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.|
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.