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Complexity, Defense Policy, and Epistemological Failure

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Complexity, Defense Policy, and Epistemological Failure

by Adam Elkus

Complexity, Defense Policy, and Epistemological Failure (Full PDF Article)

"Complexity," "uncertainty" and "chaos" are currently the preferred terms we use to describe modern conflict. It is an accepted truth that today's world is more complex, more dangerous, and more uncertain than it was before 9/11. But is conflict significantly more complex than it has been in the past? While everyone feels that his or her own era is somehow unique, our perception of unprecedented chaos is powerful evidence that the intellectual framework that we draw from to analyze US defense policy is broken.

At heart, our intellectual impoverishment is a linguistic problem. The traditional US tendency is to bracket off politics from defense, depriving us of the vocabulary we need to analyze the world and the challenges we face. The unfortunate result is an erroneous perception that conflict has taken a quantum leap into chaos, a lack of imagination concerning threats such as failed states, and the confusion of operational and strategic approaches.

Complexity, Defense Policy, and Epistemological Failure (Full PDF Article)

About the Author(s)


A.E. (not verified)

Thu, 09/10/2009 - 2:28pm

I'd also like to point out that as a field strategic theory is not quite exceptional in this matter of impoverished language. If one takes a gander at the literature in International Relations (IR) conventions you see a similar conceptual disconnect, largely because of the failure of academic realism to manage complexity.

Stephen Pampinella, writing from the perspective of an IR theorist, had a comment on my article that was also interesting:

E T Nozawa (not verified)

Thu, 09/10/2009 - 10:34am

Excellent discussion. In my opinion, the problem of complexity-as-described-by-Elkus is caused by an impoverishment of our scientific philosophy. The operative philosophy that we use today was stripped of Logic, the Art of Reasoning, and Form in the 14th Century. The knowledge we need to begin to address issues in politics, strategy, and cognition are missing in our vocabulary because the basics of these subjects have been untaught. We are now beginning to see the shortfall.

A solution is available in the little known but complete scientific methodology-as-described-by-Charles Sanders Peirce.

Dr Chris Flaherty (not verified)

Thu, 09/03/2009 - 4:59am

This is a very strong article. The link between technological reduction and the inversion of warfighting strategies over political dynamics is an important theoretical concept to look at, and sits at the heart of an historical debate. The interesting problem is that the 'didactic approach in military thinking has come to sustain a social order which places reductionist defence science at the top of military hierarchy, and defence strategy in a prime leadership role promulgating a determinist agenda.

Thx. It's a simple notion, but we have to repeat it for effect every so often because it is simultaneously hard to accept.

Hakim Hazim (not verified)

Fri, 08/28/2009 - 6:00pm


This is a sound and well reasoned article. I agree with Clausewitz that war is an extension of politics; one cannot divorce the two.