September 29, 2006

The U.S. Military, Entropy, and Thermodynamics

The U.S. Military, Entropy, and Thermodynamics

I often find myself struggling to explain to friends and acquaintances who aren't familiar with the U.S. military or the study thereof what, precisely, I mean when I tell them that the U.S. military is no good at creating order. When I say something like "The U.S. military is not intended for, nor any good at, imposing peace or order," I tend to get a confused and/or disbelieving stare. This is not, I have found, due to any fundamental lack of understanding, just (from my experience) an inability on my part to explain what I'm saying clearly enough. I continually try to learn to express myself with more clarity. This is a tiny step in that process, nothing more.

The U.S. Military is, as an organization, extremely proficient at the projection and channeling of situational entropy. By this I mean that U.S. forces have, through historical pressure and tradition, become very good at disrupting opposing positively-controlled forces, plans and structures. That is, in fact, their raison d'être. For the purposes of this argument, I'll start with World War Two.

They weren't the best at it, there; the Wermacht was. However, the U.S. military did one thing very well, something that even the German General Staff was forced to admit: it learned. It became adept at taking admittedly inferior quality equipment but eventually superior numbers and utilizing them to disrupt German plans. Finally, it learned to grind away at German situational planning and operations until (coupled with the massive drain on Germany made possible by Soviet resistance and incursion) the German machine broke.

The entire prosecution of that war was an attempt to roll back - to break up - an opposing set of positive-control forces and plans, the German invasion of Europe and the Japanese expansion into the Pacific. The U.S. military sought not to impose a situation, but to disrupt another imposed situation.

The Korean war - same situation. The U.S. and U.N. forces were fighting to reverse a positive-controlled invasion of South Korea. Major reversals occured (for reasons political and military) when the U.S. led forces traversed north of the original start line and began to impose their own order over the original situation, triggering Chinese intervention.

Vietnam saw the U.S. forces mostly victorious when fighting to defeat an attempt to topple a sitting government through irregular forces, albeit not without major confusion and collateral damage. The Viet Cong were for the most part defeated before the large-scale intervention of the NVA (this is a gross oversimplification and is not meant to base academic arguments on). Once the south Vietnamese government collapsed, however, the U.S. found itself in a position of attempting to impose structure and order on chaos - trying not to defeat a postive-controlled incursion anymore, but rather to impose a preferred structure on what had devolved into an anarchic or hostile area. At that point, the fight became untenable. Although local operations of the NVA could be defeated and disrupted, there was little point if the ground that was being defended could not be called 'ours' in the first place.

During the first Gulf War, the U.S. and allied forces were seeking to reverse a military occupation of Kuwait - a very limited and defined goal - by disrupting and/or destroying a classically organized positive-control organization. The Iraqi Army, once smashed, retreated from Kuwait and the Kuwaiti regime was restored with little apparent local objection - the U.S. military was not called upon to impose structure once the invaders were ousted.

Hence, I tend to think of the U.S. Military as 'entropy channelers.' These forces are at their best when utilized to create and inject disorder and destruction into an opposition's favored orderly structure, be it a military command structure or a sequence of events or even a government or social order. Telling the U.S. military to smash a particular target is a high-probability-of-success mission.

The problems come when telling the U.S. Military to 'keep order.' That's not what they do. I think (and this is purely a guess) that the confusion may arise from the fact that the military is seen by those not experienced with it as a highly ordered organization, so of course it should be able to produce order. That is incorrect. The military is artificially highly ordered internally for a particular reason, namely, that its job is to operate in environments of extreme disorder that, in fact, it itself tends to be tasked with creating. It maintains these 'pools of order' not by creating order - to stretch a mangled metaphor, that would violate the laws of thermodynamics - but by migrating the disorder to the environment outside the military organization itself - usually to the region immediately in front of its guns. This is why militaries are such difficult neighbors even in peacetime - ask the Okinawans if you don't believe me. Disorder can't be magically destroyed. It can be suppressed for a time, perhaps - but only at the cost of having it manifest elsewhere or at another time, with a 'penalty' increase in intensity or duration.

I think of it like the problem of refrigeration. Refrigerators (or air conditioners, if you prefer) don't make cold. They simply pump heat to another place - and in so doing, they generate more heat. The reason this is okay is that there is usually a place where you don't mind if things heat up - such as outside your window.

In the case of the entropy a military generates, as George Bush is so fond of reminding us, that disorder makes us unsafe no matter where it is.

The 'entropy fallout' a military organization generates from keeping its own house in order is bad enough. That's the sort of thing that I mentioned with the Okinawa reference - increased incident levels near military bases as military personnel simply displace suppressed tendencies to a safer area of expression. Note, please: I'm in no way saying military personnel tend to be more violent or less safe than others. In fact, the reverse may well be true. All I'm saying is that given the rigidity with which behavior is controlled in the military environment, it seems only natural that feelings of anger, frustration, or conversely rough expressions of exuberance would manifest in the nearest environment which did not feature rigid top-down control structures.

Now, tell the military to go somewhere hostile and prevent anything from happening in its bailiwick. Say, the Green Zone in Baghdad. Take a place which is a hotbed of tensions and factional splits, which may not initially have anything to do with the U.S. military, and tell that military to 'keep order.'

The only way the U.S. military can keep order is to suppress incidents. If it's smart, it will try to prevent incidents by suppressing the precursor conditions to incidents. It will try to reduce entropy and ensure as much positive control over the area as possible - or it will be forced into this by attacks on civilians or its own personnel. As soon as this happens, the disorder will simply be displaced to the nearest area where control isn't so tight - and that penalty factor will apply.

At that point, the U.S. Military is no longer doing what it is good at - disrupting and channeling entropy for its own use. It has morphed into its own best target - an organization dedicated to suppressing and managing chaos, to whom the successful disruption of routine and order is a defeat. In other words, to whom its own core competency has been designed to defeat, not support.

And that's precisely where we seem to have gotten ourselves, despite warnings from military leaders, civilian analysts, and even politicians that we were headed in this direction. Because we have a tradition of civilian control of the military in this country, the military does what it is ordered - even when it is clear to those in charge of that military that they are being told to do something patently self-defeating and destructive by those with no idea what they're doing.

That's one thing that makes our system both glorious and such damn hard work. It's working, but it's working to eat away its structure again - and like after Vietnam, it's going to be left to those of us who knew better all along to grit our teeth and fix it despite the fact that those who broke it in the first place will be sitting there preening and telling us how much worse things would have been without them there to 'save' us.

Posted by jbz at September 29, 2006 8:23 PM | TrackBack

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