Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Theory and Practice: from Profound Military Philosophies to Paintball!

J.F.C. Fuller and paintball – what in the world might the two have in common? Well, not much in principle, but actually, quite a lot in practice. I just did a recent revisit of Fuller’s work, The Foundations of the Science of War.  You can access a reprint of his classic work through the U.S. Army’s Combined Arms Center (here). Putting aside the stranger side of Colonel Fuller, and the side that attracted fascist thought, this important work is a fascinating look at one of military history’s most profound theorists theory of science as a basis for understanding the human interaction called warfare. He viewed the interaction of mental, moral and physical spheres as comprising a unity of movement understood through their scientific evaluation.

One of JFC Fuller’s contribution to military strategic thought includes the idea that there are necessary principles in warfare. Reflecting on previous practitioners like Napoleon, Jomini,  Clausewitz, and Foch, he suggests “When [man] has learnt to economize his knowledge, or rather its expenditure, he has discovered wisdom; and when he has learnt how to economize the power of courage he has attained to self-command; and when he has learnt how best to use his strength he has become skillful. The government of these three states is the province of the principle of war.”[1] 

Through a series of revisions, using a scientific approach of hypothesizing and testing and synthesizing, Fuller arrived at nine principles of war:[2] 
  1. Direction
  2. Concentration
  3. Distribution
  4. Determination
  5. Surprise
  6. Endurance
  7. Mobility
  8. Offensive Action
  9. Security
In an interesting way, there is another scientific approach underway to understand a rather benign form of warfare – paintball! I had no idea how technical and calculated the game of paintball was. Devotees of the sport and even recreational enthusiasts can now apply scientific foundations to improve their decision processes. The folks at Paintball Tactician are turning real military theory, into practical calculations through simple apps. Literally one could enter a few pieces of information, in the middle of contested battle, and Paintball Tactician will give calculated advice on the best move: flank, attack, delay, counterattack, etc. Their algorithms are not just mathematical guesswork; they are based on real theoretical principles confirmed through actual experiences from a wide range of military practitioners. I am no paintballer, but as a student of international relations and conflict studies, this idea fascinates me.  

As a strategist and consultant for geopolitical risks, there is actually something very interesting about the technology aspect of automated decision tools. The ability to cross-reference decision options with theory and practice-based tools adds a powerful new dimension to the decision process, particularly when you can amalgamate real-time practical data with theoretical research. We will talk more about that in later posts.  

[1] See JFC Fuller, The Foundations of the Science of War, p. 209-210. Available online at:
[2] Fuller, p. 221.