Joint Services Conference on Professional Ethics (JSCOPE)

Emerging Doctrine and the Ethics of Warfare

Dr. Tim Challans

School of Advanced Military Studies (SAMS)

Fort Leavenworth, Kansas


            Military doctrines are often expressions of current practices.  A doctrine will attempt to codify the practice, giving it a vocabulary and a set of concepts.  This important doctrine business in turn can influence our training and practice whenever doctrine helps to indoctrinate the practitioner more fully into abiding by that particular practice.  Squaring doctrine with practice and vice versa makes doctrine very important.  The joint world of the American military is articulating a doctrine that describes its current practice, and this doctrine is gaining momentum at such a rate that we will hardly notice when its unofficial status becomes official.  This doctrine is referred to as the effects-based approach (EBA), and operations within this approach are called effects-based operations (EBO).  As I intimated up front, we have been training and practicing along these lines for some time.  The doctrine is going to formalize what we have developed informally.  More and more commanders and headquarters across the services are adopting the language of this doctrine; the doctrine writers are working hard so that our doctrinal literature can keep pace with the development.  I want to offer a critique of EBA by starting with my most important claim.  The effects-based approach has little potential to accommodate moral concerns, and our moral challenges will only increase as we continue to embrace this doctrine.  EBA lacks any moral quality because it fails in every sense at the level of theory.  The practitioners of EBA profess many assertions and defend their methods at the level of doctrine.  However, the deep theory of the effects-based approach rests on several philosophical mistakes—metaphysical, epistemological, and logical mistakes—and I will deal with them each in turn.  We should expect mostly mistakes as a result of a practice resting on a mistaken theory, for only by accident and not by design could anything good come out of it.  My critique of this doctrine is based on the moral potential—or lack of moral potential—because of its unreliability as a theory.  My argument will unfold at the level of theory and will avoid the politics of doctrine development.  I want to carry out a dialogue on the academic front of reason and theory rather than the political front of decision makers at their headquarters and directorates.  As a result I will be drawing upon the academic debate as it exists among the theorists (particularly that which is in print) rather than the political debate as it exists among decision makers (especially that which is in email traffic or on Power Point).

            The general idea of the effects-based approach has perhaps always been looming in the recesses of consciousness among military practitioners, but the specific practice has been around at least as long as Desert Storm.  The concept took root when the intellectual leaders of the Air Force began thinking and talking and writing about bombing in terms of what effects they wanted to achieve rather than simply what targets to service.  That idea took root and the roots have grown so deep and spread so far up to the present day that practitioners today take the concept for granted.  Even without the specialized jargon that the services are now formulating for EBA, this general concept helped to guide operations in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

            The heavy focus on the idea of an effect quite naturally moved some people to think of the metaphysical correlate to an effect—that of a cause.  So, military operations began to be thought of as a chain of events, chains of cause and effect.  All planners and commanders had to do was to start with the desired effect and move backward through the chain of events, doing things to cause the effects to take place.  The backward planning process lends itself perfectly to laying out an elaborate sequence of causes and effects so that the military can achieve what it desires at the end of the day, or week, or operation.  Well, the first mistake that EBA rests on is a metaphysical mistake because of the way it handles the topic of causation.  The mistake is very simple to explain.  Most philosophers think of cause and effect as being operative in the physical world, the mechanical world, the world of solid objects that abide by the laws of physics.  Accordingly, most philosophers of social science do not believe causation is operative in the realm of human activity.  Causation entails regularity in the form of laws, and laws possess features somewhere between minimal necessity and maximal sufficiency, any of which is too much to attribute to human action.  On the other hand, most social scientists think causation is operative in human affairs and simply take the idea for granted (as well as historians and political scientists).  But just as philosophers of science consistently demonstrate that the scientists themselves are not aware of the deep structures of their own practices, the same is true of philosophers of social science and social scientists.  This difference in viewing the concept of causation as it relates to human action has perhaps always separated those who approach human activity philosophically from those who approach it scientifically.  Within the effects-based approach, the military is attempting to cause effects outside the realm of the physical world; they are trying to bring effects about in the realm of human activity.  Causation is not the proper concept when dealing with human activity.  Many advocates of the effects-based approach have even attempted to make their so-called scientific approach to appear to be philosophical by looking toward the philosophical literature on causation.  They mistakenly believe that something as complex as human activity can be rendered and reduced and mutilated to fit the Procrustean bed of behaviorism, choking the mental realm into lifelessness with their chains of cause and effect.  This attempt by EBA advocates is both pseudo-scientific and pseudo-philosophical.

