So I’ve learned a valuable lesson about doing research.  Just when you think you’ve been over something one too many times, it still pays to go over it again.  Indulge me for a moment by listening to a circuitous story.

Last night I found the information I need to really make the central argument of my dissertation stick.  The central argument (assumption even) of my dissertation is that nonlinear science (chaos theory, complexity theory, etc.) has been at the heart of changes in U.S. military thinking over the last 30 years.  This includes the three big debates of this period, first over “military reform” in the late 1970s and 1980s, the “revolution in military affairs” debate in the 1990s, and finally the current “military transformation” debate which began in the late 1990s.

To this point I’ve had a number of acquaintances and even a committee member who had expressed various degrees of doubt about the impact of nonlinear science, from the contention that nonlinear science has had no impact, that it has had an impact but very little, or that it had an impact in early debates but that there is no demonstrable link to current ideas about transformation.  They are all wrong.  Here’s why…

First, there is no question that the work of John Boyd drew heavily from emerging science. [1]  To the degree that debates over military reform, including the development of AirLand Battle, were touched by Boyd and his followers (which they were), these debates were touched by nonlinear science.

Second, the acceptance of Boyd’s OODA loop throughout the military, itself a cybernetic feedback loop a la Norbert Wiener, provides a link back to nonlinear science. [2]

Third, during the mid 1990s, when the RMA debate was at its peak, there were dozens of articles being published in military professional journals, thesis papers being written at the staff and war colleges, and think tank reports being written about what the nonlinear sciences meant for the military and the conduct of war.

Fourth, there is a direct link between transformation and network-centric warfare (NCW) and complexity theory.  In their classic 1998 article, “Network-Centric Warfare: Its Origin and Future,” Vice Admiral Arthur Cebrowski and John Garstka cite the work of Brian Arthur, an economist and founding member of the Santa Fe Institute, repeatedly use concepts from complexity theory such as “emergence,” “lock-in,” and “co-evolution,” and cite Boyd’s OODA loop. [3]

Fifth, on a number of occasions between 2000 and 2002, Adm. Cebrowski cites the work of MIT Sloan School of Management Professor Eric. D. Beinhocker. [4],[5]  Beinhocker has written extensively on applying the lessons of complexity theory and evolutionary theory to business strategy. [6],[7],[8] Adm. Cebrowski adapted his ideas to military strategy.

How did I figure this out and why didn’t I figure it out sooner?  Let’s take the second part first.  I suspected it all along and, while there was good direct evidence in the case of Boyd and reform, evidence for the link to transformation was circumstantial but still strong in my opinion.

Now the first part of that question.  After using ProQuest to search the Marine Corps Gazette for any articles that mentioned “complexity theory,” “chaos theory,” “nonlinear science,” “nonlinearity,” and “complex systems,” I figured I had pretty much exhausted the Gazette as a source.  I decided to call it a day.  It later occurred to me, however, that complexity theory often goes by the name “complex adaptive systems theory,” which would not have been picked up by any of my previous searches.  I searched again.

This time, I still didn’t come up with much, except an article in which the author claimed that many folks had misunderstood what “transformation” meant because they had not realized that it was based on ideas from complex adaptive systems theory. [9] The article mentioned Adm. Cebrowski’s reference to Beinhocker’s work in a short essay posted on the Office of Force Transformation website, [10] a site I have been to many times, an essay I have read many times.  The article also mentioned Beinhocker’s application of complexity to business strategy.  I had been so focused on other aspects of Adm. Cebrowski’s essay in the past that I hadn’t paid much attention to the Beinhocker reference.

As I dug deeper I began to find that Adm. Cebrowski had referenced Beinhocker a number of times, on a number of occasions, and even in an article he had written in the Naval War College Review in 2000, before he became the director of OFT.

Of course, I knew about he and Garstka’s 1998 article on NCW, so I decided to go back and look at my copy to see if they had cited Beinhocker.  Well, as it turned out, I did not have a copy of that article.  A quick look through my bibliographic database showed that I did not have the citation information stored either, a pretty good indication that not only did I not have a copy of the article, but that I had never actually read it!  How could this be?  I think that since I saw the article cited everywhere, and since I’ve read so many of these articles over the last few years, I probably just assumed that I had it and that I had read it.  Turns out that I hadn’t.

So, I went and got the article and, sure enough, I had definitely not looked at it before, because I was amazed to see even more direct links to and use of concepts from nonlinear science.

It just goes to show that no matter how many times you have been over something (or think you have), one more time can’t hurt.  I thought I had exhausted the Gazette as a source.  One more search led me back to a site and an essay I had read before, to a detail I had overlooked, to an article I thought I had been over, and ultimately to a huge breakthrough in my research.  And this isn’t the first time I’ve had this kind of experience working on this project.  In true OODA loop style, I guess there is something to be said for iteration after all!

So…has there been an impact?  A significant one?  That stretches all the way from Boyd to transformation and NCW?  Yes, yes, yes.  Case closed.  With one chapter almost complete, there’s only about 250 more pages to go!  Time to put the naysayers behind and finish this thing!


[1] Osinga, Frans. 2006. Science, Strategy and War: The Strategic Theory of John Boyd. Routledge.

[2] Conway, Flo, and Jim Siegelman. 2006. Dark Hero of the Information Age: In Search of Norbert Wiener The Father of Cybernetics. Basic Books.

[3] Cebrowski, Arthur K., and John J. Garstka. “Network-Centric Warfare: Its Origin and Future.” Proceedings of the U.S. Naval Institute, no. January (1998).

[4] Cebrowski, Arthur K. “President’s Forum.” Naval War College Review LII, no. 2 (2000).

[5] Cebrowski, Arthur K. “What Is Transformation and What Are Its Objectives?” Paper presented at the Center for Naval Analyses Annual Conference 2002, Transforming Defense: A Current Assessment and the Road Ahead, Arlington, VA, 2002/11/20/ 2002.

6] Beinhocker, Eric D. “Strategy at the Edge of Chaos.” McKinsey Quarterly, no. 1 (1997): 24-39.

[7] Beinhocker, Eric D. “On the Origin of Strategies.” McKinsey Quarterly, no. 4 (1999): 46-57.

[8] Beinhocker, Eric D. “Robust Adaptive Strategies.” MIT Sloan Management Review 40, no. 3 (1999): 95-106.

[9] Simon, Lee E. “Adapt and Overcome: Business Transformation.” Marine Corps Gazette 89, no. 2 (2005): 30-32.

[10] Cebrowski, Arthur K. What Is Transformation? Office of Force Transformation, ,  [cited 2007/02/12/ 2007]. Available from

Technorati Tags: , , , , , , , , ,