The Forever war: Violating a basic law

forever war

When basic laws are not understood or ignored no sensible results are accomplished

In this article, I show how the First Law reveals some false assumptions that (still) govern war decisions.

A basic physical law can only be ignored at your own peril.

In this article, I apply the First Law of Thermodynamics to the war dynamics of the anarchistic System. I show that from an energy transfer perspective, a finite-time singularity dynamic the System produced during the period 1495-1945 – and was accompanied by four accelerating war cycles – can be ‘compared’ (at least to a degree) to a power plant that generates electricity by expanding steam into a turbine.

This metaphor reveals some basic rules that apply to warfare.

Fundamental natural and physical laws – like the First and Second Laws of Thermodynamics – also apply to social systems and their dynamics: Humankind and social systems are not exempted.

Thermodynamics is the study of energy and its transformations. The First Law says that energy is conserved; the Second Law says that even within the framework of conservation, ‘restrictions’ apply to energy transformations.

The reason these basic laws were never used to study – make sense of – the war dynamics of the anarchistic System, is that energy and energy transformations were never ‘identified’. You cannot see energy directly, only its effects.

This is somewhat surprising when you consider that warfare – as developed in Europe, during the period 1495-1945 – is about the use of kinetic energy, and not much more than that. Kinetic energy – in the form of destructive power – is used to accomplish ‘work’. Work – as I argue in this article – is often not clearly defined (and understood).

In this article (Part I), I limit myself to the ‘application’ of the First Law to the System’s dynamics, and show what insights this law provides. In Part II, I discuss some of the insights this ‘metaphor’ provides in the workings of the current international order, and the challenges we now collectively confront.

My research – especially the patterns that can be identified – makes it possible to identify energy transformations in the System more clearly, and make (some) sense of them.

The First Law of Thermodynamics can be schematically described as follows: delta U = Q + W, meaning: The change (‘delta’) in the internal energy (U) of a system is the same as the sum of the energy (Q) that is added to the system’s surroundings and the work (W) that is accomplished. A distinction must be made between the system and its surroundings. Q and W represent energy passing the system’s boundary, to its surroundings (by two different modes (‘heat’ Q and ‘work’ W)).

The system, its environment, U, Q and W must be clearly defined to be able to make sense of energy transformations that take place in the anarchistic System. Also is important to identify what variables determine the internal energy state of the system, that is being studied (I will not discuss these particular variables (like population size and connectivity, in this article).

The (anarchistic) System, referred to in my research – consisting of interacting communities (states) in an anarchistic ‘setting’ – is not the system I refer to in this particular article.

The finite-time singularity dynamic that was accompanied by four accelerating war cycles (during the period 1495-1945) constitutes the system in this particular analysis. This system, consists of interacting military capabilities (‘armies’) that represent states in the anarchistic System. Armies deploy – use – energy with the purpose to achieve certain effects.

The anarchistic System is a so called non-equilibrium system: in case of the anarchistic System net macroscopic flows of matter and energy occur, resulting in macroscopic change (upgrades of the international order).

During the period 1495-1945, the finite-time singularity dynamic produced four accelerating war cycles, each cycle consisting of two distinct phases: (1) A relatively stable period, when an international order is ‘in place’ and military capabilities (kinetic energy) are used to regulate the existing status quo (order), and (2) a critical period, when during a systemic war military capabilities (kinetic energy) are used – put to work – to upgrade the international order. During relatively stable periods kinetic energy is used to fix the existing order, while during systemic wars (critical periods) kinetic energy is used to change (upgrade) the order. In other words:  work – W – during the two phases differs fundamentally.

In the study of thermodynamics heat engines and steam cycles (of power plants) are often used to study and illustrate the ‘workings’ of the First and Second Laws of Thermodynamics.

The steam cycle can – to a degree – be used as a metaphor to better understand the energy transformations taking place in the anarchistic System during successive cycles. This metaphor provides some clues that reveal some basic ‘rules’ that apply to the anarchistic System.

A power plant plant generates electricity by expanding steam through a turbine. Four ‘devices’ can be distinguished in the power cycles of the plant: (1) A boiler, that converts liquid water into steam at a high pressure and temperature, and requires energy input from the environment: Q-in, (2) a turbine which drives an electric generator (this is the work W that is accomplished), (3) a condenser that removes the remaining heat that was not converted into W (and is released to the environment): Q-out, and (4) a pump that ensures the circulation of the water in this process.fts-als-een-ding-met-fuikThe finite-time singularity resembles a turbine, that produced four war cycles. 


