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Book Review: TEMPO by Venkatesh Rao

Tuesday, May 31st, 2011

 TEMPO by Dr. Venkatesh Rao

Venkat Rao of Ribbonfarm has penned an important and fresh look at strategy by engaging in a deep examination of the epistemic building blocks of cognitive process that we commonly call “strategic thinking”. This metacognive approach has been underutilized in a field given more to historical case studies of military campaigns or the parsing of exquisitely refined theories undergirding nuclear deterrence.

Furthermore, Rao’s use of clear language in an everyday context in explaining such components of strategic situations such as binary relationships, optempo, mental models and decision making removes the dynamics of the discussion from the dead weight of sectarian conflicts between schools of military strategic thought. This permits a wider public of intelligent lay people and experts frm other field (ex. psychology, anthropology) to more easily enter into the debate. Clausewitz is there in TEMPO, but so is William James. Or William Shakespeare.

Some examples, here Rao writes on “Archetypes and Doctrines” where bounces from abstract to concrete and back again:

Mental models acquire and shed transient momentum in specific situations, as you enter and exit situations. But there are parts that persistently accumulate momentum through a lifetime. A lot of this momentum is tied to the one common feature of all your experiences: you. Your mental model of yourself is a self-archetype. More generally, your mental models of people are archetypes.

….Archetypes are your mental models of people. Fox and Hedgehog are particularly thought-provoking ones, but don’t look for a taxonomy or more/less “fundamental” types. Though you can bring some discipline to your understanding of archetypes, they are essentially artistic rather than analytical constructs….Some, like those of Freud and Jung, acquire modest amounts of rigor. Eric Berne’s bestseller, Games People Play,15 is a study and catalog of interpersonal interactions based on Freudian archetypes, while the popular Myers-Briggs test is based on Jungian archetypes.

Some archetypes, like Soccer Mom, exist for a while as abstractions in popular culture, while others get personified, like Joe the Plumber(“working class American”) and Britney Spears (“pop-icon-train-wreck”). Still others only exist in specific fictional universes, like Lady Macbeth or Sherlock Holmes, that are influential enough to influence everyday language.

But the most interesting archetypes are very local: the informal and implicit models we all develop of ourselves and those around us.

Lately, we have had discussions at ZP on narrative and metaphor and these concepts play a critical part of TEMPO:

…We are about to enter truly dangerous territory. Narratives, especially cradle-to-grave life narratives, are powerful, unavoidable, and dangerous tools. The dangers led one of my favorite writers, Nicholas Nassim Taleb to argue, in The Black Swan, 19 that all narrative thinking should in fact be considered flawed. An entire chapter of the book is titled The Narrative Fallacy. Other thinkers in the decision-making tradition that Taleb represents (behavioral economics) adopt an even stronger position against narrative thought.

The critiques are valid, and are based on the observation that thinking in terms of stories leads to all sorts of biases. What critics miss though, is that there is no such thing as non-narrative thought, free of possible worlds and ongoing enactments. There are always multiple narratives at work, framing our perceptions, memories, active thoughts, decisions and actions.

The idea that there is always a narrative at work is one aspect of the overall decision-making philosophy in this book, which is a situated decision-making philosophy. It is based on the assumption that there is no meaningful way to talk about specific decisions outside of a narrative frame and a concrete context, any more than it is possible to talk about physics without reference to a specific, physical coordinate frame (the basic idea in Einstein’s relativity).

The narrative aspect of Rao’s argument tilts toward the concept of grand strategy articulated by John Boyd and more recently by Charles Hill.  The following is certainly sympathetic to Boyd’s construction of the *attractive* rather than the destructive element of strategy as well as the implicit guidance provided by an orientation consistent with reality:

To make sense of a complex, ambiguous and confusing set of facts, you should look for an organizing insight that dissolves the complexity and provides you with a compelling and elegant way to look at the situation you are in.

To be compelling your view must be comprehensive and provide you a way to organize as much as possible, from what you know

To be elegant, the resulting mental model must be as compact as possible. In general, these models will be very local and unique to the immediate situation.

Boyd would have approved of that, I suspect. 

TEMPO is in my view, an important book that deserves to be widely read in the community concerned with strategic theory, professional military education and operational campaign design. Not everything Rao discusses in TEMPO fits with the manner in which strategic discussions are commonly expressed or has immediate application to all questions of tactics or strategy faced by all ranks of soldiers or statesmen. No book could do that and Rao’s scientific background and interests preclude that kind of subcultural intimacy, but TEMPO will sharpen the reader’s awareness of their own thinking and the situational dynamics in which strategic and tactical decision making must occur. TEMPO seeks to clarify and succeeds.

Strongly recommended.

Our More Important National Debt

Sunday, May 29th, 2011

“…They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted;
They fell with their faces to the foe.
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.”

 For the Fallen

Laurence Binyon

We might have a stronger Republic, a more civil society, a more robust democracy, if we gave more frequent thought to what we owe those who made the supreme sacrifice on our behalf as Americans.


