War in a Box: Strategic Planning Using Integrated Semiotic Squares

“Politics, moreover, is the womb in which war develops.”[1] This quote from On War is the baseline thesis that posits political and economic systems are the centers of gravity for the eternal nature and evolving character of war. In other terms, these systems are the wielders of power for politically directed competition and armed conflict toward geostrategic ends. Interrelated human, physical, and virtual systems are the wicked problems that must be affected to create non-violent systems and peaceful conditions. This assessment employs integrated semiotic squares and systems-of-systems thinking to design a strategy enabling stability across the competition continuum. In complex situations such as these, a semiotic study can be used to organize and analyze the situation better than a simple narrative explanation. Highlighting causal conflict, competition, and cooperation mechanisms not apparent in aggregated stability operations are objectives of the Euroregion case study at the end of the assessment.

The Semiotic Square

First, semiotic studies emphasize use and interpretation of symbols and signs. A semiotic square also called a “Greimas Square” after the French-Lithuanian semiotician, is a conceptual tool used for structural and relationships analysis. Greimas developed the square based on Aristotle’s opposition theory. The figure below shows a simple example comparing male and female states to refine oppositional analyses and construction of meaning, and to provoke non-linear thinking. Systems are nonlinear in nature, so non-linear thinking allows unpredictable approaches to complex analysis and  planning. Non-linear thinking includes complexity theory and notion information is relative to the systems interacting. A key aspect of complex systems and non-linear analysis is emergence. Emergence refers to larger system phenomena not present in smaller subsystems.  

Example Semiotic Square (YouTube)

Next, semiotic squares are used in a military context for advanced design theory. The Canadian Military Journal has published a variety of articles highlighting Systemic Operational Design and designing with semiotic squares. One of the core principles associated with semiotic square design is taking a non-linear approach to strategic planning and transitioning it to the tactical level where linear approaches apply.

The Master Square

The Master Square

This section outlines strategic design through semiotic square framing of four contradictory or opposing categories. The categories are war and peace as contraries (Categories A and B) and their sub-contraries not war and not peace (Categories Not A and Not B).

First, war is the opposite of peace and includes extreme aggression and violence. Conversely, peace is the opposite of war and involves tranquility and an absence of violence. Aggression and tranquility were used as clearly definable conditions to aid in narrative development. Thirdly and fourthly, not war and not peace were added to challenge the notions of war and peace. These non-standard topics were chosen to provide more alternatives and conditions to analyze nonlinearly. Contrary and subcontrary labels were also added to highlight existing spaces or conditions between the categories. For example, Gray Zone appears in the space between war and peace. More precisely, it is “the hostile or adversarial interactions among competing actors below the threshold of conventional war and above the threshold of peaceful competition.”

Next, not war and not peace were refined as not A (violent, failing) and not B (not violent, not stable). A brief analysis of the sub-contrary elucidated autonomous or semi-autonomous conditions as a viable label. This assessment required further analysis, but fit the design based on a short review of historical and current proto-states. In this context proto-state refers to autonomous administrative subsystems within their respective national systems like Euroregions discussed later in this assessment. These types of  states exude various conditions that range from isolated violence to non-violent, but unstable or fragile based on geo-political system disturbances.

Sub-square Framing

The following design method emerged during analysis of the master square and involved sub-framing of the four main categories (war, peace, not war, and not peace). The categories were analyzed individually to identify points of overlap and interrelated centers of gravity and critical factors. During this design period, the categories were aligned A-D in a clockwise manner (above). They were re-framed later in the Master Square for additional emergent analysis and comparison. This design process both shaped and allowed shaping by the architect.


First, war was broken down into various forms of warfare: traditional, irregular, political, and perpetual. This deconstruction proved to be the most complex and yielded the below initial findings based on the quadrant analysis:

  1. The point of interruption involves all four forms of warfare.

  2. Political warfare was assessed as not traditional or irregular because it contained both forms of warfare and threat of nuclear warfare. It also contained the most intersections.

  3. Perpetual warfare was assessed as being the same as political warfare, which means it also contains various forms of warfare, criminality, competition and cooperation. The overall perpetual nature of war was highlighted as a critical factor.

  4. Perpetual warfare involves enduring terrorism, counterterrorism and inter-state competition in the physical domains, information environment and cyberspace. Machine intelligence, autonomy and robotics are emerging as interrelated sub-frames of perpetual warfare.


Secondly, in summary, deconstructed peace conditions involve provision of human needs, mitigated hostility, fear of violence, and heterogeneous social systems disturbances. Behavioral restraint enables de-escalation of conflict and enduring shaping activities that are both military and non-military. Mutual understanding is a key component of peace and relates to ideologies, identity driven conflicts, perceptions of mistreatment, disenfranchisement, and reconciliation. Mutual understanding when de-constructed includes political accommodation, power sharing, and sustained provision of security and economic resources. Inherent to mutual understanding are trust and mutually beneficial objectives.

Not War (Violent, Failing) and Not Peace (Not Violent, Not Stable)

The last two categories contained overlapping conditions like the peace category and master square’s contrary and subcontrary. The gray zone and semi-autonomous contraries bridged all four primary categories as a complex strategic approach. They also contained fluctuating restraint, peace treaties, and mutual understanding or agreement. When restraint, multilateral peace treaties, and mutual understanding align, they result in not A (violent) and not B (not violent, not stable) semi-autonomous conditions. Gray zone activities are still present by character, but enable stabilizing cross-domain effects. This resembles a reverse gray zone phenomenon or gray zone bifurcation resulting in cooperation and coalition building, as opposed to competition short of armed conflict to enable stability.

