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Chet’s Boydian Post-Script to American Spartan

Thursday, July 17th, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. "zen"]

Dr. Chet Richards had some kind words to say about my review of American Spartan the other day and added some Boydian strategic analysis to the saga of Major Jim Gant to boot:

Zen Pundit on American Spartan 

….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.

Still, Mark’s point is spot on — why do we always have to be the redcoats and let the other guys hide behind rocks and trees? Why do we keep doing dumb things? We don’t always, and we haven’t always, but somehow, we’ve developed a knack for discarding winning tactics.

…..One cause of this might be the mentality, attributed to Lord Palmerston several years back, that states have no permanent friends, only permanent interests. Glib statements like this are dangerous because they substitute for understanding and help lock orientation. Furthermore, they lead to the sorts of moral failings that Mark has identified. If you stop and think about it, the exact opposite would be a better way to run a foreign policy.

No organism, including a state, has long-term interests outside of survival on its own terms and increasing its capacity for independent action. As Boyd pointed out, these are easier to achieve if you have others who are sympathetic to your aims. In particular we should conduct our grand strategy (for that’s what Mark is talking about) so that we:

  • Support national goal;
  • Pump up our resolve, drain away adversary resolve, and attract the uncommitted;
  • End conflict on favorable terms;
  • Ensure that conflict and peace terms do not provide seeds for (unfavorable) future conflict. Patterns139

Or, put another way:

Morally we interact with others by avoiding mismatches between what we say we are, what we are, and the world we have to deal with, as well as by abiding by those other cultural codes or standards that we are expected to uphold.  Strategic Game 49

It’s not that hard. Our long-term friends are those who, like us, support our ideals, which we have made explicit….

Read the rest here.

I have to agree with Dr. Chet that we, or rather the USG, continues to do dumb things. It is virtually our default position now. The era of President Abraham Lincoln sending a case of whatever Ulysses S. Grant was drinking to his other generals is long over. Why?

I suspect by needlessly ramping up our organizational complexity we generate endless amounts of unnecessary friction against our ostensible purpose without adding any value. Aside from automatically increasing the number of folks involved who are neither motivated nor competent, making orgs more complex means too many voices and too many lawyers on every decision, of whom too few have a vested interest in the overall success of the policy to keep our strategic ( or at times, tactical) Ends uppermost in mind.

Policy, hell – maybe the first order of business should be to start using more bluntly honest terms like “victory” and “defeat” again in assessing results of military campaigns. They clarify the mind.

Maybe this is why the OSS, enterprising CIA officers like Kermit Roosevelt, Jr. , Edward Lansdale , Duane Clarridge or counterinsurgents like David Hackworth and Jim Gant could accrue large results while operating on a relative shoestring while enormous, powerful, quasi-institutional bureaucratic commands that spanned many years like MACV and ISAF have failed. The former led small teams that were simple, highly motivated and focused on adapting to win.

I fear things will have to get worse – much worse – before they get better.



The Wire, with a hat-tip to John Boyd

Thursday, July 10th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- with thanks to Netflix and David Simon, and the same with Don Vandergriff, Secretary Gates and Boyd himself ]

In the second season of The Wire aka “the Great American Novel for Television“, first episode, Ebb Tide, Detective Roland Pryzbylewski talks about his future in a discussion with his father-in-law, Major Valchek. The conversation goes (emphatically, on the Major’s side) like this:

Valchek: What do I think? I think you’re gonna take the Sergeant’s Exam next month. And because I have Andy Krawczyk’s ear and because he has City Hall’s ear you’re gonna make Sergeant. Then you’re gonna come out here to the Southeast where, because I’m your father-in-law you’re gonna be assigned a daytime shift in a quiet sector. Then you’re gonna take the Lieutenant’s Exam where you’ll also score high.

Pryzbylewski: I don’t want to make rank. I want to work cases. Good cases.

Valchek: Roland. Listen to me. You did good with the drug thing. You buckled down, you did the work. And except for that thing with the Grand Jury you helped take some of the stink off yourself. Now if you’ll just shut up and listen to me you might actually have a career in this department.


That’s pure Boyd, dramatized, if I’m not mistaken. I’d just reread Boyd’s speech in an older post from Don Vandergriff, SecDef talks about Boyd’s “To Be or To Do” speech, and of course I know that speech is a favorite of Scott‘s, so the impact of Det. Pryzbylewski’s predicament was pretty strong.

John Boyd:

Tiger, one day you will come to a fork in the road and you’re going to have to make a decision about which direction you want to go. He raised his hand and pointed. “If you go that way you can be somebody. You will have to make compromises and you will have to turn your back on your friends. But you will be a member of the club and you will get promoted and you will get good assignments.” Then Boyd raised his other hand and pointed in another direction. “Or you can go that way and you can do something- something for your country and for your Air Force and for yourself. If you decide you want to do something, you may not get promoted and you may not get the good assignments and you certainly will not be a favorite of your superiors. But you won’t have to compromise yourself. You will be true to your friends and to yourself. And your work might make a difference. To be somebody or to do something. In life there is often a roll call. That’s when you will have to make a decision. To be or to do? Which way will you go?

