Maneuverist No. 3

by Marinus

Maneuverist No. 2, “The Zweikampf Dynamic” (MCG Oct 2020), addressed the central problem that Warfighting endeavors to answer: How to prevail in the dynamic, nonlinear conditions created by the interactive struggle of two hostile, interlocked wills? This paper will explore that nonlinearity more deeply through the lens of the dynamic, nonlinear sciences, especially chaos and complexity theory, that emerged in the 1990s and which significantly influenced the revision of Warfighting in 1997. Although the basic theory and philosophy of maneuver warfare first described in FMFM 1 in 1989 remained intact with the publication of MCDP 1 in June 1997, the ways in which Marines were to think about war and warfare changed in some important ways. These new ideas were largely implicit in the earlier manual, but the revision made them more explicit. These ideas coupled with the insights that nonlinearity affords make the second edition of Warfighting conceptually deeper than the first.

War is chaotic. War is complex. These are obvious truisms. But there is deeper meaning here because the terms have different levels of definition. In everyday usage, chaos refers to something that is disorderly, confusing, or apparently random. In everyday usage, complexity describes anything that is complicated, elaborate, or consists of many parts. But the terms also have more specific meaning. Chaos and complexity are branches of the dynamic, nonlinear sciences that came to prominence in the 1990s. They describe a vast array of phenomena in the natural world that have steadfastly defied explanation by classical science—including war and warfare.


Science and Military Theory

Military theorists have frequently turned to science to try to help understand and explain war. Sunzi frequently employed analogies from nature to explain his military concepts. He would not have recognized the field of science per se (physics as we know it would not be created for some two thousand years), but he relied on the observable laws of nature when he wrote:

He who relies on the situation uses his men in fighting as one rolls logs or stones. Now the nature of logs and stones is that on stable ground they are static; on unstable ground, they move. If square, they stop; if round, they roll. Thus, the potential of troops skilfully commanded in battle may be compared to that of round boulders which roll down from mountain heights.1


Now an army may be likened to water, for just as flowing water avoids the heights and hastens to the lowlands, so an army avoids strength and strikes weakness. And as water shapes its flow in accordance with the ground, so an army manages its victory in accordance with the situation of the enemy.2

The first passage reflects Sunzi’s intuitive understanding of gravity and friction, while the second reflects a rudimentary appreciation for fluid mechanics (although he would not have recognized any of the terms).

Carl von Clausewitz also relied heavily on the physical sciences to explain his military concepts. On War is filled with science metaphors. For example, using analogies from both chemistry and classical physics, Clausewitz wrote:

War is a pulsation of violence, variable in strength and therefore variable in the speed with which it explodes and discharges its energy. War moves on its goals with varying speeds; but it always lasts long enough for the influence to be exerted on the goal and for its own course to be changed in one way or another.3

Here in the same passage, Clausewitz used the metaphor of an explosive chemical reaction followed immediately by the metaphor of physical bodies acting upon each other as if by the force of gravity.

Two of Clausewitz’s most important concepts, friction and the center of gravity, come directly from the cutting-edge science of his day, which was classical Newtonian mechanics.

Closer to home, the godfather of maneuver warfare theory, John Boyd, was a trained engineer steeped in science. The second law of thermodynamics, Godel’s incompleteness theorem, and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle especially proved foundational to Boyd’s thinking.4 Boyd’s theories largely hinged on his deep appreciation of the nonlinear nature of war, as his briefing slides and annotated copies of his personal books confirm.5 In fact, Boyd strongly opposed any suggestion that nonlinear theory was a “new science.” He reluctantly accepted the term “20th century science,” although he observed that early thinkers had begun to explore nonlinear science as early as the 18th century.



