Small Wars Journal

The Perversion of Military Ideas: How Innovative Thinking is Inadvertently Destroyed

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The Perversion of Military Ideas: How Innovative Thinking is Inadvertently Destroyed

Aaron P. Jackson

Abstract: Have you ever read a military concept or doctrine publication, or an academic or professional paper about warfare or military operations, and wondered how it came to include such an ill-conceived idea? Odds are that the idea you read is a perversion of an earlier, better idea that in its original incarnation was actually quite innovative and insightful. This article explains the process by which such innovative and insightful military ideas are inadvertently oversimplified and/or distorted into intellectually questionable caricatures of their former selves.

A saying attributed to Confucius is that ‘the beginning of wisdom is calling things by their right names’.[1] Assuming for a minute that this is a truism, then contemporary Western militaries aren’t particularly wise. The latest buzzword to make the ‘bingo’ list is ‘ambiguous warfare’, coined to describe Russian actions in Ukraine, which involved an ‘unconventional attack, using asymmetric tactics’ (two more buzzwords to tick off on the bingo card).[2] Forgive me if I’m oversimplifying things, but doesn’t the word ‘warfare’ itself imply that a situation might be ambiguous? Also, aren’t tactics variable, and is it not good practice to continually adapt them to maximise the odds of achieving the strategic aims that one has gone to war for in the first place? In other words, Russian tactics and strategy in Ukraine need to be understood and organisations like NATO need to figure out how to respond to them. But this doesn’t warrant the invention of yet another new buzzword.

Of course I’m not the first to complain about the proliferation of buzzwords at the cost of genuine understanding; in fact what might be dubbed ‘the buzzword problem’ has grown to the extent that complaining about it has become something of a cliché. Even such world-renowned strategists as Colin Grey have observed that ‘Americans in the 2000s went to war and by and large have remained conceptually wounded’.[3] But the wittiest summary of the buzzword problem has to be that of Justin Kelly and Ben Fitzgerald, who penned a short paper entitled ‘when a cup of coffee becomes a soy decaf mint mocha chip frappuccino’.[4] Bingo!

There is a flip side to this coin, however, noting that I use the word ‘coin’ in the literal, dictionary definition sense, not as an acronym or abbreviation or attempt to employ some kind of once clever but now exhausted counterinsurgency related homonym. The flip side is that with so many buzzwords proliferating it becomes hard to separate good, innovative, insightful ideas and approaches from white noise. As far as the volume of complaints go, this flip side has been relatively neglected. People prefer to disparage the white noise, not lament what gets lost in it. I intend to buck this trend, and will do so by offering an explanation of how good military ideas (or concepts, or theories, or models, or whatever else they may be called) are assimilated by the military community and quickly but inadvertently turned into mere buzzwords that form part of the white noise. This process might well be called the birth, perversion and death of good military ideas.

Regardless of which particular military idea (or concept or theory or model) we examine, thinking about it will tend to follow this trajectory:

(1) A very intelligent thinker comes up with an innovative idea or approach that captures the attention of a core group of people who become adherents to the thinker’s ideas. Alternatively, a think tank comes up with a bad idea that someone, somewhere can profit from, and adherents are drawn to it by good old-fashioned profit motives. Either way, proceed to step 2.

(2) The core group of adherents writes secondary material (journal articles etc) about the thinker's original work, including their interpretations of it, how to practically apply it and (in the case of long-dead thinkers) how to modify it for current conditions.[5]

(3) A much broader group of military personnel (a ‘lay audience’) engages with the secondary literature, re-interprets and simplifies that literature, and ends up popularising an over-simplified and often inaccurate or distorted version of the original thinker’s idea.[6] Usually very few within this lay audience will bother going back to the original thinker’s work and actually reading and considering it directly (for example, how many people can you think of who have quoted but never read Clausewitz?). Furthermore, somewhere between the adherents and the lay audience historical context is often lost and as a result ideas that were derived within specific historical circumstances tend to morph into timeless caricatures of themselves, even if the original idea was explicitly intended only to suit the circumstances in which it was first conceived (for example, Boyd’s decision making process, a complex model developed to guide fighter pilots in aerial combat, has morphed into a simplified ‘OODA loop’ that seems to promise victory to whichever side can go around the loop quickest).

