Small Wars Journal

Strategy is a Competition of Ideas: What Gettysburg and Afghanistan Teach Us

Tue, 09/18/2012 - 5:30am

Chaos is the score upon which reality is written

Henry Miller

On July 2nd 1863 General Lee made a decision at Gettysburg that shaped the American Civil War and the world throughout the 20th Century.  This decision was so monumental that Harry F. Pfanz, in his book Gettysburg: The Second Day, compared it to Peter’s three time denial of Jesus[1].  Major General Hood asked three times to maneuver his forces to the high ground of Big and Little Round Top versus attacking up the Emmittsburg Road.  Three times his Corps commander Longstreet rejected his request, instructing Hood that Lee’s orders were clear- attack up the road.  If Hood had only disobeyed these orders or if Lee had only consented to Hood’s view, the Confederacy would have turned the Union flank and destroyed the Army of the Potomac.  Washington, now in direct sight of the Army of Northern Virginia, would have sued for peace allowing the Southern states to secede.  This change would have radically altered world history.  America would not have been there to fight World I or World War II, there would have been no cold war, and the American West would have become a new battleground for territory during the westward expansion.  The entire history of the 20th century was dramatically altered by this one decision……maybe.     

The challenge of military history and military strategy is knowing what matters.  Whether one is trying to determine which crucial decisions in Gettysburg resulted in the Union victory or trying to determine the right strategy for the current Afghanistan/Pakistan campaign, determining what actions to take in an overwhelmingly complex situation to cause a desired result is incredibly difficult.  Knowing what actions to take implies an understanding of how those actions will influence the situation and any decision maker who knows that will have a distinct advantage.  Examining the different possible variations of Gettysburg and comparing this to the contemporary debate of the Afghan strategy places the difficulty of understanding complex situations in sharp relief and presents novel ways to understand strategy.  Instead of just debating which strategy was or is superior for a given situation, this discussion attempts to conduct an analysis on meta- strategy.  Adopting this approach does not develop a super strategy but offers insights into what strategies are and how they are developed. 

In thinking about strategy, it is first important to understand that the world is overwhelmingly complex.  The truth of this complexity is evident by examining the potential variations that could have occurred at Gettysburg.  The battle of Gettysburg took place over 3 days from July 1, 1863 to July 3, 1863.  It composed of approximately 83,289 Union Soldiers and 75,054 Confederate Soldiers[2].  In this conflict, many historians consider the Brigade Commander the lowest key decision maker whose actions could have dramatic effect on the outcome of the battle.[3]  Operating under this assumption the Confederacy had 38 key decision makers and the Union had 89 key decision makers for 127 total decision makers (see figure 1).[4]

Figure 1                                   

If each one of these key decision makers had made one “either/or” decision in isolation (i.e. they choose course A versus course B and this action has no effect on anyone else) during the course of the battle then there is a possibility of 16,129 variations of how Gettysburg could have occurred (see figure 2).  Even if one argued, the Brigade Commander was not a key decision maker and only considered the division commander and above as key decision makers then there would still be 2,025 variations (see figure 2).  This first set of variations (2,205 and 16,125) is complicated but manageable.  Computing power today can easily manage such numbers so it is in the realm of possibility for a computer to explore this many variations.  However, to view warfare as reducible and isolated pieces is to misconstrue the nature of war. 

Figure 2

As Clausewitz identified in On War, war derives its complexity not from the pieces but from the interaction of those pieces[5].  Sun Tzu made a similar comment when he said that there are only two approaches in war direct and indirect but their combinations are inexhaustible.[6] Therefore, the decisions the Brigade Commanders made rippled across the chain of command.  This reality flips the equation on its head (see figure 3).  Still assuming each Brigade Commander and above made one either or decision throughout the 3 days of Gettysburg and now that these decisions interacted with each other commanders’ decisions, we find that the possible variations of Gettysburg quickly become unmanageable.  From this perspective, if 127 commanders make one either or choice (A or B) and another commander also makes one either or choice (C or D) these possibilities can combine in four ways (AC, AD, BC, BC).  This dynamic continues with three commanders resulting in eight possible variations and four commanders resulting in 16 possible variations  and so on until there are over 170 unodecillion (36 zeros) variations at the Brigade or 35 trillion variations at the Division level (see figure 3).  To give an idea of what undecillion means, if the entire Gettysburg battle was fought a billion times a second since the Big Bang there is less than a one in a billion chance that one would get the same combination of decisions as actually occurred.[7]  In addition, it must be remembered that these astronomical numbers exclude factors of weather, terrain, technology, training, and every other soldier except the Brigade and above commanders.  This means that not only is this one historic battle too complex to understand it is too complex to even develop constructs on what variations were possible.    

