Why do Militaries Fixate on Newtonian Constructs and Linear-Causal Oversimplifications of (Complex) Warfare: A Crowd-Sourcing Exercise (Part 1 of 5)by : Ben Zweibelson
Modern militaries declare without hesitation that war is complex, especially when a conflict features a vast array of actors, intents, and abilities set within a dynamic sea of changing contexts. The rules, frameworks, and even our societal understanding of war has transformed, particularly in the last decades of tremendous technological, informational, social, and economic change. Militaries, as extensions of nations entangled in competition, cooperation, and conflict are called upon to secure, defend and as necessary, inflict organized violence through time and space across multiple domains such as land, sea, air, and now increasingly through what is termed ‘cyberspace’ and space encompassing Earth. The inhospitable and until recently unreachable space beyond the atmosphere now is teeming with commercial, societal, and military activities, while just in the last few decades Homo sapiens alone have conjured up an entirely new plane of existence that is virtual, yet increasingly critical for the same commercial, societal, and military activities. Now more than ever, the prospects of future warfare are increasingly complex, dynamic, and elusive. Tomorrow’s reality can exercise emergent and unexpected developments unlike anything curated in institutional histories of all the yesterday’s wars.
While select terms and models are often plucked from these important emerging areas of human endeavor, they are immediately sanitized, stripped of their meaning, and forced to comply within what might be framed as a Cartesian and Newtonian frame or ‘style’ that rose to dominance in the 17th through 19th centuries. It is in this fertile period that war ‘modernized’, and Feudal Age militaries professionalized through significant changes in education, training, organization, theory, and practice. Yet despite such change, a surprisingly strong institutional force would preserve many ascientific practices, beliefs, and constructs that continue unimpeded nor seriously examined through today. While some paradoxes and tensions are exposed within the established domains of air, land, and sea warfare that have been mastered over centuries, it is in the space and cyberspace areas of development as well as the peculiar and exquisite areas of special operations that Newtonian, Cartesian, even Platonic conceptualization of modern warfare are arguably insufficient as well as oversimplified.
Linear, sequential concepts for explaining military affairs, whether in strict logical lines like formulas or recipes, or arranged in loops such as John Boyd’s popular ‘OODA model’ contribution, continue to dominate how militaries think and act, as well as think about their thinking. This over-dependency upon Newtonian styled warfare can be disrupted, but only through disrupting and challenging the models and metaphoric devices with alternatives. Triangles, trinities, and triads abound today across the Department of Defense just as they did in 1722 when Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban first published his highly influential book on military fortification, artillery, and geometry for warfare. Vauban would be an early and influential military theorist to draw from Newtonian physics to conceptualize military models on what warfare was, and how to properly wage it. While modern, complex warfare today demands a flexible, creative, and adaptive military profession to out-think and out-perform adversaries, the Newtonian style demotes these so that hierarchy, rigidity, standardization, and uniformity are prioritized- all accomplished through conceptual models reliant upon fixed geometry, systematic logic, and a mathematical approach reliant upon laboratory conditions that are best suited for the natural sciences.
Modern militaries feature extensive training methods, educational programs, and a professionalized community of practice that seeks to equate military service with the same degree of specialization and unique knowledge curation such as the professions of law, medicine, or public policy. Militaries promote the notion that their decision-making methodology is founded upon theory and models of sound, proven scientific reasoning, while they publish doctrine that describes how all significant military conceptualization, direction and management of action should be conducted in uniform, universal, standardized, and predictable forms of exercise.
In the U.S. military, one can quickly spot a pattern of metaphoric devices in how the U.S. Army, Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, and their Special Operations Forces (SOF) conceptualize various crucial concepts for warfare. Geometry, presented in this Newtonian style of conceptualizing warfare, dominates how the military profession attempts to understand and act in security affairs. Virtually all military doctrinal graphics demonstrate this Newtonian stylization through arrows, linear constructs, spheres, triangles, squares, cubes, or other configurations where ‘A plus B leads to C’. This is described as systematic logic where reality is logically framed in isolation, with one part of the larger whole frozen in time and space so that it can be reduced, defined in a casual ‘input leads to output’ dynamic, and then reassembled back into a whole. Geographic shapes retain a clear, readily understood form and function to illustrate the military concepts therein.
In the 17th Century, Europe would change radically and quickly transform the rest of the world, often to the detriment of those on the receiving end of these new-found powers and technology. In 1644, the French mathematician René Descartes (Latinized name of Cartesius) inspired the modern scientific movement as well as a dramatic conceptual shift away from the Christian medieval period where ‘what is true, what is real’ transformed from the external authority of a supreme deity to that of inquisitive, rational, and analytical oriented humans. Descartes’ expansive work on (what would become known as Cartesian) geometry would use algebra as the foundation for forming a system of knowledge.
This would in turn inspire further scientific research, including the inspiration to propel a young Isaac Newton to write his Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica that contained his natural laws of motion as well as the law of universal gravitation. Newton’s and Descartes’ approach would be best understood within the context of natural sciences, where physics addresses aspects of reality in a scientific manner unlike all previous efforts of theologians, philosophers, and tinkerers. In the race to professionalize, militaries would seek to extend a Newtonian style to warfare, and assimilate select terminology, metaphors, models and methods to establish new form and function for understanding warfare.