There’s a choice, sure. But on another level, is there really any choice?


Chet on Entanglement, Boyd and Strategy

Wednesday, May 21st, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a "zen"]

Chet Richards had an intriguing post at Slightly East of New on the implications of developments in quantum mechanics for Colonel John Boyd’s OODA Loop which was itself rooted in Boyd’s explorations of physics:

Quantum entanglement, the arrow of time and John Boyd?

Time, as every reader of this blog knows, plays a fundamental role in Boyd’s philosophy of conflict. The whole idea of fast transients, for example, which morphed into “operating inside the OODA loop,” depends on one side’s ability to change the environment more rapidly than the other side can comprehend, that is, within the time it takes them to reorient.

Does time exist? Not a question I’m going to go into here because even if it didn’t exist, what difference would it make to, say, operating inside the OODA loop? In either case, we can still imagine, and work with, an arrow of time: Just as you can tell whether Kill Bill (either part) is playing forward or backwards (hint — blood); in a business competition, you can generally tell who is operating inside whose OODA loop.

New research now ties the phenomenon we call the “arrow of time” to quantum entanglement. As the researchers note:

Energy disperses and objects equilibrate, they say, because of the way elementary particles become intertwined when they interact — a strange effect called “quantum entanglement.”

“Finally, we can understand why a cup of coffee equilibrates in a room,” said Tony Short, a quantum physicist at Bristol. “Entanglement builds up between the state of the coffee cup and the state of the room.”

….Well, I hear you ask, isn’t that what Boyd did in “Destruction and Creation” when he invoked Gödel, Heisenberg, and the 2nd Law? The short answer is “Absolutely not!” There are a couple of ways that you can convince yourself he wasn’t reasoning by analogy. First, you could look at the explanations of Boyd’s method that I do in “John Boyd, Conceptual Spiral, and the Meaning of Life” and that Chuck Spinney put into Evolutionary Epistemology, Chart 32, both available on our Articles page. The other possibility is to actually read “Destruction and Creation.”

I’ll save you a little time. All three of these laws and theorems address systems, and Boyd was applying them to a particular system, which he defines in the opening paragraphs of the paper. You can argue whether his application is valid, but it is intellectually dishonest, or at least lazy, to claim he was relying on analogies.

But perhaps you don’t need to employ analogies in the case of quantum mechanics and the arrow of time. The researchers are proposing that entanglement affects what we do every day out in the real, observable world:

According to the scientists, our ability to remember the past but not the future, another historically confounding manifestation of time’s arrow, can also be understood as a buildup of correlations between interacting particles. When you read a message on a piece of paper, your brain becomes correlated with it through the photons that reach your eyes. Only from that moment on will you be capable of remembering what the message says. As Lloyd put it: “The present can be defined by the process of becoming correlated with our surroundings.”

I am going to speculate here and employ analogies out of intellectual laziness and a lack of formal education in quantum mechanics :) I welcome corrections or comments from the more scientifically literate.

The science article used the example of heat energy diffusing from a hot cup of coffee as a simple example of correlation with the environment in entanglement. The heat did not merely disperse but the hot cup of coffee itself (cup, coffee, heat energy) became entangled with the range of potential states of the environment (if I have understood the physicists correctly). We perceive it on the human scale as a cooled cup of coffee but in quantum terms the cup and the environment have moved toward a merged averageness and away from the initial state when the hot coffee was introduced.

What does this mean for conflict within a complex social system?

Following Boyd, our goal is to successfully adapt, more effectively than our adversary, but also shape events and their consequent outcomes to our advantage. These scientific findings point to how difficult our task is; not only do we contend with the actions of an enemy or competitor but the environment alone, over time, should be sufficient to bring all of our efforts to naught.

“When you engage in actual fighting, if victory is long in coming, then men’s weapons will grow dull and their ardor will be damped. If you lay siege to a town, you will exhaust your strength.

Again, if the campaign is protracted, the resources of the State will not be equal to the strain.”

- Sun Tzu

Master Sun may have known what he was talking about.

What to do?

One answer might be found in avoiding gratuitous conflict. This might mean avoiding engagement what William Lind calls “centers of disorder”. I don’t believe non-intervention or isolationism is always practical, but frivolous, impulsive, ill-considered and astrategic “do something” intervention rarely is cost-free.

