Zen Pundit on American Spartan

Mark Safranski has posted his review of American Spartan, Ann Scott Tyson’s story of US Army Special Forces Major Jim Gant in Afghanistan. Read it.

Here’s my review of Mark’s review.

As Mark notes, the strategy of supporting local insurgents goes way back, and it can be highly successful — the United States wouldn’t be here if the French hadn’t taken this approach. But it’s also true, as he notes, that if you create a monster to fight a monster, you have, in fact, created a monster. You’d think we might have learned this from our first Afghan adventure. So I certainly agree with Mark when he says that “It should only be done with eyes wide open as to the potential drawbacks (numerous) and it won’t always work but the militia option works often enough historically that it should be carefully considered,” but “eyes wide open” is easier after the fact. Even a mechanical system of three or more parts can become complex and therefore unpredictable. So we have, at the very least, the US forces, the various tribes and militias, and the government. You see where I’m going with this, and that’s before we consider that the players are hardly mechanical parts whose behavior can be predicted over any length of time. Continue reading

Irregular warfare

As Boyd would say, “Why would you fight any other way?”

Here’s a quote from a review in today’s WSJ [paywall]:

[Charles] Lee was awarded the honorary rank of major general in the Polish army and observed the Russians campaigning against the Ottoman Turks and Polish rebels, witnessing how small bands of irregular fighters could seriously disrupt and impede unwieldy regular forces. Combined with what he had already seen of frontier warfare in America, this experience did much to convince him of the superiority of guerrilla tactics over conventional ones.  “Book Review: ‘Renegade Revolutionary’ by Phillip Papas & ‘Charles Lee’ by Dominick Mazzagetti” by Stephen Brumwell.

Continue reading

Diseases of orientation

In Boyd’s grand scheme of things, Orientation drives action. The easiest and most reliable way to defeat opponents is to mess with their orientations so that the resulting actions are ineffective, late, or missing altogether.

It’s an ancient idea, all the way back to Sun Tzu (“All warfare is based upon deception.”), and that’s just what we have in writing. We can be sure the idea itself dates way before Sun Tzu.

In any case, a few thousand years later, Boyd added the idea of operating inside the OODA loop:

Mentally we can isolate our adversaries by presenting them with ambiguous, deceptive, or novel situations, as well as by operating at a tempo or rhythm they can neither make out nor keep up with. Operating inside their O-O-D-A loops will accomplish just this by disorienting or twisting their mental images so that they can neither appreciate nor cope with what’s really going on. Strategic Game, 47

Continue reading

Figures and maps from Certain to Win

I know a lot of you have bought electronic editions of Certain to Win (“a lot” being relative, but I’m highly grateful and flattered, nonetheless) that did not have legible figures and maps. My sincerest apologies.

I’ve uploaded a PDF file with all the graphics in the book. There’s a link to this file on the Articles page.

Some electronic editions also didn’t play well with Table I on page 43. I recreated that table in an earlier post and have also added a link on the Articles page. Continue reading

Fourth Generation War — Was I Wrong?

When I proclaimed the death of 4GW in this very blog about a year ago? Of course not. But there are disturbing developments, at least in its decline-of-the-state/road-warrior variant (aka, the Bill Lind definition).

Did you know, for example, that groups espousing an ultra-orthodox salafist interpretation of Islam, those iconic 4GW warriors we call “al-Qa’ida,” now control an area larger than that of the United Kingdom? This zone includes much of western Iraq and eastern Syria. It’s worth reminding ourselves that before March 2003, they controlled exactly none of this (or any other) territory. Patrick Cockburn offers his explanation of how we got ourselves into this mess in “Al-Qa’ida’s second act,” a five-part series in The Independent. Continue reading

Another ring?

John Boyd really liked Miyamoto Musashi’s 1645 treatise on swordfighting, A Book of Five Rings. In that same vein, he was a big fan of The Japanese Art of War by Thomas Cleary, a work that includes excerpts from Musashi and quotes from several other samurai and Zen masters of that period. Both of these books emphasize preparing an opponent mentally before risking an attack, a theme that also runs through Sun Tzu and that forms the foundation for much of Boyd’s Discourse.

As an aside, the parallels between fencing and dueling in the skies over southern Nevada are too close to ignore.

It’s always good, then, to receive a paper by someone who knows both fencing and Boyd. Here’s a new one for you, Nick Johnson’s “Boyd’s Real OODA Loop and Fencing,” which I’ve uploaded to the Articles page.

