Playing defense

One of the most powerful ideas in Boyd’s philosophy of conflict is that it doesn’t make any difference how potent adversaries’ weapons might be — or how brilliant their strategy — if they can’t use them.  Why might they not be able to use them?  Some reasons are simple, such as lack of proficiency. In other words, insufficient Fingerspitzengefühl or its organizational counterpart, Einheit. They know what to do but just don’t have the skills to do it.

There’s another possibility, one that Boyd especially liked, and it applies even if they’re well-trained: Get them confused, discombobulated, or better yet, infected with fear, uncertainty, doubt and mistrust.  He suggested many ways to do this, some of which are direct, such as agitprop and fifth columns, and others that fall under the category of “operating inside their OODA loops.” You can read more about this approach in Patterns, particularly around pages 121-125 and pages 46-47 of Strategic Game.

Let’s give our opponents their due. There will be times when they succeed in pumping up our anxiety. How do we protect ourselves against these same effects? One way is to keep the initiative, make the opponent react to you, operate inside their OODA loops.  These are great ideas, but what happens if you are already feeling the symptoms of fear and anxiety? Left unchecked, these will keep you from being able to take the actions necessary to reclaim the initiative. And don’t tell me it won’t happen to you; if this is your mindset, good luck.

In his writings, Boyd concentrates on the moral forces that hold groups together, and he did not write a lot on how individuals can deal with anxiety. But if you’re the leader of a group, and you break down into incoherent babble and start sucking your thumb, it may have adverse effects on the rest of the organization. How do you get yourself back in the game? There are some proven techniques, and today’s Wall St. J. mentions one of the most effective, conscious control of your breath.

In “Breathing for Your Better Health,” author Sumathi Reddy notes that

Breathing and controlling your breath is one of the easiest ways to improve mental and physical health, doctors and psychologists say. Slow, deep and consistent breathing has been shown to have benefits in treating conditions ranging from migraines and irritable bowel syndrome to anxiety disorders and pain.

Notice the part about anxiety disorders. That’s what you want to give your opponents, not experience them yourself. But if you do, first recognizing what’s going on, and then deliberately slowing your breath while engaging the diaphragm can be very effective.

Abdominal, or diaphragmatic, breathing is often taught in yoga and meditation classes. Experts say air should be breathed in through the nose, and the exhale should be longer than the inhale. Dr. Vranich recommends trying to breathe this way all the time but other experts say it is enough to use the technique during stressful or tense times or when it is necessary to focus or concentrate.

As the late yogi and professor of anatomy, H. David Coulter, explained in his book, Anatomy of Hatha Yoga,

[This] connection between heart rate and breathing, known as respiratory sinus arrhythmia, involves reflex activity from the circulatory system to the brain steam that causes the heart to beat more slowly during exhalation than it does during inhalation. … it slows the heart rate, and reduces fear and anxiety. (91)

Thinking in terms of orientation, anxiety is like static in the system. Slow, rhythmic breathing for roughly 3 seconds inhalation to 6 seconds exhalation  (about 7 breaths a minute) clears the static and allows the implicit guidance and control links to operate normally again.  As Reddy describes the phenomenon in the Journal article,

The vagus-nerve activity causes the heart rate to decrease as we exhale, said Richard Gevirtz, a psychology professor at Alliant International University in San Diego. Vagal activity can be activated when breathing at about five to seven breaths a minute, said Dr. Gevirtz, compared with average breathing rates of about 12 to 18 breaths a minute.

This is good hard science, not just mystical musings and naval gazing. Not only are these techniques that you can use, you absolutely must master something like this if you’re going to be an effective leader or even a balanced human being. All programs of leadership and management development, including Service schools and MBA programs, should include these techniques in their curricula because fear and anxiety are what you should be giving to your opponents, not what you’re doing to yourself.

[Disclaimer: I am a certified yoga teacher, technically an RYT-200.]

