9 September 2021

Positively Blind: The Failure of Management Science in Conflict

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Positively Blind: The Role and Failure of Management Science in Prosecuting War

Author NoteThis is another “bootleg track” of unused material from upcoming Military Science textbook published at Springer.  In a previous post I l wrote about the rise of industrial design and the emergence of oppositional movements and the current orientation of design.  This piece examines the dominant paradigm in military thinking and how it is failed since the end of World War II.    

The original blog can be found at:

Watching Kabul fall quicker than Dominoes delivering a pizza should make us radically reconsider our security paradigms.  Twenty years of rotating commanders and administrations, strategies, and trillions of dollars yielded nothing.  Just like alcoholics hitting bottom, DOD should feel like they found a basement to the cellar.  Being able to think radically different from current epistemologies and ontologies is needed.   Even before we question the Joint Planning Process (JPP) we need to go back and understand why we keep failing.  And we are failing.  Since 1945, we have failed in every conflict over a 100 hours.  So let’s start at 1945.  After VE Day, there was nothing more triumphant and splendorous than the US War Machine. Why has the US military been so clunky and ineffective since its apex? One of the main factors has been “scientism” in the form of operations research and management science.

Scientific management was a development pioneered by Frederick Taylor, an American engineer who implemented powerful principles of centralized hierarchical management upon a technological and industrialized context. By the early 20th Century, Taylorism management science became the bedrock of modern management across industry and also within the very military organizations that would fight two World Wars in quick succession. Taylorism “shifted all responsibility…from the worker to the manager”, emphasized scientific methods to focus on efficiency gains and increased managerial control, and a powerful focus on evaluating and training workers to become automatons that could reliably and repetitively produce specific outputs like a machine (Morgan, 2006, pp. 22–23). Humans, whether in factories or on the battlefield, would be expected to operate collectively in uniform, reliable, precise ways at the monitoring and guidance of supervisors tasked with doing all required thinking.

Management science represented a significant move forward towards formal systems thinking models, quantification of problems and phenomena, bureaucratic structures, and logistical efficiency (Brittanica) and the allies quickly incorporated in order to manage a multi-front war across continents.  The Americans leveraged units like the Army Air Forces’ statistical school, where Robert McNamara served.  These units used Harvard’s system method (a contribution to management science) to scientifically and rationally maximize the effects of air power and their immediate effects in a complex war (Rosensweig, 2010) that neither side had really engaged in.

Management science enabled the allies to excel in logistical efficiency, planning, and target selection; leaders could now track planes and their crews, monitor spare parts, or allocate fuel (Rosensweig, 2010).  This fostered an overreliance on objective thinking as the primary, even exclusive mode for linking inputs to outputs and addressing the myriad complexities of modern, dynamic war through a technological and Taylor-inspired hierarchical management (Paparone, 2017; Waring, 1991). Analysis and standardization would provide great industrial benefits by making menial tasks understood within scientific constructs (Morgan, 2006, p. 23). Yet not all actions in complex warfare are mechanistic, programmable tasks and explained entirely with checklists.  However, the results of the war seemed to validate that they could.  Many in both government and the private sector saw operations research and management science as the reason for the Allied success.  Military doctrine and innovation subsequently moved further from people and the “artistic touch” due to the perceived dominance of Operations Research/Management Science contributing to decision making during World War II .  Compared to other reason it is easy to see why.

In the aftermath of the Second World War, management science became the new tool every company and government department wanted, somewhat based on the correlation between massive military operations and the scientific management associated with accomplishing Herculean tasks within a World War. The mass exodus of well-trained military leaders and service members at all levels out of the drafted wartime forces into the commercial labor market resulted in a rapid assimilation of military-validated and ‘battle approved’ centralized, hierarchical forms of convergent thinking, efficiency gains, and uniform control across many departments.  Its implementation was concurrent (not necessarily causal) with the world economy’s explosion and was identified as a major contributor to a modernization and industrialization of western society beyond the initial leading world powers of the early Twentieth Century (Drucker, 1988).  Corporations like Ford used this approach to maximize and scale industrial projects and output, much like Colt did in the last century with firearms.

Robert McNamara, the icon of Management Science, utilized his war experience at Ford and subsequently showcased an objective and carefully managed system that employed large numbers of knowledgeable, skilled people in productive work (Drucker, 1988) through quantifiable and unbiased data, which yielded impressive profits.  In the non-profit sector, the influential RAND corporation pioneered systems analysis and many sub disciplines to Management Science that included decision making under uncertainty, game theory, linear and dynamic programming, mathematical modeling and simulation, network theory, and cost analysis (RAND, History).  Emblematic of Management’s dominance in intellectual discourse, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara implemented RAND’s system analysis (RAND-History) during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, and other “Whiz Kids” spread it throughout the US government.  The RAND system subsequently became the federal standard by 1965 (RAND, History).  RAND was critical in establishing Management Science as the lingua franca when it came to problem solving.

