Do we have a broken OODA loop? Or are we just stupid?

Summery:    Three dozen posts on the FM website have described different aspects of America’s broken OODA loop. An op-ed by Frederick and Kimberly Kagan in today’s Washington Posts points to a different and darker diagnosis. It’s presented here so that we see all alternative explanations, however bleak.


The diagnosis of America as having a broken OODA Loop (our ability to observer, orient, decide, act) has several operational advantages. It’s emotionally neutral, reassuringly technical in nature.  It points at no specific individual, assigns no blame. Best of all, this leads to a clear solution. We need only act differently: see more clearly, learn from our mistakes, plan and act better.

Today’s Washington Post has an op-ed that disproves this analysis, and suggests a darker answer.  A simpler explanation of why we cannot accurately see our world and learn from our mistakes.  Perhaps we’re stupid.


Why U.S. troops must stay in Afghanistan
Kimberly Kagan (president of the Institute for the Study of War) and
Frederick Kagan (American Enterprise Institute)

Since appearing on the national stage in 2007, this pair have a near-perfect record of producing fallacious analysis and bad advice.  Cheerleaders for our mad vain wars, advocates for the two costly but unsuccessful “surges” (Iraq, Afghanistan), they are war mongers in the most literal sense (see What is a warmonger? Who are the warmongers?).  (For a brief analysis of their current bad advice see this post)

Despite this record they remain geopolitical gurus in good standing, their advice prominently displayed by the news media and eagerly read by both decision-makers and the public.  They are our failure to learn in tangible form.


We’re stuck on “stupid”.

Meanwhile the experts giving accurate analysis of our wars remain on the sidelines. We are like people who cannot tell brass from gold, or glass from diamond. We ignore experts who have consistently and accurately forecast the results of our wars, and offered advice that in hindsight appears prescient. People like  Andrew Bacevich (Colonel, US Army, retired — now Professor of History at Boston U).

And most of all, Martin Van Creveld.  Many years will pass before a historian produces an analysis of our wars more insightful than in his Transformation of War — written in 1991.

Even after a decade of war — with nothing to show for it but a decaying homeland (starved of public investment), plus thousands of crippled and dead soldiers — the Washington Post features the Kagans’ latest bad advice, while van Creveld’s “On Counterinsurgency” gets republished only here.

We can easily understand why the military-industrial complex pushes up leaders like Petraeus and the Kagans. They provide glittering logic to advance the MIC’s projects (lucrative for the MIC, while we pay).  But why do we continue to listen to them?

Post your explanations in the comments.

Posts about the Kagans and their bad advice

“On Counterinsurgency” by Martin van Creveld (2005)

  • Introduction: The first lesson of our failed wars: we were warned, but choose not to listen.
  • Part 1: How We Got to Where We Are
  • Part 2:  Two Methods focuses on President Assad’s suppression of the uprising at Hama in 1983 on the one hand and on British operations in Northern Ireland on the other, presenting them as extreme case studies in dealing with counterinsurgency.
  • Part 3: On Power and Compromises draws the lessons from the methods just presented and goes on to explain how, by vacillating between them, most counterinsurgents have guaranteed their own failure.
  • Part 4:  Conclusions.

For a list of his publications and links to his other online works see The Essential 4GW reading list: Martin van Creveld




41 thoughts on “Do we have a broken OODA loop? Or are we just stupid?”

  1. I don’t buy the Washington Post. I don’t pay to read it. If not for this website, i might not pay it any attention at all. Ouch, i think my loop just broke?

  2. The supply of stupidity has always been unlimited. The interesting question is not “why do the Kagans write such tripe?” but rather “why does the Washington Post publish it?” Perhaps the executives of the Washington Post see war, and the prosperity of the Military Industrial Complex, as advantageous to the 1%, including themselves. The belief that they and their class will benefit may be correct, at least in the short term that bounds the lives of all of us.

