Monday, January 18, 2016

The OPAD Loop: The American Way of War

The author at the grave of his ancestor
Stephen Van Rensselaer
Albany Rural Cemetery, NY

Is there American way of War?  Is there a discernible historical pattern to the way in which we as a people engage in war?

Colonel John Boyd, an ace 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 is hit or missed) and the loop continues.  Boyd's insight into conflict resolution is applicable to ANY competitive landscape had been utilized in fields from sports to business as well as warfare.  The military understands that speed is of the essence when flying in the OODA loop.  The warrior's very survival depends on his constantly asking himself, "Where am I now in the OODA loop?" and "Can I accelerate versus my opponent?"

The OODA Loop has even put used to improve one's golf swing (!

Boyd's revolutionary approach provided a new way to describe the tactics of armed conflict.  (See earlier post...

I detect an OPAD Loop through history which may be used to describe the strategic cycles that define the American Way of War.  OPAD loop is strategic rather than tactical and helps to describe the stages of our nation's military history.

"O" stands for "Overconfident and Ill-prepared".  An excess of confidence and a lack of proper preparation characterize the period that precedes the commencement of hostilities and lasts through each war's initial battles.

"P" stands for "Painful Lessons".  We seem only to learn from hard experience.

"A" stands for "Adjustments".  Course corrections are implemented as a direct result of the "Painful Lessons".

"D" stands for "Decisive Victory".  At long last, a decisive victory is won.  But as we celebrate the triumph we often forget that it is precisely this victory that puffs the bellows of national pride leading to Overconfidence and poor preparation for the conflict that waits around the next corner.


All too often the lead-up period to war and its earliest stages are characterized by American overconfidence and poor preparation.

The War of 1812 affords an early example of "Overconfident and Ill-prepared".
General Stephen Van Rensselaer
Albany Rural Cemetery, NY
In August of 1812 former President Thomas Jefferson wrote that, "The acquisition of Canada this year, as far as the neighborhood of Quebec, will be a mere matter of marching."  President Madison, a Jefferson acolyte, had launched a war against Britain in June of 1812 in spite of the fact that the US Army had less than 8,000 regular troops, was unprepared for winter warfare in the vastness of Canada.  There were more troops in the state militias but many of these were prevented from leaving their home state and could not possibly invade British Canada.  My own ancestor, General Stephen Van Rensselaer led the New York militia many of whom balked at the rive border between upstate new York and Canada.  The US Navy, for its part, had no ships of the line while the British had over five hundred.  Instead the Navy relied upon gunboats (Jefferson liked the fact that they were cheap) that were incapable of challenging the Royal Navy's Blue water fleet.
Picnic at First Bull Run (Manassas)
There are many more examples of American Overconfidence and poor preparation.  On July 21, 1861 at First Bull Run, the first major battle of the US Civil War, "a throng of sightseers," politicians and some women rode carriages equipped with picnic baskets 25 miles from Washington to observe the Union Army teach a lesson to "Johnny Reb".  Instead they witnessed the bloodiest day in US history up to that point in time as the Confederates "whupped" the Yankees who skedaddled from the field.

Yankee Doodle Dandy, James Cagney

In April 1917 George M. Cohan wrote Over There about how "the Yanks were Coming, etc." as Wilson plunged us into war against the "Hun".   The American military, in spite of having witnessed the agony of trench warfare from August 1914 until that point, was woefully unprepared for war.  More than 100,000 Americans would be killed Over There in World War I over the course of about 20 months -- nearly twice as many as killed over the ten years of America's experience in Vietnam.

