Our departure from Afghanistan is a classic example of Chaos Theory at work. President Biden, himself, used the word “chaos” last week to describe the situation there.
Chaos theory, simply put, is the branch of mathematics that deals with complex systems whose behavior is highly sensitive to slight changes in conditions, so that small alterations can give rise to strikingly great consequences. While President George W. Bush’s introduction of combat troops into the country in pursuit of terrorists in October 2001, wasn’t exactly the equivalent of triggering the “doomsday machine” in the movie, “Dr. Strangelove” (1964), it has resulted in dire consequences no one could have predicted: 2,352 American military personnel killed as of this month; over 20,000 wounded; 800,000 having served in country; over 2 trillion dollars spent; 51 NATO and partner nations involved; an untold number of civilians killed or wounded.
And then, there’s the Butterfly Effect, an underlying principle of chaos, which describes how a small change in one state of a deterministic nonlinear system can result in large differences in a later state (meaning that there is sensitive dependence on initial conditions). A metaphor for this behavior is that a butterfly flapping its wings in Texas can, theoretically, ultimately cause a hurricane in China. Simply put, all parts of the whole are interconnected, and the effects produced, however small their cause, influence all subsequent actions and results. Turn on your television and watch the chaos around the Kabul airport for evidence of the Butterfly Effect.
At first glance, perhaps, the term, “chaos theory,” might strike one as an oxymoron: discord, disorder, and randomness vs. the calm, organized process of a theory, however unproven. However, it deals with the apparent arbitrary nature of chaotic, complex systems which have underlying patterns of interconnectedness, with constant feedback loops, similarity, and self-organization.
Looking back, I can see this theory at play in my personal life. On my first ship, I made a big impression on my chain of command, and they decided I was a good candidate for admission to the Naval Academy in Annapolis using one of the few Fleet quotas that were awarded each year to enlisted personnel. I passed the Navy-wide competitive examination; I passed the physical exam; my Division Officer highly recommended me; the captain wrote me a “walking on water” recommendation; all I lacked was my high school transcript. When it showed up, my bad grades and weak record (I mostly looked out the window for four years) killed that dream and set in motion a chain of events that have yet to end. And then, there was my brother. I can remember him saying, at a very early age: “All I want out of life is to have a little money in my pocket and to be left alone.” Well, he died a while back, at age 71, and that just about summed up his life: “He had a little money in his pocket, and he was left alone.” Clearly, we were children of chaos.
Chaos theory is normally applied to the natural sciences, but it also has had application in some less obvious areas, such as politics and international relations. In fact, there’s an argument to be made that the ideas behind chaos are far more intuitive in the study of politics and armed conflict, as in Afghanistan, for example, than in the natural sciences where it originated. Take, for example, the old English proverb that’s second only to the Butterfly Effect as a commonly used explanation for chaos:
For want of a nail,
the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe,
the horse was lost.
For want of a horse,
the rider was lost.
For want of a rider,
the message was lost.
For want of a message,
the battle was lost.
For want of a battle,
the kingdom was lost.
All for the want of
a horseshoe nail.
I would suggest that chaos theory began in play the moment our first troops hit the ground in pursuit of terrorists some twenty years ago. For want of a clear mission; for want of the support of the Afghan people; for want of creditable local political leadership; the Taliban has returned; All for the want of an objective that was beyond America’s reach. The country is not called the “graveyard of empire” for nothing.
There is a symbol for chaos. It comprises eight arrows in a radial pattern. It is also called the Arms of Chaos, the Arrows of Chaos, the Chaos Star, and the Star of Discord. Not surprisingly, it was symbols that alerted me to the inevitability of the current chaos in Afghanistan. The first time I set foot in the country, I was discouraged by the amount of and virulent tone of anti-American graffiti that I observed painted and drawn prominently in public spaces. It went far beyond the common “Yankee Go Home” sentiments that you normally see all over the world.
Another thing I remember that bothered me is that no one would look me in the eye. In psychology, the term is called “attending;” that is, when you are in someone’s presence you “attend” them by looking them in the eye; otherwise, they feel awkward, and a relationship is never established. It’s a fact, and you should try it. I was in a graduate clinical psychology class at the University of Oklahoma in Norman years ago, and someone decided that we, as a class, should not “attend” the professor when she entered the classroom. She lasted about thirty seconds before she asked what was going on. Obviously, we never established true relationships with the Afghan people.
The practice of expressing political protest through word and picture is long established around the world and throughout history. Such protests are often not as sophisticated as the caricatures found in magazines and newspapers. I’m thinking specifically of the French satirical magazine, “Charlie Hebdo,” whose editorial offices in downtown Paris were viciously attacked by Islamic religious extremists a few years ago. It might be manifested in graffiti (words or pictures), or posters clandestinely plastered on the walls of buildings, railroad boxcars, and bridge abutments in the dark of the moon. Such images speak in symbols, something to which people attach meaning and is used to communicate with others. Along with language, beliefs, values, norms, and behaviors, symbols make up our nonmaterial culture. Unfortunately, they are often overlooked.
