Boyd’s Biases

John Boyd has almost religious standing in certain technocratic military circles, and his life is filled with exceptional achievements. His model for success in battle (and nearly any other endeavor) was to increase the tempo by which teams completed the decision making loop process, which he set out as:

  1. Observe
  2. Orient
  3. Decide
  4. Act

Cycling through this OODA loop faster than your opponent will place you at an advantage. As some interpretations of the model go, you will win even if your decisions are not as “correct” as your opponents, because each time you complete the cycle your opponent’s “correct” decision will no longer apply to the change in circumstances created by your action.

This model obviously has some useful applications, but its limitations are informed by Boyd’s early career as one of the best jet fighter pilots of his generation. High in the air at immense speeds, with death only a missle-lock away, we can see how the ability to move from observation to action quickly could take priority above all else.

But dogfights in the air seem like the warfare equivalent of a “spot trade”:¬† a relatively small group of participants meet in near-anonymous circumstances, duke it out over the course of minutes (if not seconds), some may die, and then the rest zoom away back to base for repairs. There are no vegetable markets in the air to be sprayed by cross-fire, no chances of confusing an unarmed civilian with an enemy F-16. There’s no village elder to contend with the next day, upset that you’ve brought bloodshed to a particular patch of sky. In such a high-stakes, clear-cut and granular situation we can see how “fast” decision-making is privileged over more thoughtful decision-making.

That might all seem obvious (even pedantic) to point out but, beginning with Dick Cheney’s time as Secretary of Defense under Gulf War I, this model has spread throughout the military as The Way to operational success. Thanks to the Internet, OODA is increasingly popular in all manner of technocratic, neoliberal endeavors from tech start-ups to militarized police training.

The limitations of OODA are dramatized elegantly in Generation Kill, by The Wire‘s Burns and Simon. The invasion of Iraq was dictated by “Tempo, Tempo, Tempo”, as intoned by Colonel “Godfather” Fernando. Armed Iraqi irregulars in diamond-marked pickup trucks that are waved off early in the invasion because there is “no time” to investigate them later turn out to be death squads. “Unsurrending” Iraqi soldiers in contravention of the Geneva Conventions and sending them *back* to the death squads, because there is no time to take prisoners, embitters trained military personnel further against American occupation. And, of course, quick calls of mortar strikes against civilian hamlets costs who knows how many lives, and turns more toward extremism and revenge.

None of which of course even begins to approach the question of *why* invade Iraq in the first place. Worshippers of OODA and Boyd don’t question why, or what unintended consequences may result, or (god forbid) what externalities their action depends on. They just want to “win”. Questioning why slows down the loop.

Leave a Reply