Figure 3

Examining the possible variations of Gettysburg and not just describing what occurred is hopefully a novel perspective for most readers.  However, this perspective offers little in devising new strategies or providing a better understanding of Gettysburg as a historical event.  The crucial insight this approach does provide is that any understanding of Gettysburg is a simplification.  Historians often turn wars and battles into linear sequences outlining casual chains for which the mind has a natural bias.[8]  The unique approach that each historian uses to conceptualize and create their casual linkages of events then helps commanders and strategists develop mental models with the hope of improving their combat decisions and increasing their chance for victory.  Yet, each description is only one of an exhaustive number of ways to understand the events.  Great strategists and scientists are the ones who provide novel ways to conceptualize complex events that other people can apply to a myriad of situations.[9]  The conceptualizations that allow a superior understanding of events provide a competitive advantage to strategist and leaders.  Strategy is therefore a competition to find superior conceptualizations; this is true whether one is trying to understand ancient battles or contemporary campaigns such as Afghanistan.

Two examples, the Afghan National Development Strategy (NDS) and the article “Parallels with the Past” demonstrate different approaches for conceptualizing the Afghan conflict.  The Afghan National Development Strategy is an exhaustive 259 page document outlining what elements are necessary to develop Afghanistan.  This strategy outlines three pillars of (i) Security, (ii) Governance, Rule of Law and Human Rights, and Economic and (iii) Social Development. In these three pillars are six cross-cutting issues of counter-narcotics, anti-corruption, capacity development, gender equality, environment, and regional cooperation.[10]  The NDS’ approach is to identify the key traits of a developed country and then find ways to achieve them with detailed metrics.  The appendices outline the objectives responsible agencies and intermediate objectives.[11]  The approach of NDS can be called a direct approach.

 A competing approach to understand the dynamics of Afghanistan is the article “Parallels with the Past” by Larry Goodsen a professor at the Army War College and Thomas H. Johnson a Professor at the Naval Postgraduate School.  This article compares the US experience in Afghanistan with the Soviet experience.  In this article, the authors identify three key similarities between the US and Soviet experiences.  First the failure to adopt a population centric strategy, second an unpopular government attempting reconciliation and third an ‘Afghanization’ or attempt to build local capacity to fight the insurgency.[12]  To add further credence to their argument the authors then go on to identify seven other key similarities and conclude that based on these similarities the current US strategy holds little chance of success.  Goodsen and Johnson argue that if these approaches did not work in the past under similar conditions how can they work in the future.  The authors present three new strategies as the only viable alternative: (1) better nation-building through COIN, (2) counterterrorism is enough, and (3) declare victory and disengage.[13]  Goodsen and Johnson then build on their previous similarities and contend that the unpleasant best strategy forward is “counterterrorism is enough”- essentially spending less resources to make Afghanistan a developed nation and more on (albeit orders of magnitude less than nations building) on attacking the symptoms of directly fighting the terrorist organizations.[14]  Goodsen and Johnson use what could be considered a classic historical argument.  The authors looked in the past to a seemingly similar situation found similarities and conclude the same mistakes are being repeated.

Both the NDS and the Goodsen and Johnson approach have flaws.  The Afghan approach can be accused of being too linear as it identifies objectives and adopts the most obvious way to get there.  This approach ignores the complex dynamics within the society that are producing the undesirable phenomenon such as corruption. The best example of this is the Karzai’s administration rampant corruption and fraudulent 2008 presidential election.  The Goodsen and Johnson approach also has flaws.  Despite some disconcerting similarities between the US and Soviet approach there are also large disparities.  These disparities include but are not limited to differences in the US/ Soviet military culture, changes in the global paradigm from the 1980s to 2000s and the fact that the Taliban are markedly different from the Mujahedeen.  The challenge with these two approaches or any approach arguing in favor of a certain perspective that analyzes a complex system is that it is extremely difficult to prove or disprove them.  Identifying flaws in these two approaches merely points out that their approach cannot encapsulate the complexity of the situation, which is true of all approaches.  Determining if the Afghan Government’s or if Goodsen and Johnson’s approach is flawed to the point that their strategy is wrong represents a more difficult problem.

