Small Wars Journal

Complexity, Psychology, and Modern War

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Complexity, Psychology, and Modern War

Alexander Frank

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are conflicts of unparalleled complexity, but they reflect a larger trend of increasing complexity of conflicts throughout the world. Solutions to these conflicts have been elusive because the US military has focused exclusively on equipping its Soldiers with a narrow set of technical skills, an institutional mindset not suited to a complex world. By looking at the institutional shortcomings that hampered the efforts of the military using complexity theory and developmental psychology, we can effectively explain why the military has had a hard time dealing with complex conflicts and a whole range of other problems. Finally, a solution emerges that will enable us to handle greater complexity than ever before. The analysis presented applies mostly to the Marine Corps and the Army.

The Basics of Complexity Theory

Complexity theory is part of systems theory. It uses scientific principles to model and explain systems.  Complexity theory applies equally to economies and ecosystems as it does to wars.  There are four elements that combine to make something complex: adaptability, interdependence, interconnectedness, and diversity.  According to the scientific definition of complexity, a problem is more complex if it has more of these characteristics. For example, building a house does not display these characteristics, whereas managing an economy has far more of each of these characteristics and is thus more complex.

Complexity Theory Applied to Modern War

Iraq and Afghanistan both exhibited the characteristics of complexity.  The Afghan and Iraqi insurgencies were both very adaptable.  They were constantly changing tactics and techniques.  Both insurgencies took place in very interconnected and interdependent environments thanks to modern mass media.  When a priest in rural Florida decided to burn a Koran, it sparked riots in Afghanistan. 

By contrast, the first gulf war was not as complex.  At the time, there was a lot less media interconnectedness which made public relations straightforward and information easier to control.  The Iraqi military of the first gulf war was not very adaptable.  It followed Soviet Doctrine emphasizing rigid planning and did not have developed junior leaders capable of taking initiative.  Moreover, the players involved were limited to military leaders and statesmen, in stark contrast to the insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan where the diversity of players included religious leaders, tribal chiefs, cultural anthropologists, drug kingpins, development agencies, and anyone with a cell phone camera. 

The insurgency in Afghanistan is more complex than that in Iraq.  After 30 years of war, the national and provincial level political structures have eroded and lost their cohesion.  This means that the agendas of political actors varied even at the district and village level, making it much harder for them to organize.  In the area of Kandahar I was deployed to, elders might not know the other important elders within the same village.  As a result, there was a large diversity of political actors and political agendas within a small area.  In Iraq, tribal leaders were able to organize a provincial level uprising against al-Qaeda because the diversity of political actors was less and there was still strong political cohesion at the provincial level. The high complexity of Afghan politics explains why it was harder to develop workable solutions, even if the fighting was harder in Iraq. 

As David Petraeus told me in a private conversation, “In Iraq we could see what the problem was and address it, in Afghanistan it was much harder to do so.”  With political problems playing out at the provincial level in Iraq, it was possible for national level leaders to understand them and effectively address them.  Not so with Afghanistan.  This now famous power point slide, originally briefed to the top US general in Afghanistan, provides a remarkably accurate portrayal of the complexity of the problem.

It is important to note that if something is complex, it is not necessarily more difficult.  There are plenty of incredibly difficult math problems that do not display the characteristics of complexity.  If the Soviets had invaded Western Europe it would have been a traditional force on force fight against a rigid enemy with low interconnectedness and thus not very complex. But it would have been more difficult, costing more in blood and treasure than Iraq or Afghanistan. 

Handling Complexity

Thriving in a complex environment requires a set of cultural and institutional attributes that the US military lacks.  The whole institutional paradigm, from the personnel structure, to the aspects of warfighting that received emphasis, to the institutional culture, reflected a command and control optimization model suited to handling conflicts like the First Gulf War.  As Dr. Scott Page, an expert in complexity theory, puts it: “If you take a command and control optimization approach, you set incentives with only outcomes in mind.  You don’t necessarily think about the implications of those incentives on the future sets of behaviors and types.  You discourage diversity…You control the structure of the organization and you make decisions from the top down…Command and control isn’t wrong.  It’s great if you’ve hired a group of people to build a house or paint a bridge, but it’s not the right thing to do if we’re hoping to thrive in a complex world. ”

Clinging to a command and control optimization model seriously hampered the military in Iraq and Afghanistan. It took the military four years in Iraq and the catastrophe of a sectarian civil war for it to adapt to the problem it faced despite the ideas it needed being present since the 1950s.  The added complexity of Afghanistan means that an even greater emphasis on complexity would be needed to secure victory there.        


Diversity of thought is a key component to succeeding in a complex environment.  Militaries, just like any organization, will have to temper their diversity.  Too much means an organization will not be able to take coherent action.  Too little means that it will fall prey to group think will not be able to cope with complexity. 

The lack of diversity of thought in the military seriously hampered its ability to handle the Iraq and Afghan wars.  For example, one of the most able and adept counter-insurgents, HR McMaster, had his promotion held up twice during crucial phases in the war, ostensibly for thinking on his own and applying a sound and successful plan in Tal Alfar in 2005.  It took a heavy handed intervention from the civilian leadership to get him promoted.  Then Secretary of Defense Gates took General Petraeus out of combat in Iraq and brought him back the US in order to ensure McMaster got promoted.  In this case, clinging to a dominant logic meant that, in the middle of a war, one of the Soldiers best suited to fight it was prevented from reaching positions of authority with the influence necessary. 