It is possible to identify more or less similar devices – with more or less similar functions – in the anarchistic System. In case of the anarchistic System, tensions (that build up and accumulate in the anarchistic System) and resources are transformed by means of (1) ‘industrial processes’ into military capabilities. The tensions and resources can be considered Q-in, the energy that is extracted from the environment and (at a later stage) put to use by the finite-time singularity dynamic (the ‘turbine’).

The military capabilities are used by the (2) finite-time singularity dynamic (which resembles a turbine) to destroy issues and set in motion a process of designing and implementing an upgraded international order (that is the work W that is accomplished by the system, during systemic wars).

The finite-time singularity dynamic (the turbine of the anarchistic System) transforms military capabilities into kinetic energy, that is then used to accomplish work W. However, the finite-time singularity dynamic also transfers – unavoidably – energy to its surroundings, which does not contribute to the design and implementation of the upgrade of an international order. This is (3) collateral damage: Q-out.

The (4) urge to survive of humans and communities they group into, and the need to fulfil basic requirements to achieve this (survival), drive the finite-time singularity dynamic, and constitute the ‘pump’ of the anarchistic System.Firts law PNGEnergy transformations in the anarchistic System.


According to the First Law of Thermodynamics, the change in the internal energy (U) of the turbine (that is the finite-time singularity, consisting of interacting military capabilities of states) must be the same (amount) as the sum of the energy that is added to the system’s surroundings (Q-out, collateral damage) and the work (W) that is accomplished.

Despite the abstract nature of this model, its practical meaning and applications are very straight forward. 

In my research, I explain that an international order has three ‘components’: (1) an organisational structure (also represented by the Great Power status hierarchy), (2) a physical structure (the size and form of states, and their size distribution) consisting of a number of units, and (3) a rule-set that applies to interactions between states during relatively stable periods.

Through the application of kinetic energy these components of the order are reconfigured (upgraded) during systemic wars. This (an upgrade) is the work W that is accomplished by a cycle of the finite-time singularity dynamic (the turbine).

During successive cycles (1495-1945), the organisational structure and physical structure of the anarchistic System (Europe) became increasingly permanent. The decreasing Great Power status dynamics, the increasing permanence of state borders and the decreasing number of units in the anarchistic System (from circa 300 in 1495 to circa 25 following the third cycle (1815-1918)) are the work that was accomplished by four war cycles; the cycles of the finite-time singularity (turbine).

These properties of the successive international orders developed/evolved very regularly and consistently: the output (performance) – work W done – by successive cycles of the finite-time singularity dynamic (turbine) was very consistent.

pnas-fig-2The output (performance) – work W done – by successive cycles of the finite-time singularity dynamic (turbine) was very consistent.


The changes in the internal energy of the system (finite-time singularity dynamic, military capabilities) were also remarkable consistent: The total severity of each cycle ‘measured’ in terms of battle casualties – military casualties that were caused by battle, in other words by interactions between competing military capabilities of states during each cycle – was remarkably constant, during all four cycles circa 2.4% of the total population of the System (the population of Europe) was ‘used’. This figure does not include collateral damage (Q-out): To quantify the collateral damage (Q-out) of each cycle, further research is required.

The First Law shows that kinetic energy (military capabilities) that is applied during systemic wars, but does not contribute to meaningful changes (W) in the components of the international order only causes collateral damage.

The First Law also shows that kinetic energy (military capabilities) that is used during relatively stable periods – when an international order is in place, and kinetic energy (military capabilities) is used in efforts to regulate tensions and ‘fix’ local disturbances of the order – but does not contribute meaningfully to these objectives, only cause collateral damage.

In both cases the following basic rule applies: if through U (the use of internal energy) work W is not accomplished, Q – collateral damage – is the consequence. Q ads to the entropy of the anarchistic System.

The war in Afghanistan shows the validity – and application – of the First Law: Despite the most powerful Great Power (the United States) and military alliance (NATO) in the System in kinetic terms, use (apply) enormous amounts of military capabilities for almost 16 years, no sensible work W – ‘fixing’ – is accomplished. There only is collateral damage: W = 0, and delta U, the total kinetic energy used = collateral damage (Q) only.

The collateral damage however – given the fact that this is a (counter) insurgency war – is not without effect: The collateral damage caused by NATO and the US feeds the insurgency. More kinetic energy, means more collateral damage, means more insurgency.

Afghanistan shows the severe limitations of the kinetic paradigm that has evolved in Europe during the period 1495-1945, and has then become the ‘global standard’ for competing states in the now global anarchistic System. “Afghanistan” also shows the inability of the US and NATO to recognise this simple fact, and make adjustments to the kinetic paradigm.

The dominance of the kinetic paradigm – and its severe limitations – will also be ‘on display’ in North Korea.