Complexity, Psychology, and Modern War
Complexity, Psychology, and Modern War

by Alexander Frank

Alexander Frank believes the US military should rely upon complexity theory and developmental psychology to understand why it's struggling to deal with complex conflicts. At a minimum, using these interpretive lenses will shake up how it approaches modern war.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are conflicts of unparalleled complexity, but they reflect a larger trend of increasing complexity of conflicts throughout the world. Solutions to these conflicts have been elusive because the US military has focused exclusively on equipping its Soldiers with a narrow set of technical skills, an institutional mindset not suited to a complex world. By looking at the institutional shortcomings that hampered the efforts of the military using complexity theory and developmental psychology, we can effectively explain why the military has had a hard time dealing with complex conflicts and a whole range of other problems. Finally, a solution emerges that will enable us to handle greater complexity than ever before. The analysis presented applies mostly to the Marine Corps and the Army.

The Basics of Complexity Theory

Complexity theory is part of systems theory. It uses scientific principles to model and explain systems. Complexity theory applies equally to economies and ecosystems as it does to wars. There are four elements that combine to make something complex: adaptability, interdependence, interconnectedness, and diversity. According to the scientific definition of complexity, a problem is more complex if it has more of these characteristics. For example, building a house does not display these characteristics, whereas managing an economy has far more of each of these characteristics and is thus more complex.

Complexity Theory Applied to Modern War

Iraq and Afghanistan both exhibited the characteristics of complexity. The Afghan and Iraqi insurgencies were both very adaptable. They were constantly changing tactics and techniques. Both insurgencies took place in very interconnected and interdependent environments thanks to modern mass media. When a priest in rural Florida decided to burn a Koran, it sparked riots in Afghanistan.

By contrast, the first gulf war was not as complex. At the time, there was a lot less media interconnectedness which made public relations straightforward and information easier to control. The Iraqi military of the first gulf war was not very adaptable. It followed Soviet Doctrine emphasizing rigid planning and did not have developed junior leaders capable of taking initiative. Moreover, the players involved were limited to military leaders and statesmen, in stark contrast to the insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan where the diversity of players included religious leaders, tribal chiefs, cultural anthropologists, drug kingpins, development agencies, and anyone with a cell phone camera.

The insurgency in Afghanistan is more complex than that in Iraq. After 30 years of war, the national and provincial level political structures have eroded and lost their cohesion. This means that the agendas of political actors varied even at the district and village level, making it much harder for them to organize. In the area of Kandahar I was deployed to, elders might not know the other important elders within the same village. As a result, there was a large diversity of political actors and political agendas within a small area. In Iraq, tribal leaders were able to organize a provincial level uprising against al-Qaeda because the diversity of political actors was less and there was still strong political cohesion at the provincial level. The high complexity of Afghan politics explains why it was harder to develop workable solutions, even if the fighting was harder in Iraq.

As David Petraeus told me in a private conversation, “In Iraq we could see what the problem was and address it, in Afghanistan it was much harder to do so.” With political problems playing out at the provincial level in Iraq, it was possible for national level leaders to understand them and effectively address them. Not so with Afghanistan. This now famous power point slide, originally briefed to the top US general in Afghanistan, provides a remarkably accurate portrayal of the complexity of the problem.

Complexity, Psychology, and Modern War
Afghan Stability / COIN Dynamics


It is important to note that if something is complex, it is not necessarily more difficult. There are plenty of incredibly difficult math problems that do not display the characteristics of complexity. If the Soviets had invaded Western Europe it would have been a traditional force on force fight against a rigid enemy with low interconnectedness and thus not very complex. But it would have been more difficult, costing more in blood and treasure than Iraq or Afghanistan.

Handling Complexity

Thriving in a complex environment requires a set of cultural and institutional attributes that the US military lacks. The whole institutional paradigm, from the personnel structure, to the aspects of warfighting that received emphasis, to the institutional culture, reflected a command and control optimization model suited to handling conflicts like the First Gulf War. As Dr. Scott Page, an expert in complexity theory, puts it: “If you take a command and control optimization approach, you set incentives with only outcomes in mind. You don’t necessarily think about the implications of those incentives on the future sets of behaviors and types. You discourage diversity…You control the structure of the organization and you make decisions from the top down…Command and control isn’t wrong. It’s great if you’ve hired a group of people to build a house or paint a bridge, but it’s not the right thing to do if we’re hoping to thrive in a complex world.”

