A Response to Tom Ricks: My Definition of Chaos

Tom Ricks’ article on chaos construes chaos as an unfamiliar, complex system, which, with experience, can be mastered over time; chaos as extreme kayaking from my interpretation.  From Ricks’ writing, I infer his definition of chaos to be the third option given by Merriam-Webster’s dictionary: “a state of utter confusion.”  But, as one who has experienced the fog of war, I submit that the second option given by Merriam-Webster,“a state of things in which chance is supreme,” is more relevant and meaningful to veterans, those who made it back.

I used to sit in my bunk at night in Baghdad and imagine that I was on top of one of the many mortar shells the insurgents fired at us, riding it at its highest point before it arced over.  Beneath me, blissfully unaware, camouflaged soldiers and Iraqis mingled in a delightfully unpredictable way, spread out in random patterns that defied symmetry or order.

Maybe a random gust of wind would push me a little left or a little right, push me away from a cluster of boys playing soccer in a dirty field.  Maybe a truck would pull forward, clearing a path for hot shrapnel to tear into the line of men waiting to pick up their benzene.  Maybe a little girl would decide that she wanted to run out into the street and wave to the friendly Americans.  Maybe one of the guys inside the armored vehicle would decide he wanted to stretch his legs, open the door, and step outside.


Chaos, the kind I know, has little to do with a traffic jam in Calcutta or whitewater rapids.  There is chance in those systems, but, as Ricks notes, it does not reign supreme.  In warfare, chance does reign supreme.

We tilt the deck in our favor.  We shoot better.  We have better armor.  We communicate better than our foe.

We bring order to the variables we can.  But we only hold a few of the cards.  We can’t always control where or how we enter the rapids, nor even tell where the rapids are.

War is not perfect chaos, for we have a little control.  But it is damn close.  The little girl I mentioned before is real.

Why her?  I’ve asked God that a million times.  Or the men who did not come back – I will refrain from using their names to respect their dignity… it seemed to me that God usually took the good ones.

He took some of the bravest, most decent men I have ever met.  Because they happened to pick the left side of the truck and not the right.  Because they volunteered to stand a watch before it was their turn.  Because – well, there really isn’t any because.

I don’t know anything about Napoleon’s mind.  Or any of those who planned strategy in Great Halls of power.  I do know that those who are able to master their fear of that terrible unpredictability, who are able to accept that they are dead before they enter battle, are able to operate with greater alacrity and navigate the rapids.

But the fact that some of us were able to survive longer does not delay the inevitable.  Bullets fired by children kill just as surely as the bullets fired by my elite snipers.  There is more predictability, less chaos if you will in my snipers rounds.  But, if you roll the dice enough, my kind of chaos again, you will find that you can get the real definition of Chaos from its source.

4 thoughts on “A Response to Tom Ricks: My Definition of Chaos

  1. Claudia Rojas says:

    As always, well written!
    Thanks for taking the time to write this response and for reminding us of what you and so many other went and are going through.

  2. S.A. Faraz says:

    Very insightful Capt Hall. As someone who wishes to follow in your footsteps (serve as an officer then graduate school), this blog is a fount of information and analysis.

  3. Mark Yanaway says:

    Clausewitz would agree with the good Captain. “Through the element of chance, guesswork and luck come to play a great part in war.” Pg 85 of the 1976 Paret & Howard translation. What does this mean? That the Commander (read army as the part of the paradoxical trinity subject to Chance) must address through use of his 'coup doeil' perseverence and risk management the existence of chance and probability on the battlefield. In the realm “of the play of chance and probability within which the creative spirit is free to roam;…which makes it subject to reason alone.” ibid pg. 89

  4. Blake says:

    If you need any help on the way, shoot me an email at blake@troopswap.com I'm always happy to help or to connect you with some of my peers if you need advice or have questions.

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