Crushing diversity has also had a significant impact on the ability of the military to retai those junior officers it needs most to cope with complex conflicts.  A case in point is a junior officer who published an article that was mildly controversial but approved by his battalion commander.  A new battalion commander took charge soon after and kicked the junior officer out of the unit with ten months of unrated time and drastic effects on his personal life, despite the fact he had been a top ten percent performer and had previously published articles on Afghanistan.  That officer is now out of the Military.  The lack of intellectual diversity means that senior officers sincerely ask me questions like, “what’s a smart guy like you doing in the Army?”  As another junior officer wrote who wisely chose to remain anonymous, “What concerns me…is that among my peers, the ones with ideas are the ones getting out, because they just don’t feel the organization values them.”[i]

Be Careful How You Define Incentives

The way you define goals and incentives will have a major impact on your success dealing with a complex situation. The types of problems encountered solving a complex problem will be constantly evolving, diverse, and unpredictable. Institutions which set rigid and narrow goals and incentives will inevitably be confronted with unfamiliar problems and have difficulty adapting to them. Especially if those goals and incentives do not directly address the systematic causes of the problem.

The United States military has very rigid and specific incentives in every aspect of its organization. Rigid adherence to these have directly hampered it’s efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Former Defense Secretary Gates recognized this.  In his memoirs, he speaks passionately of the armed forces’ tendency to focus on its own narrow bureaucratic objectives, despite them hampering the Iraq and Afghan wars.

Nearly every facet of the military’s organizational structure has been reduced into a set of narrowly defined and rigid bureaucratic objectives. The personnel system, warfighting, value, development, education, travel, and responsibility have all become a set of bureaucratic criterion that make adaptation to a complex problem almost impossible. Two of these, the personnel system and warfighting, deserve special attention because they have the most direct bearing on our ability to tackle the problems facing us as a country. 

The Personnel System

The personnel system utilizes a system of very rigid and specific criteria to select, promote, and develop service members that do not prepare them well for handling complex situations. Overall, a Soldier’s worth is measured by his ability to meet narrowly defined gates in order to secure promotion. If he attempts to develop himself in a way slightly outside the norm he will seriously hamper his ability to get promoted. For example, a junior officer wanted to deploy with his same unit as it was going back to the same exact area.  He knew that area as very well after serving as a district level governance officer and platoon leader on the last deployment. He still skype with some important elders.  However, deploying with his unit would have been slightly outside of the bureaucratic norm.  As such, his battalion commander told him he “needed to get back into the system sooner” and kicked him out of the unit. This kind of decision repeated often will have major implications for our ability to handle conflicts where relationships are paramount. 

Rigid incentives also dominate life in the military on a daily basis. For example simple personnel actions, like a Soldier getting permission for his wife to live with him at his post, require such an asinine set of criterion of which even the agencies involved are unaware. As a result, such actions can stretch out into 9 month ordeals.

This personnel system is structured so that officers best suited for handling complexity are not valued and therefore leave the military. The kind of rigid incentives emphasized by the system value the type of person who struggles in a complex situation. Soldiers who remain are those who do best in narrowly defined roles, and they reach the top with a very narrow skillset. As some junior officers, who also remained anonymous, wrote “the reason we’re getting out is because the Marine Corps imposes a high degree of stress, yet accepts Mission Failure so long as all the boxes on the list are checked.”[ii]

The system retains and promotes Soldiers who succeed in meeting objective gates, but who lack subjective skills. Thus, they have very little capacity for dealing with situations that are not as concrete, like Afghanistan, Iraq, or any complex one. The classic example of this is LTG Sanchez during the early stages of the Iraq war. He was considered a highly competent and charismatic leader, but unable to handle the complexity of the situation.  This dynamic also explains combat arms Lieutenant Colonels who would be homeless were they not in the military.      

The lack of developed subjective skills also explains many other problems in the military. A leader reaching positions of high responsibility with little interpersonal ability results in toxic leadership. The Military’s sexual harassment and assault problems result from poorly developed gender-relational development. The outdated attitude towards gender relations has pushed many talented junior officers out of the military. As one officer wrote in Foreign Policy, “many of my peers face this situation; married to an educated, professional spouse who can’t just pick up every 2 or 3 years to relocate to wherever the Military decides we should be, and continue their own meaningful professional career.”[iii]   Some senior officers have even gone so far as to deride top performing junior officers as being “wife hunters” for valuing a career minded women. 


The Military’s approach to warfighting is not well suited to complex problems.  Training and warfighting are centered on a set of narrow criteria encapsulated in the Military Decision Making Process (MDMP).  MDMP naively assumes a situation that can be accurately described and controlled. The whole paradigm is based on a command and control optimization model and thus is not suited for handling a chaotic and fluid complex problem.

The emphasis on information flow in this process reduces officers from adaptable combat leaders to rigid information managers.  For example, a top performing junior officer was recently fired for being “too quick to change information flow systems.”  Powerpoint is the main vehicle for this management system.  Our system of warfighting has put so much emphasis on it that some people spend their entire deployments trying to teach it to Afghans. This is a futile process. The Afghans’ computers rapidly become inundated with viruses from porn websites.  Moreover, there are only a handful of people in the entire Afghan government with the skills necessary to master PowerPoint and create slide decks up to acceptable standards. They are sorely needed in jobs where they can address the root causes of the problem.

The military’s training philosophy reflects this same trend. It places almost exclusive emphasis on preparing for a simple problem set, and little effort goes into thriving in a complex one. Only a narrow set of tasks are emphasized and they are performed in isolation. For example, a typical infantry lieutenant may only encounter one enemy situation during a whole year of training prior to deploying: 2-6 enemy who fight and die in place, a scenario almost never seen in combat.  Leaders trained in this system will be proficient in those tasks but are not prepared to adapt to an evolving complex problem.

The principles underlying the Army’s new warfighting philosophy, mission command are sound and generally get away from this trend.  However, there is a general feeling it has had little influence.  One of my peers said it best in a small group discussion: “We go to these mission command professional development sessions which sound great, but afterwards we go back to the same micro management.”  Mission command is unlikely to have wide ranging influence unless the Military as a whole, including the personnel system, is better geared towards handling complexity.

