Maneuverist No. 3 by Marinus Maneuverist No. 2, The Zweikampf
Dynamic (MCG Oct 2020), addressed the central problem that Warfighting
endeavors to answer: How to prevail in the dynamic, nonlinear conditions
created by the interactive struggle of two hostile, interlocked wills?
This paper will explore that nonlinearity more deeply through the lens of the
dynamic, nonlinear sciences, especially chaos and complexity theory, that
emerged in the 1990s and which significantly influenced the revision of
Warfighting in 1997. Although the basic theory and philosophy of maneuver
warfare first described in FMFM 1 in 1989 remained intact with the publication
of MCDP 1 in June 1997, the ways in which Marines were to think about war and
warfare changed in some important ways.
These new ideas were largely implicit in the earlier manual, but the revision
made them more explicit. These ideas coupled with the insights that
nonlinearity affords make the second edition of Warfighting conceptually deeper
than the first. War is chaotic. War is complex. These are obvious truisms. But
there is deeper meaning here because the terms have different levels of
definition. In everyday usage, chaos refers to something that is disorderly,
confusing, or apparently random. In everyday usage, complexity describes
anything that is complicated, elaborate, or consists of many parts. But the
terms also have more specific meaning. Chaos and complexity are branches of the
dynamic, nonlinear sciences that came to prominence in the 1990s. They describe
a vast array of phenomena in the natural world that have steadfastly defied
explanation by classical scienceincluding war and warfare.
Science and Military Theory:
Military theorists have frequently turned to science to try to help understand
and explain war. Sunzi frequently employed analogies from nature to explain his
military concepts. He would not have recognized the field of science per se
(physics as we know it would not be created for some two thousand years), but
he relied on the observable laws of nature when he wrote: He who relies on the
situation uses his men in fighting as one rolls logs or stones. Now the nature
of logs and stones is that on stable ground they are static; on unstable
ground, they move. If square, they stop; if round, they roll. Thus, the
potential of troops skilfully commanded in battle may be compared to that of
round boulders which roll down from mountain heights.
1 Now an army may be likened to water, for just as flowing water avoids the
heights and hastens to the lowlands, so an army avoids strength and strikes
weakness. And as water shapes its flow in accordance with the ground, so an
army manages its victory in accordance with the situation of the enemy.
2 The first passage reflects Sunzis intuitive understanding of gravity
and friction, while the second reflects a rudimentary appreciation for fluid
mechanics (although he would not have recognized any of the terms).
Carl von Clausewitz also relied heavily on the physical sciences to explain his
military concepts. On War is filled with science metaphors. For example,
using analogies from both chemistry and classical physics, Clausewitz wrote:
War is a pulsation of violence, variable in strength and therefore variable in
the speed with which it explodes and discharges its energy. War moves on its
goals with varying speeds; but it always lasts long enough for the influence to
be exerted on the goal and for its own course to be changed in one way or
3 Here in the same passage, Clausewitz used the metaphor of an explosive
chemical reaction followed immediately by the metaphor of physical bodies
acting upon each other as if by the force of gravity. Two of Clausewitzs
most important concepts, friction and the center of gravity, come directly from
the cutting-edge science of his day, which was classical Newtonian mechanics.
Closer to home, the godfather of maneuver warfare theory, John Boyd, was a
trained engineer steeped in science. The second law of thermodynamics,
Godels incompleteness theorem, and Heisenbergs uncertainty
principle especially proved foundational to Boyds thinking.
4 Boyds theories largely hinged on his deep appreciation of the nonlinear
nature of war, as his briefing slides and annotated copies of his personal
5 In fact, Boyd strongly opposed any suggestion that nonlinear theory was a
new science. He reluctantly accepted the term 20th century
science, although he observed that early thinkers had begun to explore
nonlinear science as early as the 18th century.
Entering the last year of his Commandancy in September 1994, Gen Carl E. Mundy,
Jr. recognized that his successor would face significant challenges with a
short planning horizon to address them and so crafted a seven-month series of
general officer workshops to consider the Marine Corps future. He
directed the Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen Richard D. Hearney,
to lead the effortsoon titled the Vision 21 projectand
assigned all the Corps lieutenant generals and several major generals to
participate. One of these generals would become the next Commandant. Whoever
that officer was, he would have the advantage of already having considered how
he might move the Corps in a particular direction. Furthermore, the other
senior officers supporting him would be intimately familiar with the knowledge
that informed the new Commandants thinking.