Clinging to a command and control optimization model seriously hampered the military in Iraq and Afghanistan. It took the military four years in Iraq and the catastrophe of a sectarian civil war for it to adapt to the problem it faced despite the ideas it needed being present since the 1950s. The added complexity of Afghanistan means that an even greater emphasis on complexity would be needed to secure victory there.


Diversity of thought is a key component to succeeding in a complex environment. Militaries, just like any organization, will have to temper their diversity. Too much means an organization will not be able to take coherent action. Too little means that it will fall prey to group think will not be able to cope with complexity.

The lack of diversity of thought in the military seriously hampered its ability to handle the Iraq and Afghan wars. For example, one of the most able and adept counter-insurgents, HR McMaster, had his promotion held up twice during crucial phases in the war, ostensibly for thinking on his own and applying a sound and successful plan in Tal Alfar in 2005. It took a heavy handed intervention from the civilian leadership to get him promoted. Then Secretary of Defense Gates took General Petraeus out of combat in Iraq and brought him back the US in order to ensure McMaster got promoted. In this case, clinging to a dominant logic meant that, in the middle of a war, one of the Soldiers best suited to fight it was prevented from reaching positions of authority with the influence necessary.

Crushing diversity has also had a significant impact on the ability of the military to retai those junior officers it needs most to cope with complex conflicts. A case in point is a junior officer who published an article that was mildly controversial but approved by his battalion commander. A new battalion commander took charge soon after and kicked the junior officer out of the unit with ten months of unrated time and drastic effects on his personal life, despite the fact he had been a top ten percent performer and had previously published articles on Afghanistan. That officer is now out of the Military. The lack of intellectual diversity means that senior officers sincerely ask me questions like, “what’s a smart guy like you doing in the Army?” As another junior officer wrote who wisely chose to remain anonymous, “What concerns me…is that among my peers, the ones with ideas are the ones getting out, because they just don’t feel the organization values them.”[1]

Be Careful How You Define Incentives

The way you define goals and incentives will have a major impact on your success dealing with a complex situation. The types of problems encountered solving a complex problem will be constantly evolving, diverse, and unpredictable. Institutions which set rigid and narrow goals and incentives will inevitably be confronted with unfamiliar problems and have difficulty adapting to them. Especially if those goals and incentives do not directly address the systematic causes of the problem.

The United States military has very rigid and specific incentives in every aspect of its organization. Rigid adherence to these have directly hampered it’s efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Former Defense Secretary Gates recognized this. In his memoirs, he speaks passionately of the armed forces’ tendency to focus on its own narrow bureaucratic objectives, despite them hampering the Iraq and Afghan wars.

Nearly every facet of the military’s organizational structure has been reduced into a set of narrowly defined and rigid bureaucratic objectives. The personnel system, warfighting, value, development, education, travel, and responsibility have all become a set of bureaucratic criterion that make adaptation to a complex problem almost impossible. Two of these, the personnel system and warfighting, deserve special attention because they have the most direct bearing on our ability to tackle the problems facing us as a country.

The Personnel System

The personnel system utilizes a system of very rigid and specific criteria to select, promote, and develop service members that do not prepare them well for handling complex situations. Overall, a Soldier’s worth is measured by his ability to meet narrowly defined gates in order to secure promotion. If he attempts to develop himself in a way slightly outside the norm he will seriously hamper his ability to get promoted. For example, a junior officer wanted to deploy with his same unit as it was going back to the same exact area. He knew that area as very well after serving as a district level governance officer and platoon leader on the last deployment. He still skype with some important elders. However, deploying with his unit would have been slightly outside of the bureaucratic norm. As such, his battalion commander told him he “needed to get back into the system sooner” and kicked him out of the unit. This kind of decision repeated often will have major implications for our ability to handle conflicts where relationships are paramount.

Rigid incentives also dominate life in the military on a daily basis. For example simple personnel actions, like a Soldier getting permission for his wife to live with him at his post, require such an asinine set of criterion of which even the agencies involved are unaware. As a result, such actions can stretch out into 9 month ordeals.