Contemporary military doctrine forms the foundation for how militaries think and act in modern warfare. Doctrine is defined as “fundamental principles by which the military forces or elements thereof guide their actions in support of national objectives.” Military theorist Christopher Paparone (author of ‘The Sociology of Military Science’), in highlighting how modern militaries mimic natural sciences to impose particularly mechanistic, engineering-oriented worldviews, questions how any military doctrinal principles are indeed fundamental?
In modern military usage, there is a clear and intentional effort to resemble “the logic, grammar, and rhetoric of Sir Isaac Newton’s PrincipiaMatematica, advocating a view of the world through a machine-like precision of algebra. U.S. military science, as expressed in doctrine, training and decision-making methodologies, seems structured around what Der Derian artfully termed the ‘Bacion-Cartesian-Newtonian-mechanistic’ model. Paparone goes on to argue that “this architecture-like superstructuration of military episteme has arguably become a constricted frame,” where modern military science continuously invents and recycles terms, concepts and models to mirror the natural sciences. The geometric triangle modeling above is reinforced by the linear-causal arrows, sequential and systematic logic depicted below, as well as the next illustration with spheres, orbits, loops, and centralized hierarchical relationships.
The way militaries attempt to illustrate the complex and dangerous phenomenon and constructs of modern warfare should show a gradual transition from earlier Napoleonic Era understanding that would, historically speaking, show clear dependence upon natural science concepts from geology, physics, engineering, biology, and other available fields of successful scientific progress. Yet despite the 20th century ushering in entirely new war domains intertwined with emerging fields of quantum, complexity and systems theory, the military forces of this 21st century continue to extend the Newtonian style popularized in the 17th-19th centuries through the 20th century and further. ‘Centers of gravity’ clearly hark from Newtonian origins, while ‘levels of war’ appear to draw inspiration from geology (which would also influence psychology and other non-natural science disciplines). Warfare, regardless of maneuver on the fields of battle, are conceptualized within a linear, sequential, formulaic logic of A plus B leads to C formulation. Naveh et al. describe this military assimilation of Newtonian or natural science metaphors to transform the understanding of warfare out of a Feudal Age and into the Modern Age:
The Renaissance at last provided the strategist with the intellectual planning tools with which to bridge the gap between worldly perception and mental conception. This new conception as nothing less than the “geometrization” of military space and time. It meant that a common military “chessboard” would define the conduct of military operations… The physics of Sir Isaac Newton would set the strategic chessboard in motion. Newtonian physics was a direct consequence of the three-dimensional worldview wrought by the Renaissance. Newton’s three laws of mechanics provided military strategy with which to plan campaigns. The metaphor was the idea of mechanical force. Once having grasped the nature of mechanical force, it became only a matter of time before the practical aspects of the idea would surface. Napoleon, an artilleryman, with a solid background in mathematics and physics, was one of the first classical strategists to recognize that to use force effectively you had to concentrate it.
The spheres, orbits, loops, and logical arrangement of concepts into centrally arranged hierarchical models is shown below as well as the linear-causal, sequential conceptualizations of the opening graphic repeated below (next two graphics below). These few selections dwarf the vast number of similar arrangements available throughout nearly every single military doctrine, regardless of service, domain, or area of specialization. Virtually everything in modern warfare can be articulated and illustrated using models, metaphoric devices and terminology that not only can be universally understood by most every single member of the armed forces today, but likely many previous generations of similar servicemembers going back centuries.
Simplicity and universal convergence upon foundational warfare knowledge is important and cannot be understated yet change advocates across the military today raise fair objections that contemporary warfare is outpacing the depth, sophistication and value of the doctrine and models being provided. If entirely new domains such as cyberspace, space and the nuanced ‘gray zone’ areas where special operations can create peculiar and exquisite effects lend increasing complexity (if not chaos) to the already robustly complex traditional physical domains that defined both World Wars, then how might it be possible for earlier Newtonian styled war concepts to accurately explain emergent, increasingly complex (or chaotic) war contexts?
This emphasis on conceptualizing warfare models in a Newtonian styling extends beyond military doctrine, arguably into broader war philosophical framings such as what Grant Martin sees as a bifurcation of all security affairs into a ‘peace’ or ‘war’ bucket. The multiple examples presented may work in specific contexts provided the situation is stable enough for a military force to apply the geometric construct and manage their decisions and activities through with engineering-like precision. Yet these models are rigid, adhering to the natural laws defined in natural sciences such as gravity or motion. Categorization into ‘war or peace’ becomes like a light switch, or a coin flip. However, in complexity theory, systems theory, quantum theory and some postmodern disciplines there is a disruption or blurring of these clear and stable constructs. The Newtonian war models reliant upon particular and simplistic geometric devices should give way to alternatives that, while mathematical, force a profession to think differently about warfare.
This concludes Part 1 of this 5 Part series. This and the next two sections set up the position that existing campaign design at a war paradigmatic level is flawed, over-simplistic, dependent upon ‘pseudo-scientific’ conceptualizations lifted from natural sciences during the last 3 centuries of military professionalization, and much of how we conceptualize thoughts and action in time and space are fixated upon an illusion of an objective, mechanistic and reducible reality where sufficient time, resources and analysis ought to provide military forces with the ability to ‘win’. This may have been closer to some truth in past centuries, but in 2022 there is an extensive historical pattern of military failure to imagine, improvise, invent and reform beyond the accepted limits of our own institutional efforts to preserve, protect and ritualize.