I first noticed graffiti, for example, early in my naval career. As a ship comes into port and pulls alongside a pier, one often sees graffiti painted on the side facing the water. The general public can’t see it; it is in many languages; and often scatological in nature. As I grew older and traveled around the world, I noticed other examples. For example, I have crawled around the burial catacombs of Rome and seen the early symbols of Christianity, the cross and the fish painted on walls. I have seen that sliver of wood, reputed to be part of the true cross of Jesus, on display in the main cathedral of Palermo, Sicily; and I have seen the bones of St. Paul on display in a monastery on Corfu – both very tangible symbols of faith.
Sometimes, such usually benign symbols are co-opted for malevolent purposes: the Crusader cross, today condemned by many for the excesses of their attempts at conversion; the swastika, originally used as a symbol of Hindu good luck; the beautiful white camellia flower, used as a symbol of the Knights of the White Camellia, one of the most violent factions of the Ku Klux Klan; the Star of David, used to label, identify, and persecute Jews in the ghettos of Europe and throughout the Holocaust, etc. From the beginning of time, man has used symbols to express himself or herself and, for good or bad, in such representation, we often see references to the most important social issues of the day. Cave dwellers drew crude pictures on the walls of caves in France; graffiti is evident on the walls of ruined buildings in Pompeii (if you go, forego the X-rated tour); Spanish conquistadors left their name on Inscription Rock outside of Gallup, New Mexico; George Washington left his initials on the Natural Bridge alongside Interstate 81 in what is now Virginia early in the French and Indian War, etc.
At what point does this “guerilla art,” whether sprayed on the wall by “cholos” in East Los Angeles (whose favorite graffiti image is Our Lady of Guadeloupe, by the way), or posters from the “Dada” movement during World War I where members used unconventional, even shocking, images to protest the war and the state of society, become social protest? Unfortunately, social protest is sometimes overcome by politics, as in the Charlie Hebdo tragedy, and even in the work of such artists as Diego Rivera, the most famous muralist in Mexican art history. A radical communist who attacked the entrenched Roman Catholic Church hierarchy, and a spokesman for the anti-clerical movement that accompanied the 1910 Mexican Revolution, when priests and other ecclesiastics found themselves in danger as enemies of the people; before his housemate Leon Trotsky was assassinated by ice pick on order of Lenin, he is perhaps known more for his support of anarchy and revolution than his brilliant art.
In Cuba, long before the excesses of Camp X-Ray, and when one could still go on liberty outside the gate into Guantanamo City proper, I saw graffiti protesting the corrupt regime of Fulgencio Batista and proclaiming the coming revolution. Most were tinged in red, which has long been the color of revolution, and a common message was ‘Lalerta!” or “Stay Alert!” You only must Google current conditions in Cuba to see how that once promising idea turned out.
It was also my luck, in 1967, to be in Greece during the so-called “Revolt of the Colonels,” a junta of several Greek army officers who overthrew the democratically elected government of Prime Minister George Papadopoulos. The image of their revolt, which appeared all over Athens, was the phoenix, the mythical bird that symbolized the rebirth of Greece from the ashes of the old regime. These guys didn’t last very long, consistent with chaos theory; about the only good thing they did was to appoint the Greek actress, Melina Mercouri, as Minister of Culture.
If I might mention a book that illustrates the power of symbols in political upheaval, I would recommend “The Wretched of the Earth,” by Franz Fanon, a black French medical doctor, born on the island of Martinique, who was the “conscience” of the Algerian revolution against French colonialism. He was later quoted extensively by such black American “revolutionaries” as H. Rap Brown, Stokely Carmichael, and Angelia Davis.
Angelia Davis was almost the death of me. I finally got to the Naval Academy, as an officer on the staff, and I oversaw a speaker series that invited prominent personalities to come and speak to the brigade of midshipmen. We had such people as Elie Wiesel, who won the Nobel Prize for his writing as a Holocaust survivor. Although she was a member of the Black Panthers, Angelia Davis was also a philosophy professor at a prominent California university, and I decided it would be good for the students to hear her point of view. After her talk, which was well-received and, I thought, well-balanced, the Commandant called me in and threatened to fire me. He said, “What do you mean, bringing that well-known communist on my campus?” I just kept my mouth shut and wrote it off to chaos theory.
Light a candle for me.
Benny Hornsby of Oak Grove is a retired U.S. Navy captain. Visit his website, bennyhornsby.com, or email him: email@example.com.