Can there be a mathematics of war?

by seangourley on December 18, 2009

A new thought provoking piece by David Berreby on the Ecology of war paper is now up on In the piece, Berreby does a good job of explaining the underlying forces that drive everyday human behavior. He gives examples of simple behaviors such as how we vote, or what we order that are governed by these forces. But he also argues that in large social systems more complex behaviors such as cell phone calls, the flow of traffic or stock market volatility are also potentially predictable – even if the individual people in the system are unaware that their behaviors are essentially being controlled. He notes that this prospect whilst true does not always sit well with our traditional sensibilities,

Those forms of prediction that rubs against our inclination to believe in free will. How could my decision next Friday be forecast by analyzing what millions of other people do? The prospect is a little freaky.

What he goes on to say is that war, like these other large social systems, is also governed by a set of underlying forces. These forces act to define a mathematics of war and can be used to make predictions about when the next attack is likely to be

In other words, according to their model, the decisions of insurgents–about whether to attack on a Wednesday or a Saturday, about whether to try for an average success or go for a spectacularly bloody result–don’t take place in a wildly unpredictable “fog of war.” Instead, they’ll always tend to follow the same rhythm. Regardless of their beliefs, ideologies and motives. Regardless of their immediate tactical concerns. Regardless of what they may think they are doing.

Berreby goes on to explain why insurgencies share these mathematical characteristics, it is a result of group structure, dynamics and decision making.

If there is a common signature to all insurgencies, they argue, it must be because all insurgent fighters converge on the only viable strategy. (The pattern they found in insurgent attacks does not apply to non-insurgent conflicts, they write.) The authors believe guerrilla movements are bound by a mix of physical and social constraints. Physically, insurgent groups maintain a particular size and organization to persist; socially, they have to strike in such a way that they get the maximum media attention and political impact. A terrorist group doesn’t want to strike on a day when three other units also attack, because then their assault will be lost in the general coverage. In other words, guerrillas, like stock brokers, are making decisions based on what they think other people will do.

Insurgents after all are human and like other large scale human systems their actions are now just starting to be understood.

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