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Vietnam: A Complex Adaptive Perspective


CSC 1997


Subject Area - History







Title: Vietnam: A Complex Adaptive Perspective


Author: Major Stephen G. Nitzschke, United States Marine Corps


Thesis: An examination of the Vietnam war within the conceptual framework of complex adaptive system (cas) theory will offer a different perspective of the war and provide insight into the utility of using cas theory in the study of warfare.


Discussion: The Marine Corps has already begun to change the way it views military conflict. Marine Corps doctrinal publications are moving away from the old Newtonian world view. Instead, they are using new science metaphors to describe the nature of war. Specifically, the new science of complex adaptive systems describes warfare in biological rather than traditional mechanistic terms.

This study includes an examination of the Vietnam war as a clash between complex adaptive systems. The "seven basics of complex adaptive systems," developed by University of Michigan Professor, John H. Holland, provide a foundation for this investigation. His work developing a universal theory for complex adaptive systems has resulted in four cas properties: aggregation, nonlinearity, flows and diversity; and three mechanisms; tags, building blocks and internal models. These seven basics provide a construct for examining America's quantitative and Hanoi's qualitative approach towards the Vietnam war. The U.S. strategy of attrition warfare and the communist strategy of dau tranh help illuminate the utility of cas theory in the study of warfare. Other wartime events provide historical examples that illustrate the fundamental properties of complex adaptive systems.


Conclusions: Every military professional should become familiar with complex adaptive system theory. Using cas theory to examine the Vietnam war will offer a perspective that emphasizes its qualitative aspects, its holistic nature and its nonlinear behavior. Cas theory, when applied to the study of warfare, suggests organizational and doctrinal changes that exploit cas properties to improve a military organization's adaptive capability.





LIST OF FIGURES ....................................................................................ii


LIST OF TABLES ......................................................................................ii


Chapter Page


1. A New Science ................................................................................... 1

The Founding Fathers, 1

The 'Butterfly Effect,' 2

A New Framework, 3

Clausewitz and the Complex Adaptive System, 4

The Objective, 5


2. A New War ........................................................................................6

3. CAS Theory: The Seven Basics ....................................................... 8

General CAS Properties, 9

CAS Mechanisms, 9


4. Aggregation ....................................................................................... 10

Emergent Behaviors in Vietnam, 10

Feedback and 'Outside Interference,' 12

Emergence and the Strategy of Dau Tranh, 13

Building Blocks, Internal Models and Tags, 14


5. Nonlinearity .......................................................................................18

Linearity and the American Approach, 18

A Sensitivity to Initial Conditions: The Communist Approach, 22

Self-Organized Criticality, 23


6. Flows ................................................................................................. 26


Multiplier and Recycle Effects, 28

Multipliers and the Will to Fight, 29

Recycling in Hanoi, 31




Chapter Page


7. Diversity ............................................................................................ 33


A Biological Example, 33

Diversity in War, 34

Coevolution, 37


8. Summary ............................................................................................39


A New Perspective, 39

CAS and the Study of Warfare, 41


Bibliography ................................................................................................. 45




Figure Page


1. Aggregate Agent ............................................................................... 11


2. Holland's Building Block Analogy ....................................................15


3. Linear and Nonlinear Functions ........................................................ 20


4. Flows ................................................................................................. 27


5. Diversity ............................................................................................ 34





Table Page


1. System Modification ..........................................................................38











"Where chaos begins, classical science stops."

James Gleick


The Founding Fathers

In May 1984, the Santa Fe Institute was incorporated, a small private organization devoted to the study of complex systems. In the fall, the institute's president; former Manhattan Project member, George A. Cowan; and Chairman of the Board, Nobel Laureate, Murray Gell-Mann, held a two part inaugural workshop on 'emerging synthesis.' The attendees included well-known scientists and creative thinkers from a wide range of scientific fields. Physicists, economists, biologists, archeologists and neuroscientists presented papers and shared ideas that crossed disciplinary boundaries. They talked about neurobiology, cosmology, and ecosystem theory. They discovered overlapping themes and complex characteristics common among each specialty. Some workshop attendees left with a feeling that 'emerging synthesis' meant an entire restructuring of Newtonian scientific methodologies, into a new kind of science that explored the complex behaviors of the real world.

Since the late seventeenth century, scientists have relied on the conceptual framework provided by Newtonian determinism. This framework suggests that the initial locations and velocities of a set of point masses uniquely determine all their future states.1 Scientists believed that laws governing the individual parts, when added together, would explain the behavior of the whole. The framework is quantitative, relies on precise measurements, isolates system components and uses linear approximations to describe complex behaviors. This construct offers an easy way to predict future events by discretely ignoring a system's irregularities. By the 1960s, researchers began to feel a growing frustration over the limits this framework placed on their understanding of the real world. Newtonian methodologies could not forecast sudden swings in the economy, predict the collapse of an empire or explain the extinction of certain species and cultures throughout history. Yet Scientists believed it was precisely these irregularities that made life interesting.

...The tradition of looking at systems locally -- isolating the mechanisms and then adding them together -- was beginning to break down. For pendulums, for fluids, for electronic circuits, for lasers, knowledge of the fundamental equations no longer seemed to be the right kind of knowledge at all.2


The 'Butterfly Effect'

In 1961, meteorologist Edward Lorenz, developed a series of fundamental equations to predict patterns in the earth's weather system. The equations related twelve variables (pressure, temperature, air density...) in a repetitive computer simulation that modeled atmospheric conditions. Lorenz believed that initial data used to produce a specific weather pattern could be reused to produce the same pattern in subsequent simulations. Predicting weather patterns would then become a matter of matching appropriately defined variables. He discovered, however, that an infinitesimal change in a single value of any initial variable could produce large unpredictable consequences in later simulations. A slight change in wind velocity or minor difference in temperature could produce sunshine one day or rain the next. This "sensitivity to initial conditions" became known as the "butterfly effect," which meant that theoretically, a butterfly flapping its wings in Tokyo could alter the weather in New York.3 Lorenz understood the improbability of determining every variable affecting a specific weather pattern; even if it was possible, measurements could never be accurate enough to predict its behavior.

Other scientists discovered similar situations in other disciplines. Economist Brian Arthur noticed the problem while investigating economic irregularities. His theory on "Increasing Returns" used positive feedback to explain conditions traditional economic theories ignored.4 Why, for instance, does a product continue to generate revenue even after other, more useful, products have been developed to replace it? Biologist Robert May, found similar circumstances while studying how single populations behave over time. He discovered a very simple logistic equation, used to describe population trends, could generate incredibly complex results, and small variations in input could produce either a population explosion or cause its extinction.5 By the 1980s, it became clear to George Cowan that the Newtonian world view, where simple systems behaved in simple ways, and complex behavior implied complex causes was badly blunted.

...More and more over the past decade, he'd [Cowan] begun to sense that the old reductionist approaches were reaching a dead end, and that even some of the hard-core physical scientists were getting fed up with mathematical abstractions that ignored the real complexities of the world.6

A New Framework

Santa Fe researchers needed a new science, one that provided a conceptual framework where simple systems could create complex behaviors and complex systems could generate simple patterns. Instead of focusing on the individual parts, this new science would study their interactions and explore their irregularities as a whole. Common themes discussed during the 'emerging synthesis' workshops led the Santa Fe Institute to the science of complex adaptive systems (cas).

...The founding workshops made it clear that every topic of interest had at its heart a system composed of many, many 'agents.' These agents might be molecules or neurons or species or consumers or even corporations. But whatever their nature, the agents were constantly organizing and reorganizing themselves into larger structures through a clash of mutual accommodation and mutual rivalry.7


University of Michigan professor and long time Santa Fe associate, John Holland, published two books on complex adaptive systems, Adaptation in Natural and Artificial Systems and Hidden Order. Both works investigate the nature of cas and attempt to develop a theoretical basis for their understanding.