With very rare exception it is only once a military idea (or concept etc) has reached a point of multiple reinterpretations and gross oversimplification that it tends to be incorporated into doctrine. This is for a few reasons. First, doctrine writers, sadly and due to what I call ‘being a subject matter expert by virtue of posting’, tend to fall into the third group of idea developer identified above (the lay audience). Second, to end up in doctrine an idea must be generally accepted by the military as an institution, and to reach the critical mass necessary for this acceptance an idea has to have reached the lay audience (and hence has to have been dumbed down). It also doesn’t help that doctrine is written by consensus and, as the old saying goes, a committee that sets out to build a horse usually ends up with a camel.[7]

Examples of this process are everywhere; indeed, they are for the most part the white noise itself! Terms such as ‘complexity’, ‘design’, and perhaps even ‘system’ spring immediately to mind. Ideas like ‘network centric warfare’, ‘effects based operations’ and ‘centre of gravity’ also roll quickly off the tongue. These ideas all started life as novel, innovative ways to think about warfare. And all were subsequently simplified (or distorted), generalised and applied in a way that removed them from their original context. Other times, an existing idea has been altered slightly then re-labelled so that it appears to be something completely new when it actually isn’t. For example, ‘ambiguous warfare’ is essentially a relatively minor variation to what was last year called ‘hybrid warfare’, itself a relatively minor variation to what was called ‘irregular warfare’ a few years earlier still. Such new terms create the impression of analysis and understanding, while in reality they obscure genuine understanding, especially if one desires to make valid and meaningful historical comparisons.

These terms are not the only examples of this process; they are merely some of the better-known or more recent. Which brings me to the final part of the process.

(4) The oversimplified, reinterpreted version of the original idea, often perverted to the point that it has lost its original meaning (and goodness), then suffers one of two fates. If it has a high enough profile (i.e. a large enough group of adherents), it gets to ride on the ‘good ideas merry-go-round’ for the rest of infinity. Centre of gravity is an excellent example; in fact, this idea may well own the merry-go-round and therefore ride for free. Centre of gravity isn’t ever going to be applied in the way Clausewitz intended, because his writings were sufficiently open to interpretation that we don’t actually know precisely how he would have applied the term himself. So adherents are able to debate, interpret and re-interpret the concept ad infinitum—heck, one of them has even gone so far as to advocate disconnecting it from the writings of Clausewitz altogether, leaving this commentator wondering why the concept’s other adherents haven’t yet burned him as a heretic![8]

The second possible fate is that the idea gets so distorted as to become detrimental and so is dumped from the lexicon altogether (General Mattis’ memorandum directing US Joint Forces Command to cease use of the ‘effects based operations’ concept is perhaps the most famous example).[9] Unfortunately, this second option is (by a wide margin) the one less exercised (meaning that most ideas get their infinite merry-go-round ride).

Sadly there is little that can be done to stop this process. The most effective solution may well be one that can only be implemented by individuals and to that end I offer the following advice. If you see or hear about a military idea and think it looks like a good one, first find the original source of the idea, read it and ensure you understand it. Second, find, read and critically evaluate the existing secondary literature about it.[10] Do this before you write something of your own about the idea (or push for it to be included in doctrine). Third, if having read what is already out there you decide that what you’ve got to say isn’t actually new or innovative, avoid the temptation to re-package the same old junk in a shiny new box; find something else to write about instead. Finally, and above all, please don’t invent a new term when there is another perfectly good term already in use! Sure, this proposed approach will involve some additional time and intellectual effort, but the alternative is worse. The alternative is ambiguous warfare.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this paper are the author’s own and are not necessarily those of the Australian Defence Organisation or any part thereof.

End Notes

[1] Quoted in: Charles M. Westenhoff, Military Airpower: A Revised Digest of Airpower Opinions and Thoughts, Maxwell Air Force Base: Air University Press, 2007, p. 239 (available online, http://www.au.af.mil/au/awc//awcgate/milquote.pdf, accessed 26 November 2014).

