approach to take regardless of the problem we are trying to solve that are just as flawed our doctrinal positivism and we only need to look at some of the ideas coming from various think tanks that are being sold to our political leadership. Everyone is hopeful that the latest idea will be the solution we haven't found yet, yet no one wants to invest in the manpower and technology needed to gain a greater understanding of the ecosystem we're actually operating in.

I don't buy the argument that individuals in the military are generally close minded (many are, but no greater percentage than those outside the military), but I do think we have a system that stiffles innovative thinking.


I regretted writing that philosophy isn't germane to the issue as soon as I posted it, but stand by the argument that a debate on the various philosophical views will not in of itself lead to the desired paradigm shift.

Personally I am an advocate for a shock to the system, not a violent clash that forces us to change, but appointing leaders that discard our strong adherence to doctrinial approaches to solving conflict.

I'm not yet convinced that Design Theory as described is the answer, but it is definitely worth futher study and experimentation.

I just finished reading a JSOU study by Dr. Laire Paquette (SEP 10) on "Terrorist Insurgent Thinking and Joint SOF planning doctrine and operations". She made some obvious observations (obvious in hindsight) that terrorist-insurgents have a wider range of tactics and can change tactics quickly.

Some points she made about the terrorist-insurgents that are relevant to my argument are:

- They are creative
- They are holistic
- They see the big picture
- They are constantly scanning their environments for opportunities and threats.

Of course to do this they need to understand the big picture, and in doing so enables a considerable amount of lattitude in tactics at the lowest levels.

Design may give us this lattitude, instead of being held hostage to higher's mission focus, we would be able to focus more on intent and probability. This would enable us to more effectively implement something along the lines of the swarm theory. Just the beginning of a thought here that I hope to expand on more.

The Pap

Sun, 03/06/2011 - 10:19am

Let me clarify my last remark. I am not advocating for such a shock to the system; merely, I am trying to indicate (academically) how institutions change over time (invoking ideas from Thomas Kuhn, Punctuated Equilibrium Theory, Long Wave Theory, postmodernism, and so forth).

The Pap

Sun, 03/06/2011 - 10:19am

et me clarify my last remark. I am not advocating for such a shock to the system; merely, I am trying to indicate (academically) how institutions change over time (invoking ideas from Thomas Kuhn, Punctuated Equilibrium Theory, Long Wave Theory, postmodernism, and so forth).

The Pap

Sun, 03/06/2011 - 10:08am

Bill M.

"discussions on philosophy do not equate to strategies and plans..."

That philosophy does impact our conceptions of strategy and and plans is the major point of the thesis here.

The objective is not to "destroying our current processes" but to subordinate them to more of a macro-philosophical view (e.g., planning and traditional strategy making may work under some circumstances).

That macro-view (I argue) is called postpositivism -- in short means being humbly doubtful [reflexive] about the efficacy of our dominant worldview and "assimilated" knowledge.

I remain pessimistic that the institution (that has built immense, behemoth structures based on faith in positivism -- doctrine, concept developers, lessons learned, best practices, PPBE, JCIDS, ORSA, and so on) -- will not make the disjointed leap into postpositivism. I believe it may take something rather dramatic (that threatens the very core of the institution) to alter the paradigm.

Lansdale is an interesting character. He was recruited by Wild Bill Donovan into the OSS shortly after he joined the Army, so his service during WWII was irregular and probably one reason he remained a true out of the box thinker.

He used psywar in the Philippines (and elsewhere), and that is where he employed the vampire technique. Not sure what effect it had, but his success in the Philippines was largely due to partnering with SECDEF Magsaysay and then President Magsaysay who reformed the military and implimented agrarian reform. Lansdale was an advisor, but by no means was Magsaysay his puppet. It is probably more accurate to say Lansdale got much credit for Magsaysay's success.

When he went to Vietnam he was looking for his next Magsaysay and unfortunately picked Diem. While not as bad as the history books made him out to be, he was definitely no Magsaysay and we know the rest of the story.

Lansdale would be an interesting subject in the PSYOP threads, because he came up with several gray and black themes for the Philippines, Vietnam, Cuba and elsewhere. Not sure if any of them had any real impact.

I enjoyed this article, but discussions on philosophy do not equate to strategies and plans. I think the underlying problems with our doctrine and military problem solving methodology can be summed up in plain English in two pages. Then design can be introduced as a possible solution.

It is well known that we're generally weak in correctly defining the true nature of the problem we should solve, and of course we ignore the impact of the overall ecosystem we're operating end until it is too late. Design may help, but selling it in present form will not be possible without first destroying our current processes with good sound arguments on why the current methods are flawed.

Ben Zweibelson (not verified)

Sat, 03/05/2011 - 4:34pm

An enjoyable essay; I am in violent agreement. So, how does the military as an institution, with the commander serving as the central and guiding light within 'design' and within the rival methodology of detailed planning (positivism, reductionism, linear causality with reverse engineering from predetermined end-states... there are so many modes of explaining MDMP/JOPP/MCPP yet at the tactical level where action must occur, they still are the best option for orchestrated action)? I feel that while conceptual planning (design) requires unique and unbounded lexicon, processes, and discourse, the design deliverables must cross the divide and, with the delicate hand of the adaptive practioner (Commander), convert the form but retain the content into executable detailed planning products.

Landsdale is a fascinating character- a very atypical leader within the Air Force; I think he broke the institutional molds that Builder accurately described in 'Masks of War.' My favorite story about Landsdale by far is the vampire story in southeast Asia. I cannot recall which conflict, but the region had a superstition about vampires in the jungle, so he took an already dead enemy soldier, had his blood drained, put fang marks on the neck, and they dumped his body in the jungle where he was later found. Talk about going against traditional approaches!

You discuss the institutional propensity for progressivism in your paper; I agree. From the ethical side, a leader is expected to comply with the forces of progressivism but they cannot, as Michael Foucote stated in his 1983 Berkley lectures, 'be the heretical questioners- or problematizers...' The philosopher that does not risk his life while seeking truth with the emperor is converted to a modern metaphor today where military professionals cannot apply design and critically question the very instution without risking 'death' in the form of alienation, censorship, or gaining 'persona non grata' status as the IDF have done to GEN Naveh...

Your take on Retrogressivism made me think of Anatol Rappoport's essay that was the intro to Clausewitz's On War that Penguin Books put out in 1968. He uses the term 'divine messionic eschatalogical war theory' and it directly plugs into the Radical Islamic movements of today; dropping the 'divine' from it plugs it right into the Green movements you mention.

'Creative Deviance' in your conclusion- I see that as another way of saying 'problematizing- heretical thinker that creates and destroys to attain deep understanding (or cognitive synergy) on a complex system; unbounded in the exteriority the Nomad of 'A Thousand Plataeus' can invent and create concepts unseen from the interior.

So, how does the Commander bridge the gap from deep understanding to executable action and subsequently cross the gap again for reflection and reframing? Do ethics span them both in the same form? Does vocab? Does doctrine? Or are they uniquely tailored to each rival worldview?

My apologies to readers for my sloppy work and a correction: Lansdale retired as a Maj Gen in the US Air Force (originally he was in the US Army).

His "official" bio is available at

My thanks to a friend who corrected me!