In their simplest form, complex adaptive systems are a set of nonlinearly interacting "parts" that can adapt to a changing environment. Moreover, Dr. Andrew Ilachinski says that each part typically exists within a nested hierarchy of parts within parts. The parts may be referred to as components, actors or elements. To indicate active parts without invoking a specific context, Holland borrows the term "agent" from economics. Norman Yoffee describes the complex adaptive systems this way:

...A complex system is a network of interacting parts that exhibits a dynamic, aggregate behavior. This system cannot be reduced to the 'sum of its parts' because the action of some parts is always affecting the action of the other parts so that equilibrium of the entire system is never reached, or maintained for very long. There is no optimum state of the system performance and the system can always surprise, as when a small initial perturbation can result in a large outcome.8


Clausewitz and the Complex Adaptive System

Descriptions like Norman Yoffee's and ideas like George Cowan's "mutual cooperation and mutual rivalry," eventually caught the attention of military scientists and professional military officers. They fostered an intuitive link between cas behavior and the battlefield environment. Alan Beyerchen, in his article, "Clausewitz, Nonlinearity, and the Unpredictability of War," makes the connection between simple interactions and complex behaviors by citing a passage from On War.

...the Army and everything related to it-is basically very simple and therefore seems very easy to manage. But we should bear in mind that none of its components is of one piece: each part is composed of individuals,...the least important of whom may chance to delay things or somehow make them go wrong...This tremendous friction, which cannot, as in mechanics, be reduced to a few points, is everywhere in contact with chance, and brings about effects that cannot be measured.9


Like Edward Lorenz's predictive weather model, May's ecology and Arthur's economy, Carl von Clausewitz had intuitively recognized the limits measurements and Newtonian thinking placed on forecasting war's unpredictable consequences.

...It would be an obvious fallacy to imagine war between civilized peoples as resulting merely from a rational act... ridding itself of passion, so that in the end one would never really need to use the physical impact of the fighting forces -- comparative figures of their strength would be enough. That would be a kind of war by algebra.10


Clausewitz intuitively understood war to possess other cas properties. He expressed war's connectivity to external events by claiming that, "War is never an isolated act," and to its transitory nature by stating, "In war the result is never final." Both statements allude to cas characteristics mentioned by Yoffee, dynamic aggregate behavior and nonequilbrium order. To fully exploit these cas characteristics, an investigation of their existence in actual conflict is in order.

The Objective

This study will examine the Vietnam war within the conceptual framework of new science, the science of complex adaptive systems. Holland's work developing a comprehensive cas theory will provide the framework's outline. The objective is twofold: first, to gain a different perspective on the Vietnam war, and second, to develop a better understanding of complex adaptive systems and their utility in the study of warfare. In his book, Hidden Order, Holland identifies four general cas properties: aggregation, nonlinearity, diversity and flows. He claims three mechanisms facilitate cas interaction: internal models, building blocks and tags. Our investigation into the Vietnam war will use these general properties and their associated mechanisms to achieve both objectives.


In 1960, President John F. Kennedy believed the insurgency in Southeast Asia represented a new kind of war. After Russian President, Nikita Krushchev, delivered a January 1961 speech endorsing, "wars of national liberation," Kennedy announced the formation of a Cabinet-level Special Group; the Interdepartmental Committee on Overseas Internal Defense Policy. Their task involved coordinating a unified counterinsurgency strategy among the government's various institutions. Lieutenant General Victor H. Krulak (USMC) was named to head the Pentagon's newly formed office on Counterinsurgency and Special Activities. This office provided Krulak direct access to the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Secretary of Defense. Kennedy also directed the military services to establish training centers and integrate counterinsurgency strategy into their professional military education programs.11

In January 1962, The Marine Corps Gazette devoted its monthly issue to the subject of guerrilla warfare: President Kennedy, in response, wrote a personal letter to the editor.

"...This is another type of war, new in its intensity, ancient in its origins - war by guerrillas, subversives, insurgents, assassins; war by ambush instead of by combat; by infiltration, instead of aggression, seeking victory by eroding and exhausting the enemy instead of engaging him...It requires in those situations where we must counter it...a whole new kind of strategy, a wholly different kind of force, and therefore a new wholly different kind of military training."12


Many scholars, as well, believed the North Vietnamese communists had created a completely unique form of war. It combined war and politics, violence and non-violence, combatant and non-combatant. William J. Duiker traced its origins to the August revolution and the Indochinese Communist Party's (ICP) strategy during the post World War II period. Duiker argues, "The significance of the August revolution, then, must be found not in the simple fact that the ICP used both political and military struggle, but in the degree to which these factors were carefully interwoven in the fabric of the party's revolutionary strategy... Astute manipulation of the two forms of struggle at the opportune moment was the key to victory."13 It was a holistic strategy Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap would hone to a fine art by 1965, the year American ground combat forces officially entered the war. It entailed more than just irregular troops operating behind enemy lines, bandit warfare, partisan warfare, or revolutionary warfare. It was a strategy Douglas Pike referred to as dau tranh (struggle strategy). In his book, PAVN: People's Army of Vietnam, Pike said, "We are dealing here with a new concept of military strategy, vastly different from earlier concepts that appear to be, or are, superficially similar."14

Harry Summers, in his book, On Strategy, would refer to its "ancient origins" and argue that the Vietnam war was neither new or different. The French and British had fought insurgent-style opponents during their colonial expansion. "Insurrection, and the Mexican border skirmishes were reflected in [the U.S. Army's] Field Service Regulations. The 1939 edition devoted four pages to this subject, including two and one-half pages on combating guerrilla warfare."15 Americans had fought guerrillas in, Nicaragua, Haiti and the Philippines. They watched when the Bolsheviks seized power from the Soviet Czar in 1917, and they provided military aid to Chiang Kai-shek during his fight against Mao Tse-tung. These experiences and publications like the Marine Corps' Small Wars Manual of 1940, could provide clues to a war that ultimately proved much more complex.

An examination of the Vietnam war from a cas perspective will provide new insight. This perspective will suggest that relationships are much more important than individual actors or their individual actions. To develop a greater appreciation for this concept, we must first take a closer look at the complex adaptive system.


Complex adaptive systems are more than a simple sum of their parts. They display a dynamic aggregate behavior that is often nonlinear and unpredictable. This characteristic has made traditional scientific tools like trend analysis, determination of equilibria and sample means inadequate to explain real world phenomena. Traditional techniques generally focus on optimal "end states," where the solution to a given problem relies heavily on the equilibria derived from the laws of conservation. Complex adaptive systems, however, face perpetual novelty and rarely reach equilibrium. Therefore "Improvement" says Holland, "...is usually much more important than optimization."16 M. Mitchell Waldrop wrote the following:

...new opportunities are always being created by the system. And that, in turn, means that it's essentially meaningless to talk about a complex adaptive system being in equilibrium; the system can never get there...the most they can ever do is to change and improve themselves relative to what the other agents are doing.17

These improvements (adaptations) represent the sine qua non of complex adaptive systems. Four general cas properties and three mechanisms embody the adaptive process. Holland refers to them as the "seven basics." They are the product of an agent's adaptive interactions. These properties and their associated mechanisms are defined below in greater detail.18

General CAS Properties

(1) Nonlinearity: All complex adaptive systems involve large numbers of parts undergoing a kaleidoscopic array of simultaneous nonlinear interactions.

(2) Aggregation: The collective interaction between individual agents results in an aggregate behavior not found in any one part. Indeed the aggregate behavior often feeds back to the individual parts, modifying the behavior of the whole.

(3) Flows: Flows represent a process where resources are transmitted from node to node through a connector. This { node, connector, resource} relationship exists in all cas. In the economy, {banks, electronic transfers, money}; in the military {C2 sites, radio nets, information}, describe this relationship.

(4) Diversity: Because the persistence of any agent depends on the context (environment) provided by the other agents, and that context is continuously changing, a wide variety of agents is the result. It is important to note that this diversity is neither accidental or random.