    The propensity of humans to believe that which they expect to benefit themselves is almost boundless. The capacity for self-delusion is nearly independent of intelligence.

    1. (1) “why do the Kagans write such tripe?”

      People are warmongers because it’s a business, like any other. At the top rank it pays well: salary, speaking fees, book deals.

      (2) “why does the Washington Post publish it?”

      Because that is the Washington Post’s role in our society, to publish material supporting the policies and views of the 1%.

      The real question, IMO, is why do we remain so gullible — eagerly consuming this swill, no matter how often it proves false — even toxic.

    2. Delusion in the interest of self-improvement is something I’ve also wondered about WRT America’s shyster televangelists. Greg Palast has claimed that Pat Robertson, the Virginia Tidewater Baptist preacher whose broadcast shtick includes speaking in tongues and declaring mass-casualty hurricanes and earthquakes to be God’s punishment, doesn’t actually believe a word of what he preaches. Palast reported that when Robertson accompanied a shipment of mining equipment to the Congo, he didn’t crack open his bible once, instead spending the flight reading the Financial Times. (This equipment was allegedly purchased with viewers’ donations to something called “Operation Blessing,” nominally a charity serving the Third World poor.) David Kuo has told similar stories about George W. Bush and his administration mocking the piety of their base behind their backs in the White House.

      The thing with Bush and Robertson is that their shtick is highly entertaining, so staying in character should be relatively easy when the character in question is so nutty and bigoted. What I find harder to understand is how someone like Joel Osteen could stay in character, if indeed his incredibly vulgar materialism in God’s name is an act rather than a heartfelt belief. His preaching is extremely shallow, stupid and repetitive; I can’t see how anyone with a life of the mind could preach that garbage week after week, and write books about it, without having the veneer crack.

      Joel Osteen’s immense popularity is another good sign of our broken OODA loop. He is one of the most popular preachers in the US today, with over a million Twitter followers. Sadly, his following includes Catholics, a group prone to complain about the much more substantive preaching in their own church for being delivered boringly (a characterization with which I, also a Catholic, disagree, but quite a common critique). Osteen is an utter shyster whose favorite themes include the proposition that one should tithe in advance on what one hopes to earn, effectively as a Tammany Hall-style kickback to God, although he would never concede a hint of corruption in it.

      Another is his tonedeaf fixation on positivity. As he put it on Twitter today, “If you can’t be positive, at least stay quiet.” Or, as a critic put it, “‘Quit your bitching,’ saith the multimillionaire preacher.”

      By the way, Osteen’s wife and sometime colleague is a hothead (and classic snooty upper crust Texan) who got into trouble for decking a flight attendant a few years ago. They’re some fine folks.

      1. America’s love of religion has deep roots in human history, from cultures across time and around the world. While irrational, it has logical roots in our fear of death — and incomprehension of why evil rules in our world.

        Priests and Churches sell transcendent reassurance in the face of these unsolvable questions. In that sense they provide a service that fills a vital need. By encouraging good behavior, many people believe that on the whole religion provide a net benefit to society.

    3. >Because that is the Washington Post’s role in our society, to publish material supporting the
      >policies and views of the 1%.

      Though, really, are the top 1% a monolithic voice in favor of war? My impression of this, is that while there are a few who have dedicated vast amounts of money to supporting recent wars in Muslim countries, theret are also a few rich guys who favor peace, and quite a few who just are too busy wallowing in their cash, like that Scrooge McDuck, or highlighting the decor of their luxurious estates with ugly, but expensive art — just lost in self-absorbed narcissistic nonsense like the rest of the TV watchers out there.

      If you’re looking for actual wealthy warmongers, how many people are we talking about exactly? I suspect this number is really quite small. With the Post, it’s probably just one guy calling the editorial shots here.

      1. Cathryn,

        The WaPo publishes material supporting the views and interests of the 1%. That does *not* mean that each policy they support has the unanimous support of the 1%.

        They support subsidies for agribusiness and funding for foreign wars. That does not mean everyone in the 1% is both farmer and warmonger.

