London Boater image source:
12 February 2023

Recommended Innovation Articles (and Commentary) 9: Disrupting Military Centers of Gravity with Eclectic London Boaters… the “Squiggly Wiggly”

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Original post can be found here:

Today’s article is a fun topic that helps disrupt and challenge one of the most foundational aspects of how militaries frame their decision-making methodologies. ‘Centers of gravity’ as conceptual models provide the core structuring to our Joint Planning Process (and all NATO, service, national military variation) as well as much of the Newtonian ‘ends-ways-means’, lines of effort and are metaphoric of the centralized hierarchy. If you cut the branch of a tree, everything attached to that branch dies. thus a COG is organized through a centralized form and militaries need to find the ‘critical vulnerability’ or ‘tree trunk to cut’ to collapse the system. We try to view everything in warfare in some COG-construct, thus one of our foundational mental models is a Newtonian inspired, physics-based assumption of how war ought to preserve in form-function (across time and space, forever, and always like a natural scientific law). This article provides, in my opinion, a fantastic way to walk students or military professionals into a discussion of “is everything important in conflict related to the COG model… or are we missing something?” Then, one might facilitate toward “if you could not apply the COG to a security challenge, how would you modify your planning methodology to address what is the opposite of the Clausewitzian COG?”

The article is called “ This squiggly wiggly, not quite democratic thing”: A Deleuzian frame for Boaters’ political (dis)organisation on the waterways of London.” It is by Benjamin Bowels, and you should be able to access the article here, without paywall, and download the PDF:

This article presents the opposite concept that does NOT exist at all in our joint planning or any of our established military doctrine. The ‘rhizome’ is a biological concept that surrounds us, whether we see a flock of birds overhead, crab grass spreading across our sidewalk, or potatoes on our dinner plates. The rhizome has NO center. You might cut it anywhere and all you end up doing is creating two of what was at first one thing. Some starfish exist like this, and indeed the concept hails from biology originally. It would be adapted in the mid-Twentieth century by postmodern philosophers, and later in the late 1990s into the first military design movement created and championed by the Israeli Defense Forces General and design theorist, BG (Dr.) Shimon Naveh. Trees and crabgrass often are integrated into many environments, and here in Colorado Springs we have amazing examples of certain types of mountain-hardy cacti that have growing alongside of them rhizomic grasses and weeds. These organizing logics are employed biologically all around us, yet we usually fail to conceptualize security competitors or adversaries in anything but a Westphalian, nation-state, Newtonian inspired model developed in the Napoleonic Era of warfare.

Consider the Islamic State, Mexican drug cartels, hacker groups such as Anonymous, or how Wikipedia, Bitcoin blockchains, space satellite constellations and many other difficult to track/target things in security affairs are rhizomic instead of ‘center of gravity’ susceptible. Elon Musk’s retort to a Putin threat recently on social media perfectly illustrates the power of rhizomic organization over the mentality of COG-warfighting in complex systems. The Earth Liberation Front, the top American domestic terror group of the 1990s, operated rhizomically. Hacker groups today around the globe do the same, while many organizations such as Hezbollah, the Taliban prior to the fall of Kabul, and Boko Haram feature hybridization where both centralized (COG-like) and decentralized (rhizome-like) qualities blur together. These are not oppositional in how postmodernist Deleuze framed them, rather- they fold in one another in a manner that requires synthesis, or synthetic thinking over analytical, reductionist thinking. This is tricky for a military force exclusively committed to only doing analytical optimization in all strategic and operational planning methods.

Here I demonstrate how the Boater’s rhizomatic form of political organisation contrasts with what Deleuze calls the “western” type of bureaucracy with “its agrarian, cadastral origins” in which hierarchically ordered representatives respond in an ordered fashion to other representatives; a pyramidic feudal-type system. Rather, Boaters’ advocacy organisations spring up, mushroom-like, rhizomes from somewhere underground, to deal with particular threats, before falling apart before hierarchies can be cemented and powers grabbed. In doing so, I shall be drawing out this life history of the organisation London Boaters (LB), a group who use consensus decision-making methods and with whom I was most directly involved over the course of my fieldwork. (Bowles, p. 37)

The Squiggly Wiggly article is also fun because it uses the eclectic London ‘boater community’ as the example, something that Bowles studied extensively and through application of postmodern perspectives which provides a different mode of contemplating outside the standard, western, analytical gaze.

I used this article for teaching design and systems thinking often, particularly as an ice-breaking article when I meet with senior military students such as at War Colleges, or advanced programs (SAMS, SAASS, SAWS, JAWS, etc). This article resonates across the international community too, with Swedish War College students, Australian Captains and Majors, and Canadian or Hungarian Colonels all enjoying the topic and deeper military discussions that emerge in discussion.

I particularly like using this with Naval and Marine War College seminars- as they tend to think quite frequently in maritime terms or considerations! The boater problem resonates with them, despite it being an unusual, non-military topic (initially). This article is fun to read, and nicely introduces a concept that sadly is overlooked and ignored in all formal military decision-making, campaign design, wargames and the like. Fun fact- the ‘center of gravity’ concept was introduced to militaries in 1832- a little over a year after Clausewitz died and his wife and editor got his book organized and in print. That same year in the same general area of Germania, a biologist published the first paper introducing ‘rhizome’ to biology. Both the rhizome and the military COG construct would be introduced to the world in the very same year. Yet since then, only one has become foundational to our warfighter framing of reality- and the other ignored by the military (yet used extensively in biology and much more). Food for thought today- whether you are eating an animal that is COG-organized, or perhaps one that operated rhizomically?

This is episode 9 of this ongoing series where I promote articles and chapters that I enjoy using in my research, teaching, and facilitation. Check out episode 8 here if you missed it:

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