Entering the last year of his Commandancy in September 1994, Gen Carl E. Mundy, Jr. recognized that his successor would face significant challenges with a short planning horizon to address them and so crafted a seven-month series of general officer workshops to consider the Marine Corps’ future. He directed the Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen Richard D. Hearney, to lead the effort—soon titled the “Vision 21” projectand assigned all the Corps’ lieutenant generals and several major generals to participate. One of these generals would become the next Commandant. Whoever that officer was, he would have the advantage of already having considered how he might move the Corps in a particular direction. Furthermore, the other senior officers supporting him would be intimately familiar with the knowledge that informed the new Commandant’s thinking. In April 1995, the Vision 21 participants produced a draft report, which the new Commandant, Gen Charles Krulak, drew on heavily for parts of his Commandant’s Planning Guidance (dated 1 July 1995), the first such guidance from a Commandant.6

Among several consultants brought on board to facilitate workshops were futurist John Petersen of The Arlington Institute, noted science writer M. Mitchell Waldrop, and military historian Roger Beaumont, a scholar of the U.S. military.7 These three men introduced the Vision 21 participants to the emerging sciences of nonlinearity. Gen Hearney took a particular interest in this developing science and hosted follow-on meetings with various authorities from a number of fields. He also encouraged other senior officers to familiarize themselves with the basics of nonlinear dynamics. In July 1995, the Commanding General of the Marine Corps Combat Development Command directed an examination of nonlinear science as it relates to war and warfare. Waldrop’s book Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos became must-reading at Marine Corps Combat Development Command.8 One important initial product was a report from a Marine Corps Combat Development Command-sponsored Center for Naval Analyses study titled Land Warfare and Complexity.9 Marine Corps Combat Development Command also established an ongoing relationship with the Santa Fe Institute, the mecca for the study of complexity.10 The result of these efforts was an understanding of war as a deeply nonlinear phenomenon and of military forces as complex adaptive systems. The insights Marines derived from exploring this nascent science proved profound and found their way into Marine Corps doctrine and the curricula of professional military schools.



We will spend a lot of time here discussing “systems,” the concept of which is important to understanding both complexity and maneuver warfare. For our purposes, a system is a collection of things that stand in relation to one another and can be conceived as constituting a larger whole. Systems are everywhere: economic systems, political systems, ecological systems, computer systems, home entertainment systems, and social systems. Systems can be natural or artificial, biological or technological, concrete or abstract. An automobile is a system comprising transmission, braking, suspension, cooling, electrical, and more components that are themselves systems. Every animal, from the smallest insect to the blue whale, is a system comprising multiple subsystems that together promote its growth and survival. A religion is a system of beliefs and moral practices, while a theory is a system of related concepts. A rifle squad is a deadly system of thirteen Marines working together toward the accomplishment of an assigned task. A Marine Air-Ground Task Force is a system of command, ground, aviation, and logistics components operating complementarily toward the accomplishment of the mission. For that matter, war—a hostile interaction between two military systems—is a system.

While we see systems everywhere, in another sense, there are no actual systems in the world. What exist in the world are matter, energy, and information. “System” is a mental construct that we impose on that matter, energy, and information to provide structure and understanding so we can better function in that world. In that sense, how we define the systems around us is up to us, and some ways of defining those systems are more useful than others.

Maneuver warfare is a highly systemic doctrine.11 It requires conceiving of the enemy as a system of components functioning together to generate combat power and apply it against us. It involves locating the criticalities and vulnerabilities in that system and attacking them to disrupt—or, literally, to “dis-integrate”—the coherent functioning of the system rather than grinding it down from the outside. Or, as Boyd was fond of saying, “to tear the enemy system apart from the inside.”


Linearity and Nonlinearity

Nonlinearity is defined in terms of what it is not: linear. Linear systems exhibit two fundamental properties: proportionality and additivity.12 Proportionality means that causes and their effects are proportional—a large input to the system results in a correspondingly large output, and vice versa. Additivity means that the whole equals the sum of the parts—the system exhibits no synergistic qualities. Additive systems, therefore, can be understood by deconstructing the system into its constituent parts, understanding the parts, and reassembling the parts to understand the whole system. Linear systems tend to be predictable—and therefore are perceived to be more knowable and controllable. Compared to nonlinear systems, their behavior is “tamer,” more reliable, and more logical. The very terms suggest that linearity is the rule and nonlinearity the exception, but in reality the world we live in consists mainly of nonlinear systems. The mathematician Stanislaw Ulam once remarked that the term “nonlinear science” was about as useful as categorizing the vast majority of the animal kingdom as “non-elephants.”13