Another possibility is only engaging at times, places and manner where maximum leverage can be exerted with your power, ju-jitsu style, for the highest ROI and the least possibility of blowback. An excellent real-world example of this would be Vladimir Putin’s salami-sliced annexation of Crimea which left Kiev frustrated and Western leaders at a loss of where or how to “hit back ” at Moscow effectively. The truth was that there was no place. Crimea was extremely vulnerable to Russian designs and conversely very difficult for the West to get Russia to disgorge quickly at any kind of reasonable cost. Sanctions have been more of an empty gesture/tantrum than a serious attempt at counterpressure.

A third option is to move and to move with decisive speed,  inside your opponents’ OODA Loop, reduce them to a shambles, collect your modest winnings/get the new status quo ratified, keep moving and get out. Hanging around in theater for a decade only increases your entanglement and you find that much like Hotel California, you can check out any time you like but you can never leave. Sometimes this is necessary (NATO, Japan), usually it is not.

Finally, advancing harmony is underrated and should be a core component of grand strategy and communicated in both word and deed. This unifies, reduces internal contradictions that generate friction and creates opportunities for synergy, leveraging the strengths of others and “flipping” potential adversaries into allies, or at least benign neutrals (this is near impossible a task with a self-aggrandizing, corrupt and hypocritical leadership – they ARE the internal contradiction and the magnet for friction and opposition)



The Pentagon Wars, by Jim Burton —- ebook release

Friday, March 7th, 2014

[by J. Scott Shipman]











The Pentagon Wars, Reformers Challenge the Old Guard, by Jim Burton


Today I received a note from Jim Burton to let us know the US Naval Institute Press has released an e-book of his classic The Pentagon Wars. I’ve a hardback first edition ex-library book that was very expensive.

If you’ve not read this important book, it comes with my highest recommendation.



In Search of Strategy(s), a Voice, a Narrative because, ‘Gentlemen, We Have Run Out Of Money; Now We Have to Think’

Friday, December 13th, 2013

[by J. Scott Shipman] [Warning: Maritime in flavor]

No matter how far humanity may go in seeking to foster the arts of civilization and the ideals of civic peace, there will come times when acts of war are required in order to defend world order and sustain the peace of civilized peoples. Charles Hill’s, Grand Strategies, Literature, Statecraft, and World Order, page 48

The lift quote in the title is attributed to Winston Churchill, and in this period of uncertainty with sequestration and deep cuts in defense commanding the attention of military leadership, one thing is becoming crystal clear: we have no cogent or explainable military strategy. Sure, we have “concepts” like Air-Sea/Air-Land Battle, A2/AD, and Off-Shore Control, but our most recent unclassified Navy strategy document A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower was written in 2007 may be a bit dated.

This week I attended the U.S. Naval Institute’s annual Defense Forum, Shaping the Maritime Strategy and Navigating the Budget Gap Reality and given the title, there was a lot of talk about funding and in that light/context, strategy was that thing “we’re in the process of doing.” Several people I spoke with expressed concern about “telling the navy’s story,” “why we have a navy,” and one member of Congress encouraged us to build an engaged constituency to put pressure on Congress to knock-off the schizophrenic approach to appropriations, so that a bit of certainty will allow the development of a strategy. Since DoD hasn’t been successfully audited in a long, long time (if ever), I wouldn’t hold out hope for a grass-roots rescue. As Mr. Churchill wisely advises, “now we have to think.”

Strategy Defined

Since strategy is a hot topic, offered here are several definitions ranging from the classic to practitioners and academics, with the goal of framing the elegant simplicity of strategy as a theory, and challenge of defining in reality. As Colin Gray points out in his National Security Dilemmas: “The United States has shown a persisting strategy deficit.” (page 170) Dilemmas, written in 2009 before the budget axe fell in earnest he offers: “One would think that the following definition and explanation must defy even determined efforts of misunderstanding:” (he then quotes Clausewitz)

Strategy is the use of engagement for the purpose of war. The strategist must therefore define an aim for the entire operational side of the war that will be in accordance with its purpose. In other words, he will draft the plan of the war, and the aim will determine the series of actions intended to achieve it: he will, in fact, shape the individual campaigns and, within these, decide the individual engagements.” (On War, page 177)

The definition of strategy from the Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, Joint Publication 1-02:

strategy — A prudent idea or set of ideas for employing the instruments of national power in a synchronized and integrated fashion to achieve theater, national, and/or multinational objectives. (JP 3-0)

Other definitions:

J.C. Wylie, RADM, USN, Ret., Military Strategy, page 14

“A plan of action designed in order to achieve some end; a purpose together with a system of measures for its accomplishment” 

Henry E. Eccles, RADM, USN, Ret., Military Concepts and Philosophy page 48:

Strategy is the art of comprehensive direction of power to control situations and areas in order to attain objectives. (emphasis in original)

Bernard Brodie, Sea Power in the Machine Age, page 78

“Tactics may be distinguished from strategy by the criterion proposed by Mahan—the fact of contact. “Tactics” refers to localized hostilities that occur where the adversaries are in contact; “strategy” refers to those basic dispositions in strength which comprise the entire conduct of a war.” 