        There might even be those that dissent to both of those policies in the 1%. They are a social group, not a hive.

  3. I’m still working through Hedrick Smith’s Who Stole the American Dream, but his thesis is that the think tanks in DC are very much responsible for our decline.

    1. Mike,

      I agree, but would put this in a different context. Most of America’s think tanks were created — or, for the older ones, retasked — to advance specific goals. And so they have, proving to be well-worth their cost. They are effective political agents for the 1%. The next 52% have few groups working in their interest (eg, unions, some professional organizations); the bottom 47% have nothing.

    2. I don’t know either.

      To add to the current problems, today’s mess has been a slow bleed over forty years.

      It’s like a frog being slowly boiled in a pot.

    1. I recommend looking at America in terms of principals and agents. Oligarchs and their advisors, courtiers, and senior agents = the inner party. Their people that work the machinery = the outer party. The lower classes = the proles.

      Events might show that Marx wasn’t so much wrong as early.

    2. Agree, but we’ve had this situation before- railroad, oil, electric, and phone titans. We’ve always bent, but never broke.

      Eventually, the people would rise up or the government would curtail the power.

      1. Mike,

        That’s a powerful point, but I’m uncertain as to the lesson it teaches us. The textbooks say that the Gilded Age ended by the reforms of the Progressive Era (1890-1928). But those reforms didn’t break the Oligarchy, nor empower workers — let alone create a middle class. They made everybody’s life better (eg, standards for food), and redistributed power with in the oligarchy. It little for unions.

        The meaningful reforms that made America (what I call The-America-That-Once-War) came from the Great Depression (ie, New Deal) — to restart the economy and avoid a revolution — and after WWII (to avoid the potentially explosive effects of unemployed vets).

        Those were both extraordinary events. The combination was beyond extraordinary. It that’s what it takes to create meaningful reform, I suggest getting use to life in a Plutocracy.

  4. In 2009, the cartoon This Modern World suggested a solution to America’s stupidity crisis.

    As Voltaire remarked, “In times like these one must either laugh or hang oneself.”


    This Modern World by Tom Tomorrow

  5. Saw the movie Lincoln this weekend. An interesting attempt to educate the public about the necessity for realpolitik, in this case to get the anti-slavery ammendment passed in Congress. Totally unlike the Frank Capra “Mr. Smith goes to Washington” type of idealised politics. Perhaps this is a small step towards making Americans a little less idiotic and a little more practical.

  6. In a similar vein to the Kagans’ warmongering, I’d indict several of our most prominent op-ed columnists for peddling corrosive garbage in the guise of serious policy or humanitarian concern: Thomas Friedman, Nicholas Kristof and David Brooks.

    At heart, these guys are horses’ asses. Brooks does by far the most effective job of hiding his true colors, couching vile social control mechanisms on behalf of the plutocracy in some of the most milquetoast language imaginable. Friedman, by contrast, comes across as a hypomanic namedropper, and Kristof as an unctuous sleaze who compulsively flatters the entire female sex to dignify his unhealthy obsession with the abuse and subsequent rescue of pubescent Asian girls. Friedman’s “Flat World” meme, which he adopted from a misquotation of an Indian executive, is hackneyed and overrated, and Kristof’s “Half the Sky” book and initiative comes across as a parody of feminist excess and Western naivete about charity in the Third World.

    None of this has stopped Friedman from becoming widely regarded as a leading savant about international economics or Kristof from amassing a huge, devoted following, largely of young American women who consider him a true mensch for being so concerned. Oddly Brooks, probably the least buffoonish of the trio, seems to be the most widely ridiculed, and definitely the least popular. He’s also the most consistently good writer of the three; I don’t recall reading anything of his that wasn’t polished, but I’ve seen plenty of work by the other two that was replete with clunky non sequiturs.

