The View From Olympus: The OO Loop Problem

One of the more curious aspects of the current U.S. military is its institutionalization of failure.  We have lost four Fourth Generation conflicts: Lebanon, Somalia, Iraq (which is still very far from being a real state), and Afghanistan, where we are fighting but not winning.  In response, we keep doing more of the same, more perfecting of our ability to put firepower on targets.  If war could be reduced to that, we would be the greatest, military on earth.  But it can’t.

The custodians of failure are our generals and admirals.  The problem is not what they do but what they do not do.  They preside blandly over the status quo, terribly busy all the time but changing nothing.  They have half an OODA Loop.  They observe and orient – then observe again.  They make no decisions and take no actions, beyond those necessary to continue business as usual.  Their time is spent receiving contentless briefings and going to meetings where nothing is decided.  As one Marine three-star said to me, “If anyone tells you it’s fun being a general officer, it’s not.”

How did we end up with this equivalent of the Soviet Union during the Brezhnev years?  As with so many of our military problems, it comes back to our personnel system, specifically to the kind of people we promote.  Years ago, one of my students, an Air Force officer, discovered something interesting while researching his dissertation.  He found that the Air Force academy made all its cadets take the Meyer-Briggs Personality Inventory, and, much later in their careers, the National War College did the same.  He looked at the ISTJs, who are the bureaucrats:  data-oriented, risk averse, people who never color outside the lines.  At the Air Force Academy, they were one personality type among many.  By the War College, they were completely dominant.  Why?  Because one of their characteristics is that they only promote other ISTJs.

The result is evident in our general officers’ OO Loop.  ISTJs avoid making decisions and taking responsibility.  By promoting only other ISTJs they ensure our armed services cannot reform themselves.  All they can give us is more of the same, i.e., more of what has not worked.

The hard question is what to do about it.  Giving promotion boards instructions to promote non-ISTJs will do nothing.  They will nod, say “Thank you very much” and go on promoting other ISTJs.  They cannot do anything else.  To them, the whole creative side of war is “bullshit” and officers who are imaginative and take initiatives are threats to the culture of order ISTJs prize above all else. 

Reform must come from outside.  I do not have all the answers for fixing this problem, but I do see a couple starting points.  First, we need Joe Stalin’s “urge to purge”.  We have far more general officers than we need.  Cut their number to about 10% of their current strength and use the opportunity to get rid of lots of ISTJs.  We might have to use the Meyer-Briggs test to identify them, although it is a very imperfect instrument (and ISTJs will try to game the test). 

In the longer term, we need to make the ability to think, decide, and act militarily central to promotion (at present it counts for nothing).  The best way to do that, at least for combat units, was suggested years ago by Chris Bassford in his book The Spit-Shine Syndrome. Every year, every unit goes up against a unit of similar strength in a free play exercise.  The winner gets, say, 50 promotions to divide up within itself, the loser gets five.  This would reward the characteristics we need in field-grade and, later, general officers: an eagerness to decide and act, what the old German army called Verantwortungsfreudigkeit, “joy in taking responsibility”.  It was the characteristic it looked for in officer promotions.

These reforms would not be enough in themselves.  Our armed services need to look deep within and identify other ways to promote warfighters instead of bureaucrats.  Of course, they will not do so under their present leadership.  To them, all this is a threat, not a promise.  Nor can I see a force for serious military reform either in the current Administration or in Congress.

So we will probably continue on with half an OODA Loop until the whole system collapses.  That is coming, and it may be closer than our ISTJ generals and admirals think.