CAS Mechanisms


(5) Tags: Tagging allows agents to form aggregates. Tags are used to manipulate symmetries, allowing agents to ignore certain details while directing our attention to others. The simplest form of tag would be a company logo or the unit patch of a military organization.

(6) Internal Models: Seeking to adapt to changing circumstances, agents develop internal models of their environment. These models allow agents to anticipate the response of their environment. Evaluating the effectiveness and recognizing patterns associated with these models is a key aspect of understanding the adaptive process.

(7) Building Blocks: Building blocks aid in the formation of useful models by providing familiar information from previous experience to confront novel situations. Building blocks provide models with consistency in a perpetually changing environment.

These properties define the general behavior of complex adaptive systems, and the mechanisms facilitate their interaction. Holland says, "...We can see at once that adaptation, whatever its context, involves a progressive modification to some structure or structures."19 In the field of genetics, chromosomes are altered to produce different species; in artificial intelligence, computer programs are changed to simulate cognitive processes. In warfare, military organizations modify strategy to achieve a specified objectives. Altering strategy is the central means for improving battlefield performance. In the next chapter we will use these properties and their associated mechanisms to discuss further details of the Vietnam war and their relationship to particular wartime strategies.


Aggregation collects "things" into groups to form a different whole. In the complex adaptive system, aggregation manifests itself in two forms: first, aggregate interactions between agents at a local level create an emergent complex global behavior; and second, complex systems are simplified by aggregating into categories things that contain similar details. The first sense deals with what cas do and the second describes how they are modeled. A tagging mechanism facilitates the aggregation process.

The Vietnam war was a clash between primarily three agents, the United States military, the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) and the People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN). Their interactions with government institutions, economic organizations and separate military services formed an entirely new complex adaptive system at still another level. It becomes evident that each system consists of its own nested actors. It is the agents' interactions, rather than the individual parts, that define cas behavior. The result is a hierarchical structure common to all complex adaptive systems. We will develop this notion further with an investigation of emergent behaviors.

Emergent Behaviors in Vietnam

To describe the emergent quality associated with complex adaptive systems Holland cites the ant colony as an appropriate example.

...The individual ant has a highly stereotyped behavior, and it almost always dies when circumstances do not fit the stereotype. On the other hand, the ant aggregate-the ant nest-is highly adaptive, surviving over long periods in the face of a wide range of hazards.20

Here, local interactions among less complex agents -- the individual ants -- create a complex global behavior on a larger scale, superior survivability. This emergent quality does not exist in the individual agent, only their interactions can produce this behavior. Aggregates formed in this fashion can -- in turn -- act as agents at a higher level (meta-agent). Thus, the ant nest acts as a meta-agent in a system above the level of the individual ant. The ant colony can, of course, aggregate to yield agents at still higher levels (meta-meta-agents). Military organizations posses a similar hierarchical structure; individuals form platoons, platoons form companies and companies form battalions.

The People's Liberation Armed Forces (PLAF) was an aggregate composed of local guerrilla forces and political cadres opposed to the Diem regime-youth, peasant, and worker's organizations, and disaffected religious elements such as the Cao Dai and Hoa

Hoa. The PLAF aggregate, when viewed within the conceptual framework of cas theory, produced an emergent quality defined by the Southern insurgency. The PLAF -- in turn -- interacted with other aggregates to form an agent at a higher level, the PAVN (see Figure 1). Historians have debated the PAVN's emergent behavior for years; some believe it was conventional war, some say unconventional war; still others believe it was a combination of both conventional and unconventional wars. Cas theory will help military professionals identify emergent behaviors that pose a threat or offer an advantage to their organization. Modifying strategies to cope with emergent behaviors requires a clear understanding of the level, within the cas hierarchy, an agent desires to interact. Complicating this process is a lack of clearly defined boundaries caused by feedback and outside interference.

Feedback and 'Outside Interference'

The complex adaptive system is not a closed system. Global behaviors often feed back on local interactions, and outside agents often contribute to system behavior. Andrew Ilachinski links cas' collectivist dynamics to land combat by saying, "There is a continual feedback between the behavior of (low level) combatants and the (high level) C2 hierarchy."21 This feedback tends to obscure boundaries between hierarchical levels. For example, decisions in Washington often influenced interactions at the squadron level. Operation Rolling Thunder was closely controlled by the White House. President Johnson personally selected targets for American warplanes.22 During the battle of Khe Sanh, Johnson had a model of the besieged airfield placed in the Situation Room so that Walt Rostow, his National Security Advisor, could describe the course of the battle to him. Johnson had Earle Wheeler produce a memorandum from the Joint Chiefs explaining how Khe Sanh could be defended successfully.23 This feedback blurs boundaries between tactical, operational and strategic levels of war.

Additionally, complex adaptive systems cannot be isolated. Agents from outside the system can influence its interactions. This makes placing limits (geographic, economic, political...) on any cas a dangerous proposition. Cas theory would immediately raise questions about a U. S. Policy of containment, where an attempt to enforce boundaries becomes the national objective. On a strategic level China, the Soviet Union, and Great Britain were among the many "outside" agents to influence interactions "inside" the system. Hanoi, on the other hand, pressed a strategy that ignored boundaries.

Emergence and the Strategy of Dau Tranh

The communist strategy of dau tranh deliberately took advantage of emergent behaviors that crossed boundaries between political and military conflict, conventional and unconventional warfare. "The Vietnamese communists erased entirely the line between military and civilian by ruling out the notion of noncombatant."24

Cas theory would describe dau tranh as an emergent quality resulting from the interactions of both political and military agents. Ho Chi Minh fostered this quality at every level of war. Dau tranh, literally translated means "struggle," but to the Vietnamese it is a highly emotional term. "The word struggle in English connotes physical labor..., floundering about; mired; whereas dau tranh in Vietnamese is commanding, awesome, energetic."25 It is composed of two elements: dau tranh vu trang (armed struggle) and dau tranh chinh tri (political struggle). Dau tranh vu tranh uses a combination of regular and unconventional forces to execute the violence program, while dau tranh chinh tri employs numerous dich van, binh van, and dan van cadres to implement activities involving motivation, social organization, communication of ideas, and mobilization of manpower and support. Like the ant colony, agents within Hanoi's complex adaptive system interacted to form an emergent quality greater than its parts. Collectively they produced a behavior not found in any one agent.

...Neither [armed or political struggle] can be successful alone, only when combined -- the marriage of violence to politics -- can victory be achieved... [Together] they represent the complete strategy. All actions taken in war -- military attack or guerrilla ambush, propaganda broadcast or official statement at the conference table, every mission abroad, every decision taken from the party cell in the village to the politburo in Hanoi -- all come within the scope and framework of the two dau tranhs. There is nothing else.26


Thus, aggregation produces an emergent behavior that is influenced by feedback and outside agents. Both feedback and outside interference make it difficult to establish boundaries for cas. Understanding how cas are modeled will help us deal with the boundary problem and offer insight into how cas model their environment, recognize patterns and anticipate consequences.

Building Blocks, Internal Models and Tags

Aggregation is one of the chief techniques used to construct internal models, and these models are used to predict the consequences of a selected strategy. Every military conflict represents a novel situation, World War I was different from World War II and Vietnam was different from Korea. Yet, humans posses a unique ability to decompose unfamiliar scenes into familiar parts. These "parts" Holland identifies as building blocks. Building blocks aggregate things into categories -- bridges, mountains, rivers. The chosen categories are reusable. They can either break down a unique situation into familiar parts or be recombined to generate new scenes never before encountered.

Tags facilitate aggregation by manipulating symmetries, collecting information relevant to a given question and ignoring other details that are less helpful. For example, if the question is whether the North Vietnamese were fighting a conventional or unconventional war, the military professional would combine building blocks using tags that identify information regarding unit size, weapons and tactics. An internal model of the environment is formed by combining the appropriate building blocks (see Figure 2). Combining building blocks that contained categories such as squad, AK-47 and ambush, might create a model suggesting the enemy is fighting a guerrilla war. Other combinations (company, artillery, frontal assault) might indicate something different. Because the environment is always changing, building blocks provide an element of consistency and a degree of plausibility when models are used to anticipate consequences. Reusing and recombining familiar building blocks allow cas to model new situations using old information. In this way, cas develop strategies to deal with novel situations.