This personnel system is structured so that officers best suited for handling complexity are not valued and therefore leave the military. The kind of rigid incentives emphasized by the system value the type of person who struggles in a complex situation. Soldiers who remain are those who do best in narrowly defined roles, and they reach the top with a very narrow skillset. As some junior officers, who also remained anonymous, wrote “the reason we’re getting out is because the Marine Corps imposes a high degree of stress, yet accepts Mission Failure so long as all the boxes on the list are checked.”[2]

The system retains and promotes Soldiers who succeed in meeting objective gates, but who lack subjective skills. Thus, they have very little capacity for dealing with situations that are not as concrete, like Afghanistan, Iraq, or any complex one. The classic example of this is LTG Sanchez during the early stages of the Iraq war. He was considered a highly competent and charismatic leader, but unable to handle the complexity of the situation. This dynamic also explains combat arms Lieutenant Colonels who would be homeless were they not in the military.

The lack of developed subjective skills also explains many other problems in the military. A leader reaching positions of high responsibility with little interpersonal ability results in toxic leadership. The Military’s sexual harassment and assault problems result from poorly developed gender-relational development. The outdated attitude towards gender relations has pushed many talented junior officers out of the military. As one officer wrote in Foreign Policy, “many of my peers face this situation; married to an educated, professional spouse who can’t just pick up every 2 or 3 years to relocate to wherever the Military decides we should be, and continue their own meaningful professional career.”[3] Some senior officers have even gone so far as to deride top performing junior officers as being “wife hunters” for valuing a career minded women.


The Military’s approach to warfighting is not well suited to complex problems. Training and warfighting are centered on a set of narrow criteria encapsulated in the Military Decision Making Process (MDMP). MDMP naively assumes a situation that can be accurately described and controlled. The whole paradigm is based on a command and control optimization model and thus is not suited for handling a chaotic and fluid complex problem.

The emphasis on information flow in this process reduces officers from adaptable combat leaders to rigid information managers. For example, a top performing junior officer was recently fired for being “too quick to change information flow systems.” Powerpoint is the main vehicle for this management system. Our system of warfighting has put so much emphasis on it that some people spend their entire deployments trying to teach it to Afghans. This is a futile process. The Afghans’ computers rapidly become inundated with viruses from porn websites. Moreover, there are only a handful of people in the entire Afghan government with the skills necessary to master PowerPoint and create slide decks up to acceptable standards. They are sorely needed in jobs where they can address the root causes of the problem.

The military’s training philosophy reflects this same trend. It places almost exclusive emphasis on preparing for a simple problem set, and little effort goes into thriving in a complex one. Only a narrow set of tasks are emphasized and they are performed in isolation. For example, a typical infantry lieutenant may only encounter one enemy situation during a whole year of training prior to deploying: 2-6 enemy who fight and die in place, a scenario almost never seen in combat. Leaders trained in this system will be proficient in those tasks but are not prepared to adapt to an evolving complex problem.

The principles underlying the Army’s new warfighting philosophy, mission command are sound and generally get away from this trend. However, there is a general feeling it has had little influence. One of my peers said it best in a small group discussion: “We go to these mission command professional development sessions which sound great, but afterwards we go back to the same micro management.” Mission command is unlikely to have wide ranging influence unless the Military as a whole, including the personnel system, is better geared towards handling complexity.

Implications for a Conventional Fight

A military geared towards complexity is likely to succeed in a conventional fight as well. For example, in the first years of World War Two the German Army was able to defeat a superior French and British force because it was better suited to complex war. The French and the British assumed they could accurately understand and control the situation. They created system similar to the US military’s current warfighting philosophy focused on information flow and other narrow criteria. On the other hand, the Germans encouraged diversity of thought and did not define warfighting too narrowly in the years leading up to the war. They “accepted chaos as a natural substance of combat. For them, the fog of war and friction were paramount forces in which the methodology of combat should seek to harmonize, not suppress. By developing methodology of Auftragstaktik (decentralization of responsibility, regulated only what is to be done, not how to do it)....the Germans inured themselves to the effects of confusion and uncertainty in the tangled frenzy of combat. They accepted chaos as the inevitable and lived with it.”[4] The German victory was decisive because they created a system able to handle the complexity that arose out of technological and human changes during the interwar years.

