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It’s complex, not complicated –or is it?

Complicated, Complex and Chaotic

Mike Farrell

The Second Coming By William Butler Yeats

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight; somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Soldiers should probably never turn to poetry as a way of explaining reality – the life of a soldier is ultimately based on fairly simple things. Yet, reality is quite a bit different, and the reality that we navigate today is pretty much one thing if only that –NOT SIMPLE.  This makes the easy solution not so easy as we might like…

A recent series of articles in the NEW YORK TIMES have pointed the way to at least grasping the problem.  David Segal’s article on the complex versus the complicated in the May 2 Times Week in Review provides a really superb picture of how bizarre the world can become.  And yet, human beings are hardwired to prefer the simple to the complex…(http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/02/weekinreview/02segal.html)

Segal’s article cites the McCrystal Rosetta Stone, the spaghetti PowerPoint that explains how Afghanistan got so screwed up and how to fix it. As the general pointed out after looking at it, if we can understand it, we win the war.  Of course, we don’t understand it – our logic tells us that if we can find the right axis, the right spot to leverage our power – combat, intelligence, economic, diplomatic, anthropological – we can change the entire complexion.  However, our logic may be letting us down; there may be no single spot to exert leverage;   we may have to  simultaneously exert leverage in different levels and directions or in some alchemical sequence to win, or at least not lose or at least, not lose too badly.  I suspect that much like Colonel Harry Summers famous understanding of Vietnam, we won’t understand it until it’s over, and we’ve had a chance to figure it out. (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/27/world/27powerpoint.html) And, not unlike Summers’ experience with Giap, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if what we think we did or didn’t do is ultimately irrelevant.

( http://www.carlisle.army.mil/USAWC/parameters/07autumn/halloran.pdf )

The Magic PowerPoint as shown in Elizabeth Bumiller’s Times Article on PowerPoint

Segal’s article address the root of our issues in some ways – we are limited in our ability to learn. There are lots of examples – I was recently watching a marvelous video from the New Orleans Heritage and Jazz Fest of Susan Tedeschi and the Derek Trucks Band playing an old Junior Wells and Buddy Guy song, Little By Little.  As a musician, I was seriously taken by the playing and was trying to figure out just what she was doing – at one point, she took her left hand off the guitar and shook out her fingers, then took her pick in her right hand and put it in her mouth and then played a part of her solo with her thumb and fingers for a measure or two – then she took the pick out of her mouth and continued playing. Never missed a beat, never hit a wrong note. (Hey, there’s some music to listen to until you get to the point I’m talking about, but bear with it…best female blues singer currently working and the best slide guitarist currently playing and a very tight band… http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gLhrJNfhTE0&feature=player_embedded)

Ok, what happened there? Nothing that doesn’t happen a lot to guitarists – their fingers cramp slightly. Susan’s been playing smoking blues guitar for a while now; guitarists are vulnerable to carpal tunnel as well as typists, clam diggers and welders. Same probably with the pick – the dangers lie  in ignoring what happened or in placing entirely too much significance into what we observe.  Sometimes, a cigar is just a good damn cigar…and sometimes, it explodes.

The problems we face in understanding the world and then doing something are compounded by the problems of the complicated versus the complex.  At first, I thought Segal was just playing sematic games, but after a few seconds reflection, I realized that his insight was pretty profound.  He points out that some things are complicated – I understand how the internal combustion engine works, sort of; I have no clue how to rebuild the fuel injection on my 2008 Mustang GT. Actually, I’m not even sure I can find it – but, I love that car. I had a 1989 GT that had an engine I understood really well ; you opened up the hood and there it was. It didn’t have antilock brakes or traction control, and was a bitch in everything except dry pavement.  In fact, there was one corner between my home and Fort Lewis that always guaranteed a fishtailing slip slide and away, regardless of road conditions or speed or how I handled the clutch or what I was doing with the gas.  The car was too complicated to drive there but I could probably repair it if I needed to; the new one is far less complicated to drive, but impossible for me to repair if I need to.

This is not all that dissimilar to the problems in Afghanistan, or Iraq. Desert Storm was relatively simple;  retaliation for 9/11 was relatively simple; everything since Tora Bora and Secretary of State Powell’s speech to the UN has been complicated. All the attempts to wrap them up in catch-phrases or slogans or talking points have contributed solely to background noise. It’s complicated and we have yet to agree as to what we’re trying to do…which adds a helluva lot of complexity to a complex situation.

It’s worth digressing to health care reform and the Tea Party Movement.  Although I can feel a great deal of sympathy for these folks,  the various nonsensical things that have come out of it alternately amaze, amuse, or plain piss the old Top Sergeant off. The health care mess is incredible and has been for years. For a group of people to complain about “Keeping your government hands off my healthcare” is to complain not just about the Medicare or the VA or the Tricare that so many of them have; it’s to complain about the FDA and standards for hygiene and sanitation, and new devices and medicines funded by the National Institute of Health or the Center for Disease Control.  Of course, the best solution is some sort of single payer system or single schedule of fees and reimbursements; what we are ultimately talking about is not a bureaucrat taking your temperature, but a bureaucrat approving a funds transfer to your doctor. Which is what insurance companies do, or actually, try not to do.

Another place we the complicated versus the complex is facing us while laughing evilly is in the Gulf of Mexico and the whole issue of off shore drilling. Every time someone tries to make the reality reduce to a catch phrase – The Wetlands! versus Drill Baby Drill! – we get bit. Compromise between positions is impossible, so it might help to stake out new positions. President Obama tried to, and then complicated technology bit him on the ass. While it appears that British Petroleum might have avoided this with a few more safety features and better blow off valves and more redundancy, the fact is they didn’t. There’s a balancing act between safety, cost, environment and energy going on, and our failure to see the complexity of the issues while lost in the complications and the catch phrases will haunt us and our grandchildren. (Actually, having no children, it will haunt your grandchildren…)

Segal points out that there is a conceptual difference between complicated and complex.  Trying to reduce the complicated Yin and Yang of Afghanistan Strategy to something simple, A+B=C, is to miss the point in a world where A+B=F9*Dog or some other absurdity.  However, defining goals and objectives in simple terms, establishing order in the face of complexity, is critical. The solutions are not simple, but the goals should be.

It’s really as simple process. Take a big hairy goal, like “Ensuring that all Americans have access to healthcare that is affordable, effective and efficient,” and figure out what that means. The statement is simple, the complexities are huge.  Do I, as a citizen, have an absolute right to Viagra if I need it? Shudder to think of the complicated issues that need to be defined.

But, if we don’t define the damn things, we’re ultimately screwed.  That wire diagram for Victory in  Afghanistan exists for lots of reasons, most of them bad. However, the situation it describes is real – and for every situation we get into that evolves to that point, there’s a concrete failure to deal with complexity first.  It’s one of old Stephen – Highly Effective Everything – Covey’s first Seven Habits. Begin with the end in mind; define what good is; describe what success looks like. Then we can argue about the techniques to get there.

Undoubtedly, McCrystal was being ironic and honest in his comment.  The problem is that before we figure  the sonofabitch out, a lot more people will die and many more ill effects will loose upon the world.  If it seems at times like anarchy, it is. The anarchy of reality…

View the original article at Veterans Today

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