Stephen M. Walt

Numbers, strategy, and war

Numbers, strategy, and war

I don’t agree with everything that comes out of CNAS, but this post from the Abu Muqawama blog on the role of quantitative analysis in security studies couldn’t help but bring a smile:

“Here is what I think a Hippocratic Oath for Quantitative Analysis in Security Studies should look like:

War is a human endeavor. I recognize that it is a phenomenon that does not conform to neat mathematical equations.

I will use quantitative analysis in conjunction with theory and qualitative analysis to describe what I see as phenomena in war and peace. I will be honest about the limits of both my theory and my analysis.

In war and peace, the variables are infinite, and not everything can be measured or assigned a numerical value.

I will not use numbers to signify what are fundamentally qualitative assessments without acknowledging to my reader that I have done so in order to satisfy a departmental requirement, gain tenure, or get published in the APSR. Or because I have been in graduate school for so long that I have forgotten how to effectively write in prose.

I recognize there are no mathematical equations in Vom Kriege and that it is nonetheless unlikely that my legacy will transcend that of Clausewitz.

I recognize that very few squad leaders in the 10th Mountain Division have ever taken a course in statistics yet probably know more about the conduct and realities of war than I do.”

Wise words indeed.  I’d just add that Nobel prize-winning economist and strategic guru Thomas Schelling offered a similar warning in The Strategy of Conflict, cautioning against any tendency “to treat the subject of strategy as though it were, or should be, solely a branch of mathematics.”

That’s not to say that various types of mathematical analysis aren’t useful, whether one is talking about operations research, basic statistics, game theory, or whatever.  But it’s just a tool, and ought to be used in conjunction with other methods and with an appropriate degree of humility.