Strategic Findings and Courses of Action

  • Perpetual war is political (primary), irregular (alternate), traditional (contingency) and threat of nuclear (multi-stage) warfare to enable the geo-economic and ideological systems of revisionist, revolutionary and modern state powers.

  • Current defense community analysis emphasizes gray zone competition, and semi-autonomous political systems as negative or adversary centric phenomena.

  • Violent and unstable systems share the same conditions as peaceful systems when political and behavioral restraint, treaties and mutual understanding are prioritized.

  • Semi-autonomy employs Kalyvas’ The Logic of Violence in Civil War and posits civil wars are rational and violence correlates to previous feuding and level of territorial control.

  • The irregular warfare, mutual understanding, and rule of law quadrants could be de-constructed and compared to enable linear frameworks addressing civil and proxy wars, reconciliation, and provision of multinational security to enable effective government penetration to provide security and economic resources.

  • A joint stability functions sub-square could be added or merged addressing public order, immediate human needs, governance, and economic stability as core components of multiple sub-squares.

  • Like Systemic Operational Design outputs, only one course of action involving autonomous or semi-autonomous administrative divisions with transparent and effective central government penetration is recommended for systems that are historically violent and unstable.

  • Restraint, rule of law, immediate human needs and mutual understanding are also key conditions to affect the system’s conditions. In this case multi-lateral and limited violence is still required to neutralize irreconcilable networks and organizations to protect the population and enable long-term stability.

The Case of the Tyrol, South Tyrol and Trentino Euroregion (15th century-present day)

Tyrol and South Tyrol (Wikimedia)

Stability is not binary, and South Tyrol presents a case study that employs the Master Square’s autonomous sub-contrary as a strategy to bridge not war, but violent and failing and not peace, but not stable. The Tyrol, South Tyrol, and Trentino Euroregion is a tri-regional authority in Austria and Italy. The three different authorities constitute a Euroregion. Tyrol (North and East) is an Austrian state and South Tyrol and Trentino are autonomous Italian provinces. The boundaries date back to the fifteenth century and were divided after World War I. In the 1920s and 30s, fascist dictator Benito Mussolini encouraged Italians to settle in the region as part of Italianization. In 1939, Hitler and Mussolini gave German speakers in South Tyrol a choice to assimilate into the Italian culture or emigrate to the German Reich and leave their homeland. The start of World War II left the agreement partially implemented and divisive. The Euroregion was established in 1996 because of cultural identity differences, landowner rights and desire to self-govern by all parties.

South Tyrol is unique because of an ongoing non-violent separatist movement. The political movement calls for secession from Italy and reunification with Austria based on cultural, historical and economic reasons. Other political parties call for the establishment of a sovereign state while reintegration is discussed. From the mid-1950s to 1961 the South Tyrolean Liberation Committee conducted a bombing campaign targeting Italian infrastructure. “Ein Tyrol” continued the campaign and was designated as a far-right terrorist organization. The group is currently inactive.

Next, South Tyrol was granted autonomy after an agreement between Italian government and local officials in 1972. Since the mid-1980s the level of political violence in this region has decreased significantly with final self-governing agreements made between Italy and Austria in 1992. The primary reasons for decreased violence and sustained stability involve education, political inclusion, restraint and economic incentives. Economic incentives in the form of tax privileges. Under the agreement, 90% of taxes paid stay in South Tyrol with only 10% going back to Italy making it one of the wealthiest provinces in Italy.

The ongoing Eurozone debt crisis has legitimized calls for re-integration with Austria and independence. Behavioral and political restraint have maintained strained bilateral relationships between Austria and Italy. South Tyrol also highlights Kalyvas’ prediction that when insurgents are in a sovereign area, insurgent violence decreases. He states the parity of control between actors “is likely to produce no selective violence by the actors.”


Admittedly, this was the first attempt at using semiotic squares as an iterative strategic design tool, so fundamental semiotics processes may be unorthodox. The design was done by one person with inherent perception filters instead of in a group, or with trusted narrow artificial intelligence. Broad categories were refined non-linearly based on an existing knowledge of the strategic security environment. An end state was not identified initially, since it seemed limiting in a strategic context. From an operational perspective, a relatively safe and secure environment was not assessed and reverse engineered linearly either. Those conditions emerged as components of peace, restraint and rule of law in the strategic context. The notion of adaptation and opposing worldviews were also a prevalent theme and not limited to operational and mission variables. An emphasis was placed on adapting strategies that have been unsuccessful based on real-world case studies.

In similar studies, the strategy and subsequent operational course of action involves deconstruction and re-alignment of target systems instead of partial re-construction and integration campaigns. Time is a critical factor, where present and future states compete with the past and system’s historical memory. For example, the Durand Line established in 1896 dividing Afghanistan and Pakistan is a significant source of conflict and barrier to decreasing conflict and violence in the region.

Finally, autonomy and decentralized governance offer multi-lateral political, security, and economic incentives for regional and international cooperation. Perpetual resilience and adaptation to 21st century perpetual war is the only strategic course of action and begins in the human domain of the geo-political and economic system of systems. “Politics, moreover, is the womb in which war developswhere it’s outlines already exist in their hidden rudimentary form, like the characteristics of living creatures in their embryos.”[2]

Victor R. Morris is a former military officer, irregular warfare, and counter-IED instructor at the Joint Multinational Readiness Center in Germany. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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Header Image: La Mitrailleuse" by Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson (War Art)


[1] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton University Press: Princeton, 1976), 149.

[2] Ibid.