...Because the models of interest here are interior to the agent, the agent must select patterns in the torrent of input it receives and then must convert those patterns into changes in its internal structure. Finally, the changes in structure, the model, must enable the agent to anticipate the consequences that follow when that pattern (or one like it) is again encountered.27

Because building blocks take familiar information to model novel situations, experience plays a significant role in constructing useful models. The 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry had never fought in landing zone X-Ray against the 320th PAVN Regiment until 14 November 1965. On that day in the Ia Drang Valley, their commander, LtCol. Harold G. Moore, would have combined building blocks that contained information about the enemy, fire support, defensive perimeters, and aerial resupply. His actions could then be based on an internal model created from the aggregated building blocks. The specific combination, among the many possible, created a pattern that enabled LtCol. Moore to successfully anticipated a reasonable course of action.

Building blocks provide a partial explanation for the reason generals are often accused of preparing to fight the last war. Their internal model of present circumstances often incorporates familiar building blocks derived from previous situations. Unfortunately building blocks may construct only a partial model of the environment. Peter Macdonald illustrates the problem in his book, Giap, The Victor in Vietnam.

...The Vietnam war was a new kind of war...This situation was counterinsurgency on a big scale, the like of which had never before been encountered by the U.S. Army...Gaip's campaigns were not studied at Fort Leavenworth or at the War College. No staff studies of them were commissioned in the U.S. Army Headquarters in Saigon, nor were the enemy commanders studied.28


Westmoreland could take building blocks from his West Point education. He attended the Army's service schools and commanded an artillery battalion in World War II, a combat brigade in Korea, and the Army's XVIII Airborne Corps. These building blocks would contain information about mass, firepower and surprise among others. Building blocks that aggregated information about maneuver could be taken from his experience commanding the Army's 101st Airborne Division, where he first pioneered the use of massed helicopters. Arranging building blocks to form useful models or recognizing patterns to complete the model is a necessary skill for any adaptive agent. New strategies are derived by recombining and reusing old building blocks. Westmoreland's reluctance to recombine building blocks to create new models (hence new strategies) was outline by Moore in his book, We Were Soldiers Once and Young.

...In Saigon, the American commander in Vietnam, General William C. Westmoreland, and his principle deputy, General William Depuy, looked at the statistics of the thirty-four-day Ia Drang campaign- 3,561 North Vietnamese estimated killed versus 305 American dead- and they saw a kill ratio of twelve North Vietnamese to one American. What that said to two officers who had learned their trade in the meat-grinder campaigns in World War II was that they could bleed the enemy to death over the long haul, with a strategy of attrition.29


In the fall of 1967, Westmoreland looked at the escalating combat along the DMZ and said, "We'll just go on bleeding them until Hanoi wakes up to the fact that they have bled their country to the point of national disaster for generations."30

Ho Chi Minh possessed his own library of building blocks. His experiences studying Maxist-Leninist doctrine in the Soviet Union would have allowed him to derive building blocks concerning revolutionary warfare and the principle of self-reliance. Mao Tse-tung could provide building blocks that answered questions concerning "People's War," and three stage guerrilla war. The "general uprising" sparked by a "general offensive" came directly from Mao and the Indochinese Communist Party's own experience during the August revolution in 1945. Hanoi's most recent military experience against the French could provide building blocks that related relevant information about national resolve and national liberation. Giap, unlike Westmoreland, seemed more willing to alter their combination to produce different models.

...Our enemy, the form of his war of aggression, the social, political, economic and cultural conditions, the national characteristics, and the space and time factors of our fight have inherent characteristics which are different from those other countries. These practical conditions require us to be constantly creative in learning from our experiences acquired by the fraternal countries in fighting the aggressors. The practical conditions of our fight also constantly change and, therefore, do not permit us to mechanically utilize our own combat experience which is no longer practical.31


The rate at which military organizations, as complex adaptive systems, can aggregate building blocks into useful models and recognize patterns plays a significant role in developing new strategies to confront novel situations. Exploiting emergent behavior from aggregate interactions is a key benefit derived from the study of complex adaptive systems. In the next chapter we will concentrate on nonlinear effects as our examination turns towards a second cas property.


"So when a falling grain hits there's no telling what might happen. Maybe nothing. Maybe just a tiny shift in a few grains. Or maybe, if one tiny collision leads to another in just the right chain reaction, a catastrophic landslide will take off the whole face of the sandpile."


M. Mitchell Waldrop


Linearity and the American Approach

Alan Beyerchen states in his writings that, "Nonlinearity refers to something that is not linear."32 Beyond the obvious conclusions this statement may provoke, it also implies a certain prior knowledge of all things "linear." It is appropriate here to dwell for a moment on the subject of linearity for two reasons: first, linearity is a highly desirable system characteristic and second, linearity shaped much of America's perceptions about the Vietnam war. A linear system must be proportional, indicating that changes in system output are proportional to changes in system input; and additive, meaning the sum of the parts does indeed equal the whole. Holland describes the importance of these two conditions by saying the following:

...It is little known outside the world of mathematics that most of our mathematical tools, from simple arithmetic through differential calculus to algebraic topology, rely on the assumption of linearity...Polls, or projected trends, or industrial statistics, all of which employ summation, are only useful if they describe linear properties of the underlying systems.33


A system that possesses both proportionality and additivity may be described as linear. A graphical presentation of these qualities is presented in Figure 3. Linearity is desirable because it provides the analyst with a simple method for predicting system behaviors. The relationship between the gas peddle in an automobile and the speed of a car is a simple example of a linear relationship. Pressing the gas peddle a distance X will make the automobile travel at given speed Y. The proportion may change depending on road conditions and engine gearing, but the underlying cause and effect relationship make it easy for a driver to predict a specific response from the car. Holland says, "It is so much easier to use mathematics when systems have linear properties that we often expend considerable effort to justify an assumption of linearity."34

U.S. Policy towards North Vietnam reflected a desire for mathematical analysis based on linear assumptions. Attrition warfare, proportional response and containment theory all represent concepts derived from a Newtonian world view. Like the gas peddle in a Ford Mustang, Washington believed, in 1964, that it could apply just the right amount of pressure to elicit just the right response.

...The plan, in Johnson's word's, was for military pressures against North Vietnam "progressively mounting in scope and intensity for the purpose of convincing the leaders of the DRV [Democratic Republic of Vietnam] that it is to their interest to cease to aid the Viet Cong"...this "slow squeeze" strategy contemplated action strong enough to end the existing deteriorating situation, but not so violent as to knit the North Vietnamese people more closely together, provoke Chinese Communist intervention, arouse world opinion, or preclude opportunities for an eventual negotiated settlement.35

This strategy implied that somewhere along a linear line between moral support for the ARVN and nuclear war with the Chinese, measurable force variables could be found that would prevent Hanoi from supporting the Southern insurgency, without provoking Chinese involvement. President Johnson relied on his Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamera, to find these variables.

McNamera was well versed in the benefits linear assumptions offered to the process of statistical analysis. He was a graduate of the Harvard School of Business Administration, the architect of a statistical control system for the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II, and the president of the Ford Motor Company before becoming Secretary of Defense in December 1960. He measured variables with the fever of an industry executive. Dollars spent and bomb tonnage dropped became frequent additions to reports detailing the war's progress. The truck kill and infiltration rates measured the effectiveness of the Rolling Thunder bombing campaign. The kill ratio, the number of Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troops killed divided by the number of U.S. plus South Vietnamese troops killed, was a figure the U.S. Department of Defense reportedly used as an indicator of relative success. Defection rates and the infamous "body count" were scrupulously tracked by Westmoreland's staff. Statistics and their underlying linear assumptions allowed McNamera to claim in 1962 that, "...Every quantitative measurement shows we're winning the war."36 In October 1963, the New York Times published a front page article detailing his assessment of the Vietnamese situation after a 10-day tour of Southeast Asia. The headline read: "VIETNAM VICTORY BY THE END OF '65 ENVISAGED BY U.S."37 Such predictions ignored the central cas property Edward Lorenz discovered in 1961, nonlinearity. War is inherently nonlinear.