[2] Peter Apps, ‘‘Ambiguous Warfare’ Providing NATO with New Challenge’, Reuters, 21 August 2014 (available online, http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/08/21/nato-summit-idUSL5N0QR2AH20140821, accessed 17 October 2014).

[3] Colin S. Gray, ‘Concept Failure: COIN, Counterinsurgency, and Strategic Theory,’ Prism, Vol. 3, No. 3, June 2012, pp. 18-19 (available online, http://cco.dodlive.mil/files/2014/02/prism17-32_gray.pdf, accessed 26 November 2014).

[4] Justin Kelly & Ben Fitzgerald, ‘When a Cup of Coffee Becomes a Soy Decaf Mint Mocha Chip Frappuccino’, Small Wars Journal, 13 September 2009 (available online, http://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/when-a-cup-of-coffee-becomes-a-soy-decaf-mint-mocha-chip-frappuccino, accessed 17 October 2014).

[5] The first two steps in this process echo the relationship between what Thomas Kuhn labelled ‘paradigms’ and ‘normal science’. The first of these terms is defined by Kuhn as the ‘constellation of beliefs, values, techniques and so on shared by the members of a given [scientific] community’ and the latter involves the conduct of further research (which Kuhn also refers to as ‘puzzle solving’) within the confines of the paradigm. Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (4th ed., Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2012), quote p. 174.

[6] The term ‘lay audience’ is used here in deference to Ludwig Fleck’s concept of ‘thought collectives’. This concept posits the existence within any field where ideas are exchanged (e.g. science, art, religion, medicine, etc) of an ‘esoteric circle’ consisting of specialists and an ‘exoteric circle’ consisting of their followers. Core ideas within the field are generated by the esoteric circle, but the opinions and feedback of the exoteric circle are nevertheless important as they validate and give impetus to thought generation by members of the esoteric circle. Ludwig Fleck, The Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact (transl. by Fred Bradley & Thaddeus J. Trenn, ed. by Thaddeus J. Trenn & Robert K. Merton, Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1979).

[7] Although a single central authority ultimately approves doctrine, it is nevertheless developed at working level through compromise between various stakeholder groups within a military organisation (e.g. different units that have an interest in the same doctrine publication for a variety of training, teaching or operational purposes).

[8] Dale C. Eikmeier, ‘Give Carl von Clausewitz and the Centre of Gravity a Divorce’, Small Wars Journal, 2 July 2013 (available online, http://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/give-carl-von-clausewitz-and-the-center-of-gravity-a-divorce, accessed 17 October 2014).

[9] General J. N. Mattis, U.S. Joint Forces Command Commander’s Guidance for Effects Based Operations, unpublished memorandum dated 14 August 2008 (available online, http://smallwarsjournal.com/documents/usjfcomebomemo.pdf, accessed 26 November 2014).

[10] For those who are willing to ‘swallow the red pill’, I recommend going one step further: in addition to thinking about the idea, try thinking about thinking about the idea. This seems a bit abstract and philosophical, but such an approach helps enable an evaluation not only of why an idea does or doesn’t work, but also of the institutional reasons underlying why a military or its members covet an idea in the first place.

 

About the Author(s)

Dr Aaron P. Jackson is a Doctrine Desk Officer at the Australian Defence Force Joint Doctrine Centre. In addition to this civilian appointment he is also an active member of the Australian Army Reserve who has operational service in Timor Leste. He has authored several academic papers on a variety of topics related to strategy, warfare and military affairs, including The Roots of Military Doctrine: Change and Continuity in Understanding the Practice of Warfare (Fort Leavenworth: US Army Combat Studies Institute Press, 2013).

Comments

The Universal …

Wed, 12/03/2014 - 2:45pm

[1] BAN Powerpoint

[2] Fire the entire staff of the Department For The Development of Cute Acronyms Which Require That Equipment Be Given Extremely Convoluted Names.

[3] Write military papers in plain English and where special terms which are not already a part of the English language as used but which are being used to mean a specific concept that the author has developed for the use in the military paper (hereinafter "SpecTerms") are required identify them by enclosing them in quotation marks and provide a clear definition of those "SpecTerms" the first time that they are used so that everyone reading the paper knows that the "SpecTerm" is a "SpecTerm" with a definition unique to the paper's author and not a real word at all.