17 thoughts on “Playing defense

  1. It may take some practice to get the hang of 2:1 breathing. You could start with (roughly) 3 seconds in and 4 seconds out. If you begin to feel uncomfortable, just return to normal breathing. To get into thoracic breathing, start with belly breathing: As you inhale, push your belly button out, and as you exhale, bring it back in. It’s the diaphragm pushing down on your abdominal cavity that causes the belly button to go out. As the diaphragm pushes down, it also draws down the bottom of the lungs, filling the entire lung with air. This will be a new experience for many of us.

    Once you’re comfortable with belly breathing, try putting your hand lightly over your belly button and gently firming your abdominal muscles as you inhale. You hand, which will go in and out during belly breathing, should now remain still. Then as you inhale, flare out the sides of your ribs.

    All breathing should be gentle, deep, and through the nose. It will seem awkward at first but then become more natural. You can use it in meetings, for example, if you catch yourself becoming anxious, excited, and losing focus. A deep breath between a question and your answer is generally a good idea. The pause will make you seem wise, if nothing else.

  2. “Thinking in terms of orientation, anxiety is like static in the system. Slow, rhythmic breathing for roughly 3 seconds inhalation to 6 seconds exhalation (about 7 breaths a minute) clears the static and allows the implicit guidance and control links to operate normally again. ”
    I learned this in the 80’s from a friend that was schooled, somewhat, in Yoga.
    What she suggested and that I found helpful is to find the rhythm of your heart and then breath in for 4 beats and then breath out for four beats, until your natural rhythm takes over.
    This always works for me–as I suffer from an anxiety disorder there has been times that I have needed this.
    Which I think what your post is really about: non-rational behavior.
    There is nothing rational about fear only pain , so to combat something nonrational one needs to experience it, to overcome it, and our systems naturally try to exclude us from experiencing it, because fear puts a stress on our bodies.
    From what I could make of studies about fear, anything that helps us to experience our fears (and not actually dying from it) helps, i.e., in the study I read they suggested Marijuana and/or LSD could help.

    • Larry,

      Thanks. Speaking of experiencing fear, Boyd used to suggest that there was an ideal number of pilots we should be losing in air combat training, and commanders should be downgraded for losing too few as well as too many. I don’t know how serious he was, but the idea that if you want to learn to handle fear, you need to experience it is a good one.

      • When I was racing motorcycles there was a similar saying about fear. The saying went: “you don’t know how fast you can go, until you fall down”. I preferred long desert races of 100 mile or so, and falling down wasn’t really an option, because of distances and the real chance of getting lost and no one finding you if you happened to get hurt.
        But the saying did motivate me to go faster, and when the time came that I was no longer willing to fall down, I quit racing.
        Which my experience might show that having some fear is good. It puts stress on the body, and if the body is healthy, I think that is a good thing. For me, fear made me feel alive.
        I think when fear becomes too much a part of one’s self, maybe what Boyd would have called incestuous amplification, then it keeps you from acting correctly in the environment to which you are oriented, and that is when things can go wrong.
        The real key to successful desert racing is to hold one thought dear to you at all times. That thought is to never ride further than one can see, because there are only two options in desert racing. Option one, ride over the obstacle–option two ride around it. Luckily I had extremely good vision and could see what had to happen. That and desert racing isn’t rocket science. You prepare your bike and body for anything out there, and then hit it square or not at all. This makes for some very interesting few hours.
        The rider who is hitting the brakes to keep from hitting something doesn’t last long in desert racing. What this really means is that when you come upon an obstacle (most likely in unfamiliar terrain), more likely than not, one needs to go faster to either offset the increased force encountered by riding over it, or to make up the distance of having to ride around it. So the old rider’s axiom, “when in doubt grab more throttle” was the mantra.
        But when fear keeps you from “seeing” either option and you hesitate or grab for the brakes, it is too late and time to quit.
        My fear, or at least my time to quit, came when I became good enough to finish in the top 10% (out of around 300 riders), but was unable to give enough time for practice and pre race preparation. I started breaking down during the race, and the first lap or 50 miles became extremely scary for me, as the last half was enjoyable.
        Age and no health insurance was another factor for quitting 🙂
        Of course my panic attacks came much later in my life. It was literally a textbook example, as I wrote a paper about it for a psychology class.
        If I was to write about it now I would say the attacks came because of a loss of an orientation (my orientation) that created fear within my OODA loop, which subsequently amplified until released as an attack (a feeling of dying) within an environment that somehow ties the old and new orientations together.

