Fighting Reality-Based OODA Loops

A brief essay in three parts.

I. Chaos and the Iraq War

From time to time, one sees this old (and anonymous, and thus dubious) "quote" from an unnamed Bush administration official around the time of the Iraq War. It is raised to this day by people on the left to mock people on the right, which is ironic for reasons I'll get to in a moment. 
"The aide said that guys like me were 'in what we call the reality-based community,' which he defined as people who 'believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.' [...] 'That's not the way the world really works anymore,' he continued. 'We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors...and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do'." 
This quote is mocked mostly because of the rhetorical error of conceding 'reality based' to the opposition, which leaves many with the impression that he (or she, if such a person even really existed) is purporting to be basing their actions on something besides reality. That sounds like an admission of a retreat into fantasy, say; and a concession that the other side is the realistic one.

The substance of the argument, however, is merely a restatement of Boyd's OODA Loop -- a widely accepted paradigm in strategy, whether military or otherwise. The basic idea is that one cannot act (the "A" at the end of "OODA") until one has finished observing what is going on, orienting one's self to the situation, and then making a decision about how to act. If the other side keeps changing the situation adequately rapidly, then, you may never get to an action -- or even to a decision. You have to keep re-starting the process by observing and orienting to the new changes.

(Or else act according to the older facts, which may be a strategic error that serves your opponent just as well as preventing your action, etc.)

One might raise the objection that this approach did not, in fact, win the Iraq War; the Bush administration found itself in a quagmire. This objection is both false and true. It is false in that the OODA approach did defeat the Saddam regime, and rapidly left the Bush team in control of the entire territory of Iraq. It is true in that the OODA approach was insufficient to defeating the insurgency that spawned in the chaos following the fall of that regime. 

This identifies a key flaw, or limit, of the OODA approach to military strategy. By its nature, it increases the chaos in the system. By keeping the situation constantly and rapidly changing, it keeps opponents off balance. Yet it also prevents the rise of stability, which is a necessary condition for success in counterinsurgency. Once the war in Iraq turned into a counterinsurgency, one of the most important jobs was directly contrary to the OODA approach.

At this point OODA was nonfunctional as a strategy, though it could still have tactical applications to particular bands of insurgents. What was needed was a counterinsurgency strategy built around reducing chaos. This strategy was developed and in place by 2007. It had two wings: attrition of enemy actors, coupled with rising prosperity. You might say it was a 'stick and carrot' approach.
If you put the American counterinsurgency strategy into plain English, it would be this:  We stop insurgencies against approved systems of government by raising the costs of being an insurgent, while also raising the benefits of participation in the system high enough that former insurgents have too much of a stake in that system to rebel against it. In other words, it is not just about killing people who are fighting the system. We also do good for people so that they have a positive reason to want to be part of the system. We might build them improved water pumps or treatment facilities, roads, factories, or get them jobs. They need a stake in the system that is better than what they can get by fighting.
By 2009, the war was essentially over; its subsequent return to chaos followed the incoming Obama administration's decision to withdraw too rapidly, removing the stabilizing element of US forces (who provided both the stick and the carrot, the latter by guaranteeing that the central government would keep the bargains with former insurgents). That loss is outside the scope of this essay. 

The point is that the OODA approach works perfectly well within particular limits. It is a functional strategy against for destabilizing an enemy regime; it remains a functional tactic against small formations even once a strategy of stability is needed instead. Yet there is a hinge point at which OODA is no longer a potentially successful strategy: the point at which success depends on reducing chaos within the system, rather than further destabilizing it. 

II. Wokeness as Chaos

Our current society seems to be rapidly destabilizing. In the wake of the successful BLM movement, policing has retreated in cities across America; the result is gigantic increases in crime. Homicides in particular is at rates not seen in decades, though it still has a way to go before it reaches its earlier peaks.

Coupled to that are the serious economic instabilities arising from last year's lockdowns. These included serial disruptions in supply chains (still ongoing: look at lumber prices and shipping container costs compared to last year). Small businesses were devastated. Amazon benefitted greatly, as did China; main street America, not so much. 

Now we have a new administration that has increased instability further. Canceling the Keystone Pipeline drove energy costs up, as has their move to further restrain coal production. Political instability is occasioned by any administration change, but this one has promised to study packing the courts, and is presently working with slim majorities in Congress to try to re-structure America's election systems along the lines they were able to effect in a few swing states last year. The intention here is long-term stability, not chaos -- they mean to rule forever -- but the short-term approach is to destabilize America's existing systems. 

On the activist front, the chaos strategy is particularly evident. The success in reducing policing, which is at least intended as a stabilizing force in any society, was noted above. The wokeness approach to life also involves knocking away the superstructure on which our society is built, as we have all noted (see e.g. the comments here.)

On top of that, there is an OODA-like structure to the way in which an ever-new set of demands is raised against the existing society. The right is currently striving to prevent biological men from being introduced to women's sports, which was not even under discussion a few years ago; but say one concedes that issue. Will that satisfy? Of course not. We are only having this argument because of concessions on previous ones, and ones before that. 

Nor will you win by winning, if the point is an OODA-like increase in chaos. Often these fights are in fact abandoned, because the point is just what the young alleged Bush advisor said: "we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors...and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.'"

Last week there was a big to-do about the introduction of "birthing persons" instead of "mothers," and right at Mother's Day! Well, of course; outrage and changing focus was the point. Remember "amen and a-women"? They don't really care about that; they just want to change your focus again. 

The point of this increase in chaos within the system is to collapse the system. Restoring stability can come later, after victory. Mao killed off the Red Guards when he was ready to restore stability, and many of these woke may find themselves likewise driven out when their purpose is served. Yet even for those who do not intend to collapse the system, who merely go along with wokeness because they think it is somehow connected to justice or niceness or something like that, the effect on the system is the same. It will not survive. 