A more proper topic of study than causal theory when dealing with human activity is a theory of action.  Action theory is not well-known outside of the disciplines of philosophy and cognitive science, but philosophers carved out a niche for it decades ago, largely in reaction to the behaviorist assumptions that pervaded the social sciences.  To speak of behavior is important for many social scientific disciplines because behavior fits neatly into the language and concept of cause and effect.  The deep assumption here is that people can be caused to behave, and modifying behavior is simply a matter of adjusting input to get a different output.  Action theory recognizes that the mental realm falls outside the normal physical realm of cause and effect.  One simply cannot cause another person to act a certain way; people act for reasons, not causes.[1]  While some take reasons to be causes, reason explanations are different from causal explanations.  Action involves intention, which is a combination of beliefs and desires.  The old behavioral black box disappears in action theory because the black box opens up.  Behaviorism reigned supreme for decades, and it became firmly entrenched in the military when social scientists took over the leadership business.  However, in the university behavioral science was slowly replaced by cognitive science over the last half-century.  While the language of behavior disappeared more and more from philosophical and cognitive science literature, that same language (along with its assumptions) remains alive throughout the military.  The linguistic archeological evidence is there with both West Point and the Air Force Academy having academic departments named Behavioral Science and Leadership.

            Military and political leaders have long thought in a naïve sense that they could cause people to act the way they wanted, bringing about desired results.  German leaders in the Second World War thought they could cause England to capitulate by bombing their population centers into submission.  French leaders thought they could cause the terrorist attacks to stop during the Algerian war of liberation by finding and eliminating the terrorist cells.  And the authors of the Project for a New American Century thought they could cause stability to take root in a region through a regime change operation in Iraq.  Positing a false chain of events made up of fabricated causes and artificial effects when that chain in a metaphysical sense does not exist is a mistaken approach.  The realm of human activity operates outside the strictly physical chain of causes and effects.  So, this describes the metaphysical problem associated with EBA, in that the approach posits a false reality, a state of affairs that simply does not exist, nor can it be created as such.  The military is still stunned and bewildered that military force has not caused a strategic victory.  We are in the mess we are in now in the Gulf precisely because of this effects-based approach. 

            The second problem discussed here is closely associated with the first.  This problem has to do with the nature of knowledge, so it is an epistemological problem, how we can know this chain of causes and effects.  There are numerous doctrinal manuals available, many on the web, that lay out a program with which to conduct operations according to the effects-based approach.  One such manual is Pamphlet 4 from the Joint Warfighting Center.[2]  This pamphlet is representative of the doctrinal cementing of the effects-based approach.  It lays out the framework that attempts nothing less than a science.  The language of cause and effect suffuses the doctrine.  Even Francis Bacon is quoted in the front pages, “For knowledge itself is power.”  Important in this so-called scientific approach is the establishment of what they refer to as an operational net assessment (ONA).  The ONA is an ostensibly elaborate analysis of the system and all of its parts.  And they recognize that we are not dealing with a single system, but a system of systems, so the language of systems engineering makes its way into the concept.  Science is about functions, limits, constants, variables, factors, and so on—and EBA attempts to pursue a scientific approach.  A database is constructed that highlights linkages of sets of effects—nodes—actions—resources (ENAR).  And through this complex and bewildering array of causes and effects that identify nodes (that become targets) and resources (that become units and capabilities planned to service those targets), the military can bring about the effects it wants through causal means.  While this may seem natural to some military minds, few are asking how it is that we can actually know how a real system works in the real world based on such a reductionist representation, as elaborate as it may appear.  The assignment of what becomes a node, for example, is more arbitrary than not, usually chosen because it may be more tangible and therefore potentially more serviceable as a target.  In other words, we reify entities in the framework (nodes, actions, effects, etc.) on the basis that we know something about them when in fact they will not exist in the real world in the manner in which we have assigned them ontological status.  The whole framework as a representation is a lot closer to what we think we know than what exists in the real world, thereby giving us more comfortable illusions than real knowledge.  This epistemological problem is connected to the metaphysical problem because many of the elements of the framework deal with the human, social, or political dimensions, all of which fall strictly outside the realm of cause and effect.