Despite a proclamation of detached objectivity (RAND, History), RAND was subject to the same exogenous and inner turmoil as any group.  These “objective” rationalist planners, game theorists, and management enthusiasts may have been more influenced by their own times and professional paradigms than one might think. As noted by Robert Leonard in Von Neumann, Morgenstern, and the Creation of Game Theory the objectivity of these endeavors have to be understood within the context of the basic fallibility of man and the unconscious influence of his/her surroundings:

“[AT RAND] It is difficult to escape the impression that for all the professed rationalism of the times, these collective experimental activities spoke to other deeper needs. Whether it was the SRL with its subjects absorbed in tracking bombers while being surveyed themselves from the mezzanine by a psychologist and military officers or RAND’s mathematicians clustered about the map and simulated war or students bargaining over a game of division behind the one way glass of a laboratory, it is difficult to escape the impression that these collective activities bear characteristics of ritual and therapy, collective mediation so to speak at a time of anxiety and strain” (Leonard, 2012).

These blind spots were on display in Vietnam, which has been defined as both the last modern military war and as the first postmodern or ‘techno-war’ of an increasingly complex era of conflict (Gibson, 1986; Gray, 1997; Nagl, 2002).  Vietnam was a new warfare for the United States.  Unlike previous wars, Vietnam was non-linear and ambiguous, with proxy aggressors set within an overarching nuclear ‘Cold War’ between ideologically antagonistic superpowers.  To replace tangible and comfortable lines on a map, McNamara imposed his management science and data driven model to replace these maps (Kinnard, 1977, 8).  Subsequently, Vietnam’s complex problems were reduced to component parts, further divided down, and then assigned the appropriate method (DoD, Historical Office).  Logically this appeared to be a reliable strategy to extend from past military successes of the Second World War for those directing policy and strategy.  However, the results were not the same as McNamara experienced at Ford or even in World War II.

The military performed well on the technical level but was unable to come to grip with Vietnam’s politico-military dynamics and failed to meet the new challenging context where tactical gains did not correlate to strategic progress or shifts in public support (Kinnard, 1977, 7).  Quantifiable data informed a single-minded emphasis on rational analysis and subsequently ignored intangibles difficult to quantify (e.g., motivation, hope, etc.) (Rosenzweig, 2010), and ultimately failed to assist a military that was trying to change things without understanding culture (Kinnard, 1977, 82) and key intangibles.  While the Vietnam War’s myriad problems should not be simplified to a single element, the official military statement of “it became necessary to destroy the town in order to save it.”  This paradoxical statement led to confusion and ineffectively guided American policymakers and strategists prosecuting the war.

Data collectors themselves also undermined this management approach to war.  Instead of an asset, the data became a liability. To save face (or advance), many commanders manipulated the data, especially body counts (Kinnard, 1977, 8). Other sources supplying the data were equally suspect.  The Pentagon relied on sources whose unverifiable information from questionable sources turned out to be biased. (Rosenzweig, 2010).  NVA counterintelligence, Southern Vietnamese graft, general ignorance of US planners, or self-interest of subordinate commanders heavily influenced the data necessary for commander’s decision making.  The most serious indictment of these quantifiable measures for progress (ambiguous and changing objectives served as the basis for these) is it failed to tell how the story was going (Kinnard, 1977, 72).  The Pentagon did not have a view, and the result was a failure. When journalist David Halderstram later dubbed McNamara and other Kennedy administration technocrats as “Whiz Kids” it was an ironic designation (Halberstram, 1992, Intro).

In retrospect, the ultimate failure was not enough civilians or uniformed personnel asking the meta questions about what the US was really doing in Vietnam (Kinnard, 1977,165).  These lessons were unfortunately unheeded, and the same mistakes were on display decades later in Iraq and Afghanistan.  As of this writing, world audiences went from watching the Tokyo Olympics to watching the total disintegration of the most fragile of states.  Imagery of people falling off airplanes, suicide bombing at airports, and elites failing to provide a competent or humbling

This failure should have been a watershed moment that forced a radical reevaluation of all military and security paradigms.  However, it seems that there is a lack of humility or self-awareness at the highest levels.  In a system of informal power, this is a logical consequence. The tragedy is no lesson will be learned and no behavior will be changed.  As Mark Twain said, history doesn’t repeat but it certainly rhymes.


Halberstram, D. (1992). The Best and The Brightest. Penguin Books.  New York, New York.

Kinnard, D. (1977). The War Managers. The University Press of New England.

Leonard, R. (2012). Von Neumann, Morgenstern, and the Creation of Game Theory: From Chess to Social Science, 1900–1960 (Reprint edition). Cambridge University Press.

Mitchell, P. T. (2017). Stumbling into Design: Action Experiments in Professional Military Education at Canadian Forces College. Journal of Military and Strategic Studies, 17(4), 19.

Robert S. McNamara. (n.d.). Historical Office, Office of the Secretary of Defense Retrieved March 16, 2021, from

Roblin, S. (2018, February 11). The Russian New Warfare Doctrine Has the Army Worried Enough to Make a Manual About It [Text]. The National Interest; The Center for the National Interest.

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