  3. I like (pg131)

    Enmesh adversary in an amorphous, menacing, and unpredictable world of uncertainty, doubt, mistrust, confusion, disorder, fear, panic, chaos …and/or fold adversary back inside himself;


    “fold adversary back inside himself” … could be interpreted as the reptilian brain (irrational) fight or flight taking over and overriding higher cognitive functions.

    • ““fold adversary back inside himself” … could be interpreted as the reptilian brain (irrational) fight or flight taking over and overriding higher cognitive functions.”
      Yes, it could mean that. Folding the adversary back inside himself could be creating an image for your adversary that they will take as amorphous, menacing, and unpredictable, and filled with uncertainty, doubt, mistrust, confusion, disorder, fear, panic, chaos and, I imagine, could cause them to regress to a reptilian period of time, but does that fact always give the supposed, “more advanced”, civilization the advantage? That I am unsure of.
      Now I have watched my mother fold dough back on itself, and, as a young boy, I wondered at the time what was that all about?
      In Boydian terms, I think it is about reorientation. When you fold dough back on itself, you form new environments that pick up some of what was once there and divides it up again into a new environment.
      So there is a possibility, considering how great fresh bread tastes, that these new environments, filled with the yeast of both the past and future, will form orientations that will take advantage of these new environment in ways that are unknown to you, and the old dough.
      So you might be reverting your adversary to a dark place, as you suggest, but what you do know, or more important, what do you see in the new environment?
      Could it be that you are reorienting your adversary, in ways that give them a new advantage?
      I think the point of the maneuver can only be to reorient, but that reorientation, to me, remains unclear.
      In other words, which side of the “Force” that reorientation represents remains to be seen, if not by your adversary, then you.

  4. I would say that “fold adversary back inside himself” … is more like plane spiraling down out of control … only incidentally bearing any resemblance to OODA-loop.

    trivia drift … last sat. was 1st in 3part on (air) battle of britain. They had members of re-enacting society … members that extensive studied specific members of the “battle of britain” and were wearing their outfits. The oxygen mask includes a very heavy microphone … which resulted in fatigue and problems trying to constantly whip your head around observing environment and looking for the enemy. They said that the Germans were at significant advantage with newfangled throat mics.

    • ” … is more like plane spiraling down out of control … only incidentally bearing any resemblance to OODA-loop.”
      But every fold has a fold-line.
      I think your example is correct and a good one, if that plane is spiraling down out of control within the thickness of that line.
      In other word, in folding your enemy back on himself, both of you are still within the parameters of the same loop, but the enemy can no longer maintain the parameters of that Orientation, and it is hell being out-of-spect.
      The trick is to remain within specification and in context.

  5. This latest stunt by ISIS.
    Those familiar with Boyd will recognize it from a million miles away
    as a sign of abject total mindless desperation.
    This has backfired, they are now doomed, any empathy or
    credibility they may have had is gone, they are done.
    To the scrap heap of history and human folly.

    • I don’t know. The latest event may, as you seem to suggest, act as a fold-line, as the Arab world unites and the process of folding ISIS back on itself begins.
      If that is true, then the environment should begin to change quite quickly now.
      A fold-line doesn’t represent the breaking apart of the enemy, but the coming together of another side of the enemy that, perhaps, we haven’t seen yet.
      It’s hard for me to imagine what this “new” side of ISIS would look like, nor what force in the Middle East is going to do the folding, if there isn’t another side.
      And then there is the event itself. I haven’t read any analysis about it, but what’s up with the “GITMO” style jumpsuit the Jordanian pilot was wearing and is there any symbolism in dousing a pilot of a F16 in gasoline and setting him on fire? In other words, is there any relationship to the event and the tactics being used by the Jordanian air force that the people actually doing the fighting would recognize, as to make the event not just a desperate act, as it seems to be?

