Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Is there really such a thing as chaos? The more I know, the more I doubt it

The other day I wrote about thriving on chaos. But the other day as I biked in southwestern Virginia’s mountains, I looked at a series of small waterfalls and began to wonder if there is really such a thing as chaos, or simply complex situations that are occurring beyond our ken. For example, most Americans, ...

Rob Shenk/flickr
Rob Shenk/flickr
Rob Shenk/flickr

The other day I wrote about thriving on chaos. But the other day as I biked in southwestern Virginia's mountains, I looked at a series of small waterfalls and began to wonder if there is really such a thing as chaos, or simply complex situations that are occurring beyond our ken.

For example, most Americans, if dropped in the slums of Calcutta, would find them chaotic, as would many Indians when faced with the traffic on the 101 in Los Angeles. But in their own environments, they would understand most if not all of what was occurring. If you're an American, just exit at Alvarado, and take the first left after the Pioneer Chicken stand in Echo Park, etc.

Likewise, I remember a few years ago reading a scholarly article that referred to the chaos of a whitewater rapid. As a kayaker, I was surprised at such well-educated ignorance. The photo above is of Great Falls on the Potomac, where I paddle a lot, and yes, technically, that one-bladed paddle makes the fellow a whitewater canoeist, not a kayaker, but don't fret about that distinction, little grasshoppers. I have been in that exact spot on the river.

The other day I wrote about thriving on chaos. But the other day as I biked in southwestern Virginia’s mountains, I looked at a series of small waterfalls and began to wonder if there is really such a thing as chaos, or simply complex situations that are occurring beyond our ken.

For example, most Americans, if dropped in the slums of Calcutta, would find them chaotic, as would many Indians when faced with the traffic on the 101 in Los Angeles. But in their own environments, they would understand most if not all of what was occurring. If you’re an American, just exit at Alvarado, and take the first left after the Pioneer Chicken stand in Echo Park, etc.

Likewise, I remember a few years ago reading a scholarly article that referred to the chaos of a whitewater rapid. As a kayaker, I was surprised at such well-educated ignorance. The photo above is of Great Falls on the Potomac, where I paddle a lot, and yes, technically, that one-bladed paddle makes the fellow a whitewater canoeist, not a kayaker, but don’t fret about that distinction, little grasshoppers. I have been in that exact spot on the river.

The point is that river water doesn’t move randomly, and if you are experienced, it isn’t even confusing. You know how the priests say that everything God does has meaning and purpose, even if we don’t understand it? I can’t tell you that is true, but I can tell you from decades of experience that everything that happens in a rapid is indeed predictable, if you can fathom it. Rapids follow rules. Sure, sometimes currents shoot upstream, or a hand reaches from the depths and pulls down your bow for a sporty ride with the demons of the depths. In big rapids it gets very noisy and very wet very quickly. I love it in part because if you let yourself become distracted and think about work, you will wind up cold and wet and upside down.

But an experienced kayaker can see and hear all that happening, and if he or she can anticipate it all, he or she can use what is happening to achieve his or her ends. You have to keep your wits about you and use all your senses. This isn’t just a matter of sight and feel. Even the very sounds of rapids, from crashing roars to pulsing whispers, are helpful in understanding what the water is doing and where it wants to take you. You sometimes can even sense with your forearms a different current that is hotter or colder than the part of the river you’ve been in, and that has meaning too. If you understand a rapid well enough, you can do fun things like surf a wave upstream, or trust your stern to the strong grasp of the river and rocket downstream with a vertical boat, bow waving at the sun. I’ve gone up a torrential river at about 5 mph by picking my waves well and finding the zen balance between downstream momentum and upstream pull of gravity on the face of large waves. For example, one warm August afternoon in 2003, about a month after getting home from Baghdad, I was on a big wave on the main channel of the Ottawa River, I think in a rapid called "Coliseum." My 12 foot-long old school red Dagger RPM fit easily on the huge wave face, which I would estimate to have been about 17 feet long. To me, playing in a big Class III rapid of tumbling, sparkling clean water on a sunny summer day is like being a digit knocking around the middle of a giant delightful multi-sensory equation. But if you were there and you had never been in a kayak before, yeah, you’d be sensible to be scared out of your mind.  

So, I wonder: Is there really such a phenomenon as chaos? Or are there simply situations so confusing or novel as to be beyond our understanding? Is warfare simply an infinitely confusing situation that some minds (such as Napoleon’s) grasp better than others? 

Also, anyone got a recommendation for more I can read on this subject?

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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