At first sight nothing can appear more unpractical, less promising of useful result, than to approach the study of war with a theory. There seems indeed to be something essentially antagonistic between the habit of mind that seeks theoretical guidance and that which makes for the successful conduct of war. The conduct of war is so much a question of personality, of character, of common-sense, of rapid decision upon complex and ever-shifting factors, and those factors themselves are so varied, so intangible, so dependent upon unstable moral and physical conditions, that it seems incapable of being reduced to anything like true scientific analysis.
Sir Julian Corbett
A recent edition of Joint Force Quarterly contains an article by David Kilcullen and Sebastian Gorka entitled “The Actor Centric Theory of War: Understanding the Difference Between COIN and Counter-Insurgency”.[i] The article argues that, because it is based on interpretations of only a handful of 20th Century cases, the US Army’s famous Counter-Insurgency Field Manual FM 3-24 describes a narrow concept of ‘COIN’ rather than the much broader ‘counter-insurgency’ and therefore has limited applicability.
As well as being interesting for its argument, the Gorka-Kilcullen article is interesting because of the analytical framework it uses. The perspective the article takes tells us a lot about the way military theory is usually derived. The basic proposition, familiar to us all, is that to develop military theory, we consider our and others experiences, draw generalities from them, define the relationships and dynamics that connect those generalities and then proffer the assembled whole as a theoretical explanation of some aspect of strategy or warfare.
Clearly the development of theory is an endeavour of considerable intellectual boldness but most of us are not dissuaded by this and, perhaps hubristically, are equally eager to both proffer our own theories and dispose of those of our colleagues. In doing so, through the ‘arbitrary selection of evidence and the arbitrary placement of emphasis’, history is tortured as much as is necessary for us to make our points.
This article is not an attempt at critical deconstruction of the Gorka-Kilcullen piece but is a more discursive exploration of how we think about problems and the pitfalls that are consequently presented to us. It is aligned with the Kilcullen-Gorka proposition summarized above but goes further to argue that, as a consequence of the flawed way we usually think about military problems, most of the theories we arrive at are guff.
The community of military and strategic theorists is not the only one engaged in the process of theorizing. It lies too at the core of the physical and social sciences which are also tested by the innate difficulty of not just discovering the facts but also of understanding what they mean. Although Rousseau was right and truth will manifest itself – that does not mean it will also reveal itself.
In 1962 Thomas Kuhn wrote The Structure of Scientific Revolutions in which he broadened the meaning of paradigm from a simple exemplar to being a model from which springs a particular coherent tradition of scientific research. Kuhn posited that scientific communities assembled around paradigms and that most scientific research revolves around further adorning and investigating the particular paradigm then extant. Textbooks are the vehicles by which the paradigm is passed from generation to generation and knowledge and acceptance of the extant paradigm is the price of entry into the particular scientific community owning it.
Kuhn was specifically addressing progress in the physical sciences which are focused on the disclosure of an objective truth. Warfare is not a science, at least not in the sense of having one objective truth, but military theory does aspire to being scientific in that it comprises a structured body of knowledge. The evolution of this structured body of knowledge rests on a paradigmatic journey from experience through the establishment of paradigms to the distillation of theory based on those paradigms. This theory is then deposited into textbooks –– doctrinal publications — which are used to proselytize the next generation. Kuhn’s discussion of the role of paradigms is therefore broadly applicable relevant to military theorists. In this context, the Gorka-Kilcullen article was a criticism of the specific paradigmatic journey leading to the publication of FM 3-24. In doing so, however, it raises the issue of how our other paradigmatic journeys are proceeding.
The process of developing military theories rests on inferences drawn from paradigms. In this, a number of examples, facts or trends is assembled into a structured whole which is held to adequately explain the behavior of a dynamic reality. Military theories are universally based on the examination of the historical record and the selection of exemplar conflicts. These exemplars are chosen because they are held to exhibit a few significant characteristics which are believed to enable them to be collected into a category. Having established a category, the types of actions which were historically efficacious, or which can be argued to have been so if they had been applied, can be assembled into a paradigm that encompasses both a description of a phenomenon and a model for its behaviour in a range of circumstances and in the face of specific stimuli. These paradigms are, in effect, theories. They are intended to help us understand some aspect of war and often include prescriptions of what we should do about it. These theories are usually proposed as generally applicable descriptions of, and approaches to, real world situations.
This is a fraught process. Colin Gray has argued that the character of warfare is determined by six aspects of context: the political, the strategic, the social-cultural, the economic, the technological; and the geographical.[ii] To form a true category — one on which theory can be based — the examples which comprise it must have commonalities not just in appearance or provenance but in behaviours and responses to stimulus. Given the diversity of contexts in which they have arisen, the chances of any two conflicts sharing sufficient commonality to form a true category would appear to be small. Most of the categories we create, group examples of only superficial similarity, for the purposes of theory these are false categories. There is a high probability that theory derived from such false categories is so flawed it is useless.
Most of the categories we construct are false. The COIN example cited by Kilcullen and Gorka demonstrates the problem. Current population-centric COIN doctrine describes an approach to warfare that purports to connect the conflicts in Northern Ireland, Vietnam and Algeria among others. The extent of the commonality between these conflicts is very, very low and any theoretical prescription emerging from considering them as a category is unlikely to be applicable to any real world situation. To extrapolate abstracted experience from Northern Ireland, for example, and attempt to apply it to actual conflict in Afghanistan, or prospective conflicts in some other part of the world is so wildly speculative as to be of no practical utility. The result is theory that, in Kant’s words, is nothing more than an empty ideality of concepts. COIN though is not the only example of a false category and resulting false theory.
