I laughed so hard at this satire that it hurts:

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Review of "If We Can Keep It" by Chet Richards

I owe a lot to Chet Richards. His publisher provided me with a free copy of his new book, If We Can Keep It. More substantively, Chet’s done the hard work of keeping the legacy of John Boyd alive, leading to a wonderful annual conference, at least one major book (Science, Strategy, and War, currently the subject of an intellectual roundtable), and of course his own titles, such as Certain to Win and A Swift, Elusive Sword.

The new book by Chester Richards, Ph.D.

If We Can Keep It is not a Boyd book. It quotes from Boyd on occasion, but for the most part If We Can Keep It focuses on popularizing William Lind. The connection between If We Can Keep It and Boyd’s thought is not clear to me. For many readers, this is a non-issue. Conversely, for those interested in the evolution of Chet’s thinking, Keep It may prove to be a pivotal work in bridging the two very different discourses of the Hegelian conservative Lind and the cognitive theorist Boyd.

Dr. Richards book contains three general trends: a criticism of counterinsurgency, a general pessimism toward our bargaining position, and a general rejection of economic thought, among other themes.

I. The Rejection of Counterinsurgency.

If We Can Keep It begins with a strawman attack:

By the middle of 2007, “counterinsurgency” theory had become all the rage and a panacea for all our global ills

No reference is provided for this claim, but one should not be expected. The books’ treatment of counterinsurgency is rhetorical, not substantive. Similarly, If We Can Keep It claims that the Pentagon’s Quadrennial Defense Review condese “neer-peer status to an aging and reportedly ailing figure [bin Laden],” with no reference to support such a claim.

Some passages are puzzling, and I am not sure if they are written satirically. Consider, for example, this on pages 59 and 60:

Conversley, it is difficult to imagine how a government that retains the loyalty of the majority of its citizens could be overthrown by insurgency. It would be impossible in a democracy: If enough people want to replace the government, they just vote them out. In that sense, every election si an insurgency and obviously, the United States has no business interfering in other democracies

So much is wrong in those three sentences that no summary is possible (rather, a fair treatment would go on much longer than the exceprt), but among others

a) insurgencies only occur among majorities
b) insurgencies only succeed among majorities
c) democracies provide acceptably options for insurgens
d) democratic processes are sacrosanct of competing needs of, say, national defense


II. A Rejection of Bargaining

The difference between a tsunami and an areal blitz is that the blitzers are engaging in negotiations, while the tsunami is not. The Blitzers have some form of goal, or theme for vitality and growth, and are requesting either your assistance in getting it or else your benign neglect while they get it themselves. The tsunami is a physical force that will whatsoever. The distinction is important because the existence of another who can engage in bargaining is importance. It is the difference between war and natural disasters.

A third category, crime, also exists. Crimes are purposeful violence that lack political objectives. For instance, a bank robber is certainly interested in negotiation the future holder of specific financial instruments, but generall is unconcerned over the existence of the FDIC, predatory lending laws, or the harmonization of a modern financial system and Biblical principles.

Because in most of the world the same organization (the government) that deals with war also deals with crime, that organization generally classifies an action as one or the other as is politically expedience. Because crime is mindless violence while war is mindful violence, governments often deride their enemies as “criminals” in order to deprive them of legitimacy.

If We Can Keep It rejects the importance of bargaining throughout. On page v, it reads that “the physical damgae that terrorism does is small compared to other threats to our national well-being.” Indeed. Similarly, the Kaiser at his worst was nothing compared to the Spanish flu. The Kaiser could bargain, however. The spanish flu could not. However, on page 31 rejects describing our struggle with al Qaeda as “war” for rhetorical reasons, while instead classifying as “but one” criminal organization.

The lack of precision here would be puzzling, because on ix Richards writes that “Lumping [certain organizations] together as ‘terrorists’ is a form of mental laziness, and failure to think clearly about their various purposes will not serve us well.” The reason it is not puzzling, however, is that rhetoric prevails over substance in most of the book. Likewise, on page 10 the AIDS epidemic is describe as “accelerating,” when the text means growing, and the negative effects of population growth and urbanization are mentioned on pages 22-23 with no discussion of their positive implications.

III. The Rejection of Economic Thought

If We Can Keep It’s diverges from economics in two general ways: the first by not addressing the factors of production, and the second by not addressing the distinction between relative and absolute gains.

The factors of production are the economists’ division of all resources in two three broad types: land, capital, and labor. Different individuals, companies, and governments have different mixes of these. One is not necessarily more valuable than the other, but if you relatively lack one, you will use the others to substitute in some way. For instance, the Netherlands’ reclamation programs demonstrate how capital and labor can be spent to increase land. Likewise, the Chinese “human waves” of the Korean War achieved with labor the same attritionsal effect that a modern military would achieve with some sort of capital — say, artillery shells.

