Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Black Hole of Real Thinking

Reading the Saturday Financial Times, I came across an article by Tyler Brule at the end of the Life & Arts section.  In reference to meeting with US corporations in New York, he bemoans the difficulty of deciphering "what marketeers have been attempting to say with their special language that borrows too much from a Pentagon strategy book rather than daily English."  This is not meant to complement the literary talents of the Pentagon.  Rather, it is an indictment of the shallow and jargon-filled collection of buzz words and platitudes that Pentagon strategy statements have become.  The combination of simplistic statements of strategic guidance and overly complex, specialized, and deterministic decision-making and planning models make for a muddle of policy that officers often place far more faith in than is warranted.

We can start by considering the military's capstone strategic document, the National Defense Strategy, which provides six vapid objectives: defend the homeland, win the Long War, promote security, deter conflict, and win our Nation's wars.  While these broad concepts do trickle down to the prioritization of efforts and resources, they could hardly be less meaningful.  Sometimes it is important to ensure that the obvious is stated, but is "win our Nation's wars," especially when stated sixth out of six, really meaningful?  Also, concepts such as promoting security are so conceptually vague as to result in policy confusion, especially when considered against the exhortation in the President's National Security Strategy to promote democracy and our other "values."  Which do we want?  Stability, that being stasis and security, or change?  When is stasis not security?  When is it?  Does instability that causes a lack of security but will ultimately lead to change that may install democracy and compatible values suit our ends?  Going back to one of my favorite quotes from historian Lewis Mumford, speaking of Roman decay, "Security was the watchword - as if life knew any other stability than through constant change, or any form of security except through a constant willingness to take risks."  Pushing for change here, but calling for security there exposes us to charges of duplicity, as recent questions over our policy toward Bahrain have shown.  Indeed, our past policies have been described as an artificial suppression of volatility, only prolonging and perhaps worsening the explosion and aftermath of the Arab spring.

Drilling down another level, the National Military Strategy outlines four objectives: counter violent extremism, deter and defeat aggression, strengthen regional and international security, and shape the future force.  While somewhat more specific, these are still so broadly stated as to be nearly useless.  The good news is that through the hierarchy from the President's National Security Strategy to more specific guidance and plans, themes and objectives are nested and linked.  Additionally, these plans do make an attempt to define the strategic environment we operate in.  Overall, though, it is a very superficial treatment that does little to open officials' minds to the complexity of our operating environment.

Nor are we particularly attuned to operate in complexity.  I do not believe that the complexity of today's operating environment is really dramatically different than that of days gone by.  Some argue that today's problems are "complex," and thus different and more difficult from the simply "complicated" problems of yesterday.  Direct causality can be determined in complicated problems, according to the linked analysis above anyway, while complex problems have so many interconnected variables that causal linkages between action and outcome cannot be determined.  Perhaps the defeat of the Germans and Japanese was simply a complicated problem.  Then so too was that of the Iraqi army and the Afghan Taliban regime.  Under the complex/complicated dichotomy, though, how could the reconstruction of Germany and Japan, the establishment of the "Marshall Plan," and indeed the creation of a new postwar world order, be anything but complex?  How were those problems any less complex than those of post-2003 Iraq?  While two retired colonels writing in Armed Forces Journal (Kevin Benson and Steven Rotkoff) argue that "decision-making in the 21st century will take place under conditions of ambiguity and hyperspeed in information" (whatever that means), I'd argue that the only differences between today and yesterday are that yesterday's ambiguity due to incomplete information and imperfect communications means has become today's ambiguity due to incomplete but cacophonously copious information.

Yet, the pundits positing the 21st century's ground-breaking differences argue that new modes of thought and decision-making are required.  The colonels mentioned above impugn Boyd's "OODA loop," linking it to the military's "notion that there are specific knowable causes linked to corresponding effects."  They paint the OODA loop, standing for orient, observe, decide, and act, as a simplistic and reductionist effort in which we must scope down what we observe in an effort to reduce the noise and get to the "decide" and "act" portion.  Their article is more an example of the paucity of real thinking in today's senior ranks than in the shortcomings of the OODA loop itself.  Zenpundit briefly attacks their thesis as a strawman here, while providing some further reading on the OODA loop.  The OODA loop is popular for several reasons.  I'd argue that it is popular because it is simple at face value, easily memorized and conceptualized, and relatively easy to operationalize.  As a tactical and maybe even operational level concept, the OODA loop also supports efforts to make for a quicker decision cycle, "turning inside the enemy's OODA loop" to paralyze him by outpacing him.  While many advocate for its use at the strategic level, I really do not see its utility as a real tool, except for its exhortation to keep returning to the orient and observe phase.

