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About borderlands Volume 1 Number 1, 2002

War, Peace, and Complex Systems

Chris Hables Gray
University of Great Falls, Montana

1. "Can Complexity theory help us understand the real consequences of a convoluted event like September 11?" Dana Mackenzie asks in the February, 2002 issue of Discover Magazine. (p. 59) I would answer yes, but not in the way Mackenzie answers, in reference to algorithms to help estimate insurance losses. There are no mathematical formulas for calculating war and peace nor will there ever be. War and peace are too complex; they are matters of the hearts, the minds, the hormones, and the experiences of too many people living in incredibly complex cultures with almost infinite histories. We have to realize that the certainty of numbers is not going to help us here and to think otherwise is to fall prey to the error of misplaced concreteness. It is complexity theory as metaphor and as epistemology that can be of use. If we work hard at seeing the world as a dance of complex systems instead of atomized, individualized events with simple causes and simple cures we will have a much better chance of understanding what is happening and of influencing future events in the directions we choose.

2. Below I will try and demonstrate the usefulness of complexity theory in terms of metaphors (patterns) for understanding what is going on, but first the issue of epistemology should be addressed. It all starts there. What is meant by complexity theory as an epistemology? When we try and understand theworld we base that understanding on all sorts of, usually unarticulated, assumptions about how we perceive and what we are perceiving. If we think our sense data is flawless and autonomous and that the world is a simple Newtonian dynamic of action and reaction and that straight-forward rationality can completely apprehend the whole of it, then we are not only sadly deluded, but we will fail to even begin to understand what is going on. The first and most important gift of complexity theory and, indeed,all information theory is to discover that there are absolute limits to what we can know and often to know one thing is to never know another. (Gray 1998) There isn’t space here to go through the whole litany of Godel, Church-Turing, Heisenberg, Bateson, and the others, suffice it to say that perfect knowledge is a chimera, incompleteness and paradoxes are our lot. But that doesn’t mean we can’t know enough to get by, but it is more a matter of judgment than pure calculation and it will never be clean and pretty. This is where our epistemology starts, with rejecting the hubris of perfect rationality.

3. Epistemology is also based on assumptions about how the world works on its deep levels. It isn’t static, for example. And because we can’t apprehend every cause and effect, we know it isn’t a simple dynamic, such as the dialectic in any flavor, Hegelian idealist or Marxian materialist. That is why Steven Mentor, Heidi Figueroa-Sarriera, and myself proposed a Cyborg Epistemology: thesis, antithesis, synthesis, prosthesis, and again. (1995) Not because this dynamic totally explains reality, but because it is open-ended, it shows how some things come directly from previous actions and yet other things come from outside the cause and effect we are noticing. The systems we are part of are too complex to map perfectly or to predict infallibly.

4. That we know that many complex systems are unpredictable doesn’t mean that 9/11 wasn’t predictable in its broad outlines, but the specifics of it probably were. Even its horrible success defies the odds. Many other terror attempts were much less successful and most later ones will be as well. But a super-success is always possible and with the right context (politics) and technology (inputs) it becomes more so.

5. Despite the messiness of reality it is clear that means and ends are related, even if it is not a simple equation. Systems thinking reminds us of this. Systems are made of smaller systems and are part of larger systems and intersect with still other systems. Even if we can’t know all the relationships, we know they are there and they are never innocent. Events have consequences, not always the ones we’d hope and predict but what regularity we can perceive shows us that there is an intimate relationship between now and before. The means do determine the ends. We sort out the how in each instance, with each situation. This is what Donna Haraway calls "situated knowledge." (1988)

6. Looking closely at 9/11 it is clear that it wouldn’t have happened without years of amoral RealPolitik policy by the US, including the support of extremist misogynist Islamists who, in the long run, have turned on their former Western (and rich-Arab) benefactors. This is labeled "blowback" in policy circles, a beautiful term for unwanted systems feedback. (Gray 2001)This doesn’t excuse the terrorism of 9/11, but it helps explain it. Understanding is what we need if we are to prevent even more horrible acts in the future.

7. The major source of our knowledge of the world has to be our senses. Imperfect as they are, they are it. But over time our access to information about reality has gotten better. In all likelihood our senses co-evolved with our environment. Now, thanks to technoscience we can now expand our sensedata, hear in ultra-high frequencies, see tiny things through microscopes, peer at parts of the world from outer space. And we humans have developed science to control one slice of reality well enough so we can examine it again and again, improving our sensedata through repetition and multiple observers.

8. This leads to one of the crucial insights of systems theory that clearly applies to our current situation: cyborgization. Humans are not isolated organisms, we are systems that include machinic and other artificial elements. A cyborg is the hybrid of the two main types of systems: living and unliving. Knowing this, being thus, changes how we perceive, it changes how we act, it changes what we can do. The attacks of 9/11 are a case in point. They were carried out by cyborgian suicide systems and their destructiveness was predicated on the existence of giant human-machine systems for work (buildings) and travel (jet aircraft). The US response involved "man-machine weapons systems" (as the military likes to call them), which is one of the hallmarks of postmodern war. (Gray 1997) Notice that when the US sent in commandos to find and fix targets the effectiveness of the US bombing improved enormously, with a subsequent decline in civilian casualties. Complete cyborg systems are often more effective than limited ones that depend to much on machines, but since the full "man-machine" systems are susceptible to human casualties, political leaders often choose domestic politics over other considerations.

