Tell Me How This Ends: Restoring American Power in the 21st Century

Summary:  Guest author Mike Few looks at America’s broken observation-orientation-decision-action loop, and proposes a three-program for reform.


Tell Me How This Ends:
Restoring American Power in the 21st Century

By Mike Few

Many posts on the FM website speak extensively about America’s Decline and broken OODA Loops. If his assessments are accurate, then what must be done to fix our internal problems?

The answer may lie in the Observe Function of Boyd’s OODA loop, changing the way that we see ourselves and the world. But, changing the broken Observe Function is not easy. It requires brutal honesty and a willingness to change. Above all, it requires us to listen to some hard truths.

Today, we feel a need to “fix” the Syria and Iran problems. Last year, it was Yemen and Libya. Next year, it’ll probably be Mexico and China. Why do we feel the need to solve the world’s problems when they do not directly affect our national security? Why haven’t we had a period of introspection to determine why we lost the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?

It starts with how we observe the world. Since 9/11, the American public has been afraid of the terrorist bogeymen, a distraction from actually facing the real problems of the 21st Century. These problems include but are not limited to water shortages, energy shortages, rise of the rest, decline of the American middle class, crisis of the nation-state, rise of the transnational companies, and the burgeoning of the megabank.

So, what do we do? How do we even begin to untangle ourselves from this mess without risking another decade of war and decline? I’ve long thought that we need a twelve step program. Perhaps we’ll call it Superpowers Anonymous. Following along those lines, we must start by changing the way that we observe the world. Below are some steps that we can take.

First, we have to understand ourselves.

Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Reinhold Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study of Ethics and Politic, and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s On Nature are good starts. All three of these thinkers spent their lives trying to understand the American Ethos, and they helped to build the character, culture, and soul of the United States in the 20th Century.

So, how do we define ourselves today? If we look in the mirror, what do we see? How are we acting towards our family and our neighbors? Does our self-image match our words and deeds?

{See this post about this first step, looking at the man in the mirror}

Second, we have to better understand our history.

It seems that there is a fairy tale image of America’s founding and rise as a superpower. One is which we were always the good guys fighting the bad guys — Indians, English, Mexican bandits, Germans, Japanese, Communist, and terrorists. But our history is replete with atrocious behavior with how we have treated other people. In order to learn from our past and move on, then we must recognize where we have been. Otherwise, these fairy tales will continue to skew our vision.

{Our faux history has been described in many posts; see them listed here}

Third, we have to attempt to understand the rest of the world.

As Jesus preached,

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” (Matthew 7:1-5)

Have we followed this mantra over the last sixty years, or have we attempted to force our beliefs on everyone else? Have we taken the time to understand our neighbors, or are we too quick to tell them what they should be and how they should think?
If we can successfully navigate through these three steps, then we may begin to clearly see the world with an unbroken Observe Function. With clear eyes, it is much easier to orient!

{Orientation failure is perhaps the most common cause of a broken OODA loop; for more information see the list below}

About the author

Mike Few (Major, US Army, Retired) served multiple tours in various command and staff positions in Iraq, and was a former Editor of the Small Wars Journal. He is a graduate of the United States Military Academy and studied small wars at the Defense Analysis Department at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA

Today he focuses on nation-building back home in North Carolina.

See his articles at the Small Wars Journal, and these posts at the FM website:

Supporting Examples

List your suggestions in the comments.

“Today, we feel a need to “fix” the Syria and Iran problems. Last year, it was Yemen and Libya. Next year, it’ll probably be Mexico and China.”

  • The Key to Bringing Democracy to China“, Yasheng Huang, Foreign Policy, 19 November 2012 — “It’s time for the United States to pivot to a new approach toward influencing China’s political future: explaining that democracy produces concrete benefits such as balanced growth, stability, and personal security — even for top Communist Party officials.”

The author assumes China’s leaders love to get advice from America’s leaders. Probably not.

For More Information

Articles by Chet Richards about OODA loops:

  1. Boyd’s Real OODA Loop, Fast Transients, 28 September 2012
  2. John Boyd, Conceptual Spiral, and the meaning of life, Fast Transients, 11 October 2012
  3. The lowdown on OODA Loops, 16 October 2012
  4. What does a “broken OODA loop” look like?, 23 October 2012
  5. How OODA loops break, 26 October 2012

About America’s broken OODA loop:

  1. The media – a broken component of America’s machinery to observe and understand the world, 2 June 2009
  2. We’re ignorant about the world because we rely on our media for information, 3 June 2009
  3. A great, brief analysis of problem with America’s society – a model to follow when looking at other problems, 4 June 2009
  4. Does America have clear vision? Here’s an “eye chart” for our minds., 15 June 2009
  5. America’s broken OODA loop in action: a swarming attack by ankle-biters in our intelligentsia, 26 February 2011
  6. Facts are an obstacle to the reform of America, 20 October 2011
  7. Chuck Spinney explains our broken OODA loop, 25 September 2012
  8. Examples of America’s broken vision. Here’s why we cannot clearly see our world., 21 October 2012


John R. Boyd, “The Essence of Winning and Losing” (1996)



9 thoughts on “Tell Me How This Ends: Restoring American Power in the 21st Century”

    1. “tear it all down and start anew”

      Common words before revolutions. Words that have created more suffering than almost any others, excerpt for calls to war (to which these words are cousins).

    1. More,

      Now you have gone too far! Comic book superheroes are a major advance in our species’ mythology, a great and historic contribution to inspire future generations.

      Over time the memories of Stan Lee, Bob Kane, and their peers will be combined into one great fictional poet — like Homer.

      For this reason alone America will not have have lived in vain!

  1. Why is it important, or even desirable that the United States be powerful?

    We spent many years as a 2nd or even 34d rate power; and one can argue that those were our best years.

    No one wants to be trampled underfoot by the Huns or Visigoths; but we begin with the idea that we want the milk of human kindness or something like that and frame other objectives within that context.

    1. Hi Duncan,

      Great point! And I don’t think that we need to be a superpower- it brings out the worst in us.

      If democracy and freedom are our greatest gifts, unabated capitalism becomes are deadliest sin.


  2. Video: “The Bleak Past and the Grim Future” by James K. Galbraith

    James K. Galbraith (Prof Government, U TX) is the author of the new book, Inequality and Instability: A Study of the World Economy Just Before the Great Crisis. He gives a Clinton School lecture titled “The Bleak Past and the Grim Future” about the American economic crisis and recovery.

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