    A thoughtful people would regard these three as entertaining curiosities, to be taken every bit as seriously as a homeless schizophrenic preaching damnation on a city sidewalk. Instead, Americans take them seriously. The joke is on us.

    1. (1) “At heart, these guys are horses’ asses.”

      As an alternative perspective, think of them as mercenaries. Well-paid mercs. Like the practice of law, professional warmongers cannot afford to have many scruples about the causes they serve.

      (2) “Instead, Americans take them seriously. The joke is on us.”

      Why do we take them seriously? It’s a not-funny joke, especially for those wounded or killed — and their friends and families.

  7. smokethebarbecue

    One reason why we continue to listen to the MIC is because the MIC is a meal ticket for many of us (a lot more than just “1%”), making it as politically difficult to cut the military budget as it is to cut food stamps. Of course, if we don’t rein in our deficit spending, sooner or later the bond market will force us to cut both more than we can imagine.

    1. snokethebarbecue,

      I agree, much of the political support for the MIC comes from those employed in it. Which is millions of people (aprox 800k in defense-space industry and 3 million in DoD. Plus their families.

      But the question remains: why do so many of the remaining 200+ million adults so eagerly believe the pro-war propaganda, even after a decade of war — with both Iraq and Afghanistan clear failures?

  8. With all due respects, the purpose of the so-called War on Terror is not military success and can even include serous military defeat. Its sole purpose is to maintain the status quo. So of course the Kagans continue to be published in the Washington Post and doubtlessly will continue to be published until that august institution folds.

    But seriously, if Van Creveld, et al, are so hot, then they simply ought to empower their own readers to prevail despite the follies of those who persist in reading the Post.

    The United States qua United States is going down the drain simply because it is a nation state. It does not therefore follow that you or I are thereby obliged to go down the drain with it.

    1. Kinder,

      “But seriously, if Van Creveld, et al, are so hot, then they simply ought to empower their own readers to prevail despite the follies of those who persist in reading the Post.”

      That makes no sense to me. Van Creveld is almost unknown in America, outside of professional military and academic circles. Since his advice runs contrary to the interests of the US MIC, he is not called on to write op-eds in the major newspapers, or appear on the major talk shows, or sponsored by the major think tanks.

      When Center for a New America Security hold conferences — with young ladies in military uniforms providing the staff — only warmongers get to speak, with one or two token contrarians (and none of MvC’s stature).

      So what’s this magic that MvC and his tiny band of believers can marshal to overcome the power of the MIC and its hold on the American public?

    2. An example of what not only can be but which actually has been done:

      Linux has been running a pretty good guerrilla campaign against Microsoft for some time now.

      1. I think calling an “insurgency” the Linux – Microsoft competition is what Chet Richards calls over use of “war” as metaphor for conflict.

        This overuse shows IMO the militarization of US society. We’re becoming like Prussia in so many ways. Rigid caste system, unresponsive hierarchical government, overuse of force to settle domestic and foreign problems, excessive esteem for all things military…

    3. Then I will take care never to mention Scupoli’s The Spiritual Combat on your blog.


      The Spiritual Combat is known as one of the greatest classics in ascetic theology, along with The Imitation of Christ. In both cases the authors are shrouded in mystery. Several 17th century editions were published under the name of the Spanish Benedictine, John of Castanzia. Some writers of the Society of Jesus have ascribed the book to the Jesuit, Achilles Gagliardi, but most critics however consider Fr. Lawrence Scupoli as the author of this famous treatise.

      The first known edition was published in Venice in 1589 and contained but 24 chapters; later editions appeared with more chapters, so it is possible that the Theatines or another religious order may have been part of the composition.

      Whatever may be the solution of the problem of the author, doubt of the actual one or ones, can take nothing away from the value and efficacy of this “golden book” as St. Frances de Sales called it. It was “the favorite, the dear book” of this great master of the spiritual life who, for 18 years, carried in a pocket a copy which he had received from Fr. Scupoli in Padua himself. The Saint read some pages of it every day, entrusted to its supernatural and human wisdom, the guidance of his soul, and recommended it to all under his direction. The purpose of the work is to lead the soul to the summit of spiritual perfection, by means of a constant, courageous struggle against our evil nature, which tends to keep us away from that goal.