Genghis John

Friday, May 27th, 2011

Not John Boyd this time, but John Robb.

John recently gave me a preview of this idea in a much more specific context:

….Here are some of the economic reforms that turned the horde of Genghis Khan into a steamroller than flattened most of the world’s kingdoms/empires.*  He:

  1. Delayed gratification.  He banned the sacking of the enemy’s camp/city until all of the fleeing soldiers, baggage, etc. were rounded up.  This radically increased the loot accumulated and ensured it could be shared among all of the participants (he confliscated the wealth of those men that cheated by looting early).
  2. Systematically shared the loot based on contribution and merit.  He disregarded title or status and systematically rewarded loot to everyone in the horde that earned it (the traditional approach was to let a few take it all — sound familiar?).  Of course, that fairness pissed off the nobility since they were used to backroom dealing and hereditary rights.  However, the benefits of this system, were far greater than the costs.  To wit:  He cemented the loyalty of the men and was able to attract thousands to his banner for every noble lost.
  3. Protected those that make sacrifices.  For men killed in the campaign, he paid their share of loot to their widows/orphans posthumously.  

*of course, the first unsaid lesson is:  attack the places with the most loot.

Guest Post: David Ronfeldt on Dignity and Democracy

Thursday, May 26th, 2011


Blog-friend David Ronfeldt, until recently Senior Social Scientist with the RAND International Policy Dept., is author / co-author of such seminal works as Networks and Netwars; In Athena’s Camp; In Search of How Societies Work: Tribes — the First and Forever Form; and The Zapatista “Social Netwar” in Mexico. Today he offered a detailed comment on Zen‘s post, Skulls & Human Sacrifice — the central portion of which we felt deserved to stand as a post of its own, and attract its own body of discussion. We are accordingly delighted and honored to offer it here as David’s first guest-post on Zenpundit. –CC


For months, many arab commentators have observed that the uprisings are mainly about “dignity”: e.g., identity and dignity, or dignity and freedom, or some other combination — but always dignity.

In contrast, American observers keep saying the uprisings are mainly about “democracy” — freedom and democracy in particular. some Arabs include a call for democracy with their call for dignity; but Americans only occasionally acknowledge their parallel pursuit of dignity. in fact, Americans rarely think about dignity; we’re raised to assume it. Language about dignity slides right through our modernized minds.

Yet, in many cultures, dignity is a more crucial concept than democracy. Dignity (along with its customary companions: respect, honor, pride) goes to the core of how people want to be treated. it’s an ancient tribal as well as personal principle. indeed, it’s central to the tribal form. tribal and clannish peoples think and talk about dignity far more than do americans and other westerners in advanced liberal democratic societies.

In the Arab spring, what many arabs seem concerned about is thus more primal than democracy. They’re fed up with the indignities inflicted by corrupt, rigged patronage systems, by rulers and functionaries who act in predatory contemptuous ways, by the endless abuse of personal rights and freedoms — in other words, by all the insults to their daily sense of dignity. Of course, many Arabs seek democracy too; and dignity and democracy (not to mention justice, equality, and other values) overlap and can reinforce each other. But dignity and democracy are not identical impulses, nor based on identical grievances. in some situations, the desire for dignity trumps the desire for democracy.

This interplay between “dignity” and “democracy” may have implications for US policy and strategy. I’m not exactly sure what they are, but it seems to me that we ought to be analyzing and operating as much in terms of dignity as democracy. I bring this up not only because americans tend to overlook the significance of the dignity principle, but also because I detect a dignity-democracy fault-line among the Arab-spring’s protagonists — a fault-line that may relate to whether the Arab spring ends up having democratic or re-authoritarian consequences.

My sense is that the younger modernizing protagonists of the Arab spring may well be pursuing democracy (along with dignity) as their strategic goal, but the older, more traditionalist elements operating alongside them are more interested in pursuing dignity, without necessarily favoring democracy. and the latter may be stronger than we have observed. if so, the quest for dignity may be satisfied by outcomes that have little to do with democracy: say, for example, a shift in tribal and clan balances, an enhanced appeal for islamic law (shariah), or a charismatic call for strong government devoid of foreign influence. It may be easier, and more popular, to gratify a quest for dignity than a quest for democracy.


I’m led to these observations via the TIMN framework about the four major forms of organization that lie behind social evolution: tribes + hierarchical institutions + markets + info-age networks. the young modernizing protagonists of the arab spring express the nascent +N part of TIMN, while the older traditionalist elements remain steeped in the ancient pro-T part — and therein lies the fault-line I mentioned earlier.


For further details of Dr. Ronfeldt’s published work, see his RAND portfolio.His current interests include in particular:

  • Development of a framework (TIMN) about the long-range evolution of societies, based on their capacity to use and combine four major forms of organization: tribes, hierarchical institutions, markets, and networks
  • Development of a framework (STA) for analyzing people’s mind-sets and cultural cosmologies in terms of basic beliefs about the nature of social space, social time, and social action

He blogs recent thinking on both frameworks at Visions from Two Theories.