Implications for a Conventional Fight

A military geared towards complexity is likely to succeed in a conventional fight as well.  For example, in the first years of World War Two the German Army was able to defeat a superior French and British force because it was better suited to complex war. The French and the British assumed they could accurately understand and control the situation. They created system similar to the US military’s current warfighting philosophy focused on information flow and other narrow criteria.   On the other hand, the Germans encouraged diversity of thought and did not define warfighting too narrowly in the years leading up to the war. They “accepted chaos as a natural substance of combat.  For them, the fog of war and friction were paramount forces in which the methodology of combat should seek to harmonize, not suppress.  By developing methodology of Auftragstaktik (decentralization of responsibility, regulated only what is to be done, not how to do it)....the Germans inured themselves to the effects of confusion and uncertainty in the tangled frenzy of combat.  They accepted chaos as the inevitable and lived with it.[iv]”  The German victory was decisive because they created a system able to handle the complexity that arose out of technological and human changes during the interwar years.  

Build Flexibility Into the System

Building flexibility into the structure of the military would go a long way to addressing the issues highlighted above.  LTG Barno’s 2013 piece in Foreign Policy entitled “Loss Leader” gave very effective recommendations for just that.  His ideas are in line with the recommendations of complexity science. Implementing them would go a long way towards increasing cognitive diversity, improving adaptability, and broadening the narrow objectives that dominate Military life. 

The Human Factors of Complexity

There is a deeper human aspect to complexity that needs to be addressed as well.  As top developmental psychologist Robert Keegan notes, “when we experience the world as ‘too complex’ we are not just experiencing the complexity of the world.  We are experiencing a mismatch between the world’s complexity and our own at this moment.[v]” When the Military experienced the problems in Iraq and Afghanistan as too complex it meant that our own complexity was lacking.

Our own complexity is determined by our meaning system, a term in developmental psychology that refers to the way a group or and individual creates meaning and value. Developmental psychologists have identified several stages of meaning system growth.  As an individual or organization grows into a higher developmental stage of meaning system growth, they can handle more complexity. 

Developing a more complex meaning system is necessary for tackling complex problems. It is not hard and less dynamic organizations have effectively done it.  The National Forest Service, which has a significant casualty rate amongst its fire starters, effectively implemented a method developed by Dr. Kegan called immunity mapping to better cope with their problems.  There are many governmental and business organizations in the civilian world that have effectively adopted this approach.    

Create a Warrior Statesmen Regiment

The most effective way to institutionalize complexity and develop a better meaning system would be to create a new school and unit. The Ranger regiment and Ranger school played a key role in creating a healthy military culture after the detritus from the Vietnam War. Similarly, a new unit would allow the military to move forward from Iraq and Afghanistan with stronger human capacities than ever before, crucial in an era of shrinking budgets. 

The new course would cover the human factors necessary to handle complexity (the human dimension in Military vernacular) plus the essential elements of complex conflicts. Creating this course to be challenging, selective, and essential for career advancement would give it a significant influence over institutional culture. The school would serve as the anchor for a unit specifically tailored to deal with complex problems, called a Warrior Statesman Regiment.  It would resemble a conventional military unit but would have the above-mentioned course as a prerequisite for all leaders, and would have civilian experts integrated into the chain of command.  Having civilian specialists in development, cultural anthropology, and governance (on a reserve status) would give this unit the diversity and interconnectedness necessary to handle complex problems and ensure there is effective civil-military cooperation.  Soldiers would be selected who show competency in basic soldier and physical skills but have strong intellectual credentials and high meaning system development, which is easily measured. 

The service members best suited for this unit are exactly the types that are leaving the Military in large numbers. Creating this unit and stationing it near a major city would give them a place where they could contribute to the military and be well utilized.  By rotating Soldiers through the unit and putting it up on a pedestal, it would give it a major influence over the Army’s institutional culture.         

Moreover, this unit would be perfect for handling the increasingly complex problems cropping up throughout the world. It would be ideal for handling civil wars in Africa or conflicts like Iraq and Afghanistan. Currently, policy makers do not have a good tool for handling a conflict that is to unstable for peace keeping but not a full blown fight yet, the peace enforcement stage.  The Warrior Statesmen unit would be perfect for keeping interventions small but effective and preventing the conflicts from growing into a full blown intervention. It could intervene as the backbone of an African Union or UN force and achieve major strategic goals without a large scale conventional commitment.  If the conventional Military wants to stay relevant in a complex world, it needs its own specific capabilities.

The world is rapidly becoming more complex and so is warfare. We need to adapt our complexity to the world.  Doing so would solve many of the most pressing problems plaguing the military. To meet future challenges, we need to adapt our institutions, cultures, and meaning systems. Using insights gleaned from science, the solution is to create a Warrior Statesmen Regiment.

End Notes

[i] Anonymous Junior Officer, I’m leaving the Corps because it doesn’t much value ideas, (Foreign Policy Website, 2012)

[ii] Anonymous Marine Officers, We’re getting out of the Marines because we wanted to be part of an elite force, (Foreign Policy Website, 2013)

[iii] CPT Troy Peterson, I want nothing more than to stay in the military but is it fair to my wife? (Foreign Policy Website, 2013)

[iv] Ibid, 335

[v] Dr. Robert Kegan, Immunity to Change, (Harvard Business Review Press 2009 Kindle Edition), loc 367


About the Author(s)

Alexander Frank is a JD candidate at Yale Law School. He served for five years as an infantry officer in the Army, including a tour in Kandahar province, Afghanistan. In Kandahar he served as an infantry platoon leader and worked with the State department to improve local governance. His bachelor’s degree is in Physics from Duke University.


Alex Frank

Wed, 12/02/2015 - 6:28pm

In reply to by Bill C.


I think you present some great analysis, I agree with most of it. Yes, these wars are more political.