General André Beaufre, Introduction á la stratégie, 1963, page 16. (note: I don’t read/speak French, I found the quote in Edward Luttwak’s Strategy, The Logic of War and Peace)

“…the art of the dialectics of wills that use force to resolve their conflict.” 

Paul Van Riper, LtGen, USMC, Ret, Infinity Journal, Volume 2, Issue 3, Summer 2012

“…strategy is specifically about linking military actions to a nation’s policy goals, and ensuring the selected military ways and means achieve the policy ends in the manner that leaders intend.”

From John Boyd’s Strategic Game of ?And?

What is strategy?

A mental tapestry of changing intentions for harmonizing and focusing our efforts as a basis for realizing some aim or purpose in an unfolding and often unforeseen world of many bewildering events and many contending interests.

What is the aim or purpose of strategy?

To improve our ability to shape and adapt to unfolding circumstances, so that we (as individuals or as groups or as a culture or as a nation?state) can survive on our own terms. (emphasis added)

Our own Lynn Rees

Politics is the division of strength. Strategy, its tool, squares drive, reach, and grip while striving for a certain division of strength.

Drive falls between too weak and too strong. Reach falls between too short and too far. Grip falls between too loose and too tight.

How strategy squares the three is open ended and ongoing. Outside friction, deliberate or not, always conspires with inside friction, intentional or not, to keep things interesting for strategy.

Drive is the certainty you want. Reach is the certainty you try. Grip is the certainty you get. Grip can be a little sway over certain minds. It can be big hurt carved in flesh and thing. Amid uncertainty, strategy strives for certain grip. The varying gulf between certain want, uncertain try, and not certain getting is the father of strategy.


Paradoxically, complexity is easy to design.  Colin S. Gray, The Strategy Bridge, page 25

All of these definitions have merit, and most coalesce around: power, conflicting wills, violence, and control. Lynn recently had a post on “Grip” where he offers a guide to physically grasp strategy (I do admire his imagery). Admiral Eccles also has a similar and complementary list:

A strategic concept is best expressed in explicit statements of

What to control,

What is the purpose of this control,

What is the nature of the control,

What degree of control is necessary,

When the control is to be initiated,

How long the control is to be maintained,

What general method or scheme of control is to be used. (page 48)

Both of these lists are unambiguous. (One of the biggest complaints about Air-Sea Battle and A2/AD is the ambiguity. Sam Tangredi wrote a book on the latter which I’ll review soon.) Bernard Brodie in A Layman’s Guide to Naval Strategy, page 14-15 (emphasis added), reminds us:

There is no need for a complicated terminology. However, to say that the basic principles of war are easy to understand is not to say that it is easy to comprehend the finer points, or what is more important, to determine upon a wise plan of strategy and then carry it out. The great commander must of course have a profound insight into all the ramifications of strategic principle, but that is only the first requirement of military leadership. He must thoroughly understand tactics, which with modern arms is bound to be exceedingly complex and require long training and experience. He must know how to solve problems of supply or “logistics,” he must know human nature, and he must have certain qualities of character and personality which transcend mere knowledge. He must be able to stick to his course despite a thousand distractions and yet be sufficiently elastic to recognize when a change in circumstances demands a change in plan. He must above all be able to make adjustments to the inevitable shocks and surprises of war.

Unfortunately, the very preoccupation of commanders with specific and inevitably complex problems sometimes tends to make them impatient with the age old verities. Long-tested doctrines which are utterly simple are rejected in part because of their very simplicity, and in part too because of the dogma of innovation so prevalent in our age. The French High Command in the summer of 1940 found out too late that the side which carries the ball makes the touchdowns, and that all the maxims of great military leaders of the past relative to the merits of initiative had not been outmoded by modern arms. We live in an age when basic theories of naval warfare are being rejected out of hand by responsible officials on the wholly unwarranted assumption that they do not fit modern conditions. One can say about theory what Mahan said about materiel: “It is possible to be too quick in discarding as well as too slow in adopting.”

There’s a lot to digest in those two paragraphs, but one take away is that whatever the Navy presents as a strategy should be easy to understand and explain. The strategy should also explain how it plans to maintain control or “command the seas.” And finally, as Wylie reminds the planner:

Wylie’s assumptions in a General Theory of War:

Despite whatever effort to prevent it, there will be war

The aim of war is some measure of control over the enemy

We cannot predict with certainty the pattern of the war for which we prepare ourselves

The ultimate determinate in war is the man on the scene with a gun

As we build our strategies and plans, these decidedly old-fashioned and many cases very simple guides can help us get it right.


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