From a linked SWJ article.
The problem with our strategic thought is not the OODA loop or anything other tool set; it is the fact that people keep trying to define decision-making through rigid processes meant to correct this deficiency or that.  These are all substitutes for, and inhibitors of, agile and intensive thought.  While the OODA loop is a relatively simple concept, many of the other kits in vogue today are unnecessarily complex.  Take, for example, some of the debates on Design (TM), "post-modern" concepts, and assessment in places like JFQ and SWJ.  While these seek to address the complexity of the world, their proponents seem to revel in creating products so complex as to defy real utility.  What is more, many pundits seem to think that by increasing the complexity of our analytical processes, we can manage the complexity of the world.  This is precisely the wrong direction of march.

On the other hand, Ben Zweibelson, an Army major and advocate of Design (TM) and post-modernism in military thought argues that our practice of defining an end state then figuring out how to get there is deterministic and teleological.  Instead, in a discussion at SWJ, he suggested that in some cases commanders should do something more akin to pointing out an azimuth into the fog, then constantly re-evaluate their path.  I think this is taking post-modernism several steps too far into the military realm.  Unfortunately, though, some of our strategic decisions have been so poorly defined that they have been little more than telling armies to march off on a compass quadrant into the dark and fog.  These orders were not given with post-modern verve and explorative innovation, but through a complete lack of imagination and intellectual curiosity.  I do think that we need to define concrete end states based on a thorough analysis of the situation, but we need to ensure that we stop short of the fog if at all possible.  If our objective lies miles into the fog, we simply cannot reliably get there from here, and no amount of systematized analysis or decision-making will make the unknown knowable or attainable.

Looking back at documents like NSC-68 and the Long Telegram, which defined the strategy of the Cold War, these too contained nebulous concepts, but it seems to me that the depth of thought is far greater, while less systematized.  There are no uber-complex figures like the ones above, but also no simplistic pillar diagrams.  The ideas are all carried by the written word and fleshed out in some detail, linked explicitly and implicitly both to a body of other specific policy literature and an overall literature and mental universe held in common between the policy elites of the era.  This came before the Whiz Kids and their quantitative analysis of the 1960s and before the increasing Balkanization of academia into ever narrower and more esoteric sub-specializations.  This is the root of our reductionism, not any decision-making model.

We need more holistic thinkers, truly educated across a spectrum of the humanities.  Instead, military academies specialize in churning out students somewhat educated in hard sciences and engineering.  For academic expertise, we hire in narrow parochialists who imagine that they can quantify the social world using the models and mathematics of test tubes, petri dishes, and even quantum physics to provide clarity to complexity and even chaos.  We hire people to study the problems, people to quantify the problems, people to analyze the data, and people to turn the analysis into suggestions.  We hire people to teach us how to think and decide, but they specialize in the science of thought and decision, not in the practice of it, nor in the practice of how to turn all the other stovepipe specialties' products into the stuff from which decisions can be made.  This mass is so amorphous that only a "system of systems" can make the sausage of policy, and often the sausage is not very good.  Thus, the focus on models of decision and design, rather than on real thinking.

In the end, though, the tragic decisions behind policy failure in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan were not due to a poor decision-making model.  They were not due to a lack of information.  They were made because our policy apparatus is not inclined to output rational policies.  They were made because ideologues were peppered throughout key positions of administrations, or because stupid and intellectually incurious individuals were behind key decisions.  They were made because real experts were ignored, as were the people from which a democratic utopia was to be made.

So, Benson and Rotkoff are wrong.  Missteps in recent conflicts have nothing to do with the OODA loop, nor with complexity versus complicatedness.  Post-modernism cannot save us, nor can more rigorous analytical methods and metrics.  Science cannot make social interactions predictable, though people have long thought that it could.  And no matter what systems, methods, and models we use, politics, bureaucracy, and institutional culture will always stymie perfectly logical policy outcomes even before the plan meets complex realities.

We can do better, though.  We can have more humility and less hubris.  We can educate our leaders better, making them more holistic thinkers with a broader aperture and and intellectual background.  We can set our policy goals short of the densest fog.  We can seek greater buy-in when we do need to march into the unknown.  We can avoid offering glib estimates of easy victories.  We can be honest when the costs are unknown but likely to be high.  We can admit that we will need to constantly reevaluate and that we will make mistakes, but that we will not march on stupidly just to save face.  We can put people who are more agile and less political in positions that require boldness of action and litheness of intellect. In the end, we must make up the deficit of real thinking with thought, not with more clever and complex systems, nor with the imagination that we are doing worse today because things are "harder" than they ever have been before.  They are not.  We simply are making them so.