In April 1995, the Vision 21 participants produced a draft report, which the
new Commandant, Gen Charles Krulak, drew on heavily for parts of his
Commandants Planning Guidance (dated 1 July 1995), the first such
guidance from a Commandant.6 Among several consultants brought on board to
facilitate workshops were futurist John Petersen of The Arlington Institute,
noted science writer M. Mitchell Waldrop, and military historian Roger
Beaumont, a scholar of the U.S. military.7 These three men introduced the
Vision 21 participants to the emerging sciences of nonlinearity. Gen Hearney
took a particular interest in this developing science and hosted follow-on
meetings with various authorities from a number of fields. He also encouraged
other senior officers to familiarize themselves with the basics of nonlinear
In July 1995, the Commanding General of the Marine Corps Combat Development
Command directed an examination of nonlinear science as it relates to war and
Waldrops book Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and
Chaos became must-reading at Marine Corps Combat Development Command.8 One
important initial product was a report from a Marine Corps Combat Development
Command-sponsored Center for Naval Analyses study titled Land Warfare and
9 Marine Corps Combat Development Command also established an ongoing
relationship with the Santa Fe Institute, the mecca for the study of
10 The result of these efforts was an understanding of war as a deeply
nonlinear phenomenon and of military forces as complex adaptive systems. The
insights Marines derived from exploring this nascent science proved profound
and found their way into Marine Corps doctrine and the curricula of
professional military schools. Systems We will spend a lot of time here
discussing systems, the concept of which is important to
understanding both complexity and maneuver warfare. For our purposes, a system
is a collection of things that stand in relation to one another and can be
conceived as constituting a larger whole.
Systems are everywhere: economic systems, political systems, ecological
systems, computer systems, home entertainment systems, and social systems.
Systems can be natural or artificial, biological or technological, concrete or
abstract. An automobile is a system comprising transmission, braking,
suspension, cooling, electrical, and more components that are themselves
systems. Every animal, from the smallest insect to the blue whale, is a system
comprising multiple subsystems that together promote its growth and survival. A
religion is a system of beliefs and moral practices, while a theory is a system
of related concepts. A rifle squad is a deadly system of thirteen Marines
working together toward the accomplishment of an assigned task.
A Marine Air-Ground Task Force is a system of command, ground, aviation, and
logistics components operating complementarily toward the accomplishment of the
mission. For that matter, wara hostile interaction between two military
systemsis a system. While we see systems everywhere, in another sense,
there are no actual systems in the world. What exist in the world are matter,
energy, and information. System is a mental construct that we
impose on that matter, energy, and information to provide structure and
understanding so we can better function in that world. In that sense, how we
define the systems around us is up to us, and some ways of defining those
systems are more useful than others. Maneuver warfare is a highly systemic
11 It requires conceiving of the enemy as a system of components functioning
together to generate combat power and apply it against us. It involves locating
the criticalities and vulnerabilities in that system and attacking them to
disruptor, literally, to dis-integratethe coherent
functioning of the system rather than grinding it down from the outside. Or, as
Boyd was fond of saying, to tear the enemy system apart from the
Linearity and Nonlinearity :
Nonlinearity is defined in terms of what it is not: linear. Linear systems
exhibit two fundamental properties: proportionality and additivity.
12 Proportionality means that causes and their effects are proportionala
large input to the system results in a correspondingly large output, and vice
versa. Additivity means that the whole equals the sum of the partsthe
system exhibits no synergistic qualities. Additive systems, therefore, can be
understood by deconstructing the system into its constituent parts,
understanding the parts, and reassembling the parts to understand the whole
system. Linear systems tend to be predictableand therefore are perceived
to be more knowable and controllable. Compared to nonlinear systems, their
behavior is tamer, more reliable, and more logical. The very terms
suggest that linearity is the rule and nonlinearity the exception, but in
reality the world we live in consists mainly of nonlinear systems. The
mathematician Stanislaw Ulam once remarked that the term nonlinear
science was about as useful as categorizing the vast majority of the
animal kingdom as non-elephants.