  6. The Guantanamo abuses have seriously eroded the USAs moral high ground.
    But there is still no equivalency.

    It’s enough to make one ponder, if only for an instant, and ask “what if” Dick Cheney has been
    right all along.

    It strikes me, and raises my suspicions of how this scenario seems to offer an
    ideal entirely “open ended” low intensity warfare “opportunity” for profit.

    Good article Chet, raises several interesting points.

    Larry’s remarks cover the rest.

    • “It’s enough to make one ponder, if only for an instant, and ask “what if” Dick Cheney has been
      right all along.”
      If your “what if” has to do with Cheney’s exit strategy being: to never leave, then there is no “right” or “wrong” to the “what if”. I think strategy can only be judged winning or losing, and the one thing we can say about Cheney’s strategy is that it was a losing strategy.
      If there had been any winning component to his strategy, then General Petraeus would not have been able to begin the process of leaving, by negotiating with those who were in a position of weakness. Negotiations can only take place from a position of strength, and the Sunnis did not have that position, we gave it to them.
      I mean, it didn’t take General Petraeus long to understand that America didn’t have a staying position when the only fighting going on was the civil war between the different parts of the society present in the region.
      I think his tactical assessment was correct, we had to negotiate with both the weak and strong forces of the civil war, and Cheney’s strategy can be considered “wrong”, because we couldn’t maintain our position, as long as there was a civil war going on.
      So really there is no “what if”, as his strategy had to surrender ground to the reality of the tactics, between both sides locked in the civil war. A war that is just now being resolved.

  7. I should have dropped a few more bread crumbs. I was referring to Cheney in the context
    of Guantanamo. And immoral equivalence of ISIS’s conduct. The Geneva Convention on
    the treatment of war prisoners is DEAD, and It’s clear now, that ANYTHING goes.
    You can ask yourself, Did Cheney and Co. start it ? Or, did they have a deeper
    insight, into who they were dealing with ?

    • Thanks for the bread crumbs. Your right, I didn’t know you were a Cheney and Co. apologist.
      I don’t think that, even if it was true that Cheney was only acting as the enemy would act and deserves a pass, just because the enemy does something gives us the right to copy their action. I think Cheney had more moral character than what you would lead us to believe.
      I also think Abu GHraib, Guantanamo and all the other stuff that should be examined in a court of law, happened because of the nature of war (particularly maneuver warfare) and the strategy used by the US military and its civilian leadership.
      Maneuver warfare is information intensive. Even more so than a war of attrition. In the collection of that information and in the environment (fog) of war maneuver warfare makes leadership the most important aspect of command and control. Control is at the point of the spear and not in the handle. If leadership fails in the command of its soldiers, then control is lost.
      Therefore, in maneuver warfare it is the leadership who should be held accountable for the control of its soldiers–as the soldiers are accountable for the commands made at the point of the spear.
      The civilian leadership of the US added to the pressure created at the collection point for information by its strategy of, at almost all costs, controlling the number of deaths of our soldiers. It was something they learned from the Vietnam war.
      The Defense Secretary at the time actually said that the key to this war is to control the number of deaths our military suffers.
      Which is a good strategy, but then the leaders who follow this mantra should take responsibility for their actions. I am sure they saved thousands of lives, but the war seems to be still on going, and we now know, after Vietnam and Iraq, the consequences of warfare based on body-count instead of territory.
      In fact, if I understand it correctly, the Navy and Marines have given up on basing winning on the counting of bodies. The Navy and by proxy the Marines have reverted to becoming an expeditionary force–a force that moves by square feet instead of by numbers.
      As of yet, I am not sure that is true for the Army and Airforce. With resources in short supply, my guess is that they will soon follow.

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