Harry Palmer

Tue, 12/02/2014 - 4:03pm

This is an old ditty that is more base and succinct, but conveys the same thoughts:

The Plan
In the beginning was the Plan.

And then came the Assumptions.

And the Assumptions were without form.

And the Plan was without substance.

And the darkness was upon the face of the Workers.

And they spoke amongst themselves, saying, “It is a crock of shit and it stinketh.”

And the workers went unto their Supervisors and said, “It is a pail of dung and none may abide the odor thereof.”

And the Supervisors went unto their Managers, saying, “It is a container of excrement and it is very strong, such that none may abide it”.

And the Managers went unto their Directors, and reported, “It is a vessel of fertilizer and none may abide its strength.”

And the Directors spoke amongst themselves, saying one to another, “It contains that which aids plant growth and it is very strong.”

And the Directors went unto the Vice Presidents saying, “It promotes growth and it is very powerful.”

And the Vice Presidents went unto the President saying, “This new Plan will actively promote the growth and vigor of the company with powerful effects.”

And the President looked upon the Plan and saw that it was good. And the Plan became policy.

And this is How Shit Happens!

gkleponis

Tue, 12/02/2014 - 9:10am

I very much appreciate your reference to SME by posting. It is for this reason that the US Army has more or less fumbled most everything it has tried to do outside classic combat operations. We have rule of law advisors who are infantry officers and while well intentioned have in 99% of the cases I dealt with had zero background and education in designing and developing programs to address police training, criminal justice systems, or prison operations yet they and others like them came up with powerpoint presentations suggesting how to do just those very things. I won't just throw out something without providing a recent example. Recently, the contracting office in Afghanistan has re-let a non-compete contract for an undisclosed sum to carry on training the Afghan Police in Crime Scene Investigations, Analysis and Exploitation. According to the Reuter's article, dated October 3rd by Jessica Donati, http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/10/03/us-afghanistan-police-school-…, Afghan Police will train in all of the modern CSI techniques including........ wait for it...... blood spatter analysis. Leaving aside for a moment, the challenges in training the barely literate in advanced techniques that our police take a career to perfect, they are by law not permitted to do it. My point is that the SME's who came up with this program clearly do not understand the criminal justice system in which they are operating. If they did they would know that the Afghan system was developed by the Italians who in their system and numerous others on the Continent of Europe do not employ their police in investigations at that level but rather it is the remit of the prosecutor and his offices. The Afghan police law (2005) is silent on this responsibility but the Judicial Document developed set forth this as a responsibility of the Sanarwal or Attorneys General - not the police. What are the possible effects? Wasting time and valuable resources in training Afghan Police in something technically they are not permitted nor responsible to do which could have the effect of evidence coming out of such activities being inadmissible in court. This was pointed out by myself in 2010 and the idea got back on the "idea merry-go-round" and resurfaced two years later. The idea "merry-go-round" goes hand in hand with the Contingency "staffing merry-go-round." No institutional memory equals wasted time, effort and money. In this case possibly all of the above.

Buzzwords are part of the evolution of understanding the evolution of the character of war. They become gestalts for more complex concepts of what practitioners and theorists think they're seeing that is new, at least new to the observer (agree there is little new in reality). The buzz words/phrases should be debated, hopefully rigorously, to see if they adequately explain what is new, or what we think is new. Ultimately to see if keeping them is value added or a distraction.

COIN doctrine is the most recent failure in doctrine development based on buzz words and phrases. We defaulted to British and French practices based on their alleged ability to adapt/learn better than we did during the Vietnam War. A deeply flawed argument that falls apart when held up to a mirror. It was our blind faith in this unproven doctrine that preventing us from adapting/learning in Afghanistan and Iraq that proved unproductive. The shallowest concepts were wrapped in a pseudo-intellectual guise that sounded logical (give them jobs and they won't fight, it is all about economic development, hearts and minds, democratic governance leads to peace, etc.). Embracing false concepts, while ignoring the realities of warfare.