            The next problem I will deal with is a logical problem, because it has to do with the way we think about time.  It is connected to the metaphysical problems as well as the epistemological problems, but it is worthy of its own treatment.  The effects-based approach presumes that final causes are operative; the system takes for granted a teleological view of science.  While final causes were present in scientific thinking since Aristotle and existed throughout scientific communities influenced by Scholastic teachings, the modern era of scientific thinking abandons the notion of final causes and thinks in terms of efficient causes.  By starting with the desired effect and moving through a backward-planning process, military planners and commanders actually employ teleology to their approach, which renders an allegedly scientific EBA to be actually unscientific.  The effects they want to bring about in the future actually influence and have purported causal efficacy to events that occur temporarily prior to the desired effects.  In other words, the future is helping to cause the past (or the present).  This is a mistaken view of what really takes place in the real world, but it is a logical mistake as well.  The philosopher Francois Jullien exposes this failure of logic and reasoning in his excellent book, A Treatise on Efficacy:  “Given that I myself am constantly evolving in the presence of the enemy, I cannot tell in advance how I shall win the day.  In other words, strategy cannot be determined ‘in advance,’ and it is only ‘on the basis of the potential of the situation that it takes shape.”[3]  Imposing telos into a so-called scientific process is to misunderstand the whole enterprise of modern science. 

Final causes dropped out when modern thinkers over 400 years ago abandoned the scientific view of the Thomists.  Instead of final causation, efficient causation became the hallmark of a scientific world view.  This logical mistake of injecting telos back into science persists so prevalently in the United States today because of the telos that exists in the predominant world view of Americans—their religiously informed world view.  The understanding of evolution is an important litmus test, because proper understanding of it requires an appreciation of efficient causation as well as an appreciation of the abandonment of final causes as a key feature of modern science.  Religieaux who want to preserve a notion of a divine plan or the principle of sufficient reason (roughly the idea that everything happens for a reason) have a difficult time giving up the idea of final causes or embracing efficient causes.  Many religieaux mistakenly think that abandoning a divine will leaves evolution to the vagaries of chance.  Biological evolution depends upon great stability and comparatively miniscule variations over huge periods of time that defy the imagination.  But chance is the wrong concept with which to understand evolution.  The important concept instead of chance is that of contingency.  Contingency is the opposite (the logical complement) of necessity.  Causation entails necessity; evolution entails contingency.  The relevant upshot at stake here is that evolution does not and cannot proceed necessarily or according to a plan—in other words, evolution is not caused.

Gregory Paul examines the influence of religiosity in prosperous democracies in an informative article from the Journal of Religion & Society.  Taking the seventeen most advanced countries in the world, he finds a positive correlation between religiosity and an inability to understand the scientific theory of evolution.  The less religious a country is, the more understanding; the more religious, the less understanding.  For example, Japan is the least religious and has the greatest understanding and appreciation of evolution while the United States is the most religious and has the least understanding and appreciation of it.  Paul goes further to examine the many measures of human development and societal health and correlates these features with religiosity as well.  He finds a positive correlation between religiosity and social dysfunction.  “In general, higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy, and abortion in the prosperous democracies.  The most theistic prosperous democracy, the U.S., is exceptional…The United States is almost always the most dysfunctional of the developed democracies, sometimes spectacularly so, and almost always scores poorly.”[4]  Just as the unscientific world view can make other sectors of society dysfunctional, it can make the military and its EBA doctrine dysfunctional as well.  I’ll reply to the objection of correlation not amounting to causation here.  I would not even admit of the notion of causation in an open system without boundaries that involved human activity.  However, there is good reason to believe that there is a deep systemic relationship between religiosity and dysfunction, and this is explained by the process of applying an unscientific world view in each case.

This mistaken teleological view is similar to and related to the mistakes that behavioral science rests upon.  Arthur Koestler aptly describes this problem when he writes about the temporal displacement assumed in operant conditioning, where the stimulus-response model is reversed because the stimulus temporally occurs after the response—it is out of time—the effect comes before the cause.  “Behaviorism is indeed a kind of flat-earth view of the mind,” says Koestler[5].  By way of analogy, EBA is the flat-earth view of military operations, because of its professed goal of shaping behavior.  Behaviorism is relevant here, because EBA carries with it behaviorist assumptions in that if we reduce human activity to behavior then that is convenient for the social scientist, for one can cause someone to behave a certain way:  “Effects-based operations are coordinated sets of actions directed at shaping the behavior of friends, foes, and neutrals in peace, crisis, and war.”[6]  However, if we think in terms of human action and turn to action theory, then since humans act for reasons, having intentions made up of beliefs and desires, then the realm of human activity becomes much more difficult and much less scientific.  It is the height of absurdity to try to make something scientific when it cannot be so, as Aristotle reminds us that the intelligent person attributes precision to the degree that the subject matter allows.