13 As discussed in Maneuverist No. 2, war is deeply nonlinear. Clausewitz
understood this intuitively. He wrote that success is not due simply to general
[i.e., major] causes. Particular factors can often be decisivedetails
only known to those who were on the spot. There can also be moral factors which
never come to light; while issues can be decided by chances and incidents so
minute as to figure in histories simply as anecdotes.
14 S.L.A. Marshall describes the same phenomenon in his Men against
Fire: For the infantry soldier the great lesson of minor tactics in our
is the overpowering effect of relatively small amounts of fire
delivered from the right ground at the right hour. The mass was there,
somewhere in support, and the mobility was needed to put the vital element in
the right place. But the salient characteristic of most of our great victories
(and a few of our defeats) was that they pivoted on the fire action of a few
15 As for nonlinearitys violation of the additive property, Clausewitz
wrote: But in war more than in any other subject we must begin by looking
at the nature of the whole; for here more than elsewhere the part and the whole
must always be thought of together.
16 Importantly, nonlinear systems generally are characterized by pervasive
feedback, which can be positive or negative. Positive feedback produces
reinforcing or multiplying effects whereas negative feedback produces damping
or balancing effects. As compared to linear systems, which tend to have minimal
feedback mechanisms, war is characterized by a complex, hierarchical system of
feedback loops, some designed but many unintended and unrecognized. Whether
positive or negative, feedback results are by definition nonlinear.
17 Chaos and Complexity:
Nonlinearity manifests itself in behavior that is chaotic or complex. Roughly
speaking, chaos theory refers to inanimate systems that adhere to (often
simple) deterministic rules that result in seemingly random, unpredictable
behavior. Chaotic systems are nonlinear and sensitive to initial conditions,
meaning that the minutest change in conditionsimmeasurable
evenleads to a very different outcome. If all the starting conditions
could be recreated exactly (which they cannot), the system would behave in
exactly the same way, and that behavior could be confidently predicted. There
is no free will or deciding involved. The ultimate example of a
deterministically chaotic system is the weather, about which
mathematician-turned-meteorologist Edward Lorenz coined the term The
Butterfly Effect: a butterfly stirring the air today in Peking can
transform storm systems next month in New York.
18 While some chaotic dynamics exist in war, much more interesting for the
purpose of understanding war is complexity theory. Scientifically, complexity
deals with the study of systems that exhibit interactively complex,
self-organizing adaptation. These systems are known by a variety of names, most
commonly complex adaptive systems. A complex adaptive system is any system
composed of numerous interacting parts, or agents, each of which must act
individually according to its own circumstances, and which by so acting changes
the circumstances affecting all the other agents. A colony of ants is a complex
adaptive system. A market economy is a complex adaptive system. (A command
economy is what you get when you try to linearize a market
economy.) A soccer team is a complex adaptive system, as is the other team. A
combat patrol, changing formation as it moves across the terrain and reacting
to the enemy situation, is a complex adaptive system. The world fairly teems
with complex adaptive systems: jazz bands (but not orchestras), swarms of bees,
wolf packs, societies, communities, flocks of birds. And of course, military
units at any echelon are complex adaptive systemsor ought to be.
Calling something a complex adaptive system does not necessarily mean that it
adapts well. Some might better be called complex maladaptive systems, but those
tend not to survive for long. The complex adaptive systems that have continued
to survive and thrive in their environment have learned to adapt effectively.
They tend to have built-in redundancies that protect them against single-point
failure. Nobel economist F.A. Hayek called such systems extended orders because
they are intrinsically distributed.
19 An extended order constitutes an information-gathering process, able
to call up, and to put to use, widely dispersed information that no central
planning agency, let alone any individual, could know as a whole, possess or
20 Complex systems are driven by the numerous individual decisions
of their agents. In an excellent description of complexity theory, Clausewitz
wrote: The military machinethe army and everything related to itis
basically very simple and therefore seems easy to manage. But we should bear in
mind that none of its components is of one piece: each piece is composed of
individuals, every one of whom retains his potential of friction
battalion is made up of individuals, the least important of whom may chance to
delay things or somehow make them go wrong.