The reason determining the worth of a strategy is so difficult is because strategies are trying to understand complex adaptive systems.  The definition of a complex system is that the interdependencies of the system become important and any attempt to reduce the system to its component parts stops the observed behavior that one is trying to understand.[15]  These types of systems are non-linear whereby the interdependency of parts exhibit behavior that is more than the sum of the parts.  This situation is further complicated when one accepts that not only do the interdependencies of the system make it difficult to understand but also that the entities within the system are constantly adapting. The challenge of understanding how these dynamics work is captured in the motto of agent based modeling (the primary tool of complexity theorists[16]) – “If you didn’t grow it you don’t understand it.”[17] This seemingly innocuous quote challenges the common method, the scientific method, for rigorously understanding any phenomenon. Where the scientific method breaks phenomenon down to their component parts and seeks to disprove a hypothesis complexity tries to create simplified versions of what are believed to be key interdependencies and see if the same phenomenon is produced. However, the ABM motto is heavily caveated by the fact that even if one was able to grow the desired phenomenon it does not mean that they actually found the key interdependencies that are producing the real life phenomenon one is trying to understand.[18]   The reason growing a phenomenon does not prove understanding is because there may be multiple paths to the same phenomenon.  So, complex systems are systems you cannot break down into component pieces and whose simplifications cannot be verified. This means any proposed strategy is just an attempt at conceptualizing an overwhelming problem with no sure way of verifying its accuracy.   Fortunately, there is still hope.

As we are surrounded by and immersed in complex adaptive systems, nature is already employing a tried and true process for finding the best strategies- competition. Whether it is an ecosystem or capitalism, competition promotes new strategies. In addition, new strategies are not new ideas that emerge from nowhere but are rather the combination of existing ideas in new ways.  The next evolution of strategy will be comprised from the bits and pieces of other developed strategies.[19]  This process is generically the same as male and female DNA intermixing to create a new and unique person. [20]  The conceptualizations that leaders and strategists adopt then compete with each other and the ones that over time prove successful will be the ones that leaders adopt and will form the basis of future strategies.  Strategy is facing the same pressures and going through the same process as any species on the planet.  Strategy is evolving through its own “natural selection” and the challenge for any military or country is to develop effective ways to evolve their strategy to gain and maintain a competitive edge.

Conflicts overwhelming complexity was evident in the simple analysis of Gettysburg.  Superior strategies allow leaders to have a better understanding of events and make better decisions in order to produce a desired outcome.  Unfortunately, determining what new strategies have value and which ones do not is an exceptionally difficult undertaking.  The difficulty of assessing strategy was evident in the comparisons of the Afghan National Development Strategy, the article “Parallels with the Past” and the discussion on complexity theory.  The process that seems to be the most successful at picking superior strategies is competition.  Superior strategies survive and are replicated because those who adopt them have a competitive advantage and will be victorious more often than those who do not.  Exploiting this understanding of strategy and developing processes to select competitive strategies will provide any leader with a competitive advantage.  Finding effective ways to select and develop competitive strategies is easier said than done, but knowing what strategies are and how they evolve is half the battle.

[1] Harry W. Pfaanz, Gettysburg: The Second Day.  (University of North Carolina, 1987) p.164-165

[2] Civil War Preservation Trust: Gettysburg (Accessed 24 June 2009)

[3] Interview with Dr. Ed Coss Professor of History, US Army Command and General Staff College, Fort Belvoir Campus on approximately  23 June 2009

[4] The Gettysburg National Military Park Virtual Tour, accessed 21 June 2009).

[5][5] Alan Beyerchen.  “Clausewitz, Nonlinearity, and the Unpredictability of War” International Security, Vol,17, No.3 (Winter 1992-1993).  p.70-71

[6] Sun Tzu, The Art of War, (Los Angeles: Phoenix Books)  

[7] What Are the Chances: Probability Made Clear, taught by Michael Starbird, The Teaching Company, 2008,  Lecture 1

[8] Beyerchen, “Clausewitz, Nonlinearity, and the Unpredictability of War p. 86

[9]Scott E. Page,  The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies, (Princeton University Press, 2007)

[10]  Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, Afghan National Development Stratgey 2008-2013, p.5-13

[11] Ibid., 219-259

[12] Goodsen, Larry and Thomas H. Johnsen, “Parallels with the Past: How the Soviets Lost Afghanistan, How the US is Losing,” Foreign Policy Research Institute, available at April, 2011, available at

[13] Ibid

[14] Ibid

[15] John H. Miller and Scott E. Page, Complex Adaptive Systems: An Introduction to Computational models of Social Life, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007), 9. 