Build Flexibility Into the System

Building flexibility into the structure of the military would go a long way to addressing the issues highlighted above. LTG Barno’s 2013 piece in Foreign Policy entitled “Loss Leader” gave very effective recommendations for just that. His ideas are in line with the recommendations of complexity science. Implementing them would go a long way towards increasing cognitive diversity, improving adaptability, and broadening the narrow objectives that dominate Military life.

The Human Factors of Complexity

There is a deeper human aspect to complexity that needs to be addressed as well. As top developmental psychologist Robert Keegan notes, “when we experience the world as ‘too complex’ we are not just experiencing the complexity of the world. We are experiencing a mismatch between the world’s complexity and our own at this moment.”[5] When the Military experienced the problems in Iraq and Afghanistan as too complex it meant that our own complexity was lacking.

Our own complexity is determined by our meaning system, a term in developmental psychology that refers to the way a group or and individual creates meaning and value. Developmental psychologists have identified several stages of meaning system growth. As an individual or organization grows into a higher developmental stage of meaning system growth, they can handle more complexity.

Developing a more complex meaning system is necessary for tackling complex problems. It is not hard and less dynamic organizations have effectively done it. The National Forest Service, which has a significant casualty rate amongst its fire starters, effectively implemented a method developed by Dr. Kegan called immunity mapping to better cope with their problems. There are many governmental and business organizations in the civilian world that have effectively adopted this approach.

Create a Warrior Statesmen Regiment

The most effective way to institutionalize complexity and develop a better meaning system would be to create a new school and unit. The Ranger regiment and Ranger school played a key role in creating a healthy military culture after the detritus from the Vietnam War. Similarly, a new unit would allow the military to move forward from Iraq and Afghanistan with stronger human capacities than ever before, crucial in an era of shrinking budgets.

The new course would cover the human factors necessary to handle complexity (the human dimension in Military vernacular) plus the essential elements of complex conflicts. Creating this course to be challenging, selective, and essential for career advancement would give it a significant influence over institutional culture. The school would serve as the anchor for a unit specifically tailored to deal with complex problems, called a Warrior Statesman Regiment. It would resemble a conventional military unit but would have the above-mentioned course as a prerequisite for all leaders, and would have civilian experts integrated into the chain of command. Having civilian specialists in development, cultural anthropology, and governance (on a reserve status) would give this unit the diversity and interconnectedness necessary to handle complex problems and ensure there is effective civil-military cooperation. Soldiers would be selected who show competency in basic soldier and physical skills but have strong intellectual credentials and high meaning system development, which is easily measured.

The service members best suited for this unit are exactly the types that are leaving the Military in large numbers. Creating this unit and stationing it near a major city would give them a place where they could contribute to the military and be well utilized. By rotating Soldiers through the unit and putting it up on a pedestal, it would give it a major influence over the Army’s institutional culture.

Moreover, this unit would be perfect for handling the increasingly complex problems cropping up throughout the world. It would be ideal for handling civil wars in Africa or conflicts like Iraq and Afghanistan. Currently, policy makers do not have a good tool for handling a conflict that is to unstable for peace keeping but not a full blown fight yet, the peace enforcement stage. The Warrior Statesmen unit would be perfect for keeping interventions small but effective and preventing the conflicts from growing into a full blown intervention. It could intervene as the backbone of an African Union or UN force and achieve major strategic goals without a large scale conventional commitment. If the conventional Military wants to stay relevant in a complex world, it needs its own specific capabilities.

The world is rapidly becoming more complex and so is warfare. We need to adapt our complexity to the world. Doing so would solve many of the most pressing problems plaguing the military. To meet future challenges, we need to adapt our institutions, cultures, and meaning systems. Using insights gleaned from science, the solution is to create a Warrior Statesmen Regiment.


End Notes

 [1] Anonymous Junior Officer, I’m leaving the Corps because it doesn’t much value ideas, ( Foreign Policy Website , 2012)

[2] Anonymous Marine Officers, We’re getting out of the Marines because we wanted to be part of an elite force, ( Foreign Policy Website , 2013)

[3] CPT Troy Peterson, I want nothing more than to stay in the military but is it fair to my wife? ( Foreign Policy Website , 2013)

[4] Ibid, 335

[5] Dr. Robert Kegan, Immunity to Change, (Harvard Business Review Press 2009 Kindle Edition), loc 367