First, the way I am defining complexity is independent of the type of conflict. Some conventional conflicts will be more complex than others. I used the definition of complexity I did because 1) there is science behind it 2) it explains a very important factors that no one pays attention to.

Second, the paradigm I am using effectively explains why adaptation to limited political conflicts is difficult. If you go into a situation with a command and control optimization model it will be hard to adapt to local circumstances. That might not be necessary if you find yourself in a situation that matches your pre-existing mindset and doctrines. As it turns out, we did not have a military structured to fighting political conflicts. And, because we were not adaptable, did not adapt to meet the complexity of the situation.

Your analysis is complementary to mine in every respect except one, you don't think the wars we are fighting in are more complex. According to the way I have defined it, they are clearly more complex.


Bill C.

Wed, 12/02/2015 - 12:16pm

The wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, etc., would not appear to be complex.

In all cases above, our much weaker opponents appear to have adopted a strategy (political attrition) that played to their strength (they were fighting a "total war;" a war for all the marbles) and acted against our weakness (we were/are only fighting a "limited war for limited ends," to wit: a war to transform outlying states and societies more along modern western lines.)

(Thus, and for example, when the dominoes Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos fell, neither the United States/the West -- nor our independence and way of life, etc. -- [the stuff of "total war"] came to an end.)

Within this political attrition strategy, the primary effort by the much weaker enemy was/is directed at:

a. Causing the much stronger intervening/invading great nation to

b. Deploy resources (ground troops/blood, political capital, other treasure) which are massively disproportionate the "limited war for limited ends" job at hand.

In this regard, our much weaker enemies -- in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq -- were successful beyond their wildest dreams.

Our national leaders, toward the end of and immediately following the war in Vietnam, learned this invaluable lesson and, thereafter, did not let themselves be manipulated into assigning disproportionate resources to lesser causes again.

Might we say that this, again, is the lesson that our recent national leaders -- and re: Afghanistan and Iraq -- have learned for themselves?

Thus, to see our national leaders of today adopt a strategy (a more-patient approach) and methods (for example: the use of, primarily, special operations and air forces) which will allow them to:

a. Defeat the enemies "political attrition" strategy and

b. Pursue our "limited wars for limited ends" objectives (the transformation of outlying states and societies more along modern western lines) indefinitely?

(Note: The enemy -- understanding that we will now be doing things our way rather than their way -- thereby defeating their political attrition strategy -- will do everything in their power [think terrorism] to get us to reverse course.)

Conclusion: The above does not appear to be too/very complex to me.

Robert C. Jones

Thu, 12/03/2015 - 5:10am

In reply to by Alex Frank

I adhere to the Einstein theory for dealing with complexity in nature - determine the constants, and then conduct thought experiments to devise simple theories for how variables interact in the context of those constants.

Just as there are constants in physical nature, so too are there constants in human nature. These provide the framework for theories in both physics of physical things, and strategy for human endeavors.

The most acclaimed works on war and warfare are by those theorists who recognized this fact and based their work in the constants of human nature. Sun Tzu, Thucydides, and Clausewitz being perhaps the three best examples.

My work on seeking to better understand illegal political conflict internal to a single system of governance (revolutionary insurgency) is based on this same philosophical approach.

Historically we have lumped revolution insurgency (within) and resistance insurgency (between) together and placed both under the "war" umbrella. It never worked well, but it worked literally "good enough for government work" in the pre-globalized (cyber) age. With the nature and degree of popular empowerment existing today we can no longer be so casual in our thinking. The increasing inadequacies of traditional approaches is causing us to believe things are becoming more "complex" and to grasp for better tactics (pop-centric COIN, complexity solutions as you propose, mission command, etc) as cures.

The real problem is that we are applying warfare theory to solve problems that are only half warfare in nature, and half civil emergency/illegal democracy in nature. The solution, IMO, is to find more accurate simple frameworks of understanding, not to engage in tactical complexity intellectual arms race.

The human mind is amazingly adept at filtering out irrelevant information and making complex connections subconsciously once our conscious mind understands what is important, and what is merely noise.

This is simple, rather than simplistic. "War is war" is simplistic, and applying complex solutions to simplistic perspectives is proving as big of a failure as the application of simple solutions. We need a better understanding of the problem, not a more complex solution that is attempting to better apply solution "A" to what is primarily problem "B".

Robert C. Jones

Thu, 12/03/2015 - 5:11am

In reply to by Alex Frank


Alex Frank

Wed, 12/02/2015 - 8:15pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones


Again I agree with most of what you said. The paradigm of understanding was wrong.

I think our disconnect is again about the definition of complexity. We also disagree philosophically about how to think about paradigms. I used Complexity theory and developmental psychology to understand them. When approaching this problem, I started with questions like: what makes a paradigm better than another? What made it so hard to shift paradigms? How do we institutionally cement the "new" paradigm that has emerged from our experience?

Complexity theory explains how to build the institutional capacity to handle different paradigms. Developmental Psychology explains how to build more human capacity to handle different paradigms. According to developmental psychology, some paradigms have greater ability to handle complexity than others. What I propose is a way of cementing our current paradigm we have had to adopt to achieve any success in Iraq. I also propose ways of adapting to unforeseen paradigms.


Bill M.

Wed, 12/02/2015 - 10:21am

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

The author's logic was not well supported; however, your valid point about the population increasingly becoming strategic actors supports the claim that the world is more complex using complexity theory. More actors, more connections, etc. It doesn't mean it is harder to understand, but it is increasingly unpredictable and simple solutions will fall short. The author's proposal is a simple fix that will accomplish little.

Robert C. Jones

Wed, 12/02/2015 - 3:05am

Just because one cannot make sense of a situation within the context of their current paradigm of understanding does not mean of necessity that the situation is "complex" - it often simply means that their paradigm of understanding is wrong.

