Image source: Original graphic from the SPADE 2018 Accommodations and Venue document, IBM/AFCEA Europe; 18–20 June 2018, Copenhagen, Denmark. The author was invited to lecture on military design at this closed conference for design and security in the Digital Age. See:
19 June 2023

War Becoming Phantasmal: A Cognitive Shift in Conflict Beyond Human Limits (Part I of V)

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Original post can be found here:

Series Abstract: Complexity science explains reality so that earlier attempts, particularly those of the classical or natural science period and earlier pre-scientific attempts are illuminated as insufficient or irrelevant outside of narrow or contextual applications. Yet the modern military profession remains wedded to what is explained in this chapter as a Newtonian styled worldview for understanding war, with select terms assimilated from complexity science and others ignored entirely. Emergence is a profound concept and essential for appreciating dynamic, non-linear, transformative processes. Militaries adapted the term but refused the theories, models, and processes so that the earlier Newtonian belief system might remain unmolested. Yet new technology, planes of human existence such as cyberspace and space itself are now increasingly relevant, along with a hybridization of war across all existing domains. Emergence provides a novel way of appreciating an entirely different form and function of organized violence, termed a phantasmal war in this chapter.

Keywords: emergence, complexity, artificial intelligence, warfare, strategy, design

Modern militaries appear to struggle comprehending complex security contexts in two particular and troubling ways. First, they attempt to act within dynamic, complex systems while also attempting to interpret said reality through antiquated, oversimplified and often incompatible theories, models, methods, and terminology set not in complexity science, but grounded in far earlier scientific or prescientific constructs [1]. Select terms taken from complexity science such as ‘emergent’, ‘nonlinear’, ‘complexity’, and ‘systemic’ are peppered across military doctrinal publications or found in policy papers and speeches, often misinterpreted or worse still, assimilated into the dominant system of institutionalized beliefs and behaviors established well before the rise of complexity science. The second aspect of this comprehension issue is this inability for military forces to gain ‘reflective practice’ beyond process compliance and convergence [2]. One follows the doctrine and rules but is unable to question them without learning entirely new concepts rejected by the institution that demands compliance within these flawed constructs [3]. Due to these institutional blind spots, the modern defense forces of the western industrialized and democratic societies are about to encounter a novel shift in war itself, yet they may be ill-equipped to realize it until it may be too late.

A significant concept in complexity science and of paramount interest for security professionals that face dynamic, ever-changing conflict challenges is termed ‘emergence’, and requires specific conceptualization beyond the original word usage. Alarmingly, it is often oversimplified or misinterpreted within contemporary security affairs and military organizations, particularly in doctrine and training. Modern security organizations remain dependent on centuries-old theories and models that correspond to a Newtonian styled worldview– one that establishes cause and effect through analytical optimization and adherence to certain universal principles where the subject-object relation is the default form in developing knowledge about the world, including war [4]. These concepts were adapted from natural sciences such as physics, biology, chemistry, and the field of engineering. The modernization of the military profession would seek new relevance by pursuing a scientific rendering of far earlier (prescientific) beliefs and behaviors for war. In a Newtonian styled world of warfare, military practitioners explain reality mechanistically, correlating the objectivity and formulaic certitude of physics and chemistry with that of all wars past and future. “In the deterministic Newtonian world past and future play the same role… prediction is symmetrical with explanation”[5]. Yet today’s complex reality features entirely new domains for human experience such as cyberspace and increasingly, the celestial domain of space beyond near earth orbit, and advances in quantum theory, artificial intelligence, human-machine teaming, genetics and more challenge most all of the earlier illusions of orderliness found in Newtonian styled conflict theory.