      The author was a genius, the kind that can only be inspired by the grace of God and his book is a Catholic treasure and one of the greatest gifts God could have given any age, but most especially this benighted age which has lost its appreciation for the kind of simplicity necessary for sanctity.

      1. Duncan,


        But — considering that the stakes of spiritual combat are not just physical life, but eternal life, then this is war in the basic sense. Conflict about the highest values, with the highest stakes.

  9. smokethebarbecue

    The reason why a minority can have an outsized influence on MIC spending is special interest politics. If there’s a critical mass of people who depend on something they have enough clout to bargain with other interest groups, which is why we waste so much money on military spending, agricultural subsidies, anticompetitive health care, etc.
    I don’t think a majority of Americans are in favor of our wars any more, but they have no idea what an exit strategy from Afghanistan would be. For example, do we let the Taliban take over?

  10. What happens to military experts when their advice contradicts the plans of the US military? William Lind describes one such scene, from his June 2004 column:

    I recently encountered a horrifying example of its success at the Marine Corps Command & Staff School at Quantico. At the end of this academic year, the Command & Staff faculty simply got rid of 250 copies of Martin van Creveld’s superb book, Fighting Power. This book, which lays out the fundamental difference between the Second Generation U.S. Army in World War II and the Third Generation Wehrmacht, is one of the seven books of “the canon,” the readings that take you from the First Generation into the Fourth. It should be required reading for every Marine Corps and Army officer.

    When I asked someone associated with Command & Staff how such a thing could be done, he replied that the faculty has decided it “doesn’t like” van Creveld. This is similar to a band of Hottentots deciding they “don’t like” Queen Victoria. Martin van Creveld is perhaps the most perceptive military historian now writing. But in the end, the books went; future generations of students at Command & Staff won’t have them.

  11. I believe that answer behind the question; “Why we follow stupidity?” is in long time cultivated respect for royalty and obedience, except that royalty is now replaced with wealthy people and powerfull in politics. That royalty obedience cultivated for millenias uninterupted and it is probably allready DNK inprinted. Of course there sure was a royalty replacement of something that is more cave age related but not known so DNK print would be from earlier then kings. And i notice that in my parents a lot more then in newer generations. Conservativism.

    I learned my thinking from principles of “be critical of powerfull, wealthy and idols, always”

    Why do warmonger analists who are always wrong are still respected? They provide arguments, no matter how wrong and fake arguments, and excuses for those that already made their minds and always want more war because of their career advance or were trained to solve problems trough war only their whole life. They serve as arguments providers.

    1. Jordan takes us to a borader look at this question, probably the only fruitful path. Got to the best of thread!

      “is in long time cultivated respect for royalty and obedience, except that royalty is now replaced with wealthy people and powerfull in politics.”

      This touches upon the lond-standing support in western societies by poor and middle classes of groups that work against their economic interests. For centuries majorities supported conservatives in the name of Throne and Alter. Many thought that died in 1975 with Francisco Franco in Spain, forcing conservative parties to move left in search of new foundations. But the Right in America might have created a new political alliance based on theology and reverence of State power.

      Thomas Frank questioned the economic logic of this in What’s the Matter with Kansas? (2004).

      This uneasy alliance of social and economic conservatives is not a majority, but might be a plurality. Hence the close votes in national elections.

    2. When people listen to authority, the part of their brain responsible for critical thinking goes dormant. This allows those in authority to influence the opinions and practices of the outer ring. This is why certain individuals are accorded high status (mercenaries rise to the top).

  12. Just a few nights ago I was having a discussion very similar to the one you all are having, about the issue of the American people and their seemingly immeasurable ignorance. Many refer to it as stupidity, but I can hardly imagine that so large a percent of the people are incapable of learning, rather they are not interested in doing so.