The degree of population empowerment in the current strategic environment is unprecedented. Our paradigm for understanding population-based political conflicts are derived from the lessons learned in a bygone era where it was much easier for state power to trump population power and suppress such movements at reasonable costs and for satisfactory periods of time. These were not true cures, but were often adequate to allow desired conditions of governance to continue uncoerced, and unchanged. We called these COIN victories in our history books and doctrine.

Now PEOPLE MATTER. Not in the tactical halfway manner propagated by the sellers and practitioners of "pop-centric" COIN, but in a strategic manner that demands that governments more fully appreciate the identity-based populations affected by existing or proposed domestic or foreign policies - and make accommodations when necessary that historically governments did not have to make.

This does not make current times or conflicts more "complex" - it just means we have to update our paradigms of understanding for an era where people truly matter. We are post-peak state power. We need to understand what that really means for governance, government, and the prevention and resolution of political conflict.


Mon, 12/07/2015 - 3:29pm

In reply to by Alex Frank

<blockquote>2) To prove this empirically would require a study by developmental psychologists of the two sample groups, which is beyond my means...Overall there is very little useful empiric data. However, an analysis of the structure of the personnel system using scientific paradigms produced my conclusion. It is supported by some data, admittedly not the most rigorous. I would not feel comfortable publishing this in a Physics journal, but it is much more scientific than most other material out there. </blockquote>
What data you've presented is all one-sided. You've hypothesized that the personnel system is unnecessarily rigid, but you've only presented anecdotal data supporting your hypothesis. That ain't the way science is done...bad physicist - no torus!

Seriously, no one seems to look hard at why things are as they are. That was one of my major problems with Kaine's book. Foremost, the military personnel system has two major challenges not faced by commercial businesses, or even government civil service. First, it must fill the unpopular positions, using a limited set of incentives to do so. Business can offer monetary incentives or promotions ("take one for the team, and the team will take care of you") to sweeten those jobs...the military doesn't have most of those options. Usually the best the assignment system can do is offer choice of follow-on. The Air Force tried a "no non-volunteer" assignment policy in the late '90s...they had to back off of that because they simply couldn't get enough volunteers for some billets. There's only so many people willing to spend four years at Minot.... Second, moving people around is often like one of those games where tiles pack all but one space within a larger area -- move one, and you have to move others to accommodate. Fixing some tiles in place make it impossible (or at least much more difficult) to make other necessary moves. Last, "the system" -- any system -- values certain experience when promoting people. This is as true in the commercial world as it is in the military. The big difference is the "up or out" concept within the military. The private sector will happily let you stay in a job your whole life, if you decide that's what you want...the military won't, so the system tries to position everyone for an equal shot at moving up. More than any other factor, reforming the military personnel system has to deal with (eliminate, modify, or adapt to) that aspect first. Pushing everyone through a special school isn't enough.

<blockquote>3) The unit itself is designed to handle complex situations... 5) Thus, it would have all the elements of national power working together prior to going into a conflict, rather than trying to cobble together inter-agency teams on the fly. </blockquote>
Missed my point. Some of these tasks are not DoD tasks. That is why I mentioned AFRICOM in my original reply -- AFRICOM was designed as an interagency organization from the start (with decidedly mixed results). That's both part of its charm, and part of its problem. Granted, AFRICOM is regionally fixed, but it's a reasonably close example of what you're proposing.

A last point: *All* war is political. Large, small, limited, unlimited. For all the fondness lavished on WWII as "pure war", it was intensely political, both between allies and between belligerents. And the Army was in the thick of it...Marshall, Eisenhower, MacArthur, and their senior commanders paid quite a lot of attention political factors. Maybe better than most of their successors. So maybe a large part of your solution is to bring an appreciation of this back to the officer corps, which should be much simpler task.

Alex Frank

Wed, 12/02/2015 - 8:26pm

In reply to by Warlock


I agree there are some gaps. My goal was to get the basics down in a short space in a way the was intelligible. Some hand having was necessary, but this is not a research paper or an OPORD.

1) I agree the service is not completely screwed up. This is an argumentative paper, not a neutral one. On a personal level, I liked the Army. I still recommend it to most people that ask and speak favorably about it. I have become known as "that guy" at Yale law that defends the Army, even if I criticize parts. Collectively, we did eventually adapt to circumstances in Iraq and partially in Afghanistan. But there is a lot we can improve on. I attempt to provide a coherent reference frame for explaining most of the problems in the Army and how to deal with them.

2) To prove this empirically would require a study by developmental psychologists of the two sample groups, which is beyond my means. What I aimed to do was give a better explanation than "the best are getting out." I do not think this is true. Many competent and charismatic leaders stay in, but they tend to be suited for one type of conflict and not others.

My evidence is the structure of the personnel system. It incentives a certain kind of person by providing a very narrow sit of rigidly defined bureaucratic incentives. Other conventional armies have had elite organizations that incentive more complex thinking. The other evidence came from sources like Time Kaine's survey in Bleeding Talent. He identified "frustration with the military bureaucracy" as the main reason talented leaders are leaving. I do not agree with the conclusions he draws from his survey. I interpret "frustration with the military bureaucracy" in terms of complexity theory. He interprets it in terms of libertarian economics.

Overall there is very little useful empiric data. However, an analysis of the structure of the personnel system using scientific paradigms produced my conclusion. It is supported by some data, admittedly not the most rigorous. I would not feel comfortable publishing this in a Physics journal, but it is much more scientific than most other material out there.

The proper test for my conclusion would be to train people with knowledge of the situation on complexity theory and developmental psychology (not very hard). Then give them access to data and the various other sources, then see if they reach similar conclusions.

At the end of the day this boils down to which paradigm you choose. I have a different one than most, one that I hope is more rigorous, scientific, and complex.