Returning, finally, to our strategic documents, perhaps they could provide guidance a bit less nebulous, charting our way further into the murk, while admitting that we cannot neatly control the complex environment around us.  Not everything can be summarized into bullet points on slides or nice acronyms.   We need some guidance to close up the black hole of real thinking.


  1. "This mass is so amorphous that only a "system of systems" can make the sausage of policy, and often the sausage is not very good." - what a great quote, Pete. Loved that.

    We are at an intellectual crossroads, perhaps. You frame the landscape well- on one path, we have a superhighway of technological centric logic where the military industrial complex and 'whiz kids' have built this colossus of metrics, science, and these machines that promise to "tame complexity." Instead of adapting from past failures, we re-brand things. Body counts are out, but "jackpots" are in...can someone tell me the difference? The math teachers of the military industrial complex have such a grip on our military that any efforts that fall outside of a metric or measurable (quantifiable) process is branded as 'anecdotal' and irrelevant. This road stifles creative discourse and innovation.

    The other road opening up is full of intellectual potholes that make the ride rather unpleasant. Design offers new concepts and innovative thinking- but at a steep price right now. We cannot agree upon a lexicon, or even uniform processes and logic because the military is literally going into seizures over how to understand, incorporate, and ultimately profit from Design Theory. This road is littered with too many philosophical chin-strokers that have some genuinely interesting ideas, but are often too insulated from the rest of the institution to convey their deep understanding in a manner that delivers the explanation in a form that can be actioned with.

    The original road (MDMP, linear concepts, doctrine, repetition) is still useful for the military, but not for every journey. Yet we use it often- perhaps too often. We define ourselves with it, we churn out military professionals out of our PME steeped in the dogma...and then we scratch our heads and ask why our leaders are not more adaptable and innovative in real-world applications. Now, I am not saying military professionals are not tactically innovative- they absolutely are. We are full of plenty of tactical Macguivers out there making straw into gold on a daily basis in multiple conflicts. But- at the operational level and above- where all of those tactical successes ought to be unified into a cohesive and synergistic approach that accomplishes our strategic goals- we are left rather flat. Operational Macguivers are few and far in-between. Why? And how can we fix this?

    I like to think that a military professional should view the spectrum of available knowledge as an expanding buffet line. Imagine options of different food expanding at an exponential rate as new knowledge is produced by human society in all directions. You are literally surrounded by food- but your plate is limited. What do you consume? For military leaders, can we put any combination we want, or does our institutionalism force us to put the same meals on all of our plates. Doctrine, school, and my organization says I must eat chicken, corn, and mashed potatoes- and eating this every time will always get me where I need to be...and if you add some Hot and Sour Soup, cuttlefish, and beef bone marrow, you are messing with how things ought to be done. We need to encourage folks to sample different combinations of food, and appreciate that the world does not run on chicken, corn, and potatoes always...and some meals do not have the metrics that support them, yet if your logic supports this new knowledge production with the food available, you might make the best meal for that unique situation. As long as we do not try to impose a mass-production TV dinner option on that individual success, we are good. Learn from what happened, but do not blindly imitate and create uniform conscription.

    And eat everything on your plate, just like mom used to tell us...


  2. Ben,
    Thanks for the extended comment. I like your expanding buffet line idea. We really need to be reading from an incredibly diverse library. The military staples just won't do. I think we get stuck too much in the rut of reading the same old stuff about Vietnam and old battles of WWII, etc. We need to read about economy, society, a little on religion but not too much (i.e. not everything can be explained by Islam), governance, democratic transition, etc. We need to read about management, too, as many of our "leaders" aren't good at their titular role and are terrible at managing these growing organizations and processes. Problem is, many don't read much at all and those that do too often give another PME on "We Were Soldiers Once... and Young."

  3. Or we might draw our reading in military history from a much wider set of templates and experiences. For example, the Taiping Rebellion was one of the most destructive insurgencies in history, but I've never seen a single article/thesis on it.

  4. A.E., thanks for the comment and I agree. We promote the same tripe over and over. It is good to start with, but we need more breadth and depth.

  5. The trap we can fall into is that the selected examples repeatedly flogged in doctrine, PME, and professional debate can slant people in certain directions. Governments and external expeditionary forces have used a variety of methods and tools to control internal rebellion. There are many different versions of counterinsurgency from the 19th century to present and COIN itself is only one of many methods of counterrebellion.