21 Notice that Clausewitz casts this distributed nature in negative terms, as a
source of friction, but it can also be a positive if individuals or small-unit
leaders exercise initiative to exploit opportunities. Complexity is a function
of the freedom of action of the individual components of the system: in
general, the greater the freedom of action, the greater the complexity. Under
the right conditions, even a system with only a small number of partseven
a Zweikampfcan produce complex behavior. The number and variety of
components can contribute to complexity but cannot create it. An F/A-18 Super
Hornet has a multitude of systems and subsystems, but they have no latitude in
how they interact. They interact in only one wayas envisioned by the
engineers who designed the aircraft. Such a system is exceedingly complicated,
but it is not complex. When performing as designed, the aircraft is precisely
and reliably controllable. But when the components cease to interact exactly as
designed, it may be time to eject.
Critically, complex adaptive systems exhibit a quality known as emergence.
Emergence is a qualitatively different system behavior rising out the
interactions of agents in a complex adaptive system. Consider a flock of
starlingscountless individual birds each acting and reacting individually
according to its own local circumstances, and yet the aggregate acts like a
single entity, zigging and zagging and turning back on itself with
instantaneous agilityas if it has a single, controlling mind. The flock
has a quality all its own. But the starlings have no concept of
flock. There is no structure to it that is imprinted on their DNA.
The behavior of the flock emerges out of the individual birds being birds.
Emergence is a form of spontaneous structure and control. It allows individual
agents to form into meaningful higher-order systems. It is a violation of the
additive property in which the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. In
complex systems, structure and control thus emerge from the bottom; they are
not imposed only from the top, which in warfare has implications for command
and control. Healthy complex adaptive systems are said to exist at the
edge of chaosthe fluctuating balance point between order and
chaos. The edge of chaos, according to Waldrop, is the constantly
shifting battle zone between stagnation and anarchy, the one place where a
complex system can be spontaneous, adaptive, and alive.
22 If a complex system has too much order, it becomes rigid and nonadaptive;
too much chaos and it becomes directionless and incoherent. A healthy complex
adaptive system never quite locks into equilibrium but never spins out of
control. Complex adaptive systems at the edge have enough structure to sustain
themselves and enough fluidity to adapt to a variety of circumstances. It is at
the edge of chaos that unpredictability, innovation, and creative emerge. The
emerging nonlinear sciences provided new insights into the nature of war. We
submit that chaos and complexity do not merely provide metaphors for war but
that war qualifies as deterministically chaotic and dynamically complex.
These insights quickly found their way into Marine Corps doctrine. MCDP 1
included discussions of nonlinearity, complexity, and systems, which were
missing from the FMFM. (We believe the discussion of nonlinearity deserved
greater treatment.) MCDP 5, Planning, and MCDP 6, Command and Control, contain
similar examples. The endnotes of all three manuals reference important works
on nonlinear systems. Why does it matter? Maneuver warfare theory as it
developed in the Marine Corps predated the widespread recognition of the
nonlinear, dynamic sciencesalthough some people, like John Boyd, clearly
understood the implications. The nonlinear sciences, however, strongly confirm
maneuver warfare theory. They reinforce the point that war and warfare are
innately uncertain and unpredictable, regardless of how much information we
gather or how much technology we apply to the situation. Chaos and complexity
teach us, as Warfighting does, that rather than trying to impose certainty,
order, and efficiency, we are ultimately better off learning to operate despite
the friction, uncertainty, and disorder that are inherent to warfare.
Complexity especially suggests that centralized command is incompatible with
the essentially distributed nature of warfare. It constitutes an attempt to
linearize warfare to make it more controllable. In the end, it makes operations
less adaptableand another key lesson of chaos and complexity is that
adaptability is absolutely essential. That adaptability is best achieved by
empowering subordinate units with as much freedom of action as possible. The
dynamic, nonlinear sciences tell us that a system is most adaptable,
unpredictable, and creative when it is surfing at the edge of
chaos. But U.S. operations routinely sacrifice those qualities for the
sake of order and control. The property of emergence suggests that adaptive
command and control must be bottom-up as well as top-down. The dynamic,
nonlinear sciences suggest that linear planning approaches that attempt
artificially to deconstruct a situation into categoriesthink DIME and
PMESIIwill often fail to grasp the totality of the situation, and that
more holistic approaches, such as systemic operational design (at least as
originally envisioned), show more potential.