...Nonlinear systems are those that disobey proportionality or additivity. They may exhibit erratic behavior through disproportionately large or disproportionately small outputs, or they may involve "synergistic" interactions in which the whole is not equal to the sum of its parts.38


War involves complex adaptive systems composed of human individuals, and human behavior is often not linear. "War is a social event. Its logic is not the logic of art, nor that of science or engineering, but rather the logic of social transactions."39 A graphical depiction of a system's nonlinear behavior is also shown in Figure 3. Nonlinearity can manifest itself in two forms: in Lornez's "sensitivity to initial conditions," and in the concept of self-organized criticality. Both presented a particular problem for policy makers and military officers attempting to predict battlefield events.

A Sensitivity to Initial Conditions: The Communist Approach

Sensitivity to initial conditions means that small inputs can yield large unpredictable consequences. On the battlefield, General Giap intuitively recognized the advantages he could obtain against superior forces by relying on this characteristic cas feature.

...if we choose the right direction and target, our forces will see their strength increase several fold. Even a small force will create a big strength...the art of choosing the right direction and target of attack is also the art of creating new forces and new strength...if we strike at the right time even a small force can generate a big strength...it can be said that the favorable moment is in itself force and strength.40


Although U.S. forces conducted numerous tactical offensive operations against PAVN and PLAF units, the communists were usually successful in controlling the time, place and method of each encounter. Two separate studies of representative engagements from 1965 through 1966, from platoon size to multi-battalion showed that, "the Viet Cong and the NVA initiated the action in about 85 percent of the clashes, either by attacking the American unit or by choosing to stand and fight from fortified positions. The enemy also had an element of surprise in his favor nearly 85 percent of the time."41 During Operation Junction City in 1967 the 1st and 25th Infantry Divisions fought five major engagements in War Zone C. All but one of these battles were initiated by regiments of the 9th Viet Cong Division.42 The psychological advantage communist forces gained by maintaining the initiative presented the same measurement dilemma faced by Lorenz in his weather model. Its qualitative nature made accurate measurements impossible, and even small changes could generate significant results.

Another method Giap used to take advantage of cas' sensitivity to initial conditions was to exploit the relationship between General Westmoreland's separate tasks. There were primarily three: attack guerrilla forces operating in the rural areas of South Vietnam, defend logistic supply bases and other military installations, and pacify the local population. By attacking any one of these areas, General Giap could affect the other two. Viet Cong forces ambushed American and South Vietnamese units in the rural country while large-scale attacks by main force units were generally reserved for the static and more vulnerable logistic supply bases and airfields. Khe Sanh and the airfields at Da Nang and Tan Sot Nhut became favorite PAVN targets. Whenever troops were moved to protect larger installations, Westmoreland's efforts against guerrilla forces suffered, and the pacification campaign became an ancillary objective to more pressing military concerns. General Westmoreland said that the Viet Cong, "Posed in some ways a more difficult problem for me than the regular troops from the North because by harassing U.S. and government installations they could tie down more and more troops on defense."43 Conversely, if General Westmoreland devoted greater resources to defending military installations and urban areas, Hanoi could focus their efforts on the rural hamlets and villages. Small units spread over a wide area forced the U.S. and ARVN to defend everywhere and mass nowhere. Exploiting this synergistic interaction enabled Giap to affect a wide variety of agents while devoting resources to a single objective.

Self-Organized Criticality

A second nonlinear cas feature, closely related to the first, has to do with the idea of self-organized criticality. This concept was first discovered in 1986 by the Danish-born physicist Per Bak. He used a sand pile metaphor to describe a system state he termed the critical threshold. Waldrop asks his readers to imagine a pile of sand on a tabletop, with a steady drizzle of new sand grains raining down from above. Eventually, the pile reaches a state where the addition of a single grain will cause the entire pile to reorder itself into another condition of transient stability. This state is recognized as the critical threshold.

Per Bak realized that the frequency of these reorderings was closely related to their magnitude. Like an avalanche's power-law behavior the average frequency of a given size avalanche is inversely proportional to some power of its size.44 In other words, big avalanches are rare and small ones are frequent. Steven R. Mann applies the analogy to social systems in this manner.

...Criticality describes a dynamical process, precariously stable, which is even now building toward the next set of catastrophic reorderings... Self-organized criticality, in contrast, leads us to see a tremendous multiplicity of actors in a critical state that will inevitably progress to one of transient stability after a catastrophic reordering.45


The collapse of the Soviet Union is often cited as an example of a catastrophic reordering, the Indochinese Communist Party's August revolution represents yet another.

The clash between agents during the Vietnam war produced many states of self-organized criticality. Smaller events occurred more frequently than the larger, more disruptive reorderings. For example in 1963, a Buddhist monk named Quang Duc publicly immolated himself in Hue City. The incident was captured on film by reporters and galvanized opposition to the Diem regime. Five months later, dissident generals staged a military coup, murdered Diem, and installed a Buddhist, former Vice-president Nguyen Ngoc Tho, as premier.

Another reordering occurred in 1964, shortly after an overeager sonar operator aboard the U.S.S. Maddox reported 22 torpedo sightings launched from communist patrol boats. Although the Maddox fired for nearly four hours, the Captain later admitted there had been, "no actual visual sightings," and no evidence was ever produced to back up the original claim that "two or perhaps three patrol boats," were sunk.46 As a result of the incident, the United States Congress passed the Tonkin Gulf Resolution. It provided the entire basis for direct U.S. military intervention in Indochina.

The 1968 Tet Offensive represents a familiar catastrophic reordering. Prior to Tet-68, the war carried a distinctive revolutionary quality, an emergent behavior created by the Southern insurgents. This quality diminished in January when the Viet Cong's most dedicated and experienced cadres left the jungles and rural villages to attack the cities during the new year holiday celebration. One-half or nearly 40,000 out of the 84,000 troops committed to the offensive were killed.47 Harry Summers believes, "The Viet Cong were effectively destroyed by the Tet Offensive of 1968...thereafter the Viet Cong were cadred and controlled by North Vietnamese regulars."48

The loss resulted in a nonlinear reordering of the system. The Viet Cong lost a generation of its best fighters. To fill the gap, Hanoi sent an increasing number of North Vietnamese to the South. The war became increasingly conventional, waged by regular force units from the North, and less of an insurgency, fought by revolutionaries in the South. As for the American's, President Johnson's approval rating for handling of the war reached an all time low of 26 percent, and on March 31, 1968, he announced that he would not run for reelection. General Westmoreland's war of attrition was declared a failure and his request to receive an additional 206,000 troops was rejected by Washington. The United States began to look towards de-escalation while the Saigon regime nearly doubled its military strength, from 670,000 to 1.1 million.

Using Per Bak's sand pile metaphor, Tet-68 represented the final grain of sand, dropped on a system poised at a critical threshold. The period of transitory stability that followed ended with the 1972 Easter Offensive. A final reordering came in the 1975 general offensive that toppled the South Vietnamese government and ended the war.

Cas theory offers a construct that emphasizes qualitative relationships, and de-emphasizes quantitative assessments. Nonlinear phenomenon is derived from a sensitivity to initial conditions, and self-organized criticality. Both characteristics contribute to the nonlinear property of cas. While the United States pressed a linear approach to the war, General Giap relied on its nonlinear aspects. He attempted to exploit relationships, maintain the initiative, and make small advantages produce large effects. A state of self-organized criticality occurred in varying degrees throughout the war. Small events occurred frequently, while more catastrophic events, like Tet-68, occurred less frequently. Cas theory may one day offer a means of predicting conditions associated with critical thresholds, for now the matter remains a product of intuition. The general cas property of flows enhances the nonlinear nature of complex adaptive systems. We will continue our investigation of the Vietnam war with an examination of the third cas property in the next chapter.