  6. I think much of political science and "structural realist" foreign policy thinking have this character: an attempt to instill a precision to the imprecise and to short circuit the muddy, painstaking, and imprecise wisdom that one gets from years of studying history, decisions of others, and the character and culture of the people invovled. An overlay to this is our modern desire to see "all people everywhere as basically the same" which prevents intelligent judgments and generalizations that help predict the behavior of others.

    Michael Oakeshott described all of this as the vice of "rationalism" in politics, as in the kind of rationalism that characterized the leftist ideologies of the French Revolution and its progeny.

  7. I would also add that our policymakers at the highest levels do not understand their own country, why its soldiers fight, and how this knowledge may illuminate the acts and motives of our enemies.

    Our decisionmakers have said we’re a democracy, that this means elections decide things, and that this cosntant change in our political policy is the genius of our system. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that our life is much more than a mere democracy, and that our soldiers and countrymen conceive of the nation as a set of concrete traditions and experiences, including the individual experiences of living in America, making choices, the lives and experienes of their families, and living within certain expectations.

    In other words, America is not just a creed or idea, but a way of life, and that defending that way of life from opposition, ultimately defending their homes and families, is the chief motivation of most of our military men and women. They certainly are not fighting for the equal freedom of some totalitarian subcullture to have the right to oppress their neighbors tomorrow, so long as this coercion follows an election. But we’ve essentially foisted this model on the disjointed lands of Iraq and Afghanistan, and these same policymakers are surprised that minorities are not buying in, and, more importantly, do not understand such an open-ended system is not one for which Sunni Iraqis or Pashto Afghanis will boldly fight. They won’t fight for such a “question mark” regime precisely because such a broad and ahistorical democratical model is not attached to any substantive goal.

    Misunderstanding our own country, our leaders have pursued a naive “hearts and minds” strategy in both lands. Instead of pursuing substantive political ends–like free markets and law and order or basic security–they instead tried to sell hollow procedures. So what does the new Iraq mean to Iraqis? No one knows. The Iraqi and Afghani soldier does not know what he’s fighting for because his regime is not committed to any particular ends. It’s an empty vessel. And it’s an empty vessel because mistaken neoconservative policymakers wrongly assumed that the US was an empty vessel, the so-called creedal nation, when in fact U.S. society manifests a coherent way of life for individuals and society that they deem it worth fighting for. In other words, the US as a nation-state actually means something to its military.

    Pseudosophisticates like to say soldiers don’t fight for ideals, but they fight for their buddies. That may be true in a firefight, but in a years-long slogging counterinsurgency, he who is fighting for something will win, because the moral level of war–both for the fighters and for the population in which the fight takes place–is most important.

  8. Roach,
    Responding to your 445 comment, I agree highly with the rationalism thought. My argument in other posts and in my forthcoming book about the end of history influence in American foreign policy thinking is all about this rationalism. I have to read Oakeshott, though, to know exactly what he was saying. In any case, the "end of history" idea informs liberal interventionists, including neoconservatives. It comes from an intellectual history that reaches back at least to Augustine, channeling more directly through Kant's universal history, Hegel, Marx, etc. It incorporates the positivist and universalist threads of the French Revolution (see Temples of the Cult of Reason) and those like Comte, etc. As to your 452 comment, I think I'm going to try to write a post that touches on this.

  9. Here's a link to something I wrote on Oakeshott

    A thing on Burkean Nation Building I think you'll like (I wrote it when I was more positive on the whole Iraq adventure):

    Finally, a piece on the dearth of nationalism in our foreign policy:

    I hope you like. And I strongly recommend Oakeshott if you're going to tackle rationalism. His book will stick with you for years

    PS My brother Sean was in your wing and is now out with 31 MEU. I'm the civvy in the family!

  10. Roach,
    I served with Sean in San Diego for about 2 of my 3 years there. I hope he is well and thanks for the reading.

  11. I realize this isn't completely in line with this topic, but taking a look at Design, MDMP, 'thinking about thinking' and trying to figure out just how we think in the military etc - I am constantly drawn to the inability of so many commanders to forego providing guidance and.....commanding.

    Staffs run like crazy producing COAs without a mission or end state, just hypotheticals. Commanders want to hear ideas but I think what they really want is for someone to figure out what's going on and tell them. We hear "we need to look at this" and similarly vague statements.

    My point here is to echo the statements above calling for more education, more diverse education. Holistic is probably a good word: Instead of plugging things into a targeting packet and hoping some "score" will pop up telling us what to target, we need to think and evaluate and determine through quality analysis. Instead of staring at the "scores" of various COAs, we need to really take a look at them.

    I don't think that will happen until we re-evaluate our approach to how we do education in the military. But we are going to start seeing more "distributed learning" which will likely be the opposite of "holistic" at its core. So I'm not that optimistic thus far.