3) The unit itself is designed to handle complex situations. The proper analogy is the Rangers. We have a huge influence of the rest of the institutional Army because we are an elite cadre, we are important for career advancement, and people cycle from Ranger units to the rest of the military. If you did the same with this unit it would have a major influence over the Army. Creating elite cadres and special school that were crucial for career advancement is one of the best ways militaries have historically cemented institutional change. As to the other things you mentioned that is not my intention. I meant to provide a broad framework and broad ideas. I am not writing a serious policy proposal for DoD.

4) SF and CA are not part of the conventional force and have very limited man power. They do not have a large influence on the culture of the conventional force. Without a specific capability and a way to influence the conventional Army institutionally, the conventional Army will not be able to make an effective contribution to a complex or political fight. It will perform well in the narrow set of tasks it has specifically incentivized, but not others.

5) I think it is important for a unit like this to be in a spot with intellectual stuff happening. Also, many of the civilians would be on a reserve status, they would need somewhere to work. Washington DC would be ideal, even if it might not be possible logistically.
The benefits of having civilians is the unit would have more cognitive diversity. Thus, it would have all the elements of national power working together prior to going into a conflict, rather than trying to cobble together inter-agency teams on the fly. There has been plenty written on effective synchronization of national power and why we have failed at it. This is a solution.

Thanks for the feedback, when I do a research paper this will help out a lot!


Mon, 11/30/2015 - 4:37pm

In reply to by Alex Frank

I think the problem here is a number of apparent gaps in your analysis.

1) Like it or not, the three examples you cite of officers leaving the service all lean towards, "the service doesn't with my personal goals/personality/lifestyle." Honestly, that's OK -- not everyone ought to make a career out of it, and whether you've put in 4 honorable years or 24 honorable years, you've done something worthwhile. But deciding not to make a life out of it doesn't mean the service is *completely* screwed up.

2) You haven't backed your claim that the officers leaving the service are particularly suited for the complex situations you postulate. Or, for that matter, that the officers who stayed aren't.

3) You haven't explained how this new unit you propose allows the services (or in this case, just the Army) to better adapt to complex situations. You also don't lay out what authorities you assume this unit will have to accomplish these tasks, so in the process, haven't determined whether the limitations are imposed by the service, the joint command structure, DoD, interagency relationships, Congress, or even U.S. Code.

4) You haven't explained why creating a new unit is better than adapting or expanding existing capabilities within the force -- SF, civil affairs, etc.

5) You haven't explained what is special about making sure this new unit is near a major metropolis, or how the benefits are of a mixed military-civilian unit designed to operate on the battlefield outweigh the pitfalls.

Those are the large questions. You may have it all figured out...but you haven't adequately explained it.

Alex Frank

Sun, 11/29/2015 - 6:15pm

In reply to by G. Alistar

Thanks Alistar. I concede your point that it may be unrealistic. I may be guilty of too much idealism. However, it would be unrealistic due to mindset more than anything. What I propose would not be very hard in material terms. It would mean hiring a few hundred civilians, starting an inexpensive school that will involve mostly classroom instruction, and redesignating one unit. The Warrior Statesman unit would not cost a lot. But it would be a major mindset shift, perhaps too big of one.

G. Alistar

Fri, 11/20/2015 - 4:41pm

Yup, great discussion of the problem. The solution however, is a bit on the unrealistic side--IMHO. The Warrior Statesmen Regiment concept is DOA due to sequestration and budget shortfalls. At least it is until January 2017 or until some major catastrophe similar to 9-1-1 which just might come before then. Still, I like your style and thinking Alexander, good one!

Alex Frank

Sun, 11/29/2015 - 5:11pm

In reply to by The Ice Man

Dear Iceman,

That is a fair argument and not unscientific. But the fact of the matter is that we keep finding ourselves in complex conflict. Pretty much every single president has come to office (probably authentically) vowing they would not get involved in complex conflict. Despite this, we have found ourselves in complex conflict more than non-complex ones. Many armies have succeeded in relatively complex conflicts. What I propose is a way to prepare for them before hand rather than making stuff up as we go along. I think shooting from the hip is more fun, but it is generally wise to prepare.



Fri, 11/20/2015 - 10:11am

In reply to by The Ice Man

O, mama, we ain't gonna study war no more.... Not likely. Reports of the nation-state's death are very premature -- no one's shown a better-working framework to facilitate cooperation between millions of non-self-sufficient people. Inter-state conflict, or attacks on the state from external non-state entities won't die out -- even if we manage to stay out of other people's insurgencies in the future, those won't be the only form of conflict.

Moreover, the structure and temperament of the different departments working U.S. foreign engagement biases much of that towards the U.S. military. The State Department is not an action-oriented organization. I've had more than one FSO (and a couple of ambassadors!) tell me that the DoD, seeing an issue, starts figuring out how to deal with it. DoS, seeing an issue, looks at if for awhile to figure out *if* they should deal with it. There's a place for both approaches, but if it needs to be worked out and executed soon, the President doesn't turn to DoS. And considering there's much more to the military machine than just the sharp tip, most of the time, he gets it.

The Ice Man

Fri, 11/20/2015 - 5:51am

At the risk of sounding unscientific, the military as a whole is a somewhat medieval institution. When the only tool we have is a hammer every problem seems to assume the shape of a small, slender and pointed rod. So we use the military to fight an insurgency, it is far from an ideal solution. I don't have a crystal ball, but if the majority of the various branches of the military fall into insignificance excluding deterrence to opposing countries, throughout the 21st century it wouldn't surprise me much. The military as we know it is to blunt a tool to be useful for these kinds of situations.

Alex Frank

Wed, 12/02/2015 - 8:01pm

In reply to by Lunchbox


Nice, I can relate to that.

I concede that there is some broad hand having. This is meant to be a broad overview and not a thorough research project.