            Now that we have looked at only the most glaring philosophical mistakes of the theory associated with the effects-based approach, we can turn to the approach’s accommodation of morality.  There are three levels of ethics:  descriptive, normative, and meta-ethical.  It is not accidental that none of the doctrine associated with this approach contains anything remotely connected to moral concerns at any of these levels of inquiry.  Meta-ethical inquiry depends upon metaphysical, epistemological, and logical aspects, and the paper up to this point lays the groundwork for a philosophical investigation of the effects-based approach at the meta-ethical level.  In fact, there is a built-in contempt for morality embedded deep within the effects-based doctrine, for morality will simply get in the way of pursuing the desired effects.  Furthermore, causal claims, whether they are scientific or unscientific, are descriptive in nature and morality is normative; in the case of EBA, never the twain shall meet.

Morality can be usefully described along the lines of what people intend, what people do, and what consequences people bring about.  Human intention is masked by this doctrine because of the behaviorist assumptions that under gird it.  The focus on effects means that any assessments or judgments of the approach have to do with effectiveness, or the degree to which an operation brings about the effects.  Hence, there is a lot of discussion of evaluating the degree of bringing about the effects through what they call measures of effectiveness.  There is no discussion or no measure that has to do with an evaluation of whether the actions performed to bring about the effects are morally right.  There is no theory of right action present in the effects-based approach.  Most philosophers take a theory of right action seriously, with the right taking priority over the good (the language of good and bad is about consequences and the language of right and wrong is about actions).  With an emphasis on bringing about certain effects, which are also consequences, the approach presumes consequentialism.  Consequences play a role in morality.  However, since EBA advocates focus solely on the effects or consequences they want to bring about (which seldom works as planned), they will completely ignore the vastly more harmful unintended consequences they bring about from their pursuit.  The means we used to bring about victory to end WWII in large part created the Cold War, and the means we used to prosecute the Cold War in large part created the conditions for the conflict today.

For example, EBA advocates will shrug their shoulders at collateral damage, believing that collateral damage is just the price of doing business.  By collateral damage we are talking about the unintended harm to non-combatants.  The 20th Century—leaving over 100 million war dead—has devolved from having a non-combatant casualty rate of 10% at the beginning of the century to roughly 50% in the Second World War to an appalling 90% by the end of the century.  Is the current century following this trend?  The vast majority of innocent people killed in terrorist attacks well exceed the 90% rate.  But the casualty rate that we have inflicted in Afghanistan and Iraq may well exceed this rate as well, if we ever find out.  However, if the casualty rate in the current war against terror, or struggle against ideology, or whatever abstraction this war is fighting, if that casualty rate is somewhere between the President’s cavalier estimate of 30 thousand and other estimates that are as high as 300 thousand, and we add that figure to the number of casualties around the world, then the U.S. is inflicting somewhere between 90% and 99% of the total casualties in the current war.  If we are characterizing most of these casualties as collateral damage, then we are at a minimum subverting the English language because this level of harm is no longer collateral in the sense that it is concomitant, secondary, subordinate, or accompanying—it should be of primary concern; it by definition can no longer be collateral.

            Of the two general approaches to explore human activity, the scientific approach has had as its project the goals of explanation and prediction while the philosophical approach has worked toward understanding.  One general strategy is the scientific one, maintaining that reason explanations could also be causal explanations.  Adopting this first strategy, of which the effects-based approach remains a part, are the disciplines of social science that want to render human action under scientific regularities, such as empirical political science, economics, and so on.  The other general strategy moves away from a scientific view of human activity remains philosophical.  An alternative to the effects-based approach is emerging in some circles.  That alternative is called systemic operational design (SOD).[7]  SOD is very much more philosophically sophisticated than EBA, and has its roots in modern science and philosophy.  EBA remains medieval—pseudo-scientific and pseudo-philosophical.