As discussed in Maneuverist No. 2, war is deeply nonlinear. Clausewitz understood this intuitively. He wrote that

success is not due simply to general [i.e., major] causes. Particular factors can often be decisive—details only known to those who were on the spot. There can also be moral factors which never come to light; while issues can be decided by chances and incidents so minute as to figure in histories simply as anecdotes.14


S.L.A. Marshall describes the same phenomenon in his Men against Fire:

For the infantry soldier the great lesson of minor tactics in our time … is the overpowering effect of relatively small amounts of fire delivered from the right ground at the right hour. The mass was there, somewhere in support, and the mobility was needed to put the vital element in the right place. But the salient characteristic of most of our great victories (and a few of our defeats) was that they pivoted on the fire action of a few men.15


As for nonlinearity’s violation of the additive property, Clausewitz wrote: “But in war more than in any other subject we must begin by looking at the nature of the whole; for here more than elsewhere the part and the whole must always be thought of together.”16

Importantly, nonlinear systems generally are characterized by pervasive feedback, which can be positive or negative. Positive feedback produces reinforcing or multiplying effects whereas negative feedback produces damping or balancing effects. As compared to linear systems, which tend to have minimal feedback mechanisms, war is characterized by a complex, hierarchical system of feedback loops, some designed but many unintended and unrecognized. Whether positive or negative, feedback results are by definition nonlinear.17


Chaos and Complexity

Nonlinearity manifests itself in behavior that is chaotic or complex. Roughly speaking, chaos theory refers to inanimate systems that adhere to (often simple) deterministic rules that result in seemingly random, unpredictable behavior. Chaotic systems are nonlinear and sensitive to initial conditions, meaning that the minutest change in conditions—immeasurable even—leads to a very different outcome. If all the starting conditions could be recreated exactly (which they cannot), the system would behave in exactly the same way, and that behavior could be confidently predicted. There is no free will or “deciding” involved. The ultimate example of a deterministically chaotic system is the weather, about which mathematician-turned-meteorologist Edward Lorenz coined the term “The Butterfly Effect”: a “butterfly stirring the air today in Peking can transform storm systems next month in New York.”18

While some chaotic dynamics exist in war, much more interesting for the purpose of understanding war is complexity theory. Scientifically, complexity deals with the study of systems that exhibit interactively complex, self-organizing adaptation. These systems are known by a variety of names, most commonly complex adaptive systems. A complex adaptive system is any system composed of numerous interacting parts, or agents, each of which must act individually according to its own circumstances, and which by so acting changes the circumstances affecting all the other agents. A colony of ants is a complex adaptive system. A market economy is a complex adaptive system. (A command economy is what you get when you try to “linearize” a market economy.) A soccer team is a complex adaptive system, as is the other team. A combat patrol, changing formation as it moves across the terrain and reacting to the enemy situation, is a complex adaptive system. The world fairly teems with complex adaptive systems: jazz bands (but not orchestras), swarms of bees, wolf packs, societies, communities, flocks of birds.

And of course, military units at any echelon are complex adaptive systems—or ought to be. Calling something a complex adaptive system does not necessarily mean that it adapts well. Some might better be called complex maladaptive systems, but those tend not to survive for long. The complex adaptive systems that have continued to survive and thrive in their environment have learned to adapt effectively. They tend to have built-in redundancies that protect them against single-point failure.

Nobel economist F.A. Hayek called such systems extended orders because they are intrinsically distributed.19 An extended order “constitutes an information-gathering process, able to call up, and to put to use, widely dispersed information that no central planning agency, let alone any individual, could know as a whole, possess or control.”20

Complex systems are driven by the numerous individual “decisions” of their agents. In an excellent description of complexity theory, Clausewitz wrote:

The military machine—the army and everything related to it—is basically very simple and therefore seems easy to manage. But we should bear in mind that none of its components is of one piece: each piece is composed of individuals, every one of whom retains his potential of friction … A battalion is made up of individuals, the least important of whom may chance to delay things or somehow make them go wrong.21

Notice that Clausewitz casts this distributed nature in negative terms, as a source of friction, but it can also be a positive if individuals or small-unit leaders exercise initiative to exploit opportunities.