Guest Post: Few’s The Serenity Prayer for Grand Strategy

Thursday, May 26th, 2011

[Cross-posted from SWJ Blog]

Major Mike Few, one of the SWJ Blog’s trusty editors opines on the nuts and bolts of “doing grand strategy”. Pay close attention to points #2 and #7. Hopefully, the first of many guest posts here by Major Few, if I can steal some of his time from Dave Dilegge 🙂 :

The Serenity Prayer for Grand Strategy: Nine-Step Recovery Method for Reframing Problem Solving

by Mike Few

Recently, our authors began to shift from problem definition to reframing problem solving. Over the last year, we published some remarkable works effectively describing Iraq, Afghanistan, Mexico, Libya, and others. Simultaneously, we published several series on design and wicked problems.

The challenge we are posing is can someone produce a concise document applying design to an existing problem? If we cannot find practical application or wisdom, then the process becomes a moot effort. Below is my white board attempt to provide an example and discussion for others to follow. This blog post is similar to many of the discussions our authors and readers have daily in the classroom and nightly at the pub or dinner with colleagues. Simply put, I am merely merging the sum of our published thought and discussions.

Three years ago, I was challenged to determine if my experiences in big wars and counterinsurgency could be applied to the macro level. On the tactical level, I found that I simply relearned the lessons of those that had come before me, the countless art of war and warfare. However, when I consider how my thinking had changed, I feel that perhaps there are some lessons that can be applied for us all.

In combat, I finally learned the limits of my own control. This understanding freed me to concentrate focusing on changing the things that I could control. I look at framing problem solving in international relations in a similar manner. It’s kind of like the Serenity Prayer for Grand Strategy. So, as a practical exercise, below is an example of how I would use Design, Wicked Problems, and Military Decision Making Process using the example of Mexico.

1. Define what we cannot control. We cannot “fix” Mexico. They are a sovereign nation-state, and they must choose to work on their internal issues. Moreover, our “solution” to their problems may not be a proper fit despite our best intentions. Our intervention efforts in Central and South America over the past sixty years (or more) have had mixed results.

2. Define the problem as it is not as we wish to see it. Are we really in a war on poverty, drugs, education, terrorism, and governance? Are we really at war? Labels are often limiting, but there needs to be some common framework to understanding. Typically, that can be driven by good communication and active listening. We must learn to transcend how “I” see the problem and work towards how the collective group sees the problem accounting for all stakeholders.

3. Define our relationship. How does the US and Mexico see each other? This perception requires a degree of self-introspection and humility. Are we a brother attempting to help our sibling overcome addiction or work through difficult financial times? Are we a parent disciplining a spoiled child? Are we a spouse in a broken marriage? How we see ourselves defines our national interest. If we see ourselves as the parent, then we’re self-imposing a conceptual block.

As Martin Luther King wrote while sitting in the Birmingham Jail,

“Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds…In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self-purification; and direct action.”

4. Describe what we are currently doing and how we can adjust these things.

– Impact of NAFTA
– Border Security
– FID efforts in Mexico
– Counter-Drug efforts in Mexico
– Counter-Drug efforts in the United States
– Anti-Gang efforts in the United States

5. Discuss the cost benefits of future intervention efforts and internal reforms

– Comprehensive immigration reform
– Dream Act
– Expanded Counter-Drug efforts
– Expanded FID efforts to better strengthen Mexico’s Army and Police internal security forces
– State Department “better” governance efforts (Plan Colombia)- to include judicial and economic issues
– Legalizing drugs in the continental United States (demand side interdiction)
– Comprehensive Prison Reform in the United States
– Treasury Department financial interdiction to narco banking
– Promoting and expanding free press in Mexico through Twitter, Facebook, and new media

6. Describe Area of Influence- Central and South America

– Illegal immigration from Guatemala
– Drug Trafficking from Colombia

7. Ask the hard questions

-What are the key factors driving the problem?
-What is the causality?
-And, if the analysis is from a U.S. perspective, to what degree and in what ways is the problem a problem for the United States?
-what ways do those in power benefit by the status quo?

8. Rethinking the Assumptions

-What are the desired outcomes?
-Is the policy driving the process or is the effort outcome based?
-Are our efforts helping or hurting?

9. Timing of Implementation

– Simultaneous, Sequential, or Cumulative
-Prepare to accept that some items are not decision points; Rather, they are processes that change and morph over time.

Special thanks to those that contributed to the proofreading of this post, and I would like to specifically highlight Dr. Nancy Robert’s methodology for teaching any class on problem solving,

A. Creativity
B. Problem Framing
C. Systems thinking
D. Entrepreneurship and Innovation
E. Collaboration in Networks

Now, let the discussion and writing continue…

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