Updated: Feb 6
I first heard of the OODA Loop as a young corporal at FOB Hit, Iraq, in 2005. I remember sitting on a pallet of soda cans amidst steel containers, concertina wire, and sandbags surrounded by my platoon. I was probably wearing issued ICE sunglasses and desert cammies dirty enough to be comfortable. My platoon sergeant called for a school circle and explained this “observe, orient, decide, and act” thing. He was certain that, if we understood and used the OODA Loop, our performance would improve. I can’t say if we got any better - I doubt it. I don’t remember. I do remember that my staff sergeant was excited, and I never forgot the OODA Loop.
I don’t know why, among all the other acronyms and military concepts, the OODA Loop stuck in my head. Perhaps because it’s euphonious - it sounds good and is fun to say. It’s possible the OODA Loop reveals something humans intuitively know but lack the words for. Maybe using the term is empowering for leaders.
When I was a TBS instructor, I noticed the smart students used OODA Loop references to impress the evaluator, only for a very smart student to comment, “You know that it isn’t a loop, right? It’s a cycle. It’s more complex than a loop.” Later as a company commander, I listened to an aggressive fire team leader debrief his Marines after a frag battle drill. The OODA came up a few times as an admonition for improvement, as in, “If we used the OODA Loop, we’d be better,” or “You need to use the OODA Loop to know your buddy is ready to move.” The Marines made something complex, simple.
Such vernacular innovation is for the common man - not the Boydian high priests. I read the work of Chuck Spinney, Frans Osinga, and others to learn about the real OODA cycle. Despite my deeper understanding, I’m content keeping the simple, circular word chart. We are better off with a bastardized version than nothing at all. Yes, it would be best if everyone understood OODA on the most complex level, but that ain’t happening.
Some may wonder what it would take to get the majority of Marines to understand the real OODA cycle. I’m sure many believe a prescription of education would save the vulgar masses from themselves. “It's merely a lack of understanding that elevates the simple OODA Loop over the labyrinthine OODA cycle,” they claim. No, no, no! Marines gravitate to the simple over the complex for the same reason consumers prefer Michael Bay’s Transformer series instead of whatever Jim Jarmusch is putting out. It’s why Nickelback, the comically-maligned Canadian rock band, sold over 50 million records and is hated by all the smart people.
What most Marines think the OODA Loop is
What it actually is
Sometimes looking under the hood prevents movement. Simply believing in the relative advantages of possessing a tighter OODA cycle is a success for Boyd and the Marine Corps. Accepting simplicity often betrays ignorance, but sometimes it may be the best course of action, especially in a large organization. There are many complex things we accept as simple, just as there are simple things we make complex. For example, Bertrand Russell, a 20th century-British polymath and Nobel Prize winner, once published 372 pages to conclusively prove that 1 + 1 = 2. Russell didn’t write a proof to discover that the sum of 1 and 1 is 2 but to, along with Alfred North Whitehead, establish a foundation for all mathematics and logic that became their seminal Principia Mathematica. Because I’m not a mathematician or logician, I’m content to accept that the sum of 1 and 1 is 2 in the same manner of my five-year-old son--by looking at my fingers. Boyd’s extensive work deserves similar consideration. Did he and his followers set out to make the simple complex or the complex simple? Can something complex be itself when simplified?
Maneuver warfare is complex. Any claims to the contrary are disingenuous or impractical. For one, there is no cohesive definition, no shorter catechism. There are guidelines, sure, and plenty of characteristics, but today the best definition I can come up with is that maneuver warfare is the Marine Corps’ warfighting philosophy. For now.