9. So, cyborgization is one insight from systems thinking that can help us, what are some others?

10. Recursion is the idea that certain patterns repeat themselves in closed feedback loops. It perfectly describes the dynamics of the Israeli-Palestinian bloodletting. Palestinian suicide attack leads to Israeli assassination that leads to more attacks. Strangely enough, the Israelis have only given the power to stop this cycle to the very groups that want the cycle to continue and to escalate, the suicide attackers. In light of this, one has to doubt the current government of Israel’s sincere interest in ending the violence.

11. And one must also compare the conscious killing of innocent civilians by Al Queda and Hamas and the accidental killing of innocent civilians by the US and Israel. From a systems perspective they are hard to tell apart. Killing innocents directly, and taking actions when you know absolutely that innocents will be killed, are hard to differentiate. Simplistic causality makes the US/Israel actions seem more moral than they really are, but does it really matter that the dead innocents were collateral damage and not the goal, if one knows they are inevitable?

12. On the other end of the political spectrum consider the opposition of some on the Left to the US invasion of Afghanistan. The arguments are a strange mixed bag. Can you say that the sovereignty of Afghanistan is being assaulted when that sovereignty means the enslavement of woman, the persecution of religious and ethnic minorities, and the direct support of aggressive international terrorism? Why claim that racism is behind US policies when it pales in significance to class, gender, and nationalistic systems? Is the US always wrong when it intervenes militarily? Systems are more complicated than yes/no, but the Left loves simple answers as much as the rest of humanity.

13. Perhaps most important of all, systems thinking prevents this trap of binaries. Humans seem distressingly predisposed to dichotomous analysis and it doesn’t help that computers are binary at their core. It just isn’t true that the enemy of my enemy is always my friend but this is the seductive logic of a black and white world. It is dangerous and stupid, actually. The world isn’t purely binary. Yes, there is, and isn’t. But there are also some, more, most, and so on as well. Sure, you are dead or alive, but your body might be kept alive with machines while your brain is dead; your thoughts could live on in texts and images; your spirit might survive in the hearts of your loved ones. We learned from the first Cold War how rigid and dangerous binaries can be. You are communist or a capitalist, the discourse claimed. Many people, and indeed many countries, paid for this simplicity with much blood and many tears: Nicaragua, Chile, Vietnam, Korea, Iran, Cuba... it is a long list. A new one is being made for this Second Cold War.

14. A close analysis of foreign policy, military doctrine, and other arcana suggests that many of the purveyors of simplistic binary thinking don’t believe it is true themselves. It is instrumentalist; it is a tactic for imposing their world view on others. When the time is right they often allow slightly more complex thinking, making an alliance with China or dissembling theirway out of the Vietnam conflict. But when it serves their interests they defend their dichotomies like rabid wolverines, supporting fascist dictatorships, for example, ostensibly because they were anti-communist even though the real reason was that the right-wing dictators kept their national markets open to the exploitation of US corporations (a system one could call an empire), while the left-wing dictators were most open to Soviet penetration and exploitation.

15. Thinking militarily we notice that the biggest single danger from the Battle of Afghanistan is that it might lead to war between India and Pakistan. And it becomes clear that, directly or indirectly, the single most effective move of the Islamist terror network since September 11 has been the attack onthe Indian Parliament that precipitated a crisis between India and Pakistan. This could be coincidence but it is more likely that it is a case of careful planning.

16. Another good example of sophisticated complex thinking can be found in the report on the Fall 2001 mailed anthrax attacks that a scientist, Barbara Hatch Rosenberg, has prepared for the Federation of American Scientists. (2002) In it she shows that the evidence indicates that someone inside the US biological warfare community probably mailed the anthrax in order to call attention to biowar defense and bring more resources to bear. He (the mailer is probably a white, middle-aged man) may also have hoped to increase pressure for further curtailments of civil liberties (the "Reichstag Fire" effect) and perhaps, implicate Iraq in a direct attack on the US. The evidence also suggests, at least to me, that the US has been creating weaponized anthrax of high quality itself, and that a part of these stocks were used. But, as is so often the case in the real world, the evidence is not conclusive.

17. Some people will automatically deride Rosenberg’s work as conspiracy theory, ignoring the fact that not only do conspiracies abound in history, in one sense human culture itself is a conspiracy. It is cooperating, it is "breathing together" A conspiracy is a system with certain properties, such as secrecy and a focus on changing political and/or social patterns. Not all of society operates in secret but much of what is important does. Conspiracies exist, some domestic and personal, some international and political, and all the combinations thereof. And don’t forget, the personal is political, the world is a village, and we should all act locally and think globally. I throw these truisms out willy-nilly to make a point about how complicated things are, but none-the-less we can formalize some of this complexity in simple, somewhat contradictory, rules with political and systems implications.