Complexity is a function of the freedom of action of the individual components of the system: in general, the greater the freedom of action, the greater the complexity. Under the right conditions, even a system with only a small number of parts—even a Zweikampf—can produce complex behavior. The number and variety of components can contribute to complexity but cannot create it. An F/A-18 Super Hornet has a multitude of systems and subsystems, but they have no latitude in how they interact. They interact in only one way—as envisioned by the engineers who designed the aircraft. Such a system is exceedingly complicated, but it is not complex. When performing as designed, the aircraft is precisely and reliably controllable. But when the components cease to interact exactly as designed, it may be time to eject.

Critically, complex adaptive systems exhibit a quality known as emergence. Emergence is a qualitatively different system behavior rising out the interactions of agents in a complex adaptive system. Consider a flock of starlings—countless individual birds each acting and reacting individually according to its own local circumstances, and yet the aggregate acts like a single entity, zigging and zagging and turning back on itself with instantaneous agility—as if it has a single, controlling mind. The flock has a quality all its own. But the starlings have no concept of “flock.” There is no structure to it that is imprinted on their DNA. The behavior of the flock emerges out of the individual birds being birds.

Emergence is a form of spontaneous structure and control. It allows individual agents to form into meaningful higher-order systems. It is a violation of the additive property in which the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. In complex systems, structure and control thus emerge from the bottom; they are not imposed only from the top, which in warfare has implications for command and control.

Healthy complex adaptive systems are said to exist at the “edge of chaos”—the fluctuating balance point between order and chaos. The edge of chaos, according to Waldrop, is “the constantly shifting battle zone between stagnation and anarchy, the one place where a complex system can be spontaneous, adaptive, and alive.”22 If a complex system has too much order, it becomes rigid and nonadaptive; too much chaos and it becomes directionless and incoherent. A healthy complex adaptive system never quite locks into equilibrium but never spins out of control. Complex adaptive systems at the edge have enough structure to sustain themselves and enough fluidity to adapt to a variety of circumstances. It is at the edge of chaos that unpredictability, innovation, and creative emerge.

The emerging nonlinear sciences provided new insights into the nature of war. We submit that chaos and complexity do not merely provide metaphors for war but that war qualifies as deterministically chaotic and dynamically complex. These insights quickly found their way into Marine Corps doctrine. MCDP 1 included discussions of nonlinearity, complexity, and systems, which were missing from the FMFM.  (We believe the discussion of nonlinearity deserved greater treatment.) MCDP 5, Planning, and MCDP 6, Command and Control, contain similar examples. The endnotes of all three manuals reference important works on nonlinear systems.


Why does it matter?

Maneuver warfare theory as it developed in the Marine Corps predated the widespread recognition of the nonlinear, dynamic sciences—although some people, like John Boyd, clearly understood the implications. The nonlinear sciences, however, strongly confirm maneuver warfare theory. They reinforce the point that war and warfare are innately uncertain and unpredictable, regardless of how much information we gather or how much technology we apply to the situation. Chaos and complexity teach us, as Warfighting does, that rather than trying to impose certainty, order, and efficiency, we are ultimately better off learning to operate despite the friction, uncertainty, and disorder that are inherent to warfare.

Complexity especially suggests that centralized command is incompatible with the essentially distributed nature of warfare. It constitutes an attempt to linearize warfare to make it more controllable. In the end, it makes operations less adaptable—and another key lesson of chaos and complexity is that adaptability is absolutely essential. That adaptability is best achieved by empowering subordinate units with as much freedom of action as possible. The dynamic, nonlinear sciences tell us that a system is most adaptable, unpredictable, and creative when it is surfing at the “edge of chaos.” But U.S. operations routinely sacrifice those qualities for the sake of order and control. The property of emergence suggests that adaptive command and control must be bottom-up as well as top-down.