Holland says that, "The idea of flows extends well beyond the movement of fluids."49 We can describe flows in terms of resources that move across a network of nodes and connectors. "In general terms, the nodes are processors -- agents -- and the connectors designate the possible interactions."50 In the economy, factories represent nodes, and the connectors transport routes for the flow of goods between the factories. Every complex adaptive system possesses this node-connector-resource relationship (see Figure 4). In war the military organization acts as a node, the connectors roads, radio frequencies or telephone lines for the flow of intelligence, orders or perhaps motivation. Vu Ky Lan, a political commissar for a PAVN unit deployed on the Ban Hat River in 1969, describes connections used to pass resources in preparation for an attack against American and South Vietnamese forces. In this example the resource is information (orders) and the nodes are higher and adjacent headquarters.

...Preparation for the attack went on, shrouded in secrecy to the point of appearing ludicrous. All orders relating to the attack were given by word of mouth. Sometimes messengers were disguised as ploughmen, manure carriers, or woodcutters. Telephone lines were laid out from our headquarters to Vinh Thuy battlefront. Telephone calls were limited, and radio communication was forbidden.51


Holland again states,

...In cas flows through these networks vary over time; moreover, nodes and connections can appear and disappear as the agents adapt or fail to adapt. Thus, neither the flows nor the networks are fixed in time. They are patterns that reflect changing adaptations as time elapses and experience accumulates.52


Here it is important to reintroduce the third cas mechanism-tags. Complex adaptive systems use tags to facilitate flows. Tags, in their simplest form, identify relevant features within a node that would indicate the possibility of a useful connection.

...Tags almost always define the network by delimiting the critical interactions, the major connections. Tags acquire this role because the adaptive processes that modify cas select for tags that mediate useful interactions and against tags that cause malfunctions. That is, agents with useful tags spread, while agents with malfunctioning tags cease to exist.53


Again some tags are obvious. The patch identifying a specific military unit is a typical example. The 25th Infantry wore distinct insignia that identified it as the Tropic Lightning Division. Tags identify particular capabilities or features. Commanders group special forces, airborne units, tank battalions and aviation elements into a task force based on the capabilities identified by their individual tags. In this way, tags facilitate the flow of resources to aggregates identified by a given tag.

Multiplier and Recycle Effects

Flows generate two common effects, the multiplier effect and the recycle effect. The multiplier effect comes from a distribution of resources to many agents, and the recycling effect allows agents to use resources more than once.54 Holland takes an example from economics to explain the first effect. An individual pays a contractor to build a house, the contractor pays the tradesman, and the tradesman pays his employees. Each individual in turn buys food and other commodities. Thus, the original payment given to the contractor is distributed throughout a network of agents. Each agent benefits and the aggregate becomes stronger.

The second effect can be seen simply by understanding that a fraction of an end product can be reused to increase production capacity. Suppose a publishing company receives one unit of paper to produce 100 books. Every book is purchased, but twenty-five people decide they didn't like the story and placed their copy in the recycle bin. If we assume those twenty-five books translated into .25 units of paper, during the next production cycle the publishing company would have the original one unit from its supplier plus an additional .25 units from the recycling process. The publishing company could then produce 125 new books without increasing the original supply! Economics provides an easy advantage when discussing multiplier and recycling effects because the nature of the resource is easily quantifiable. Commodities are easily divided and offer an opportunity to measure precise returns. In war, quantitative resources are only a portion of the total used.

Multipliers and the Will to Fight

The resources most important to the North Vietnamese were qualitative. These resources were perseverance, national resolve, and troop morale. They could be demonstrated on the battlefield, but as we have already mentioned, precise measurements were difficult if not impossible to make. In December 1944, the Vietnamese People's Army was founded by General Giap. He described the event this way:

...We forgot that we were only 34 human beings equipped with rudimentary weapons. We imagined ourselves to be an army of steel, not to be defeated by any force, ready to destroy the enemy. Confidence, eagerness prevailed.55


In 1969, shortly after Clark Clifford replaced Robert McNamara as Secretary of Defense, Clifford asked high ranking military officials this question:

...Does anyone see any diminution in the will of the enemy after four years of our having been there, after enormous casualties and after massive destruction from our bombing?56


The answer, proclaims Asprey, was apparently no. How did the communists maintain this level of perseverance for over a quarter century and through two major wars against superior forces? Cas theory may provide a clue.

Hanoi's resource of will benefited from the multiplier effect. This resource flowed through connections formed within the complex network of the Viet Cong infrastructure (VCI). This network is described by Peter Macdonald.

...Groups of cells formed People's Liberation Committees, which represented every social, ethnic, religious and economic group and existed at village, district, provincial, interprovincial, and regional--that is, South Vietnam--level. Within the committees three types of mass organizations existed--popular, special-interest, and guerrilla: all of them containing dedicated cadres, all of them subject to constant agit-prop and psychological warfare directed from above.57


Hanoi used the Viet Cong infrastructure to create a multiplier effect. It contained the connections necessary for the flow of orders, information and propaganda. The will to fight emanated from powerful personalities like Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nuygen Giap, but it spread within the myriad interactions of the local population. The dan van program is a typical example of how national resolve was multiplied throughout the country.

The dan van program, when translated, means action among the people. Its objectives were threefold: organizational, enmeshing the individual in the system; recruitment, enlisting the populace into civilian organizations and the PLAF; and financial, raising funds through taxes and war bonds. The dan van cadre also provided administrative and motivational activities. It created a safe haven where soldiers could restore their "physical and psychic energies,"

...Permeating this program was intense communicational work, managed by special agit-prop cadres and employing most of the standard communist agitation and propaganda devices; anniversary observances, village mass meetings, newspaper-reading cell meetings and education...the dan van program projected the image of the liberated area as a peaceful, tranquil place with an advanced egalitarian social order where not only hostility but even animosity had vanished.58


Qualitative resources that flowed within the Viet Cong infrastructure were a result of Ho Chi Minh's intense organizational efforts. He took great care to arrange connections that contributed to an agent's survival. In his book, PAVN: People's Army of Vietnam, Pike speaks of creating effective connections to promote an agents survival while attempting to destroy other connections that contribute to the survival of an opposing agent.

...Organization is the great god of dau tranh strategy and counts for more than ideology or military tactics. The basic instrument of a united front, an organization of organizations, casting a vast web over the people, enmeshing them... Dau tranh strategy engenders a war of competing systems of organization. In the end victory goes to the system that gets best organized, stays best organized, and can most successfully disorganize the other.59


As M. Mitchell Waldrop says, "...the power really does lie in the connections."60 The recycle effect also promotes cas' survivability.

Recycling in Hanoi

The largest contributor to the recycle effect in Hanoi's complex adaptive system was the United States. Hanoi's principle supplier of military hardware was the Soviet Union and to a lesser extent China. Soviet aid had reached half a billion dollars in 1965 and was increased again in 1966 with another 800 million.61 The Russians supplied surface-to-air missile systems, radar guided anti-aircraft guns, heavy caliber machine guns, and some fighter aircraft. This was a relatively small effort; even with Chinese aid, the combined total didn't equal the United States' contribution, $33 billion dollars per year by January 1968.62 Some American equipment given to the South Vietnamese flowed back into the system, this time to be used by the North. Holland says, "That recycling can increase output is not particularly surprising, but the overall effect in a network with many cycles can be striking."63

By January 1963, the American government had distributed 130,000 firearms to South Vietnamese military and paramilitary units. The weapons included carbines, rifles, shotguns, submachine guns, mortars, and recoilless cannon. These arms often were recycled through a well developed Vietnamese black market. A system that some believed involved about $10 billion annually in American goods and moneys.64 William Lederer describes a black-market warehouse in Saigon.