Boyd for Business & Innovation — Final Report

Chuck Spinney explaining some obtuse point about the OODA loop

Chuck Spinney explaining some obtuse point about the OODA loop

After my presentation, retired Marine Colonel Mike Wyly joined us from Maine via Skype to relate how the Marine Corps adopted the doctrine of maneuver warfare. Mike gave us a blow-by-blow description of a process in which he played a major role. Successful doctrinal changes by large organizations are rare: If you are the CEO of an organization considering such a change, you could do a lot worse than spending some time with Mike. His paper, “Thinking Like Marines,” is conveniently available on the Articles page. Following Mike, Sean Bone, co-founder of Adaptive Leader, demonstrated tactical decision games (TDGs) they use for training leaders in mental agility and timely decision-making under conditions of stress and uncertainty. This is real-world, practical stuff that I’m sure will be a great help to many of the participants.

Finally, for a successful implementation of Boyd’s ideas in business, Dean Lenane, then-CEO of CRH North America, described how he and his small team built CRH from no presence in the US market to a major player in their industry, explicitly using the principles of Boyd’s Discourse. Absolutely fascinating. Dean has written a thinly disguised novelization of one episode in this adventure, The Turnaround, which you can (and should!) also download from the Articles page. Continue reading

Boyd for Business & Innovation — 2

Before I forget, Chuck Spinney made a point about the OODA loop that bears repeating: Boyd did not want to draw the thing! In fact, he didn’t, until the penultimate chart in his very last briefing, less than a couple of years before he died.

Why not? Probably because he was afraid any “loop” he drew would become dogma, a reasonable assumption. Chuck finally persuaded him by using the logic that if he didn’t, others would. Most likely the circular O – O – D – A loop would become fixed in people’s minds. So Boyd agreed, but he insisted on calling it an OODA loop “sketch,” and putting “Loop” in quotes.

If you look at that briefing, the purpose of “OODA loops” (not “the OODA loop”) is simply to represent the process of evolving new implicit repertoire. Now, that’s a big purpose because our ability to survive on our own terms and increase our capacity for independent action rests solidly upon it. But it also suggests that people can create other OODA loops that serve their purpose better than Boyd’s sketch, at least in specific instances. All I ask is don’t make them more complicated than what we already have.

I have uploaded my presentation, slightly edited, to the Articles page. It’s a 3.1 MB PDF, and each element of each animation is saved as a separate slide, so don’t let the number of slides put you off. You can also download all of Boyd’s briefings, including the one we were just discussing, The Essence of Winning and Losing, from that page.

Defeated by our own technology?

Paul Lewandowski suggests so in a recent blog on ForeignPolicy.com (registration required):

Insurgent techniques became simpler, low-tech. Military-grade munitions gave way to homemade explosives. Cell phone detonators regressed back to command wire. Suicide bombers and insurgents disguised as Afghan army or police proved more efficient than complex, electronic IEDs or expensive VBIEDs. After nearly 13 years of war, the terrorists have learned that the best counter to a techno-savvy force is simplicity.

While this is certainly true, another, perhaps better way to characterize what’s happening is that the Taliban, al-Shabab and others confronting Western military forces aren’t so much out-innovating us as out-learning us. In other words, they aren’t coming up with better and simpler technology to counter ours. Instead, they’ve just stopped playing that game entirely. What’s most interesting is that they’re getting away with it, that is, they’ve found another game to play that works better.

As Lewandowski notes, what they’ve done is return to the roots of insurgency:

deeply embedded in the local culture, regional in focus, and urban in operation. The new insurgent will be so low tech he will be virtually untraceable. Another face in a sea of faces.

Compare with Boyd’s description of guerrilla warfare:

  • Guerrillas must establish implicit connections or bonds with people and countryside.
  • In other words, guerrillas must be able to blend into the emotional-cultural-intellectual environment of people until they become one with the people.
  • In this sense, people feelings and thoughts must be guerrilla feeling and thoughts while guerrilla feelings and thoughts become people feelings and thoughts; people aspirations must be guerrilla aspirations while guerrilla aspirations become people aspirations; people goals must be guerrilla goals while guerrilla goals become people goals.
  • Result: Guerrillas become indistinguishable from people while government is isolated from people. (Patterns 95)

Or, as Lewandowski puts it:

The counterinsurgent could see them walking to their target, weapon in hand, and never register him as a threat … The counterinsurgent can’t tap into the local, informal network the way the insurgent can. No one talks to the uniformed government official, but everyone talks to their neighbor.

And that’s the real problem. Until “counterinsurgents” solve that one, all the technological innovation in the world is just expensive wheel spinning. Another example of incestuous amplification.