The dynamic, nonlinear sciences suggest that linear planning approaches that attempt artificially to deconstruct a situation into categories—think DIME and PMESII—will often fail to grasp the totality of the situation, and that more holistic approaches, such as systemic operational design (at least as originally envisioned), show more potential.23

Finally, as we mentioned in Maneuverist No. 2, chaos and complexity argue that a key aspect of maneuver warfare is the ability to conceive the enemy (or the situation more broadly) as a system and to find or create and exploit nonlinearities as a way of tearing that system apart.

Fortunately, we have seen signs over the last 25 years that some Marine leaders grasp the significance of a nonlinear view of war and warfare. Gen James Mattis in his approach to operations certainly has shown that he has a nonlinear mindset. He recently stated, “The inherent chaos caused me to leave a lot of detail out of my plans when, through study, I really understood Warfighting and its implications.”24 The same can be said of Marine commanders at various echelons of command, although how widespread that understanding is has been a matter of debate.


Looking Ahead

As we would expect, seventeen years of war have caused Marines to focus on the practice of warfare more than the theory that underlies it. Does this mean that Marines no longer need be cognizant of those theories? No, for theories describe and explain important concepts that influence action. In fact, all professions rely on theories in their practice. Marines must be knowledgeable of maneuver warfare theory as they study and practice the profession of arms.

As the Marine Corps begins to adjust its organizations, weapons systems, and operational approaches to counter new adversaries in the future, Marine leaders should understand the concepts and theory that underlie its current approach. To accomplish this task, they will need to appreciate nonlinear science and the ways it affects war and warfare.



  1. Sun Tzu, The Art of War, trans. By S.B. Griffith (London, UK: Oxford University Press, 1963).
  2. Ibid.
  3. Carl von Clausewitz, On War, trans. and ed. by Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984),.
  4. Boyd once told a future Marine general he could never become a great commander if he did not understand the Second Law.
  5. Archives Branch, Marine Corps History Division, Marine Corps University, Quantico, Virginia. See as an example Boyd’s heavily annotated copy of James Gleick’s, Chaos: Making a New Science (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1987).
  6. Center for Naval Analyses, Vision-21 Source Book, Volume I: The Process, (Alexandria, VA: Center for Naval Analyses, March 1996).
  7. See; M. Mitchell Waldrop, Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1992); and Roger Beaumont, War, Chaos, and History (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1994).
  8. M. Mitchell Waldrop, Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1992).
  9. Part II of this study, Andrew Ilachinski’s An Assessment of the Applicability of Nonlinear Dynamics and Complex Systems Theory to the Study of Land Warfare, (Alexandria VA: Center for Naval Analyses, 1996), was of the greatest interest to many Marines.
  10. See for more information on the Santa Fe Institute established in 1984. See also for information on the New England Complex Systems Institute established in 1996. Some have called it the “The Santa Fe Institute of the East Coast.”
  11. We draw an important distinction between systemic and systematic. “Systemic” refers to a whole consisting of related parts. “Systematic” refers to something that is thorough, deliberate, methodical, and according to a plan.
  12. See Alan D. Beyerchen’s excellent discussion in “Clausewitz, Nonlinearity, and the Unpredictability of War.” International Security. 17:3. Winter, 1992.
  13. See
  14. On War.
  15. S.L.A. Marshall, Men against Fire: The Problem of Battle Command in Future War (Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1978).
  16. On War.
  17. John F. Schmitt, “Command and (Out of) Control: The Military Implications of Complexity Theory,” Complexity, Global Politics, and National Security, ed. by David S. Alberts and Thomas J. Czerwinski (Washington, DC: National Defense University, 1997).
  18. Quoted in James Gleick, Chaos: Making a New Science (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1987).
  19. F.A. Hayek, The Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism, ed. by W.W. Bartley III (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1988).
  20. Ibid.
  21. On War.
  22. Complexity.
  23. Diplomatic-Informational-Military-Economic and Political-Military-Economic-Social-Infrastructure-Information, abbreviations for deconstructing friendly and enemy systems respectively.
  24. Private conversation with author on 24 August 2020.