Academic journal article Military Review

The Myth of the New Complexity

Academic journal article Military Review

The Myth of the New Complexity

Article excerpt

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The world has always been an uncertain, complicated place. The so-called "foreseeable future" is not foreseeable at all, nor has it ever been.

Yet, in recent years, collective voices in the U.S. political and military communities have claimed that we are now witnessing an era of unprecedented complexity with a future far more unpredictable than in the past. For example, in his confirmation hearing before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee on 24 January 2013, Secretary of State John Kerry claimed, "Today's world is more complicated than anything we have experienced." (1) Elsewhere, the military authors of a recent study, "Intellectual Capital: A Case for Cultural Change," agreed with Kerry, stating that "our future combined and joint operating environments will be more complex than ever before in history." (2)

Both active and retired military leaders have also echoed this narrative, placing emphasis on the idea of a reputedly new, previously unseen level of intricacy in modern war. For instance, retired Marine Corps Gen. Tony Zinni surmised that "Over the years, the spectrum of conflict has greatly broadened, and the battlefield environment has become far more complex" This "new battlefield" he asserts, is significantly different than any seen before. (3) The U.S. Army has incorporated this notion into its recent doctrine. Former Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno asserted in 2012 that the "strategic environment has grown increasingly complex" As if to underscore this refrain, the Army titled its newest operating concept Win in a Complex World. Perhaps more ambiguously, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey (then commander of the U.S. Army's Training and Doctrine Command) stated the year prior that "We live in a much more competitive security environment." (4) Such an assertion invites the challenge: More competitive than what, exactly?

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Past Complexity

The mantra of a new, unprecedented complexity in the nature of military affairs is not terribly surprising, but it is misleading. At its best, the assertion that the operational environment is more complex than in previous eras is a near-sighted justification for a number of organizational and intellectual changes. And, at its worst, it is a veiled excuse for strategic and operational failures over the past decade. Most likely, however, the vast amount of self-study and introspection that the U.S. military, and in particular the Army, has endured during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has resulted in a sort of unintended myopia that ignores history and views the challenges of today as unprecedented in their complexity and unmanageability. However, there are indeed precedents to factors that are today erroneously characterized as more complex than previously.

World War I. Over the scope of the past one hundred years, complexity, ambiguity, and uncertainty in military affairs has been a constant. In many cases, the level of such complexity matched or exceeded that seen today. As the Western world launched the cataclysm that would become remembered as World War I, few at the time could articulate how or why the war came about. Even today, a century of reflection since has not produced consensus agreement on a single definitive explanation for the conflict. Instead, we find a plethora of diverse explanations that attribute the cause to some combination of a precarious tangle of political alliances, security agreements, war plans, industrialization, ethnic divides, and festering resentments from the nineteenth century that produced an unstable and explosive security situation throughout Europe by 1914. That environment, according to military historian John Keegan, "progressively overwhelmed the capacity of statesmen and diplomats" to control it. (5) As a result, Europe abruptly went to war with itself.

The rapidity by which the continent went from "peaceful productivity" to being fully immersed in a war of unparalleled destruction was alarming, even by today's standards. …

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