...The place looked like a U.S. Army Ordnance Depot... Ordnance equipment was arranged in orderly lines, and neatly printed price tags hung from everything. Automatic rifles were $250. A 105 mm mortar... was priced at $400... There were about a thousand American rifles of different kinds standing neatly in racks. M-16s cost $80.65


Not all American weapons ended up in North Vietnamese hands through the black market. Large quantities of ammunition, grenades and thousands of radios went to the Civil-Defense Corps militia and to a variety of irregular units equipped and financed by the CIA. When these small units went forward, allegedly to confront the VCI, the number of weapons potentially stock piled for the communists would double to 250,000. Neil Sheehan believed that with a modest portion of this quarter million cache, Ho Chi Minh, "...could double or triple [his] main force striking units in the South." Hanoi's generals learned, "...Their American opponents were supplying them with the wherewithal to fundamentally alter the balance of military force in South Vietnam."66

Flows can contribute to the life of an agent or cause its demise. In Vietnam it is important to remember that no agent can be separated from its aggregate without altering its fundamental behavior. Individual and collective actions taken by the United States were connected to North Vietnam as well as to the South. Thus, we see that the property of flows within cas contribute to nonlinear behavior. Flows can also strengthen aggregate agents and help create diversity by providing resources to new agents within evolving niches. Diversity is the final cas property we will study.


"The diversity observed in complex adaptive systems is the product of progressive adaptations. Each new adaptation opens the possibility for further interactions and new niches."



Hidden Order

A Biological Example

Diversity is a cas property most readily explained in biological terms. For example a rain forest or a coral reef ecosystem harbor a diversity common to all complex adaptive systems. There are more species of plants and animals in a tropical rain forest than in all the rest of the world's ecosystems combined.67 Holland claims that it is possible to walk half a kilometer and never twice encounter the same species of tree. Agents such as the butterfly fish, sea urchins, sea cucumbers, brittle stars and numerous species of mollusks, feed on algae in the coral reef communities along the Caribbean and Australian coastlines. The numerous microhabitats and the productivity of the reefs support a great diversity of marine life. A diversity of species is generally important to the survival of ecosystems, and biodiversity is considered an indication of the environment's health. An application of cas theory without regard to context suggests that diversity within a military organization is just as important to its health and survival. Diversity in War

In war, the evolution of technology, strategy and tactics opens the possibility for the creation of diverse agents. Armored warfare created a need for the anti-tank platoon, and the integrated air defense system originated in response to modern aviation threats. Information and space warfare will undoubtedly generate future opportunities for different kinds of agents. Diversity in modern military organizations is seen in the variety of weapon systems and the multitude of specialized units (see Figure 5). Each agent fills a particular role within the complex adaptive system.

...The persistence of any individual agent... depends on the context provided by the other agents. Roughly, each kind of agent fills a niche that is defined by the interactions centering on that agent. If we remove one kind of agent from the system, creating a 'hole,' the system typically responds with a cascade of adaptations resulting in a new agent that fills the hole. The new agent typically occupies the same niche as the deleted agent and provides most of the missing interactions.68

Diversity arises when the spread of a new agent opens a new niche -- opportunities for new interactions -- that can be exploited by modifications of other agents.69 During the Vietnam war, "pacification" provided a niche for a variety of allied agents whose interactions centered on restoring peace and promoting democratic principles in South Vietnam's villages and hamlets. In early 1962, Sir Robert Thompson, a noted counter-insurgency expert, helped South Vietnam develop an agent to fill the pacification niche. The result was the Strategic Hamlet Program. Announced as a national policy by President Diem in March, the Strategic Hamlet Program attempted to provide security to the local population, involve them in positive action on the side of the government and develop constructive social, economic and political intercourse.70 After Diem was assassinated the environment changed, and the Strategic Hamlet Program could no longer survive. Thompson said, "This was the final blow to the strategic hamlet program. Those who succeeded President Diem had no prepared policy and delayed too long before taking any firm decisions...only the hamlets which had been well constructed and organized under the better province chiefs in 1962 were able to withstand the pressure for any length of time."71

The result was a cascade of adaptations that modified relationships to form new agents. These new agents implemented the New Life Hamlet Program, the Revolutionary Development Program and the Accelerated Pacification Campaign. The Accelerated Pacification Campaign included the controversial Phoenix program which was designed to destroy the Viet Cong infrastructure by apprehending cadre leaders and those holding key positions. In 1967, Robert Komer was appointed to head the allies' most successful agent for pacification, the Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support (CORDS) program. CORDS was an aggregation of personnel from the military services, the State Department, the Agency for International Development, the U.S. information Agency and the CIA.

America also saw the creation of other diverse agents designed to take advantage of new interactions. The Marines operating in I Corps' area developed the Combined Action Platoon (CAP) to secure villages, created the Kit Carson Scout Program to improve intelligence, and employed Stingray teams (small dispersed units that utilized indirect fire support assets) to disrupt enemy activity. Another unit, the "tunnel rats" was a special organization of volunteers created for the purpose of destroying Viet Cong forces operating from underground burrows West of Saigon. Tom Mangold and John Penycate chronicle their experience in the 1985 book, The Tunnels of Cu Chi. Robert Asprey speaks of America's tactical diversity this way:

...Combat troops also received such sophisticated identity aids as electronic sensory devices, or 'man sniffers,' infrared night-sighting equipment, short range ground radars. A galaxy of specialist units -- medical, engineer, communication -- supported ground operations.72


Ho Chi Minh and General Giap could draw on a variety of military forces capable of filling particular niches. In response to the American introduction of ground combat troops the Peoples Army of Vietnam (PAVN) grew from thirteen divisions in 1963 to twenty-five divisions in 1975. Each division consisted of about 10,500 men.73 The PAVN included a regular military (main force) and a paramilitary force. Each force included a variety of other military organizations. The main force consisted of regular troops and filled Hanoi's requirement to posses, "...a national army that could move anywhere." Paramilitary forces included two general categories; a PAVN Local Force of Provisional, regional, territorial local and district local troops; and a PAVN self-defense force composed of militia troops, mobile militia troops, assault youth troops, self-defense troops and village troops. The former category occupied a niche that provided a "geographically bounded local force with only limited transport capability but able to defend its own territory." The latter category was a "purely static village security element."74 General Giap said,

...We must pay attention to the development of forms of war so that we can respond to the requirements of each period. When it is necessary, we must change in time outdated forms of warfare, taking up new ones which are more appropriate...we should not apply old experiences mechanically, or reapply outmoded forms of warfare.75


Cas theory provides future military planners with a conceptual framework that emphasizes diversity. Identifying niches and developing the appropriate diversity is a major concern for today's military leadership. This framework will have an impact on procurement, organization, doctrine and strategy. Making the right decisions will mean the difference between success and failure on the battlefield. Because cas theory emphasizes relationships, diversity must be achieved with an understanding of relative change.


A second understanding of diversity's origins also has its roots in the biological world and in the coevolutionary process. Coevolution involves relationships that change relative to a system's participants. The flower, for example, evolves in shape, size, and color in direct response to the bees and hummingbirds that both feed on its nectar and spread its pollen. The bees and hummingbirds, in turn, adapt to the flower. Coevolution helps explain why the long beak of a hummingbird fits perfectly into a particular flower, or why a particular orchid resembles -- and thus attracts -- a particular species of honey bee.76 This evolutionary process, sometimes referred to as "coadaptation," can imply changes in organization, structure or strategy.

The length of time required for an agent to adapt to its environment is a key concern for military professionals. Holland lists some temporal considerations in Table 1. As we have already seen, by employing a diverse number of military agents, and by taking advantage of other cas properties, Ho Chi Minh quickly altered his strategy from conventional to unconventional warfare. Cas theory may suggest other ways to improve the rate and quality of the adaptive process. Two processes associated with genetics is a good place to begin.