    Back and forth, round and round we went. Perhaps better education systems, though one can easily point to at least a handful of people who have attended college, yet still will adamantly argue evolution is a myth and the world is only 6000 years old. So then perhaps Religion is the issue; organizations that breed ignorance, and therefore pave the way for a large body of people to believe what they are told, because questioning authority is a sin? Yet most of those with strong religious beliefs would give up their freedoms long before they gave up their religious beliefs. On and on it went until finally I laughed and said this can not be the first period in our history when such things were discussed; can you imagine the Greek philosophers having this same discussion. The reply was “no I can not” They would not have arguments of how to keep the lower classes involved in government, because the lower classes were not involved in government.

    Perhaps this is the uncomfortable truth about democracy. It is dependent upon a majority of the population being well informed and involved in their state and federal governments. However, it would seem this is a near impossible feat, as so many choose to remain ignorant.

    So my question is, the broken OODA loop? Was is ever whole or are we just imagining that once there existed a time when Americans informed themselves and took part in their government. And perhaps the solution is simply excepting democracy as we have envisioned it can not work. Not because the people of this particular time are stupid, but because people are people, and not all are driven to read and listen and learn to understand about the world they live in and the people whom they share it with?

  13. It is often said, in so many words, that the first step to solving a problem is to accept that the problem exists. It seems to me that we Americans, at this point, could not organize or protest our way out of a paper bag, let alone generate a significant social movement about any serious problem we face. If that is true, we had better admit it and move on with OODA. After years of constant newsreading and occasional letter-writing, I feel more politically impotent than ever, and I don’t know what to do about it.

    In regards to democracy, the fact that representatives of the US government travel the globe officially promoting it bodes ill, I feel.The definition of democracy, like the definition of freedom, matters.

    The democracy they promote – what is it? I call it corporatism. I suppose it is preferable to some other kinds of government, such as military dictatorship, theocracy, totalitarianism, or nazi-ism. Our minds have been colonized since birth, and we were taught that the USSR, the PRC, and others were examples of communism and the evils thereof. We were taught to view socialism as a slippery slope to communism, no matter how well-meaning it might start out.

    Technically, the USA is a republic governed by representatives elected by the people, right, a representative democracy? Frankly, I am afraid I would not recognize a real democracy if it hit me upside the head. In the USA, one can make a long list of government policies that the majority of citizens are opposed to. One can observe quite easily, though proving it is a little more difficult, that the outcomes of our elections are often determined by money and propaganda. Such things beg the question, ‘is this really a democracy?’

    Perhaps it is a stupid question. If so, it should be that much easier to answer. Otherwise, isn’t a definition of democracy needed in order to debate the answer?. It now appears that the definitions of communism and socialism given to us are false. But I would have to perform research to find out our definition of democracy – beyond that it involves elections, or unless that it is the current status quo, I don’t know what it is. Decisions made by a whole community of persons as opposed to dictated by a central authority?

    But I’ll take a stab at it: ‘government by representatives chosen by business interests according to their means, using a two-headed one-party system’. Except I don’t think that is democracy.

    I recorded the thoughts above upon reading the entire thread, and they are not intended to change the subject, or derail the thread, all of which I found fascinating. Obviously I need to come up to speed on a lot of things, and I’m not alone. Please be kind.

  14. Pingback: OODA Loop and How to Use Social Media For Business (Part 9)

  15. The Forever Wars of Frederick & Kimberly Kagan“, Philip Giraldi, American Conservative, 6 December 2012 — The Beltway power couple who boosted the Iraq invasion insist we stay longer in Afghanistan”

    Closing paragraph:

    And so relying on such expert advice we might well soldier on in a war that the United States will inevitably lose. Only “over 30,000” more troops in Afghanistan in perpetuity and we will be just fine. The Kagans guarantee it.

    Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.

  16. Pingback: OODA Loop and How to Use Social Media For Business (Part 11)

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