[16] Understanding Complexity, taught by Scott E. Page, The Teaching Company, 2009, Lecture 6  ,

[17] Joshua Epstein, Generative Social Science: Studies in Agent Based Computational Modeling” (Princeton University Press, 2006), xii

[18] Ibid

[19] Antoine Bousquet, The Scientifc Way of Warfare: Order and Chaos on the Battlefields of Modernity, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009) 

[20] John Holland, Hidden Order: How Adaptation Build Complexity, (New York: Basic Books)


About the Author(s)

MAJ Tom Pike is a Strategic Intelligence officer in the US Army. He has studied Complex Adaptive System applications to analysis for the past 8 years, initiated and contributed to Inter-Agency Agent Based Modelling efforts, and served as a representative to the Defense Intelligence Socio-Cultural Capabilities Council.



Sat, 10/06/2012 - 5:54pm

In reply to by tompike

I must be getting to old, I hadn't noticed your comment before today. You raise an interesting number of points. First, My statement that "The author's logical propositions concerning strategy selection and historical fact do not seem to be in sync -- at least for this country" was not a disagreement with what I entitled your "logical propositions" about strategy selection, but my opinion that I believe recently political and (some) military leaders in the US have not applied that level of logical thought in their approach to achieving this nation's strategic goals in Afghanistan.

You note the possibility for the boxer that "His decision process will probably will rely on his bias towards boxing and assume his next fight will be a boxing match" and that he is faced with a choice and whether to "alter his training, learn new instincts etc to fight this MMA challenge or not."

As far as these statements go, I would agree with your propositions, but for the following reasons. Were I the boxer, my interests (one would presume) would be twofold: earning a sufficient living and to retain the boxing championship from whence my success and wealth comes -- not from entering into a contest which does not further those goals nor to fight in an arena which does not further my goals. It should matter not what a potential opponent wants, only that we achieve our goals.

Remember the original (entertaining) movie (from decades past) "Raiders of the Lost Ark and the scene when the character Indian Jones (Harrison Ford) is confronted in an North African town by a sword swinging local. Indiana Jones looks at him in a puzzled manner and then pulls out a gun and shoots him.

The same logic holds true for warfare. What was this country's strategic goal which forces were sent into Afghanistan to achieve -- to kill, disrupt, and drive out any Al Qaeda (AQ) operatives found / located in that country and to kill or disrupt them should they return -- not to occupy that land or any land. The initial US successes in Afghanistan were achieved using a combination of Special Forces and US Bombers and other aircraft.

This country (figuratively speaking the boxer) took the bait from the Martial Artists and elected to fight on their terms. The Taliban use small scale tactics spread over the country and rely on rifles, machine guns (so to speak), and bombs. This country and NATO then sent in thousands of infantrymen, decided to fight the Taliban with rifles and automatic weapons and told our forces to spread out and occupy a hostile country. To what cost effective and valid strategic purpose vis-a-vis our original strategic goals? Why have made the effort far more complex and costly?

Al Qaeda and its affiliates consist of what -- hundreds of men and women or maybe a few thousand, and this country's political and military leadership believes we can occupy multiple countries at the cost of multiple trillions in dollars in a vain attempt to convince those occupied people to keep Al Qaeda out. Strategically speaking, is that a cost effective or a cost prohibitive, way to fight the (politically incorrectly speaking) War on Terror against a mobile group of so-called terrorist (non-State) operatives?

Therefore, for whatever it is worth, I certainly agree that "govts and militaries make choices on which skills/conflict they want to be most ready for [and that] Due to the ... variables necessary to wage war ... [it is] very complex [and as a result] understanding the fundamental nature of strategy is instructive for determining when one is making a deliberate choice to disengage and when one is failing to adapt as an entity."

I would also agree with what I took as one of the underlying points of your paper, that the successful leader (from a strategic and tactical or operational) level will be one that recognizes the level of complexity in the task / objective they are attempting to successfully carry out and who provides a means for controlling those events and variables or who at least provides a means for reacting to the many unknown variables that will arise potentially delaying the plan underlying that effort. Therefore, recognizing the level of complexity that can occur in the decision making process at all levels due to any number of situations is pertinent.

I note that having once been an officer on a staff responsible for planning a key part of was to be a major campaign -- albeit one that then President LBJ cancelled and long afterwards having been a project manager leading large complex software development projects in the Aerospace Industry.