18. Despite lip service to the contrary, Attorney General Ashcroft and much of the Republican leadership clearly wants us to believe that to protect our way of life we have to give up many of our freedoms. To save our freedom we have to destroy it. A simplistic equation to put it mildly. When President Bush the Younger says "you are for us or against us," he isn’t really describing, he is proscribing. He wants to make it so. Implicitly, you are his enemy or his follower. He wants to forbid anything more complicated. When you observe and comment on a system you become part of that system. This is the power and the peril of discourse analysis, and it shows that even academics are participants, whether we wish it or not.

19. What I hope my work does is encourage more complex thinking, which doesn’t necessarily mean coming to particularly complex conclusions although they must always be possible. It means the refusal of simple equations when they aren’t accurate. Consider the US invasion of Afghanistan. "Are you for or against it?" many people have asked me. "Neither," I answer. How can I be for yet another exercise of US global military power that will no-doubt kill more innocent civilians in Afghanistan than died in New York and Washington? But how can I be against bringing the Al Queda network to justice and the destruction of the misogynist, sectarian, and idiotic Taliban regime? I don’t have to be either. Instead I try and understand the causes and the effects. What I am against is the amoral, selfish (indeed imperialistic) foreign policies of the West that created Al Queda and the Taliban and what I am for is the restoration of a civil society and of democratic forms in Afghanistan, and actually anywhere they don’t exist in this troubled world. The lack of their freedom threatens me, as 9/11 showed.

20. I can’t ignore the irony that it is likely that Afghanistan will come out of this intervention in a much better situation than when it began. But in the long run the world cannot survive if situations like this continue to develop. As it is now, the international system with its assumptions that war is an effective extension of politics, that nation-states have some sort of sacred sovereignty, and that realism means being Machiavellian, is too dangerous to allow to continue. Under these rules it is inevitable that some state or non-state organization will use weapons of mass destruction. The only questions are when and on whom? The whole system has to change, and that means establishing new rules that put human rights above national sovereignty, that value economic and legal justice both, that seek to keep the environment healthy instead of maximizing its exploitation for short-term profits, and that diffuses as much power out to everyone as is humanly possible.

21. September 11 constitutes a grisly proof of part of complexity theory. The actions of 19 men, a small event in reality, had a momentous impact (the butterfly effect), it led to the death of thousands and to a real shift in world history. Such bifurcations, from which there is no turning back, are called singularities. What makes September 11 such a watershed or sea change (other system metaphors by the way) is not the actual impact of the destruction, horrible as it was. Recently, tens of thousands have died in Iraq, in Central Africa, in Afghanistan, even in the Balkans and they have barely been noticed by most people in the West. The impact comes from how the event was felt and thought of by global mass media. Yet, the reality of this global mass media (not yet a global society) offers us opportunities as well. In the long run, there will only be internationalp eace with international communication and, eventually, understanding.

22. Peace is not just the opposite of war. Peace is, at the least, as complex as war and there may be as many modes of peace as their are of war. Some peace is just to prepare for more war, and so isn’t so much a type of peace as a a type of war. We’ve had a lot of this peace lately. We need robust, yet stable, peace which would not and could not lead to real war. We need real peace. And it won’t come from violence. Yes, we know that you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs, but no baby birds will be born from an omelet. Peace is not simple like an omelet, there is no recipe. It is complex like new life and it must be fostered, nurtured, and loved.

23. There is hope in all this. We have seen small groups, even individuals, take specific actions and change everything. Horrible as these killings are, we have to take heart. There is hope in it. For it means that even a few people can make a difference. If we assume that most people want real peace, we can conclude that we can change the world, we can change the future. Considering its current trajectory we have to. We just have to be thoughtful about it.

Chris Hables Gray teaches at the University of Great Falls Montana and is the author of Postmodern War (Routledge, 1997), an editor of The Cyborg Handbook (Routledge 1995), and has contributed to many other publications such as Infowar (Springer Wien/New York 1998) and The Vietnam War and Postmodernity. He co-edited this special issue of borderlands. Email:


Gray, Chris Hables (2001) "September11: Not a New War," Teleopolis,<>

_____ (1998) "The Crisis of Infowar," Infowar, Gerfield Stocker and Christine Schopf, eds.,Springer Wien/New York, pp. 130-137.

_____ (1997) Postmodern War: The New Politics of Conflict (New York: Guilford; London: Routledge).

Gray, Chris Hables, Steven Mentor and Heidi Figueroa-Sarriera, (1995) "Cyborgology: An Introduction," The Cyborg Handbook, Gray, Mentor, Figueroa-Sarriera, eds. New York: Routledge: 1-14.

Haraway, Donna (1988) "Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective", Feminist Studies 14, no. 3, Fall, pp. 575-599.

Mackenzie, Dana (2002) "The Science of Surprise" Discover, February, 2002, pp. 59-62.

Rosenberg, Barbara Hatch (2002) "A Compilation of Evidence and Comments on the Source of the Mailed Anthrax," Federation of American Scientists, January 17

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