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As a researcher in the field of military theory, I read with some interest the paper on Complexity Theory that was published in CMJ 13.2.1From the presentation given, Complexity theory seems to me to be concept in search of validation, and at present it has nothing to offer military theory except distraction.

Complexity Theory is not to be confused with Computational Complexity Theory. The latter creates a science because it provides knowledge systematically; the former does not. Complex Computational Theory is a branch of applied mathematics, and its analysis and conclusions would be true and valid even if no complex computational problems existed. Complexity Theory, in its applications, seems to be a branch of applied mathematics also; but it has no analysis, no theorems, no variables, and no co-variant relations of its own; and it seems to require the existence of something in matter to express itself. As the author himself admits, “…Complexity Theory lacks integrated theoretical foundations… The complexity research field is not yet mature and is more akin to a loose network of interconnected and interdependent ideas.” The field lacks, in other words, the very things which make a science, a science.

If Complexity Theory created a science as Computational Complexity Theory does, then with a single analysis and a set of variables and equations Complexity Theory would be able to forecast the shape of snail shells, the butterfly-induced tornados of Texas, the outbreak of the next world war, and optimize package delivery, as the author suggested the theory either could do or has done. However, the analysis and the associated common set of variables and equations by which these events could be forecasted have not yet been discovered. The past successes which the author claimed for Complexity Theory told us nothing new, or amounted to facts that can be obtained by common sense observation.

What would be pernicious is an embrace of the belief that somehow Complexity Theory could be predictive of human decisions, and especially the outcome of an extended chain of decisions. Such belief would be wrong. Every decision maker is always capable of choosing not to do what his judgement tells him is necessary. To say otherwise is to impute determinism to human behaviour that hitherto has gone undetected. The theory also has no way of accounting for human creativity and adaptiveness, since these traits are inherently unpredictable in their products. Consequently, to suggest that Complexity Theory might be able to solve the problem of defeating a decentralized terrorist group, stabilizing a region, building trust with residents, and gaining advantage over an enemy force in the battlefield is to place unwarranted faith in a single scientific analysis - if it comes into being.

Military theorists, strategists, and tacticians do employ the products of other disciplines in their calculations. These imported products constitute forms of knowledge. A commander may base a decision upon a weather forecast, and a weather forecast is a product of the science of meteorology. He may employ a topographical map in planning an operation, and a map is the empirical knowledge of geography expressed through the art of cartography. His chief of artillery may promulgate ballistics tables for his new artillery pieces, and ballistics tables are products of the science of ballistics. All the Commander needs to know are the products of these other disciplines; he does not himself need to be a meteorologist, a geographer, a cartographer, or an expert in theoretical ballistics. He needs to be knowledgeable about results, not of the details by which these results are obtained. (Clausewitz referred to this fact as the “Great Simplification,” which explained why great wartime commanders sometimes arose from occupations quite unrelated to the military, while learned pedants never turn out to be great commanders.)

The reason why the products of meteorology, empirical geography, and ballistics are employed in the calculations of strategy, tactics, and military science is that these products are knowledge. Their propositions are true in reality. Their truth content does not rely upon their being useful the military. The bridge marked on the map really exists at the position indicated. The artillery piece, fired at a particular azimuth and elevation, will cause the shell to land at the position desired. There is a powerful element of certainty about knowledge; and the commander who has his own complex problems to solve needs certainty (or at least reliability) in as many of his input variables as possible. Uncertainty and unreliability are only slightly better than misleading information, to the commander. To describe a problem as a complex one with extreme sensitivity to unknown boundary conditions is trivial, for tells the Commander nothing that his common sense has not told him already.

Since Complexity Theory is not organized as a science, what it offers, at best, is uncertainty. We cannot be reasonably certain that the non-trivial, empirical conclusions Complexity Theory reaches about its subject matter are true in reality. The non-trivial conclusions it reaches are unreliable in actual practice. Trial and error conducted under a fancy name is still trial and error. This being the case, the suggestion that Complexity Theory ought to be embraced by military theorists amounts to a request for an admission to respectability that is not deserved. It asks for validation on the basis of promises. Until Complexity Theory can demonstrate that it offers knowledge unique to itself, there is no reason for military theorists, strategists, and tacticians even to look at it.

For Complexity Theory to have knowledge unique to itself the theory needs be able to create a science. The analysis, the variables and equations of the theory need to be true and valid even when they are not expressed in matter. The theory, according to the author, has not yet reached that stage of development.

Yours truly,
Vincent J. Curtis

Mr. Curtis, MSc, began his post-university career as a research scientist for the Ontario Research Foundation. He then started a scientific consulting business and later a manufacturing business, both of which he still runs.

Dear CMJ,

In his article in Vol.13, No.2, entitled Active Protection Systems: A Potential Jackpot to Future Army Operations, Captain Michael MacNeill very logically and articulately laid out the justification for soft-bubble protection for infantry and armour personnel. Losses such as those suffered at Verrieres Ridge in Normandy are unacceptable, militarily or politically. It is time to protect our front-line ground troops as well as we protect our air and sea forces, with expensive but effective alternatives to heavier armour. Drones and better near-range intelligence will help as well. Soldiers are too valuable to be thrown into battle without adequate protection and support.

Major (ret’d) Charles Hooker
Royal Canadian Corps of Signals

Cover image of Vol. 13 No. 2 (Spring 2013)

DND photo

Cover image of Vol. 13 No. 2 (Spring 2013)

Dear CMJ,

Peter Denton’s review of my book Winning the War on War (Summer 2013 issue) contains a number of factual errors. He writes that “the body count in the Democratic Republic of the Congo continues to spiral into the millions.” I devoted four pages of my book (which he does not reference) to DRC mortality estimates. Regardless whether you conclude as I do that the “millions” estimates are too high, data indisputably show a steady decline of mortality rates in the DRC since the main war ended in 2003.

Denton goes on to say that today’s little wars, such as in Iraq or the Central African Republic, are “just as real and violent as any European war to those who are its victims.” This is literally true, as I mention in the book, in the sense that a war victim is just as dead if he or she dies in a skirmish in the bush in central Africa or dies in the siege of Stalingrad. However, this does not make the two events equivalent, or show that we have made no progress by moving from World Wars to today’s low-intensity conflicts.

Finally, Denton is simply flat-out wrong to say that the “structural death toll caused by famine, disease, lack of clean water” and so forth make our time “just as tinged with the blood of innocents as has always been the case.” The undisputed data on these scourges show dramatic improvements since the Cold War ended. From 1990 to 2012 worldwide, 2 billion more people gained access to clean water, annual deaths of children under five dropped from 12 million to 8 million, and measles death fell by 85 percent (all despite population growth of almost 2 billion people). In my view, the decline of armed conflict worldwide has contributed to this progress, mostly by helping economic growth, but whatever the cause nobody can deny these gains exist.

The positive trends of recent decades could reverse in the future, as I have often noted, and indeed the war in Syria has pushed world battle death totals back upward, though not yet close to Cold War levels. Policy makers worldwide, from the Canadian Forces on down, should analyze what succeeds and fails in mitigating armed conflicts, so that good policies can help reduce future violence. Getting the facts right would be a good place to start.

Joshua S. Goldstein
Professor Emeritus of International Relations
American University, Washington DC

Cover image of Vol. 13 No. 3 (Summer 2013)

DND photo

Cover image of Vol. 13 No. 3 (Summer 2013)


  1. Stéphane Blouin “An Overview of Complexity Science and its Potential for Military Applications” CMJ Vol 13.2, 2013, pp26-36.