Democrats & Liberals Archives

Chaos, In Theory and In War

No newscast does extended weather forecasts for the month. Why? No model can forecast that far. Maybe in a few years they could, some would say. Nope. The reality of our atmosphere is that on the day to day level, (as opposed to broad climate predictions) the weather is a chaotic system. Doesn’t mean you can’t make predictions. Just means that the farther into the future you look, the more the little nuances, like, say, a butterfly flapping its wings, create a significant effect. Small digits you leave out when you round off the numbers take on importance as time goes on. War is one of those kinds of systems.

The days of single combat are over, but the days in which one person can make a difference are not, and never will be. This principle, along with others, applies for good and for ill.

Chaos theories tend to be misunderstood as implying absolute uncertainty, absolute unpredictability. They do nothing of the sort. There is an element of indeterminacy, but one must also be aware that two things are true: The laws of nature still apply, still determine events, just in such a sensitive fashion that absolute prediction is thrown off by small details we aren't aware of, can't be aware of ahead of time. The second thing that remains true, is that while crystalline, repeatable order does not show itself, another kind of order manifests itself, in the form of strange attractors. A set of tendencies will emerge from the seeming disorder, tendencies that will increase the likelihood of certain outcomes, lower that of others.

For war, several things are true that help make it so chaotic:

The first is that it's a social, human enterprise, with all the complexity that implies.

The second is that individuals are involved, who are fully capable of making their own decisions, decisions that can generate unanticipated changes in outcomes for the system as a whole.

The third is that knowledge is at all times imperfect, though the degree and nature of that imperfection differs greatly.

The fourth is that people are not always aware of their own capabilities given the situation, and so armies that might seem invincible can be humbled by forces deemed inferior, or regarded as already neutralized.

Five is that few wars are fought purely as military exercises. Political and diplomatic issues can determine defeat even for nation that never loses a battle.

Six is that rules of battle are never set in stone.

Seven is that the best solution to a military conflict is not always the best liked by the fighters involved.

The Bible speaks somewhere about man not putting straight what God made crooked. This is a prime case. However much we want to believe that military action or diplomacy are meant to be simple and direct, the very nature of both battlefield and embassy frustrates those who try to enforce theory on history. Theory only works when it makes behavior hew closer to reality.

The theory on Iraq is that it's essential to support Bush to support the war. But that is only conjecture, based on hypotheticals about Kerry's potential actions. Bush's actions, though, can be faulted along real, not imaginary lines of weakness. Let's illuminate several.

First, Bush thought war was the simpler, easy way of dealing with Saddam. While it was simple, it has not and will not be easy to remove the mark of a man who so embedded the worst nature of his regime into his nation. The Bush plan for after the war was nothing but an empty slide.

Second, Bush failed to neutralize people like Moqtada al-Sadr, before their actions took American lives. By neutralize, I don't mean kill, for the most part, but rather doing things like convincing the more moderate Ayatollahs to yank their support for al-Sadr before he was able to build up armies of followers and take cities from us. Where their danger signs about al-Sadr? There certainly were. It is important to relate to those in conservative circles that many of the problems that relate to the insurgency were predicted ahead of time by people who the administration either ignored or marginalized. This is not hindsight 20/20. This was foresight ignored.

Third, while it might be correct to say that the president couldn't know everything, there were things he and those planning the war could have learned and taken to heart that might have convinced more open minded versions of themselves that this war was not worth starting. Various officials were told of problems with key points of evidence, and they either didn't tell Bush, or told him and they used it anyways. That's what makes the "16 words" such a big deal. That's what makes the aluminum tubes so important. That's what makes reams of suppressed or marginalized evidence important.

Reading The Best and the Brightest, what I am struck by is how so many in the Vietnam Era Administration chose to paper over conceal and deny evidence that showed us doing worse than we thought we were, that showed us our bold initiatives were failing. The "kill the messenger" attitude I read about revolts me. When some report gets leaked out, showing just how bad things are, did people investigate how things came to that point? No, the investigations focused on how the leaks came to pass. Keeping the secrets, clouding the data, giving the skewed, optimistic message was more important than changing things for the better, improving on past successes, and redressing past mistakes and grievances.

The thicker the concealing fog grows around the means, the manner and the mechanisms of this war, the more fearful I get, because such concealment and deception can lead in only one direction: failure. Secrecy about the progress of the war protects failure, prolonging policies that make things worse, postponing any potential recovery, or short of that, increasing the trauma of a defeat if such comes to pass.

Fourth, Bush underestimated the Iraqi army, and Iraqi citizen's reactions against westerners and Americans. He forgot that among the other parts of what kept Saddam in power, there was a significant degree of nationalism involved. He dissolved the Army, putting thousands of young men with fighting skills out of work, with no productive outlet for their skills. We could have vetted and filtered out those too committed as Baathists to be safe in the army, and then maintained that fighting force. It would have been a hell of a lot easier in the end than rebuilding an army from scratch.

He underestimated the cost his father's blunder post-gulf-war took of Shiite support in the south. He underestimated the problems of having a suddenly disempowered Sunni Minority would create. In short, he misunderstood the war he was getting into.

You should know your enemy, if you wish to defeat them. You should know what they value, what they will settle down and no longer fight you for, what their ambitions are, and what their fears are. You should know what you want in the first place, what you need to do, and commit yourself wholeheartedly to it.

The time after you've committed yourself to a war of invasion and occupation is no time to start indulging reservations about nation-building, or to leave things to chance. It's also no time to find out that the threat you spent hundreds of billions of dollars to face down was not real. It's no time to start fudging the rationales and moving the goalposts. Bush should have started with the necessary troops, equipment, and supplies assembled and not a moment before that.

Reality has a nasty way of imposing itself on those who settle into states of denial. The consequences of things ignored or covered up will play themselves out, whether it's the military's concealment of pessimistic figures forty-plus years ago, or the relentless optimism of today that finds it's eerie counterpart in 1960s Indochina. What could have been a military involvement wound down over the next decade, likely with death of old man Hussein and the subsequent power struggle managed to our advantage has become a chaotic political situation, with much resentment for our side and our motives. With our ultimate objectives being political, our ham-handedness with Iraqi politics has put us in a pretty pickle.

In the end, nobody can control everything, predict everything, but we can make ourselves more in tune, more aware of the short term and long term consequences of actions. One thing for sure: we shall not win this war by our will and our persistence alone. Both strengths can be turned against us, if we push the Iraqi people hard enough in the wrong way, we will only serve to set an example to those who study this period in our nation's history of how those who remain ignorant of the past are doomed to repeat it.

Posted by Stephen Daugherty at October 18, 2004 10:14 PM