However, consider the following two excerpts. First, on page 40, Chet argues that the US is investing too much on the war effort (“This is the mission that has everyone’s attention and has been the primary justification for ramping spending up to levels not seen since the Korean War — even exceeding Vietnam”):

Spending too much?

Yet on page 101, he accuses the country of not investing enough (“Our ancestors were willing to make this sacrifice. Here are the statistics from three other wars that threatened the existence of the republic:”):

Spending too little?

So are we spending too much, as on page 40, or not enough, as on page 101?

An answer is that America is relatively capital-richer (and thus relatively labor-poorer) than in the past, and therefore our production mix with respect to war has shifted from labor to capital. A discussion on the appropriate ratios would be interesting and useful, but as is the discussions on page 40 or 101 are not convincing.

Similarly, on page 20 questions globalization:

Those who questioned this wisdom were denounced as troglodyte protectionists. Recently, however, even a few establishment economists have asked whether globalization has produce the benefits that were promised. No one can claim that trade with Chin ahas failed to improve the living standards of hundreds of millions of Chinese citizens. But as Lawrence Summers, former U.S. Treasury secretary and long tiem supporter of globalization recently concluded, the middle classes of the United States and other Western countries have not shared to anything like the same degree.

Note the rhetorical trick. The undeniable gains of globalization to the developed world are rejected, because they do not fulfill some sort of “promise.” The reference to Larry Summers goes to this New York Times article, in which Dr. Summers supports the mainstream economic consensus that globalization increase the general welfare of a society, while the allocation of the spoils is ultimately a policy question.


Other issues are addressed in If We Can Keep It as well, from an excellent discussion of loyalty militias to an interesting discussion of fourth-generation war. However, the basic theme of rhetoric over substance remains.

If We Can Keep It primarily serves to bridge an author with experience in substantive, Boydian writings into a very different discourse — the anti-counterinsurgency, anti-bargaining, and anti-economics perspective of William Lind. To the extent that If We Can Keep It creates a hybrid discourse that allows Richard to later add substantive, then it will have served it purpose. Chet Richards is a first-rate writer and popularizing, and I cannot wait to see which direction this discourse will go.

Elsewhere on the Web
If We Can Keep It is available from
A powerpoint presentation on some of the books’ themes is also available.

A History of the OODA Loop

This post was written as part of the roundtable on Frans Osinga’s Science, Strategy, and War. Contributions have already been made by Chet Richards and Wilf Owen.

“To a certain extent the argument is valid that Boyd offered merely a synthesis of existing theories, a contemporary one, important and timely regarding the context of the 1970s and 1980s, but only a synthesis.”
Osinga, 2007, pg 29

John Boyd’s OODA Loop divides cognition into four processes, perception (called Observation), unconscious or implicit thought (called Orientation), conscious of explicit though (called Decision), and behavior (called Action). Frans Osinga’s “Science, Strategy, and War: The Strategic Theory of John Boyd” does an excellent job describing the origins of Boyd’s learning theory in the writings of Skinner, Piaget, and the cognitivists. However, Osinga’s text excludes ongoing research into theories of learning related to OODA, as his text is focused on the development of the OODA model in particular rather than contemporary adaption. Fortunately, a recent review article by Jonathan St. B.T. Evans serves helps complete the picture, though the OODA loop is not mentioned there by name. Osinga’s book is well worth purchasing, and can be thought of as as prolegomena to all future OODA work.

The OODA Loop

The “OODA loop,” or “Boyd Cycle” (Osinga, page 2) is a dual-processing model of thought. That is, it supposes the existence of two seperate central executives inside each human mind. The first of these, “Orientation,” is activated immediately by perception (called Observation by Boyd) and is capable of directly controlling behavior (likewise, called Action). Orientation is closely associated with long term memory. As Osinga writes on pages 236 to 237:

In order to avoid predictability and ensuring adaptability to a variety of challenges, it is essential to have a repertoire of orientation patterns and the ability to select the correct one according to the situation at hand while denying the opponent the latter capability. Moreover, Boyd emphasizes the capability to validate the schemata before and during operations and the capability to devise and incorporate new ones, if one is to survive in a rapidly changing environment…. verifying existing beliefs and expectations, and if necessary modifying these in a timely matter, is crucial. The way to play the game of interaction and isolation is to spontaneously generate new mental images that match up with an unfolding work of uncertainty and change, Boyd asserted…”

The second central executive, Decision, analogous to conscious thought, or what attention is spent on. As Osinga writes, “Decision is the component in which actors decide among actions alternatives that are generated in the orientation phase.” Unlike orientation, decision faces limits in how much it can handle, and therefore relies on orientation to present it which simplified and categorized chunks in which to work.