The genetics process of "crossing-over" (crossover) and "mutation" facilitate coevolution. Crossover is used by breeders to exploit superior qualities (building blocks) in plants and animals. Commanders use a similar technique when task organizing a particular unit to accomplish a particular mission. Mutation allows for the creation of an

System Modification agent without crossing-over


Modification Time

Central Nervous System

Seconds to hours

Immune System

hours to days

Business Firm

month to years


days to centuries


years to millenia

characteristics from another.

Retraining a conventional military

unit to fight a guerrilla war or

Source: John Holland, Hidden Order, How Adaptation

Builds Complexity, (New York: Addison-Wesley, 1995) 9.

Table 1. asking a fighter pilot to operate in

a ground attack role represent

examples of mutation. The Vietnam war, in operations like Junction City and the defense of Khe Sanh, saw the B-52 used in a tactical role to support ground troops. This was a mutation from its original design, area bombing of strategic targets. A conceptual framework that promotes crossover and mutation offers the military planner a mindset that improves innovation. Traditional thinking where "this is the way it has always been done," is eventually replaced by a new thought pattern that encourages alternatives to create new agents. Cas theory provides just such a framework.

Diversity is enhanced by other cas properties. The previously mentioned recycle effect, created by agent-directed flows, cause a system to retain resources. These resources can then be exploited by new kinds of agents. "Parts of cas that exploit these possibilities, particularly parts that further enhance the recycling, will thrive. Parts that fail to do so will lose their resources to those that do. This is natural selection writ large."77 Crossover and mutation suggest two ways a military organization can exploit excess resources without creating an entirely new agent.

Finally, the nonlinear effects produced when diverse agents form aggregates is much more than the sum of the agent's individual actions. Holland says that for this reason it is hard to develop a single agent with all the aggregate's capabilities. It is much easier to approach one step at a time, using a distributed system. Thus, aggregation, nonlineararity and flows contribute to diversity within a complex adaptive system.


A New Perspective

When Vietnam is viewed within the conceptual framework of complex adaptive systems theory our perspective is inevitably altered. The limitations of statistical analysis confronted by the war's nonlinear behavior become clear. The Lorenz model and Per Bak's theory of self-organized criticality demonstrate the futility of precise measurements, even when quantitative variables are available, cas' sensitivity to initial conditions and its tendency towards reorganization obviate the possibility of employing Newtonian deterministic methods to predict long range behaviors. The problem was exasperated in Vietnam where so many of the variables were qualitative and therefore defied measurement altogether. Cas theory has shown relationships to be the war's most definitive quality.

In Vietnam it is important to remember that no agent can be separated from its aggregate without altering the aggregates fundamental behavior. As we saw with the effective disappearance of the Viet Cong in 1968, the emergent quality associated with the overall war changed. The insurgency declined and a more conventional form of warfare emerged. Likewise, taking advantage of emergent behaviors, where the sum of the parts is greater than the whole, is a fundamental lesson of cas theory. Hanoi's dau tranh strategy used to combine political and military struggle into a single coherent whole is a superb example.

Agents must have the ability to aggregate building blocks into useful models and then anticipate an action's consequences based on a recognizable pattern. Experience plays a major role in the composition of useful building blocks and in the construction of adequate models. Cas theory teaches us that commanders must be willing to recombine and reuse building blocks when the original model or its pattern proves inadequate. This is a necessary requirement of the adaptive process. General Westmoreland failed to accomplish this by steadfastly following a strategy of attrition warfare. Ho Chi Minh and General Giap, unencumbered with America's temporal limitations, exploited the connections deemed so important in complex adaptive systems.

A cas perspective highlights the importance of relationships. The flow of resources -- information, men, equipment, the will to fight -- across a network of connectors to diverse agents enabled Hanoi to alter the war's character and rapidly adapt to novel situations. As Major John F. Schmitt points out, "The system which can adapt best and most quickly will be the system that prevails."78

Historians describing the Vietnam conflict often refer to three wars; the guerrilla war, fought against PLAF units; the conventional war, fought against regular PAVN forces; and the war of pacification, fought to win the hearts and minds of the local population. Ho Chi Minh and General Giap could change the nature of the war simply by rearranging the connections, changing the flow of resources. Thus, it was the relationship among the parts, rather than the individual pieces that defined the war's behavior. In Vietnam, America proved much less capable of altering these connections. The result was a defeat at the hands of a militarily inferior foe.

CAS and the Study of Warfare

Complex adaptive system theory has already given military professionals new metaphors to describe the nature of war. Lieutenant General Paul K. Van Riper, Commanding General of the Marine Corps' Combat Development Command, believes this is an important contribution. Instead of identifying war as a deterministic machine where individual operations run like clockwork, he believes a biological or ecological metaphor is more appropriate. From his perspective, war becomes a coevolutionary process of constant change and unpredictable events. Rather than optimizing a single solution to solve a given problem, relative improvements in the constantly novel battlefield environment becomes the goal.

The Marine Corps has begun to change the way it views military conflict. Attrition warfare, set-piece tactics, and traditional amphibious operations that rely on ship-to-shore movement have taken a back seat to maneuver warfare and the ship-to-objective concept outlined in the Commandant's, Operational Maneuver from the Sea. The Marine Corps' initial draft publication, MCDP 1-1, a theoretical discussion of strategy, contains a long description of complex adaptive systems before turning to specific strategic considerations. The new doctrinal publication describing command and control theory, MCDP-6, references complexity's M. Mitchell Waldrop and Roger Lewin. Adaptation is a recurring theme in the Warfighting publication, FMFM-1, "The occurrences of war will not unfold like clockwork...As the situation changes continuously, we are forced to improvise again and again until finally our actions have little, if any, resemblance to the original scheme."79 This suggests that any new conceptual framework for future military operations will include themes on adaptation.

Computer models that mimic the adaptive process have already been developed. Holland's Echo and the Santa Fe Institute's Swarm model are only two examples. Other computer simulations are under development by the MITRE corporation. These models will provide a tool for warfighters to improve their decision making skills. Instead of relying on an appropriate set of quantifiable variables, related by a series of linear equations, cas models give military professionals a qualitative view of war's nonlinear behavior. Perhaps complex global behaviors and critical thresholds will eventually become recognizable, predictable events whose consequences can then be directed in a favorable manner. Only further research will provide the answer.

Additionally, the perpetually novel environment faced by agents within the complex adaptive system reaffirms the Clausewitzian notion that war is never an isolated act, and its results are never final. Cas theory tells us that time spent searching for an optimal 'end state' is better spent making a series of progressive improvements. With each improvement comes new opportunities for exploitation. Quick action will replace the measured response in an attempt to outpace the enemy's ability to adjust to changing circumstances. Thus, rapid adaptation becomes the key to battlefield success.

From its inception, the study of complex adaptive systems has been about the adaptive process. Understanding the properties associated with agent interactions provides a foundation for applying cas theory to the study of warfare. Aggregation, nonlinearity, flows and diversity can be used on future battlefields to make organizational and doctrinal changes that improve the survivability and success of military organizations. Knowledge of the mechanisms that facilitate these interactions -- tags, building blocks, and internal models -- should be used to increase the military's adaptive capability and improve both the rate and quality of those adaptations. As we have seen in our examination of the Vietnam war, altering strategy used to confront novel situations provides a qualitative advantage over an opponent. Cas theory tells us that even a small difference can generate a large outcome.

In a passage that could have come directly from the 'emerging synthesis' workshops at the Santa Fe Institute, Douglas Pike compares Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap to other great men in history.

...Genius, it is said, is the ability to synthesize. The great geniuses of history-- Newton, Freud, Einstein [Napoleon]-- contributed little new knowledge to their respective fields. They had instead the rare ability to take what was already known and synthesize it-- by seeing relationships and connections no one else noticed-- into a field theory or new coherent whole, obvious to all once it was stated.80


Complex adaptive system theory will provide others with similar capabilities and prepare military leaders for the battlefield challenges of the 21st century.

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