Strategic theorist Adam Elkus has the blues, the OODA blues. I can’t say as I blame him. The reason Mr. Elkus is sad is because of a feature article in the most recent issue of the Armed Forces Journal. That article, “Goodbye, OODA Loop: A complex world demands a different kind of decision-making,” by Colonels Kevin Benson (Ret.) and Steven Rotkoff (Ret.), argues that the late Colonel John Boyd’s OODA Loop theory of decision making led U.S. forces astray in Iraq because it supposedly assumes “that there are specific knowable causes that are linked to corresponding effects” and therefore “implies”

  • “that collecting information would allow you to decide independent of acting”
  • “that you can determine measures of effectiveness against which to observe each action’s movement toward achievement of your goal”; and
  • that “narrowing the focus of what we choose to observe in order to better orient and decide” is essential.

Mr. Elkus has correctly noted that the two Colonels’ article “significantly mischaracterizes” Boyd’s theory. In fact, he has perhaps been too kind. Colonels Benson and Rotkoff do not just mischaracterize Boyd’s theory, they fundamentally stand it on its head. This is not just a matter of a differing interpretation of Boyd and the OODA Loop. Benson and Rotkoff are just flat wrong.

And that’s what brings me to my beef with the whole incident: How is it that two military professionals in 2011

  • Don’t understand or can get away with misrepresenting one of the most important and influential pieces of military thought of the last century – and -
  • Have their essay published in a leading military professional publication?

Quite frankly, it’s embarrassing. It’s fine to disagree with a theory. But you first have to know what it says. Colonels Benson and Rotkoff clearly do not. But there’s really no reason for that. There are plenty of excellent materials available that one can (and should) consult to improve one’s understanding of Boyd’s thinking and his impact. Here is just a sample:

Of course, it’s also possible to consult Boyd’s work directly. His essay, “Destruction and Creation,” [PDF] is a good place to start. You can even listen to Boyd himself give one of his presentations, “The Conceptual Spiral” (Part 1Part 2Part 3). In fact, all of Boyd’s briefing slides are available from the John Boyd Compendium at the Project on Government Oversight. Having read/listened to all of these multiple times, I can say with absolute certainly that Boyd does not “imply” that we can “decide independent of acting,” nor that we should seek technocratic “measures of effectiveness” and then allow them to drive our decisions and actions, and certainly not that we should “narrow[] the focus of what we choose to observe.”

What is even more frustrating than the Colonels’ misrepresentation of Boyd’s theory is that they turn around and unknowingly/disingenuously repeat as their own one of Boyd’s fundamental arguments, namely that the world is complex and uncertain and therefore demands nonlinear forms of decision-making. First, that argument is completely derivative at this point. Military professionals have been making that argument since the 1980s. This is no great insight by the Colonels.

Second, some of the most influential military professionals who began to make that argument in the 1980s were directly influenced by Boyd. Later efforts to incorporate lessons from nonlinear science (chaos theory and complexity theory) were also inspired by or influenced by Boyd and the OODA Loop, just as Boyd and the OODA Loop were inspired and influenced by nonlinear science (and much more besides). For example, see Christopher Bassford’s short history of “Nonlinearity in Marine Corps Doctrine.” Or, for a much longer account of Boyd’s role in U.S. military thinking about nonlinearity and information-age warfare, take a look at my dissertation.

Colonels Benson and Rotkoff exhibit a particular pathology that I encountered over and over again while preparing my dissertation. It is a tendency either to be unaware of or to misrepresent recent history/ideas. This is often followed by presenting the ideas that one supposedly missed or misrepresented as one’s own ideas. (Unfortunately, Boyd and his followers were also guilty of this to a degree in their criticism of McNamara-era military systems scientists.)

Certainly, Boyd’s thinking is not easy. It is possible to misinterpret or misuse it. It is also possible for it to be interpreted correctly but lead to unintended consequences. A combination of those possibilities was at play in the thinking that was used to justify the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. And there are legitimate confusions in Boyd’s thinking that need attending. One of those is evident in the Colonels’ essay and Mr. Elkus’ response, and that is confusion over whether Boyd’s theory is primarily descriptive or normative. Is it describing how we do decide or how we should decide? The answer is “yes.” Both. But sorting out the differences that make a difference is tricky.

But in this case, Colonels Benson and Rotkoff’s rendering of the OODA Loop is so far off base–it is, in fact, the opposite of what Boyd was teaching–that it is hard to see this as merely a case of legitimate misinterpretation or confusion. And that is what is so frustrating after thirty years and with so many resources available to learn about what Boyd actually taught.