            EBA is an unsuccessful attempt at being scientific while SOD is philosophical.  The former is an attempt at gaining a level of certainty and control through a decision procedure, while the latter is a critical method.  Decision procedures are closed, complete, decidable, while critical methods remain open, incomplete, and acknowledge uncertainty.  The first is pseudo-scientific because one of the features that differentiates between science and pseudo-science is the concept of falsifiability.  No matter how much contrary evidence appears in front of EBA advocates, they can deny that the evidence falsifies their pursuits.  The model can be completely backwards from ground truth, yet the model can persist—this is how we have failed to recognize or acknowledge something as significant as the current insurgency (as of a year ago at JSCOPE the military was denying one).[8]  The former doctrine begins with assumptions and the latter approach begins with questions, thereby revealing their relative stances on knowledge.  Even though SOD is philosophically interpretive—not pretending to be scientific—it remains consistent with modern scientific practice and understanding.

Some are skeptical of SOD because they think it is rooted in Israeli history and culture and practice.  While these states of affairs may have influenced and motivated the primary theorists, nobody, not even the Israeli theorists, see SOD as being a uniquely Israeli artifact without application outside of the Middle East.  They like the theory because it is more reliable as a theory, and they recognize that because of their philosophical frame of mind.  Many also resist this alternative because of practical problems facing the implementation of the idea:  the vocabulary is different; U.S. military culture obviates dialogue, and so on.  This paper is more about the theory than about the practice.  We should get the theory right first.  The medical community did not give up on germ theory because of the difficulties associated with operating in a clean environment.  The practical matters will emerge naturally, and the military will adapt after the theory is right.

SOD has to do with capitalizing on emergences rather than teleologies, recognizing the way humans act in an open system in the real world rather than misrepresenting human behavior through a flawed representation, as EBA does.  Force is not ruled out in the SOD concept, but force is not the first resort either, so SOD opens the door for considerations within the moral domain as a necessary feature of the system.  Understanding SOD is difficult, though, for it requires one to be able to understand scientific evolution, the way systems change naturally forward through time rather than systems (particularly systems of systems) being made to change artificially backwards through time based on some preconceived plan.  Advocates of SOD understand the power of the theory of evolution as a scientific theory, and many EBA advocates do not.  It is no accident that many EBA advocates prefer intelligent design over the theory of evolution and that many of them live in Kansas.



[1] Alexander Rosenberg, The Philosophy of Social Science, (Boulder:  Westview Press, 1995), chapter 2.  “Intentionality turns ‘mere’ behavior into action.  Action is intentional, for behavior is only action if there are intentional states—desire and belief that lead to it.”

[2] Pamphlet 4, Doctrinal Implications of Operational Net Assessment, United States Joint Forces Command, (Suffolk, VA:  Joint Warfighting Center), 2004.

[3] Francois Jullien, A Treatise on Efficacy, (Hawaii University Press, 2004), pp. 22-23.

[4] Gregory S. Paul, “Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies,” Journal of Religion & Society, Volume 7 (2005).

[5] Arthur Koestler, The Ghost in the Machine, (London:  Arkana, 1967), p. 17.

[6] Edward A. Smith, Effects Based Operations:  Applying Network Centric Warfare in Peace, Crisis, and War, (DoD Command and Control Research Program, 2002), p. xiv.

[7] I’m interested in the academic and theoretic pursuits on the part of the theorists.  The theorists include Shimon Naveh from the Operational Theory Research Institute (OTRI) in Israel and Jim Schneider at the School of Advanced Military Studies (SAMS) at Ft. Leavenworth.  There are several headquarters and directorates who have a vested interest in how these alternatives may be worked into doctrine.  I represent none of these interests; my views are wholly my own, bounded only by the constraints of logic, pursued in the spirit of academic freedom and free inquiry.  There are also experiments being conducted to see which alternatives are better or worse.  My work on the theories of these doctrines is completely independent of these experiments, as it is independent of the political decisions.  My interest is purely an academic interest.  If the story of the political development of this doctrine is to be told in print, it will have to be told by someone else.

[8] “People did not want to hear about the Fedayeen.  It was an undefined enemy.  So we ignored it…If you cannot put a name or a face to an enemy, then why dedicate combat power to them?”  LTC D.J. Reyes, G2, 101st AASLT Division, in Rick Atkinson, In the Company of Soldiers, (New York:  Owl Books), p. 160.