23 Finally, as we mentioned in Maneuverist No. 2, chaos and complexity argue
that a key aspect of maneuver warfare is the ability to conceive the enemy (or
the situation more broadly) as a system and to find or create and exploit
nonlinearities as a way of tearing that system apart. Fortunately, we have seen
signs over the last 25 years that some Marine leaders grasp the significance of
a nonlinear view of war and warfare. Gen James Mattis in his approach to
operations certainly has shown that he has a nonlinear mindset. He recently
stated, The inherent chaos caused me to leave a lot of detail out of my
plans when, through study, I really understood Warfighting and its
24 The same can be said of Marine commanders at various echelons of command,
although how widespread that understanding is has been a matter of debate.
Looking Ahead As we would expect, seventeen years of war have caused Marines to
focus on the practice of warfare more than the theory that underlies it. Does
this mean that Marines no longer need be cognizant of those theories? No, for
theories describe and explain important concepts that influence action. In
fact, all professions rely on theories in their practice. Marines must be
knowledgeable of maneuver warfare theory as they study and practice the
profession of arms. As the Marine Corps begins to adjust its organizations,
weapons systems, and operational approaches to counter new adversaries in the
future, Marine leaders should understand the concepts and theory that underlie
its current approach. To accomplish this task, they will need to appreciate
nonlinear science and the ways it affects war and warfare.
Notes Sun Tzu, The Art of War, trans. By S.B. Griffith (London, UK: Oxford
University Press, 1963).
Carl von Clausewitz, On War, trans. and ed. by Michael Howard and Peter Paret
(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984),.
Boyd once told a future Marine general he could never become a great commander
if he did not understand the Second Law. Archives Branch, Marine Corps History
Division, Marine Corps University, Quantico, Virginia.
See as an example Boyds heavily annotated copy of James Gleicks,
Chaos: Making a New Science (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1987). Center for
Naval Analyses, Vision-21 Source Book, Volume I: The Process, (Alexandria, VA:
Center for Naval Analyses, March 1996).
See https://arlingtoninstitute.org; M. Mitchell Waldrop, Complexity: The
Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos (New York, NY: Simon &
Schuster, 1992); and Roger Beaumont, War, Chaos, and History (Westport, CT:
M. Mitchell Waldrop, Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and
Chaos (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1992). Part II of this study, Andrew
Ilachinskis An Assessment of the Applicability of Nonlinear Dynamics and
Complex Systems Theory to the Study of Land Warfare, (Alexandria VA: Center for
Naval Analyses, 1996), was of the greatest interest to many Marines.
See www.santafe.edu for more information on the Santa Fe Institute established
See also https://necsi.edu/ for information on the New England Complex Systems
Institute established in 1996. Some have called it the The Santa Fe
Institute of the East Coast.
We draw an important distinction between systemic and systematic.
Systemic refers to a whole consisting of related parts.
Systematic refers to something that is thorough, deliberate,
methodical, and according to a plan. See Alan D. Beyerchens excellent
discussion in Clausewitz, Nonlinearity, and the Unpredictability of
War. International Security. 17:3. Winter, 1992.
See https://physics.sciences.ncsu.edu/research/nonlinear-dynamics. On War.
S.L.A. Marshall, Men against Fire: The Problem of Battle Command in Future War
(Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1978).
John F. Schmitt, Command and (Out of) Control: The Military Implications
of Complexity Theory, Complexity, Global Politics, and National Security,
ed. by David S. Alberts and Thomas J. Czerwinski (Washington, DC: National
Defense University, 1997). Quoted in James Gleick, Chaos: Making a New Science
(New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1987).
F.A. Hayek, The Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism, ed. by W.W. Bartley III
(Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1988).
Ibid. On War.
Complexity. Diplomatic-Informational-Military-Economic and
for deconstructing friendly and enemy systems respectively. Private
conversation with author on 24 August 2020.