When emergence occurs in any complex system, one experiences not a linear-causal dynamic, but one where an effect is observed that has no apparent cause, such as AI speaking in a new foreign language it was never programmed to do. Emergent processes are paradoxical in that they are part of the known system and at the same time, are not part of the system at all [6]. They arise out of known, fundamental or existing entities yet themselves must be novel and cannot be reduced or analyzed so that the aforementioned fundamental components are found inside. Emergence is also user-dependent, meaning that many different observers experience many different descriptions, suggesting that complexity is both part of the real world and also socially constructed, making any mathematical or analytical (linear, formulaic, reducible) approach incomplete or irrelevant [7]. Emergence is rife with paradox, causing a staggering level of confusion for militaries expecting an orderly, stable reality that reinforces an institutional desire for a Newtonian styled world. Indeed, security forces approach complex conflicts with often the wrong conceptual tools and language that miss emergence entirely.

Emergence as a concept in complexity science is introduced so that readers can then consider how modern military organizations are largely unaware or unwilling to incorporate it into theories and practices for warfare. Without realizing what emergence actually is and how complexity does not link effects to causes in some purely linear, incremental, sequential manner, military professionals might continue to insist that war has an enduring ‘nature’ that is unchanging and universal in some formulaic structuring of laws and principles [8]. This again is a Newtonian inspired view that gained dominance before complexity science developed, built upon far earlier concepts in Ancient Greek philosophy. If war is framed exclusively in the Newtonian stylization, future wars must continue to obey particular natural orders and laws, while the ‘characterization’ of warfare might shift with the times, culture, technology, geography, and economic conditions of one context or another.

Humans waged war through the antiquities and into Feudal Age (western and eastern) contexts where wars were often limited, ritualized, and associated with prescientific renderings of reality through either a Greek inspired natural philosophy, or that of an ancient Chinese one, among others [9]. With the rise of scientific thinking in Europe several centuries ago, western societies surged ahead of all other rivals in a burst of technological, economic, and informational development that upset the earlier, prescientific ordering of the premodern world. Multiple western war theorists would reinterpret war in scientifically inspired ways, to include formulas, laws, principles, geometric models, and an insistence on deductive and inductive logics. War would move toward new Westphalian nation-state ideals with the Napoleonic Era of warfare ushering in a ‘total war’ construct that would increasingly devastate societies, departing from earlier limited and rather ritualized forms of warfare Later still, war would transform in the Nuclear Age where this ‘total war’ construct required new modes of deterrence to ensure species survival.

Today, societies still face the potentiality that the next war might feature aspects of the Napoleonic inspired ‘total war’, or that of what is arguably termed ‘asymmetric war,’ ‘irregular warfare’, or ‘hybrid war’ that attempts to define those conflicts that do not match the Westphalian, Napoleonic, and Newtonian styled conflicts familiar for centuries. Readers are introduced to emergence so that a new potential form of war might be realized and considered in abstraction, that of a ‘phantasmal war.’ Teetering between the theoretical and the hypothetical, this ‘phantasmal war’ concept may be emerging today to join both the earlier ‘total war’ and ‘irregular war’ constructs in an ever-expanding complex reality for our species.

A phantasmal war differs from orthodox and unorthodox (regular and irregular, symmetric and asymmetric, conventional and unconventional) war in an emergent and distinct way. For thousands of years, humans generated a socially constructed idea of war that did not exist outside the species and was exercised in a wide range of societies and contexts where humans applied organized violence to other humans. Whether one group believed in war differently than the other was secondary to the acknowledgement that war was occurring, and one group would succeed or fail. The Zulu Kingdom managed a costly battlefield victory using spears against the rifled-equipped British Empire at the Battle of Isandlwana. The Vietcong, operating under a Sino-Marxist political war theory, waged a lengthy insurgency campaign against French and then American forces and the South Vietnamese. The Vietcong lost most tactical engagements, often undermatched in resources, technology, skill, and lethality, yet ultimately defeated all overmatching adversaries during the Cold War between democracies and socialist regimes.

The same can be said of the Taliban in Afghanistan, radical Islamic terror groups in the 1990s through today, or the Polish horse cavalry charges against German mechanized forces in the 1939 invasion of Germany. Beliefs about warfare differed, yet collectively the human actors involved in all conflicts were witting (although not always willing) participants in war that they understood as conflict, despite sociological differences in defining it. Phantasmal wars do not feature these same shared conceptualizations, awareness, or clear human defined qualities of beginning, middle, and end. Just as a phantasm or ‘apparitional experience’ in parapsychology features an entity (living or inanimate) without any material stimulation or reason for such a perception, a phantasmal war would occur in a variety of ways inaccessible or potentially inconceivable to the participants within that conflict.