Tue, 10/02/2012 - 7:12am

In reply to by CBCalif

I don't disagree with the inconsistency you point out, but I would call it a paradox of complex systems. By way of a thought problem- Imagine you have a boxer who is considered the best fighter in the world. Then comes a person to challenge him but he doesn't want to fight him through boxing he wants to fight him through a mixed martial arts bout. Although similar, the training regime, muscle memory and technical approach for each is vastly different. Now the boxer has to make a choice- should he alter his training, learn new instincts etc to fight this MMA challenge or not. His decision process will probably will rely on his bias towards boxing and assume his next fight will be a boxing match. Likewise the govts and militaries make choices on which skills/conflict they want to be most ready for. Due to the multiple other variables necessary to wage war, however,I would contend the fight is more complex than a sporting event. As such understanding the fundamental nature of strategy is instructive for determining when one is making a deliberate choice to disengage and when one is failing to adapt as an entity.

The author interestingly proposes that: “The conceptualizations that leaders and strategists adopt then compete with each other and the ones that over time prove successful will be the ones [wherein] leaders adopt and will form the basis of future strategies.”

Perhaps, however, it is not necessarily accurate to presume that a military force possessing competitive advantage in weapons systems, training, unit leadership, supplies, experience, and other skills at the outbreak of a conflict or campaign will necessarily be victorious more often than those which do not, if the strategic goals underlying a military campaign simply cannot be achieved by the combined level of military force and tactical approach employed. This is especially true when the geographical environment in which the conflict will be fought (politically or otherwise) does not allow for isolation of that land mass being fought over and the population of the land being fought over has a culture vastly different than that of the invading force. This is also true when the home population does not view itself as having a vested interest in the outcome of a given conflict. This country’s (soon to be) three strategic failures in South Vietnam, Iraq, and (soon in) Afghanistan prove / will prove the above points.

If the strategic goal underlying a military campaign is not viable given the force level a country is willing to expend or can expend over a protracted period, then regardless of how competitive forces are on a one to one unit basis, the invading nation will fail. Force quality is rarely / if ever a substitute for necessary strength level. The French learned that lesson in 1870, the British in 1914 and in 1940 as examples. Committing under strength foreign military forces to nation building / so called COIN efforts is a prescription for failure, regardless of how well those military forces adopt themselves to the efforts described in a doctrine as necessary for winning the hearts and minds of the population of an occupied country – especially one with a non-Western culture.

Absent the never possible sustained presence in Afghanistan for probably at least two decades of a consistent numerous hundreds of thousands man occupying force dedicated to destroying the Pashtun insurgents and their taking a very heavy hand against incompetent or corrupt Afghan politicians there is zero probability that the US / NATO forces could ever have created George Bush’s desired Afghan democracy or successfully train and leave behind an army willing and capable of successfully supporting a central government in that country as aimed at by the current administration.

Noting, it “is easier said than done, the author asserts “determining what new strategies have value and which ones do not is an exceptionally difficult undertaking” with the best results occurring when competition is the basis for selecting the superior strategy. Of course, that begs the question as to why our leadership has so often since 1960 selected the loosing competitive strategy, calling into question the author’s logical notation that “superior strategies survive and are replicated” as one would logically believe leaders strive for a competitive advantage.

Applying the author’s logic, how did this country’s political and military leaders allow a small scale and very effective effort at aimed at destroying Al Qaeda elements in the Afghan-Pakistani theater and (the one time) punishing of their Taliban hosts to morph into what is / will be an unsuccessful and very expensive nation building / large scale COIN campaign? The author's logical propositions concerning strategy selection and historical fact do not seem to be in sync -- at least for this country.


Fri, 09/28/2012 - 6:46pm

In reply to by slackdammit

I purposely did not use the term meme. Although, I will agree the concepts generally the same. The problem with memes, as the wikipedia page pointed out, is identifying any discrete unit which makes up a thought or a strategy, as a gene to a chromosome or cell. If I could figure that out I could I have shown the evolutionary path of different species of strategy. However, you are dealing with layers upon layers of complexity, as these layers get added on new phenomenon will emerge that will makes taking the gene analogy too far counterproductive.