COIN doctrine proved to be little more than a basket of buzz phrases. Unfortunately, we are now facing an excessive backlash to COIN that is similar to what we faced post-Vietnam. Our approach to COIN was deeply flawed and unsustainable, BUT the reality is irregular warfare will continue (not limited to insurgency as some seem to think based on our narrow focus over the past 10 years), so now is not the time to reject, but for deep thinking about irregular warfare and how to conduct or counter it effectively to pursue our national interests.

First, we have to free ourselves from concepts that have failed. If that means coming up with new buzzwords to facilitate a needed paradigm shift I'm all for it. Those new ideas should be challenged, and if they don't survive the light of day dismiss them. Notably Jackson didn't provide any arguments to discredit the new concepts/buzz phrases beyond the trite warfare has always been complex. Yes it has, and the markets always cycles, it goes up and down, which is another truism that provides little practical knowledge to practitioners.

Ambiguous, hybrid warfare, or the four block war concept are place holders to address what may be new, or more likely what appears new. Hard to argue that the conflicts during WWII and the Cold War (Vietnam for example) were not hybrid wars, yet if the military has failed to understand this due to doctrine that has over simplified warfare into either irregular or traditional warfare then new buzz words/concepts may be needed to facilitate needed conceptual shift. Those conceptual changes should address the enduring nature of war that we have managed to oversimplify with our current doctrine.

At the end of the day, most doctrine writers become a bit enamored with their doctrine. They assume the title of expert, and are quite insulted when their doctrine is rejected in practice or theory. Nonetheless, their ideas should be continuously challenged, and like the rest of us, they shouldn't be allowed to defend their ideas by claiming the title expert, they actually need to defend the ideas they are pushing.

I'm torn between supporting Jackson's argument that concepts are oversimplified. We have seen evidence of that repeatedly, but on the other hand, the argument that a true master can explain complex concepts simply rings true. A sample of needless complexity in doctrine writing is the current Joint Pub on Information Operations where relatively simple ideas (though complex in practice) are lost in page after page of illogical writing. The reality is that joint doctrine is produced by consensus, a consensus that often results in a narrative that is difficult to follow. Adding to Jackson's argument, concepts are dumbed down, or lost entirely, in the doctrinal development process. Most complex ideas can be explained simply, but the complexity in practice still exists.

SWJED

Tue, 12/02/2014 - 2:53am

In reply to by Sparapet

Most definitely spot on. Thanks for sending this our (SWJ) way. Dave D.

Sparapet

Mon, 12/01/2014 - 11:46am

SPOT ON!!!

Oh to be freed from the mental slavery of military "concepts". In the military, as in all government, the theorists and practitioners are one and the same. Alas, we don't do too well on the initial selection process of the practitioners, leaving the pool for future theorists very wide but very shallow. A wide pool tends to produce lots of volume. Even Sun Tzu and Clausewitz were practitioners first.

I prefer to think of war theorizing as having two flavors. The technical and the political. The technical is mentally easy but resource/skill intensive. The political is the opposite. To extend the analogy, blending the flavors in different proportions gives you different complex flavors, some more palatable to some populations than others.

Technical concepts lend themselves to discreet concepts that are testable experimentally and then engineer-able, though they can be often complicated, requiring significant expertise. Political concepts are not engineer-able and they are not testable experimentally. In other words, you need to do it to see if it would work, and then do it again to see if it would work the next time, and then do it again to see if it would still work. Such is the nature of complex systems, of which humanity is one, and warfare the most grave of its emergent properties. When a technical concept is applied to a complex system we get "X warfare" and "elements of Y domain" and "Z-centric operations". All mentally easy efforts to apply a discreet, testable, and engineer-able framework to the problem set of manipulating a complex system...aka politics, of which warfare is a part, according to one prominent German.

Now, there are ways to simplify complex human systems and reduce them to technical problems...nukes, concentration camps, and genocide are a few such technically demanding but mentally simple options. But if one is not willing to simplify the equation for whatever moral or historical reason, then one is faced with what is still a complex system requiring a political solution, albeit an occasionally violent one.

No wonder then that a society with overabundance of resources and a shallow mental pool produces so many technical solutions, even to political problems. Let's call this complex flavor "bland".