Eddie Rickenbacker's Spad XIII (replica)
Imperial War Museum Duxford, UK
By 1917 the importance of aviation in modern warfare was clear to all.  Aviation may have been invented by the Wright Brothers of Ohio and Kitty Hawk but America had no military aviation industry throughout the war.  American air forces purchased Sopwith Camels from Britain, Spads from France and Capronis from Italy.  Eddie Rickenbacker, the leading American ace of the war, flew a Spad XIII.
Frank Knox
Secretary of the Navy WW2
The hubris that preceded the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was legendary.  Before the "day of infamy" Frank Knox, the US Navy Secretary wrote, "We can wipe the Japanese off the map in three months."   Knox assured Governor Spaulding of New Hampshire that "the Japanese cannot fight longer than two months".  (Source: Freedom Betrayed: Herbert Hoover's Secret History of the Second World War., p 295, Edited by George  Nash, 2011,

But it seems that the lessons of World War II would be quickly forgotten.
Start of Korean War
By the end of WW2 in 1945 the Americans had built up a formidable military force.  But by June 1950, when the North Koreans invaded the South, demobilization ordered by the US Government had eviscerated the US military. English historian Max Hastings wrote, "In the aftermath of World War II, the nation's armed forces had not merely been reduced -- they had been allowed to crumble to the brink of collapse...By June 1950 MacArthur's division in Korea lacked 62 percent of their infantry firepower and 14 percent of their tanks; that 80 percent of the army's sixty day reserve was unusable and the army in Japan possessed only forty-five days' supply of ammunition."  (Source: The Korean War, Max Hastings, 1987, p 52,  These ill-equipped forces were very nearly routed by the Communists at the start of the war which only turned around with MacArthur's landings at Inchon.

I use the term "ill-prepared" rather than "unprepared" advisedly.  Americans are often prepared to fight a war but they are prepared to fight the last war rather than the next war.  Victory over Saddam in the First Gulf War, for example, did not prepare us to deal with the insurgencies of subsequent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that followed 9/11/

George Washington
USMA, West Point, NY
On August 27, 1776 America's first Painful Lesson was administered by the British at the Battle of Long Island (also Battle of Brooklyn)  (  After suffering about 2,000 Continental casualties, George Washington was forced to withdraw Patriot forces from Long Island to Manhattan.  The next month would see Washington abandon New York City which would remain occupied by British forces until the end of the war in 1783.  New York City would become a Tory stronghold for the remainder of the war.

Many Painful Lessons would follow in the American Revolutionary War and in all subsequent conflicts.

The Mexican-American War (1846 - 1847) and Spanish-American War (1898) were both relatively short wars that produced significant American territorial gains.  After the Mexican-American war territory forming California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico were added to the Union.  After the Spanish American War Puerto Rico and Guantanamo were added to American control.  But both wars had Painful Lessons of their own.  Both wars claimed many American casualties due to disease with the wars being fought in tropical climates.  During the Mexican-American War a higher percentage of those serving died than in any other American war.  The occupation of the Philippines that followed Dewey's naval victory at the Battle of Manila Bay degenerated into a long and brutal guerrilla war.

The US Civil War, the costliest in our nation's history, was full of Painful Lessons.  The Battle of Antietem on September 17, 1862, for example, killed more on one day than any before or since in American history.
Carnage on the Atlantic Coast
The American experience in World War II would begin with the Painful Lesson of Pearl Harbor (  Immediately following the Japanese attack, German U-boats were dispatched to the coastal waters of the eastern seaboard in Operation Drumbeat where they preyed on merchant shipping that was illuminated by the undimmed city lights  (  Over the first eight months of 1942 more 5,000 merchant mariners would be killed (twice the toll of Pearl Harbor) partly due to the US Navy's refusal to implement convoys in these waters.  Kasserine pass in Tunisia would hold more Painful Lessons for the US Army.

Nor are Painful Lessons limited merely to the opening rounds of American wars.  The Battle of the Bulge which began in December 1944 was the costliest American Battle of World War II (  At Bulge Americans learned that even a dying beast can maul its hunter.


The record shows that Americans at war, after suffering Painful Lessons, make significant adjustments in terms of strategy, tactics, leadership, technology and even military medicine.
Baron Von Steuben
Valley Forge, PA
After the Battle of Long Island George Washington engaged the services of the Prussian "Baron" von Steuben who taught Americans how to drill and fight as regular troops at the encampment at Valley Forge and thereafter.  In America Invades we wrote, "von Steuben from Magdeburg Prussia became a major general in the Continental Army and wrote the drill book (Revolutionary War Drill Manual) that was used by the US Army until the War of 1812." (Source: America Invades, Kelly/Laycock, 2014,  Washington recognized that Americans could not defeat the British by shooting soldiers from behind trees Indian style; they could only defeat British regulars by learning to fight in formation like European armies.