The question I wonder is if there are underlying laws that would help simplify our understanding of system evolution in general. For example, is the increasing complexity of financial systems following a common path? Generically speaking over an extended time there was the introduction of money, then introduction of banking, then introduction of stocks, bonds, insurance etc? All these are mechanisms put in place to protect against risk. Did this evolution follow similar underlying principles that apply to all evolving systems, just as genes, became singled cell organisms, become multi-cell organisms, became the complex creatures humans are today- a living ecosystem.


Sat, 09/22/2012 - 8:14pm

"The next evolution of strategy will be comprised from the bits and pieces of other developed strategies.[19] This process is generically the same as male and female DNA intermixing to create a new and unique person. [20] The conceptualizations that leaders and strategists adopt then compete with each other and the ones that over time prove successful will be the ones that leaders adopt and will form the basis of future strategies. Strategy is facing the same pressures and going through the same process as any species on the planet. Strategy is evolving through its own “natural selection” and the challenge for any military or country is to develop effective ways to evolve their strategy to gain and maintain a competitive edge."
The term you are groping for is, "meme," a mental gene, the analogue to "gene" in the biological world. Wikipedia can help with this.

While systems and quantitative analysis can provide a fascinating method for addressing and analyzing military or business problems, complexities generally render its predictive results singly situational specifically. The problem lies in the author’s accurate notation that “the world [or in this case a battlefield situation] is overwhelmingly complex” due to the possible situational “variations” then occurring and as the he notes “to view warfare as reducible and isolated pieces is to misconstrue the nature of war” or perhaps the nature of a battle.

I would disagree with contention by historians that the Brigade Commander at Gettysburg was the lowest key decision maker whose actions could have dramatic effect on the outcome of the battle. While the decisions made by that level of unit commander could produced some local tactical variations, they could not have changed Gettysburg's outcome given the nature of the Union position and the control over their dispositions and force repositioning when necessary rendered by the skillful battlefield management of Meade and his corps (maybe excepting Sickles) and division commanders when the occasion required. The essentially “L” shaped Union position with their supply lines coming up the Baltimore Pike directly into it was, for that battle, almost the perfect position. Meade orchestrated the positioning of his forces and continually repositioned them as needed. It is highly doubtful that any decision made by a brigade commander given the small size of a Union brigade and the small area they covered could have brought defeat to the Union, especially when one considers that even the trauma caused by Sickle’s pulling his entire III Corps out of the line and advancing it into an exposed forward position leaving a very large gap in the Union line along Cemetery Ridge was successfully managed by Meade and other Union Corps and division commanders.

“Also, as Mr. Jones note in his comment, Commanders who agonize over the complexity of … decisions fail [while] commanders who can focus on the criticality of such decisions succeed.” Grant, as he notes, was … such a commander., one “with a genius for seeing the simple answer in the midst of chaos and complexity,” and I would propose that after assuming command of the Army of the Potomac and several days later at Gettysburg Meade performed precisely in that same manner. His approach to the search for Lee’s forces, his movement of his forces to Gettysburg after Buford and subsequently arriving First and Eleventh Corps units effectively fixed the battlefield positions that would be assumed by the two sides, Meade's layout of his fallback Pipes Creek position if necessary, and his positioning and repositioning of his forces inside the Union position at Gettysburg showed him, on the defensive, to have the calm analytical mind needed to determine the correct and simple answer to the many problems that his forces faced. Most of the Union Corps commanders and many of their division commanders acted in the same manner during that battle. Grant’s genius was that he [and Sherman also] performed in that successful manner on the Strategic and Tactical Offense. Although rarely discussed, Robert E. Lee consistently failed on the strategic offensive, thereby dooming the Confederacy.

While mathematical modeling analyzing the complexity of the decision making process on a quantitative basis based on the possible number decision makers may be interesting, the real question is whether decisions at a given level can or could have decisive impact on a particular battle’s outcome, and how any model can account for the endless possible variations in battle or campaign conditions resulting from location, topography, their defensive or offensive nature, the weapons systems employed by both parties, force dispositions, command and control features and individual competency of commanders seems impossible to visualize. Models require some level of consistency or limitation at some level to properly function.

As the author notes, this perspective offers little in devising new strategies or providing a better understanding of Gettysburg as a historical event. It is however an interesting article.

Scott Kinner

Wed, 09/19/2012 - 12:23pm

In reply to by carl

Carl - you are generally correct regarding "destroy" as a task that armies could not accomplish in the Civil War. Armies were too big and too resilient. Much has been written by many, many people about how the leadership of both North and South continually sought for the Holy Grail victory in terms of the Napoleonic, strategic, battle of annihilation. Indeed, you can look at Grant's final strategic plan to see how he realized that only multiple actions on multiple fronts could achieve the results he desired - there could be no classic "winner take all" at the gates of Richmond or Washington.

