This President’s Day, when we commemorate the past and present leaders of this country, it’s also a time for Americans to reconsider the patterns of American power through our history and consider whether they want the pattern to continue as we get ready to elect a new leader.
Col. John Boyd, an ace U.S. Air Force fighter pilot and trainer, conceived the OODA loop to explain the mechanics of aerial combat. OODA stands for “Observe, Orient, Decide and Act.” Each action leads to a new observation (the target hit or missed), and the loop continues.
Boyd’s insight into aerial combat tactics is applicable to any competitive landscape, whether it’s military science or improving one’s golf game. The warrior’s survival depends on him constantly asking, “Where am I now in the OODA loop?”
What many may not realize is that there is also an OPAD loop that runs through history and can be used to describe the strategic cycles that define the American way of war. OPAD stands for “overconfident, painful lessons, adjustments and decisive victory,” and our current and past presidents show time and time again how the U.S. approaches conflict.
Overconfident. An excess of confidence and, too often, a lack of proper preparation characterize the period prior to the commencement of hostilities, and these continue through the battles’ initial stages. In 1812, Thomas Jefferson wrote that the conquest of Canada would be “a mere matter of marching.” At First Bull Run in 1861, politicians and civilians picnicked at the battlefield to enjoy a Union victory — which turned into a Union rout by the Confederates. Prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Frank Knox, secretary of the Navy, declared, “We can wipe the Japanese off the map in three months.”
Painful lessons. Again and again we seem to learn only from hard experience. The Battle of Brooklyn in 1776 would cost the Continental Army Manhattan for the duration of the war. President James Madison launched the War of 1812, but in 1814 the British burned the White House. The surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 was followed by the Nazis launching devastating U-boat attacks on merchant vessels in U.S. coastal waters. The Battle of the Bulge, the costliest American battle of World War II, taught that even a dying beast is able to inflict wounds. The U.S. was caught flatfooted by the North Korean assault in 1950. Nineteen determined al-Qaida operatives managed to pull off the devastating 9/11 attack in 2001.
Adjustments. As a direct result of these painful lessons, course corrections are implemented. Leadership changes are made — although it took years for President Lincoln to identify Grant, Sherman and Meade. Tactics are revised. George Washington had the Prussian Von Steuben teach drill tactics to the Continental Army. New war-winning technologies, from P-51 Mustang fighter planes in World War II to improved trauma care in the Korean and Vietnam Wars, are introduced.
Decisive victory. Yorktown was the decisive victory of the American Revolution. Gen. Winfield Scott led U.S. forces into Mexico City in 1847, ending the Mexican-American War. German Kaiser Wilhelm II was forced to abdicate in World War I. Berlin and Tokyo were reduced to smoldering ruins in World War II. Decisive victory would elude American forces in Vietnam.
But before we do a victory dance, we must remember that each decisive victory holds dangers of its own. First, victory is an intoxicant that inflates the national ego and leads to overconfidence. Second, every decisive victory is a highly public event that effectively turns the American military playbook over to any future enemies that emerge. Osama bin Laden, observing Saddam’s defeat in the first Gulf War, chose different tactics to attack.
Today we must ask ourselves, “Where are we now in the OPAD loop?” President Obama’s assessment of the Islamic State as the “JV team” suggests that our overconfidence persists, and we have surely experienced many painful lessons and adjustments in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria. This year will mark the 15th year that American forces have served in Afghanistan without any sign of a decisive victory.
As we elect a new president this year, can he or she deliver a decisive result? Or has the OPAD loop been permanently broken?
Christopher Kelly is the co-author of “America Invades: How We’ve Invaded or Been Militarily Involved With Almost Every Country on Earth” and “Italy Invades: How Italians Conquered the World.”