The idea of a phantasmal war is disconcerting as it suggests that the same species that brought war into reality may no longer have a clear control over it, or even direct awareness and the ability to wittingly engage in the exercise of organizational violence. This radical concept can be illuminated with a host of technological and sociological constructs that are already on either a theoretical, or for more radical concepts, a hypothetical horizon for future conflicts. In order to appreciate how the phantasmal war concept might come into existence and occur in the same reality that already features conventional and unconventional warfare, military theorists must appreciate how complexity science requires new ways of thinking and also the abandonment of previously cherished theories, models, metaphors, and beliefs. First, readers should consider emergence with respect to how humans understood war until recently, which is summarized below. Otherwise, militaries will unwittingly continue to render complex reality into clear patterns of inputs and outputs, routinized so that one might freeze the system and reduce it for analysis, determine formulaic rules, and then “formally represent them in an abbreviated explanatory-cum-predictive formula”[10] where future strategic goals are reverse-engineered in planning for checklist-style execution in a mindset that entirely discounts emergence in complex systems [11].

To be continued in part two…

[1] Antoine Bousquet, The Scientific Way of Warfare: Order and Chaos on the Battlefields of Modernity (London: HURST Publishers Ltd., 2009), 116–50; Robert Chia and Robin Holt, Strategy without Design: The Silent Efficacy of Indirect Action (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 20–24; Shimon Naveh, Jim Schneider, and Timothy Challans, The Structure of Operational Revolution: A Prolegomena, A Product of the Center for the Application of Design (Fort Leavenworth, Kansas: Booz Allen Hamilton, 2009), 7, 36–53; Christopher Paparone, The Sociology of Military Science: Prospects for Postinstitutional Military Design (New York: Bloomsbury Academic Publishing, 2013), 18–20, 90–97, 115–20.

[2] Donald Schön, The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action, 1st Edition (New York: Basic Books, 1984); Dvora Yanow, “Ways of Knowing: Passionate Humility and Reflective Practice in Research and Management,” The American Review of Public Administration39, no. 6 (November 2009): 579–99.

[3] B.H. Liddell Hart, Why Don’t We Learn from History?, 2012 reprint of 1944 edition (New Zealand: Sophron, 2012), 17, 33–34, 36–37, 40; Christopher Paparone, “Critical Military Epistemology: Designing Reflexivity into Military Curricula,” Journal of Military and Strategic Studies17, no. 4 (2017): 123–38; Haridimos Tsoukas, New Thinking in Organizational Behaviour(Oxford, United Kingdom: Butterworth-Heinemann Ltd, 1994), 18–19.

[4] Jorgen Sandberg and Haridimos Tsoukas, “Grasping the Logic of Practice: Theorizing Through Practical Rationality,” Academy of Management Review36, no. 2 (2011): 340.

[5] Haridimos Tsoukas, Complex Knowledge: Studies in Organizational Epistemology (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 220.

[6] Mark Bedau and Paul Humphreys, eds., Emergence: Contemporary Readings in Philosophy and Science (Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 2008), 6.

[7] Tsoukas, Complex Knowledge, 236, 238–39, 254–55.

[8] Robert Chia, “Reflections: In Praise of Silent Transformation- Allowing Change Through ‘Letting Happen,’” Journal of Change Management14, no. 1 (2013): 14; Jean-Pierre Protzen and David Harris, The Universe of Design: Horst Rittel’s Theories of Design and Planning (New York: Routledge, 2010), 55.

[9] Francois Jullien, A Treatise on Efficacy Between Western and Chinese Thinking, trans. Janet Lloyd (Honolulu, Hawaii: University of Hawai’i Press, 2004).

[10] Tsoukas, Complex Knowledge, 73.

[11] Chia and Holt, Strategy without Design: The Silent Efficacy of Indirect Action, 23–29, 51–56.

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