But you can go back to Napoleon himself, the Battle of Leipzig for example, to realize that armies containing hundreds of thousands could win victories, could accomplish decisive actions at the tactical and even operational level - but could no longer inflict the single, decisive victory that decided a war. When those victories occurred, like Antietam, they were the product of a long series of events, not two armies meeting in combat on a chosen field.


Tue, 09/18/2012 - 6:48pm

In reply to by CBCalif


My comment was prompted by something I read long ago written by Jones and Hathaway I believe. Those armies were difficult to destroy because they weren't able to destroy. And they weren't able to destroy because they couldn't really move so much faster that their opponent couldn't counter them. You know a lot more about the details of the events than I and were able to show precisely why those armies couldn't really pull it off. I learned some things.


Tue, 09/18/2012 - 5:53pm

In reply to by carl

For those of us fascinated by the Battle of Gettysburg, you raise an interesting point in the article that I had noticed but chose but didn't comment on. In Lee's pre-Gettysburg correspondence early in 1863 written to Seddon and Davis, he himself noted that his army was not capable of destroying the Army of the Potomac. Lee acknowledged in his correspondence that he went into Pennsylvania to both find a source (albeit temporarily) of food for his forces and to find a location where he could await a Union Army attack and there tactically defeat (not destroy) it -- believing the tactical defeat of a Union Army in the North would so demoralize the Northern population they would exert the needed political pressure on their government to end their war against the South. Lee, you also assessed, realized his forces simply could not destroy the Army of the Potomac. Of course, for countless reasons, Lee failed to obtain his strategic objectives in when campaigning in Pennsylvania.

Longstreet's contention, documented in countless books, that they either attack around the Union left flank or Hood's request to attack the (afterwards) called Little Round Top, that was unsecured because Sickles disobeyed his orders to secure his position on the left of Cemetery Ridge and moved his III Corps forward, had little probability of success for a variety of reasons.

Longstreet's move around the Union left flank not only would he in all likelihood been directly or indirectly observed he would have left the right of Lee's extended line undefended and would have run into Sykes Union V Corps protecting that area. Apparently Longstreet didn't realize Sykes V Corp was protecting that part of the Union position.

Also, Meade had sent General Warren to the left of their line, after Sickles pulled his III Corps out of the line. Warren immediately recognized the problem raised by Sickle's abandoning the left and went to Sykes looking for troops to secure the Little Round Top. As it turned out, Sykes First Division commander had independently realized the problem and had already sent a brigade to secure the area leading to the 20th Maine being placed on the Little Round Top and their famous battle and charge. That hilltop was fairly small and in all likelihood could not have supported many artillery pieces rendering it not as important as many believe. Also, how would the Confederates have resupplied their forces on that hill given the scope of what would have been the Union response attack. Lee's attacks against the Union lines were anything but coordinated, so Hood could not have counted on Union forces being redirected to other parts in the line to combat supporting attacks.

Just my thoughts on a tangential issue.

This may be a bit of a quibble and I know Civil War talk can go on and on and never be resolved but to categorically state that "the Confederacy would have turned the Union flank and destroyed the Army of the Potomac." is a bit much. Just two months before the Confederacy did just that and didn't destroy the Army of the Potomac. Civil War armies were very difficult to destroy and I believe it only happened one time, when Hood's Army of Tennessee was destroyed in 1865 and that was in 1865 when the Confederacy was quite worn down.

I understand the author's point but perhaps something else could have been used to illustrate it.

Robert C. Jones

Sat, 09/22/2012 - 1:24pm

In reply to by tompike

Where's the "like" button? Keep pressing, I think you are heading in the right direction.


Sat, 09/22/2012 - 12:45pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones


I am a huge advocate of the application of "complexity" to strategy or, more accurately, the application of laws derived from the study of complex adaptive systems as a foundation to understand the situation and then generate simple conceptualizations of the situation to facilitate effective action. Short version, I absolutely agree with your conclusion. We need simple frameworks with which to understand the problem and despite its name I believe complexity theory can provide us with some great simple frameworks.
From one perspective my intent was to illustrate simplifications are the key. As noted complexity theorist Scott Page states "The right perspective makes hard problems easy." Which to mix one of your points means the right simplification means we can filter unnecessary information. The challenge is identifying the right perspective/simplificiation which can facilitate unity of effort across the USG. Unfortunately, I don't think enough people are trying to find a good simplification, my experience is they are either arguing against the whole premise and trying to revert to their conventional comfort zone or they are trying to come up with a super complex model that accounts for all factors and cannot be applied or understood by boots the ground (which if I am understanding correctly is what you are arguing against).
I agree its the simplification that matters and I would take it one step further the simplification is what provides a competitive advantage. The entity who can rapidly adapt their simplification to new situations has the best chance for survival and replication, Or to paraphrase a quote from Darwin- it is not the strongest or smartest who survive but the most adaptable.