The simpler picture you talk about in Kandahar province exactly illustrates a very important point that I left out due to space. On a national level, Afghanistan looks like the powerpoint slide in the article--hopelessly complex. On a district level the situation is very different. At the district level the problems are reducible enough to take coherent action. But, the specifics of the problem vary tremendously from one district to the other, therefore the diversity is high. But, the necessary institutional synchronization of the different aspects of national power exists at the national level (if that), not district level. So we have tried to solve these problems in a top down, command optimization fashion that can never hope to address local conditions.

When we did source of instability analysis in Maiwand district, this is what we came up with:
• Lack of Junior leader enfranchisement leading to Afghan National Security Forces bunker mentality.
• Lack of strong political leadership due to a district leader who has no enfranchisement from the central government or a strong political agenda.
• Coopting of traditional power structures by drug smuggling operations tied to the Taliban.
This is obviously much more tractable than the powerpoint slide. The problem is that it requires all different elements of national power to address those problems. The Warrior Statesmen provides just inter-disciplinary team that has trained together before deploying. It can bring all the elements of national power to bear on a district level and solve a problem set like this.

At a certain level, things may be complex, at another level simple. It depends on how you draw the boundaries of the problem. Boundaries are healthy, they keep us sane and make it possible to take coherent action. But at the end of the day they are mostly arbitrary. Complexity theory gives us a way to understand the inter-connections and broad trends that transcend traditional boundaries.

I can relate to your experiences with good and bad leaders. I think we cannot escape this. There will always be good leaders and bad ones. Your personnel policies can slightly tip the balance. But, we can change the broad systems level incentives. The questions become: what do the good leaders spend their time doing? What skillset do encourage people to develop? What personality traits do we put in the high positions? Whole institutions and wars have flipped when we did this, witness Iraq 2008.

Your other point I have discussed above.

Thanks for the clarification regarding the Foreign Policy piece dude. I agree my ability to influence is limited, but is was probably less while inside the Army. I would not have brought up ideas like this while still in uniform. I wrote my first piece on this site three years ago. I think it was my best piece. I got a lot of good comments but I do not think it influenced anything. At least HR McMAster read it and gave me a pat on the back.



Mon, 11/30/2015 - 11:42pm

In reply to by Alex Frank


I had typed a more robust response but alas, technical issues resulted in that response disappearing. Perhaps I underestimated the complexity of posting...

Here's the brief version:

Interconnectedness may be deeper and faster due to technology but you would have to elaborate and make a stronger case that human conflict/competition and the relationships surrounding it is more complex now than in the past.

I saw little human behavior in Kandahar Province that couldn't be ascribed to greed, familial ties, personal ambition or survival instinct.

Personally, I feel that complexity and human dynamics have become a convenient excuse for incompetence and lack of guiding strategies in Iraq and Afghanistan. The US military cant accept the fact that they tried to do in 10 years what realistically would take 50 or perhaps 100 and failed.

Regarding ideals and capacity, your concept would educate a small few but leave the force in general still lacking. How do you accomplish this by working through the system as it exists today?

I have been lucky enough to have leaders at all levels who in fact, lived up to the ideals of the US Army and its stated principles. I have also seen poor leaders who micromanaged.

Personally, I read no prejudice into your article. Nor did I ask for a response. You made very clear in your Foreign Policy piece that you were the victim of poor leadership and left the Army because of this. I simply highlighted that your potential to influence change at this point may be limited.

Regardless, on many points I agree with you. The personnel system is severely lacking and I too know many incredible Americans that left as junior officers/NCOs for a variety of reasons.

All the best,


PS- Mr. Lunchbox is my father.

Alex Frank

Sun, 11/29/2015 - 9:49pm

In reply to by Lunchbox

Dear Lunchbox,

I think we have different definitions of complexity. I am curious what your's is. Sure, a lot has not changed. But, according to the way I have defined it, which is how it is defined in systems theory, warfare is clearly more complex, even if other aspects have stayed the same. Are you trying to argue that interdependence, interconnectedness, diversity, and adaptability have remained the same since Caesar's time? If so, what do you think Caesar SMSed Pompey as he crossed the Rubicon?

If everyone lived up to their ideals the world would be a happy place, indeed we would not need armies. I like ideals. But, I think you need cultural and institutional mechanisms centered around them. You cannot command hand someone and scream at them until they are more adaptable, although that sounds pretty fun. What I address in this article is how to create institutional mechanisms that will allow us to better live up to our ideals.

And Mr. Lunchbox, it is clear from history that conventional forces must have the ability to handle complex conflict and counter-insurgency. Many counter-insurgencies and complex conflicts require far more manpower than SF can provide. Right now, SF does not have much influence on the conventional army and the conventional army is not well suited to handling complexity. My article explains how to develop more capacity.

As for the personal matters, you seem to be reading a lot into my personal motivations with a lot of prejudice. I do not like this, but I will humor you with a response. It was clear to me that the institutional US military was not a good place for me. But, I still care passionately about the US succeeding in conflict.



Thu, 11/19/2015 - 9:12am

Conflict is no more complex today than it was for Caesar in Gaul. The same human dynamics apply in Panjwai District today as they did then.

The truth is if we read our own manuals and start living our stated ideals of initiative, flexibility and leadership then we don't need new formations or developmental psychology to be successful along the spectrum of conflict.

We have the tools to win, even in ambiguous scenarios, we are just unimaginative and too bureaucratic to do what is necessary.

And Mr. Frank, we already have a Warrior Statesman Regiment. We call it Army Special Forces and its soldiers are currently leading efforts in regional conflicts from Africa to the Levant to Asia.

I'm sorry you were the victim of poor leadership. It's an unfortunate reality that exists in any large organization. This is life and it exists everywhere. Unfortunately, fleeing from the difficult situation and then criticizing from afar rarely contributes to a solution.