III. Old Truths as Stability

Our recent discussion on grounding principles points to a way to introduce a stabilizing element, which is to stand on the ancient truths and objective moralities. 
I definitely believe that there is an objective moral order, one that is discoverable in nature -- for example, one discovers that the virtues Aristotle praised are in fact the things that make your life better if practiced. That is simply true; and yet the idea that one should draw ethical lessons from nature, even or especially human nature, is very much under attack. 
If one wishes to further justify them, one can point to the transcendent beauty that is only made possible by the existence of a long and powerful tradition. The competition has nothing similar to offer; neither the truth nor the beauty. 

This is only a partial approach. I do not now think that any of our institutions are likely to survive; and if the alternative to chaos is a stability attained through tyranny, as by court-packing and election-rigging and police states, I should rather have the chaos anyway. 

New institutions will therefore be needed. These will need to be based on volunteer principles rather than power, I believe, and in fact must reject the idea of concentrated political power essentially. A volunteer fire department; a volunteer militia of citizens who know and trust each other to take the place of police. Volunteer (and unpaid) offices: and, therefore, government kept on such a small scale that it can only be part-time, because (as we learned from Weber) it cannot be allowed to become a source of income. Government must be something one can do occasionally only, and therefore it cannot do much. 

I suspect that there may be a similar need for reform in institutions outside of government too; how, for example, a church (or the Church) should reform is beyond the scope of this essay. Yet there at least the basic principle is obvious: a restoration of objective morality as discovered by long tradition is surely within the scope of such organizations. Revelation will of course compete with objective morality; but if God made the world (however you and your faith conceive of God, of course), then the truths discovered there are also God's work. 

That I leave to others, and for other days. 


David Foster said...

A thought-provoking post...I'll need to re-read, think about it, and comment later.

J Melcher said...

Volunteer (and unpaid) offices: and, therefore, government kept on such a small scale that it can only be part-time, because (as we learned from Weber) it cannot be allowed to become a source of income.

I agree with that. I have even, in this forum, re-proposed civil authorities and officers be DRAFTED into short terms of service, just as we do for juries.

I will even so take the opportunity to offer the counter-argument. (I speak from slight experience. I served on a local school board. Unpaid...)

If the system provides no commensurate reward for the expected and required effort, the system gets very little effort, or quality of effort. If the rewards are all informal or unofficial or under-the-table, then efforts will be tailored toward obtaining those rewards, to some extent by sacrificing the time and effort that might otherwise be devoted to the needs of the system. And if (usually, when) there is no official reward, it takes only a VERY SMALL reward to sway the process. Enjoy the doughnuts brought to the meeting. Stay in a luxury resort hotel and enjoy fine cuisine during a long weekend of "training" or "conferencing". Take home the semi-useful swag pens or umbrella or windbreaker with the names of the law firm or contractor or lobby group that wants your support ...

Drawing a formal salary may, or may not, supplant the influence of the small bribes. But it shows the system values effort as much as the vultures around the system value influence.

David Foster said...

It is true that action can change reality...sometimes. For example, the predominant reality of the computer industry was that the key question for any product or company was: how does it fit in with what IBM is doing? That reality changed when a few individuals and very small companies took action that changed the reality of the industry.

Similarly for the American steel industry, where the reality became a lot less about US Steel and Bethlehem Steel when a then-small company called Nucor took action to change that reality with their continuous casting machine.

Goethe is often cited as having said...

"Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back-- Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth that ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one's favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now."

He never actually said this, but it's based on an actual quote from Faust:

"Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it.
Boldness has genius, power and magic in it!"

I think men and women of action implicitly understand the idea that "A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one's favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way"...whereas those who are not people of action can imagine only the unforeseen problems (as well as the foreseen ones) that would issue from the decision.

Dad29 said...

RE: To OODA or Not to OODA in the first portion of your essay...

It would appear that the Taliban has figured it out and it maintains 'instability' regardless of US carrot/stick activities in that s***hole.

So getting out of there appears to be the optimal solution (aside from a full-bore takeover, top to bottom.)

Grim said...

If you follow the link under “two wings,” you’ll find that it’s mostly a discussion of why our strategy was never going to work in Afghanistan.

ymarsakar said...

It's all going bye bye. God has decreed through the Divine Counsels and humanity has to abide by that decision.

No matter how much they argue with me or prophets.

Elise said...

I don't understand how the transition occurs. Wokeness destabilizes our society and it collapses. Then the Left imposes a new stability. How do those who embrace the old truths make a space in which to implement the type of institutions you are advocating?

Grim said...

It won't happen locally to yourself without you taking part in it. During the collapse, there will be a window of opportunity when order has broken down. If you let the new stable order take root, then you will be bound by it.

Fortunately, the tools of power are being disrupted as well; because these moves are damaging the structure of both police forces and military forces, damaging morale and retention, they will not be able to simply exert martial law across the country. Not in the face of resistance, if there is resistance; and if there is enough, in enough places, they will not have the forces necessary to control them all.

So you should perhaps be thinking about that. Talking to your neighbors. Building relationships where you are, which can sustain liberty, locally, and reject the new stability, locally.

Those who live in states whose governments reject the new order -- in all or in part -- should encourage those parts that do. Legislatures are showing some signs of hope. Some places, alas not here, have good governors. They need to be encouraged to be better.

Elise said...

Thanks, Grim. I don't have much hope that the collapse will open those spaces. I believe that even the State and local governments that reject the new order will impose their own as quickly as possible. It will be interesting to see how this plays out if, indeed, it does during my lifetime.