Robert C. Jones

Tue, 09/18/2012 - 10:33am


This is a nice piece. Like most in the SWJ community I love military history; for the drama of the story in of itself, and for the clues to smarter operations that the study of these stories might unveil. But, as you know, I am not an advocate of this recent fixation on "complexity" as the source of our modern challenges.

Any problem, regardless of how simple, can be made complex if looked at in the context of all of the many connecting thoughts, decisions, actions that interact. Conversely, I beleve that many, perhaps most, extremely complex matters have simple solutions if one understands them well enough first. The human mind is an amazing bit of kit. Unlike computers that must process all of those bits of information to calculate the answer that is mathematically deemed to produce the desired result, our minds simply filter out or prioritizes that information that is either irrelevant or of low importance to the decision at hand. Our mind then focuses on the information critical to the simple answer.

We do this best with the types of operations that we are most comfortable with. Conventional military operations fall into this category. High ground in the defense is most often a superior position than low ground in the attack. Attacking downhill or against an enemy's narrow flank along a ridge is also a well established military advantage. Military theorists such as Jomini have even reduced these "truths" into simple tactical principles, such as "mass," "economy of force," "surprise," (dare I add "simplicity"?), etc. Untold millions of pieces of information and decisions may well be made, but at the end of the day, gaining the high ground and seeking to turn an enemy's flank is simple. Commanders who agonize over the complexity of such decisions fail. Commanders who can focus on the criticality of such decisions succeed. Grant, for example, was IMO such a commander. Some historians discount Grant as a man of average talents and simplistic approaches. Fans of complexity would likely do so. I see him as a commander with a genius for seeing the simple answer in the midst of chaos and complexity.

As to our operations in Afghanistan, it is not that they are more or less complex than the type of operations waged at Gettysburg. They are just very, very different, and they are also of a type that we as a professional military community have not yet achieved the same level of understanding that we have for more conventional types of conflict. So we don't filter out the unnecessary information very well, we focus on things that are not important, we make things important that are unimportant, and we overwhelm ourselves with information that is irrelevant.

That is not because the operations are more complex. It is because we do not understand them very well. Many factors, most of which are well within our control, contribute to this situation. Issues of policy trap military commanders in what may well be unwinnable situations, yet win we must, so engage the problem as it has been framed for us rather than as it actually is. That is not a function of complexity. It is a function of politics and policy. We also are hindered by the inertia of our understanding of more conventional types of conflicts as described above, and the natural tendency of military commanders to apply those principles to this very different type of conflict. The results, while tragic, are also predictable.

We need to understand that we choose to make this complex. We choose to make this hard. Yes, our options get couched in terms that are overly simplistic, and that is unfortunate. The really smart, simple choices, however, are outside the box of policy and politics that we have been directed to operate within. They are outside the body of our professional expertise as well. They exist outside the realm of telling senior leaders what they want to hear, but rather telling them what they need to know. But they exist all the same (and they are not "complex").



Scott Kinner

Tue, 09/18/2012 - 7:57am

Thanks for this - there is a reason why astrophysicists, chemists, and mathematicians tend to approach science and issues in this world differently than biologists, sociologists, and anthropologists.

Neither provides "The Answer," but each certainly informs the other and we forget how the world of the hard sciences informs and influences to our peril.

I find it interesting that the quantitative, analytics of McNamara's Vietnam are roundly castigated, yet our eternal longing for certainty does not diminish in the least - now we turn to the siren's song of sociology and anthropology to provide us certainty to a priori assumptions regarding the nature of COIN.

Thanks for a brief insight back into the world of math and how the mere interaction of humans with their environment and themselves introduce uncertainty into a generally rational universe.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. People grappling with the problems they face, given the information they have available, working with the tools actually at hand, at best can only seek solutions that provide the greatest odds of success. This remains the "sweet spot."