John Boyd’s model was purposefully designed as an cognitive and learning theory based on mainstream work within psychology. As Osinga writes on page 53:

On 15 October 1972 he wrote from his base in Thailand to his wife that ‘I may be on the trail of a theory of learning quite different and – it appears now more powerful than methods or theories currently in use’. Learning for him was synonymous for the process of creativity

In particular, Boyd’s theory was based on the work of Jean Piaget, B.F. Skinner, and the earlier cognitivists. Boyd combined each of these traditions, though revised some elements. From Piaget he both took the concept of mental structures, as well as suspicion of the power of logical analysis alone as a proper epistemological tool. To again quote Osinga (page 68)

Boyd also came across another source of uncertainty. As Jean Piaget asserted in the book Boyd read for his essay, ‘In 1931 Kurt Gödel made a discovery which created a tremendous stir, because it undermined the then prevailing formalism, according to which mathematics was reducible to logic and logic could be exhaustively formalized. Gödel established definitely that the formalist program cannot be executed’.

As Osinga describes in Chapter 3, “Science,” Boyd drew from both Skinner and the cognitivists the power of environmental feedback. Consider the relatively trivial cognitive or cybernetic proposition on page 72 that:

“A feedback loop is a circular arrangement of casually connected elements, in which an initial cause propagates around the links of the loop, so that each element has an effect on the next, until the last ‘feeds back’ into the first element of the cycle. The consequence is that the first link (‘input’) is affected by the last (‘output’), which results in self-regulation fo the entire system.

Osinga then proceeds to discuss the OODA loop as Boyd applied it, touching only briefly on Chapter 7 of some applications of Boydian thought to areas of military operations. However, Osinga does not emphasize the areas in which the OODA loop itself is still unique, but only compares it to either incorrect renditions of the OODA model (such as the “simplified” rendition Osinga shows on page 2) or to theories that preceded OODA (such as a cybernetic model without feedback and “(Reflex)” instead of orientation or System 2, on page 75).

Consider, for instance, two other models, one by Jon St. Evans published in 2006 and the other by Richard Moreno, published in 1990. Using different terms, the Evans model describes the role of Orientation (called by him System 1) and Decision (called by him System 2). Orientation or System 1 initially activates, and it may either lead to conceptual change or else inform further System 2 deliberation. However, Evans’ model lacks the cybernetic or cognitive function of feedback, and does not describe how the last function would inform the first. Boyd’s OODA loop, by attaching both Action and Observation to the environment, therefore may be described as a completed Evans model.

Information Processing

Likewise, the OODA loop completes the Moreno model. Moreno’s description of learning focuses on the transformation of information in the external world to long term memory. In particular, Moreno’s ongoing research focuses on the limited ability of explicit though to handle all information that should be learned. However, Moreno does not view long term memory as much other than an end-state for information (rather than the abode of Boyd’s Orientation or Evans’ System 1). Additionally, like Evans, Moreno does not connect the last stage of his model with his first.

Dual Processing

Just as Osinga does not compare the OODA loop with other contemporary models, he does not describe contemporary research that further describes the difference between Orientation and Decision. The research on the subject is now well established, and Table 2 in Evans’ 2008 paper “Dual-Processing Accounts of Reasoning, Judgment, and Social Cognition,” in the 2008 edition fo the Annual Review of Psychology, provides a synopsis of the distinction between Orientation (System 1) and Decision (System 2)

System 1 System 2
Cluster 1 (Consciousness)
Unconscious (preconscious) Conscious
Implicit Explicit
Automatic Controlled
Low effort High effort
Rapid Slow
High capacity Low capacity
Default process Inhibitory
Holistic, perceptual Analytic, reflective
Cluster 2 (Evolution)
Evolutionarily old Evolutionarily recent
Evolutionary rationality Individual rationality
Shared with animals Uniquely human
Non-verbal Linked to language
Modular cognition Fluid intelligence
Cluster 3 (Functional characteristics)
Associative Rule-based
Domain-specific Domain-general
Contextualised Abstract
Pragmatic Logical
Parallel Sequential
Stereotypical Egalitarian
Cluster 4 (Individual differences)
Universal Heritable
Independent of general intelligence Linked to general intelligence
Independent of working memory Limited by working memory capacity

Frans Osinga’s Science, Strategy, and War is a groundbreaking book on the OODA loop, describing in excellent detail how it originated. Buy it. What is needed now is an comparison of the OODA loop to contemporary theories of learning and an application of OODA in light of the newest research.

Evans, J. St. B. (2006). The heuristic-analytic theory of reasoning: Extension and evaluation. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 13(3), 378-395.
Evans, J. St. B. (2008). Dual-processing accounts of reasoning, judgment and social cognition. Annual Review of Psychology, 59, doi:10.1146/annurev.psych.59.103006.093629.
Mayer, R.E. (1996). Learners as information processors: Legacies and limitations of Educational Psychology’s second metaphor. Educational Psychologist, 31(3/4), 151-161.
Osinga, F.P.B. (2007). Science, strategy, and war: The strategic theory of John Boyd. New York: Routledge.