Alex Frank

Sun, 11/29/2015 - 9:58pm

In reply to by Warlock

Dear Warlock,

1) I agree, but this supports my argument. Some things are not complex and should be reduced to simple, easy measures. Other times complexity rules and you should harmonize, not suppress. Even when you are dealing with complex conflicts, you still tease out simple principles and incentives in order to deal with the problem. For more information see Thinking in Systems by Dr. Donna Meadows or Understanding Complexity by Dr. Scott Page. We face a choice in all aspects of our lives between reducing something to simple principles or leaving it complex. Telling the difference is one of life's fine arts.
Some humans can handle more complexity than others. Again, this is science. If you want more information see Dr. Robert Keegan, the Evolving Self. But, this is not to demean those that are not suited to complexity. Non-complex tasks are equally important and more common. We need a lot of people suited to non-complex problems. But, our current institutional structure is one sidedly skewed towards handling non-complex tasks. This is a huge problem, because we constantly find ourselves in pesky complex conflicts, and the world is becoming more complex.

2) The placement of bases is not relevant to my argument. I base my argument on outmoded attitudes towards gender on 1) the way soldiers are moved around the United States, making it impossible for a spouse to maintain a career, 2) the prevalence of gender violence, and 3) the cultural mindset and attitude of many senior leaders. To tell you truth, if I was going to "wife hunt" I would not have come to New Haven Connecticut (where Yale is located ) to do it. I have learned to appreciate this place but it is not the best for finding a wife. I think women are awesome and should not be hunted, but I have other goals here.

3) AFRICOM is not an actual unit, it is not structured anywhere close to what I propose.

4) The German military was, unfortunately for world history, regarded as more combat effective. Even our top Generals, Eisenhower and Bradley, recognized this. I offer an explanation as to why: they had more effectively adapted to the complexity of the age. On the other hand, Allied armies, particularly early in the war, still clung to outmoded and simplistic ways of fighting. Trying to reduce fighting effectiveness to experience is overly simplistic. Of course veteran units fight better. But the fact of the matter is that Germans had a very different war fighting philosophy and unfortunately achieved decisive victories because of it. I recommend Blitzkrieg Legend by Karl Frieser, I used it as my main source for this part. Here are two quotes from the book I omitted due to space:

336: The most important factor in victory of 1940 was the system of command....Rommel was astonished at the rigid "order-based tactics" of his British opponents in North Africa: "The cumbersome, methodical style of command, the schematic issuing of orders, down to the the smallest detail that left junior commanders little freedom, and poor adaptability to the situation that results from the development of actual fighting--these can be blamed exclusively for British failures."

338: As far as German Panzer commander were concerned, command process (situation assessment--planning--issuing orders--monitoring) as a rule occurred on the spot with a direct view of actual events. The was one of the most important causes of the surprising German victory: The cycle of the command process took place on the German side several times faster than among the French and British.

As I read these passages I could not help but immediately relate them to systems theory and the most common criticisms of US military institutional practices. Saying "the Germans lost, therefore their armies were worse" is again overly simplistic. They lost, thankfully, for a host of other factors, including trying to fight 3 armies at once.

The author had me until he started measuring people for their grasp of complexity and creating new, unusual units. Not that those things are necessarily bad, but they're not new. A few observations:

1) Other than the various air arms, where NCOs send their officers into combat, clever lieutenants are rarely the lowest common denominator in executing any plan. (Or, having been a clever lieutenant at one time, maybe they are.) The reason the NCOs keep hammering basic standards is because while you're embracing chaos, those not quite as clever need to break things down to processes they can follow without blowing a fuse. Fog is ever present in war...but so is friction, and complexity breeds friction.

2) Military bases, especially those hosting combat units, aren't in the middle of nowhere because the service hates our spouses or the idea of having a social life. They're out there because the troops have to train, and the training gets noisy...the people in major cities don't often want to live next to that sort of noise. That's mitigated by staff tours in support commands or the Pentagon, where the bureaucracy may be soul-crushing, but we learn how America wins wars -- budgeting and logistics -- and the cultural amenities are better.

3) DoD already created a Warrior Statesman Command. It's called AFRICOM. Whether that's a success or not is still up in the air. Tactically, there are also Civil Affairs units in both the Army and Marine Corps -- undervalued, and potentially good recipients for some of the additional specialties recommended.

4) It's puzzling why the Germans are held up on a pedestal as models of 20th century warfare. They lost! Twice! And it's neither good enough or accurate to claim they were just out-resourced -- they were outfought as well. For all the talk of Auftragstaktik, there was plenty of micro-management in both wars, particularly at the operational level -- the reaction to the Normandy invasion is a textbook example. Much of their tactical expertise came from experience, pure and simple. The German practice of leaving units in the line until used up, then reconstituting them around the surviving cadre meant that they got better and better until destroyed, and the leaders surviving to reconstitute the unit became very good. Once those folks were gone, though, there was nothing behind them.

What this article really demonstrates, albiet subliminally, is that personality is a huge issue at the top and drives perceptions and force applications. In these situations, we either have a rigid stritcured blockhead or a very open receptive personality to determine the core of the issues and the best resolutions. This is not easy and the institutional military has a very hard dealing with this ground truth. Usually, the very creative expansive personality gets ground off in the desire for commonality while the institutional icon progresses. It is only by pure chance that a Petraeus or McMaster or Frank emerges. Sad.

Excellent job, Alex! You are addressing issues which seriously hinder the military's ability to effectively accomplish contemporary missions. Critics will argue that the military is always adapting to meet current and future threats, but, sadly, that just isn't true. Modern technology has increased the speed with which all systems must adapt in order to stay "current." The US military has outdated tactics and underutilized abilities. Serious reorganization is necessary if they want to keep more successful and intellectual leaders in the ranks. The Warrior Statesmen Regiment is an excellent example of a step in the right direction. I look forward to reading more of your work.