Let us also consider something like ‘industrial age warfare’. This could be read to include all wars fought in the ‘industrial age’ and so would connect the Crimean War, US Civil War, Austro-Prussian War, World Wars I and II, the Russian Civil War, Korea, and probably finishing with Operation Desert Storm. This is not useful. ‘Industrial age warfare’ might mean wars between nation states during this period — but to me this still doesn’t help identify generalities shared by these wars that can support either a description of why things happened in the order or way in which they did, or provide the basis for the identification of a clear path to victory for either side. What if we limit the category further and say it includes only wars between the standing forces of nation states in the 20th century. This links the World Wars, the Russo-Japanese War, Vietnam, Korea, Desert Storm and a number of others. But even at this level of refinement, the resulting category rests on supposed similarities between the Japanese campaign in Malaya, for example, and the roughly contemporaneous Barbarossa. There is simply insufficient connection between any of these examples to enable inferences to be drawn that can truly claim to comprise some generally applicable descriptive or prescriptive theory.
‘Conventional’ warfare is yet another example of our epistemological confusion. Tracked to its core, conventional warfare, like its kin regular warfare, is that warfare for which a Service or country prepares. It has no innate characteristics of its own apart from being the dominant paradigm that is embedded in an institution’s organisational and conceptual preparations. If COIN becomes embedded in this way, it displaces the former dominant paradigm and becomes the new ‘conventional’. There are lots of other examples of this reality based on unreality. In the 1990s Network-Centric Warfare (NCW), Effects-Based Operations (EBO) and “Swarming” were all proposed as the new dominant paradigm for warfare. In the early 21st Century it is Hybrid War, Asymmetric Warfare, War Amongst the People, and Fourth Generation Warfare (4GW).
The Gorka-Kilcullen article proposes that broadening the set of examples included in the paradigm would enable the production of a more broadly applicable doctrine, that is, it would lead to better theory. The effect of this broadening though is to dilute the, already meager, commonality shared by the examples. This leads to the resulting theory becoming more general, less specific and more descriptive – Clausewitz – or to theory resting on relationships that simply don’t exist. The alternative is to derive theory and write doctrine for each individual category in an expansive taxonomy of conflict types that is continuously expanding to accommodate new experiences.
The Implications for Practitioners
The American linguist Benjamin Whorf coined the aphorism that ‘language is not just a reporting device for experience but its defining framework’. Although the underlying proposition remains contested the aphorism contains an element of truth – particularly for militaries. How can we understand something that we have no words to describe? As explained earlier, the community assembled around a paradigm proselytizes it through its textbooks – for militaries – doctrine. To produce doctrine, the phenomena of war and warfare need to be disaggregated into some structure that allows the programmed instruction of neophytes. In this process those being taught are provided not just with knowledge of the extant paradigm or paradigms but also the lexicon with which they will describe and understand war. This disaggregation arranges the various competing paradigms into a hierarchy that reflects their relative status. The dominant paradigm – the conventional – lies at the core of the doctrinal edifice while others are missing altogether or are pushed to the periphery.
The danger in this is that, until they gain a more sophisticated and nuanced understanding of reality, practitioners will conceive of warfare as a choice between the conceptual enclosures offered by doctrine and will be constrained in their understanding by the lexicon they have been given. This means that they will seldom be prepared to fight the war they have and will most often start any war trying to fit square doctrinal pegs into round practical holes. This is the source of the ‘preparing to fight the last war’ problem. No military prepares to fight the last war: they are simply trapped in a dominant paradigm which they have taken to an exotic context to which it is ill-suited.
Our lexicon also constrains our perception of reality. Human cognition rests heavily on the identification of patterns and the subsequent correlation between what is observed and what can be expected. As a species, when these patterns are not apparent we have a tendency to imagine them. Additionally, because we are so quick to see patterns, odd events which don’t fit into the pattern are usually discarded. This cognitive bias means that a paradigm is necessary for perception in the first place; that is, we tend to see what we expect to see. If, by dint of training, we have been prepared to see specific patterns, we will most likely do so. If we have been told that COIN has these patterns, things we see in practice that do not fit the paradigm are discarded as anomalous or given reduced weighting. Inappropriate paradigms can obscure the truth.
The paradigms on which much of our theory is based typically reflect the creation of false categories that claim for conflicts, or even specific instances within conflicts, a commonality that they don’t really have. Militaries do this because they have to teach the uninformed, the rest of us because it’s either a way of life or a living. The result is that we often don’t have the mental apparatus and lexicon to understand and describe novel reality. Instead of seeing what is, we tend to see patterns that don’t exist and, consequently, apply nostrums that are inappropriate.
Because the more successful of these false theories transition from the usually hermetic world of military doctrine and strategic academia into the public conscious, the impacts of their errors can be especially destructive. We live in an era in which practically the whole world is expert in the theory and practice of COIN, able to recognize quagmires with great facility and ready to engage in the public policy that midwifes strategy. The consequences for strategy are that it tends to reflect the false consciousness arising out of poor theory rather than a thoughtful response to objective circumstances and needs. In the 21st century this is a fact of life but the consequences can be mitigated if at least those in the community with a reasonable claim to expertise can speak truth – or at least avoid speaking untruth.
[i] S L v Gorka and David Kilcullen, “The Actor Centric Theory of War: Understanding the Difference Between COIN and Counter-Insurgency”, Joint Forces Quarterly, Issue 60, 2011, pages 14-18.
[ii] Colin S. Gray, “Recognizing and Understanding Revolutionary Change in Warfare: The Sovereignty of Context”, Strategic Studies Institute, 2006.