During the US Civil War President Lincoln made numerous leadership changes before settling on the team of Meade, Grant and Sherman to win the conflict for the Union.  Truman felt compelled to dismiss MacArthur during the Korean war.   George W. Bush eventually accepted Donald Rumsfeld's resignation.  And so on.

The US Naval cryptanalysts that failed us before Pearl Harbor would succeed marvelously at the Battle of Midway.  Convoys would finally be instituted after the carnage of Operation Drumbeat.

A little known campaign in the Aleutian islands in 1942 illustrates the adjustments that were made in military medicine at that time.  Historian Brian Garfield wrote, "The largest single classification of agony--severe frostbite and trenchfoot--represented the first combat cold injuries suffered by American troops in the Second World War.  To avoid making the same grisly mistakes in the forthcoming Italian campaign, Army doctors studied Attu veterans with close clinical attention, and submitted voluminous findings to the Surgeon General.  As a result, important changes were soon made in Army footgear, clothes, tents bedrolls and food.  In the next two years' global fighting, the experience of Attu would save thousands of limbs and lives."  (Source: The Thousand Mile War, Brian Garfield, 1969, p 333,

The Manhattan project that developed the atomic bomb provides a perfect example of a technological adjustment to the strategic needs of the Second World War.  The nature of warfare changed as a result.


The American Way of War ends in Decisive Victory.  The Battle of Yorktown ratified in  blood the aspirations of the Declaration of Independence.  In 1847 General Winfield Scott led US forces into Mexico City.  Sherman ignited Atlanta to finish off the Confederacy.  The Spanish Empire crumbled at San Juan Hill and Manila Bay.  The Kaiser was forced to abdicate his throne.  Berlin and Tokyo were left a heap of smoldering ruins by the end of WW2.  Saddam's Republican Guard attempted ruinously to flee Kuwait with stolen vehicles on the "highway of death".
George S. Patton
USMA West Point, NY
Patton, the American Mars, confidently opined, "America loves a winner, and will not tolerate a loser, this is why America has never, and will never, lose a war."

Most historians agree that the War of 1812 basically ended in a draw with no territory changing hands.  But even this inconclusive war ended with Decisive American victories on water (Battle of Plattsburgh, 1814) and on land (Battle of New Orleans, 1815).


Patton, of course, spoke prior to the Vietnam war. While it must be acknowledged that Vietnam was a defeat for the USA, OPAD still provides a framework for trying to understand this American war.

Americans had plenty of Overconfidence at the start of the Vietnam War.  JFK intoned, "We will bear any burden" but his listeners had no idea that the full reckoning would cost over 50,000 American lives.  From the Gulf of Tonkin incident to the escape of the Boat people, Vietnam furnished Americans with many "Painful Lessons".   General Westmoreland's  sacking by LBJ after the Tet offensive was one of many Vietnam adjustment.  But Decisive Victory proved to be elusive in Vietnam.

Or did it...?  American forces did not really lose a single pitched battle in the course of the Vietnam War.  The Tet offensive in 1968, for example, was a propaganda and media victory for the Communists but in purely military terms they were routed everywhere by its conclusion.

POW John McCain returns to USA
Finally, from the perspective of the global Cold War that was waged from 1946 to 1989, Vietnam was itself simply a Painful Lesson that Americans incorporated into a ultimately winning strategy.  Senator John McCain, a Vietnam POW, mused, "Perhaps we couldn't have won the Cold War if we hadn't lost the Vietnam War."  (Source: Vietnam: The Definitive Oral History Told From All Sides,  edited by Christian G Appy, 2003, p 482,  Without question Vietnam's Painful Lessons led to a wholesale reform of the US military.  The draft was replaced by a volunteer military.  The media would be granted limited access to future battlefields.  Colin Powell, a decorated Vietnam veteran, would champion many of the reforms that swept the US military after the fall of Saigon.


Why do we Americans tend to careen from Decisive Victory in one war to Overconfidence and IIl-preparedness at the start of the next conflict?

Decisive Victory has a causal relationship to Overconfidence.  Part of this is simply due to human psychology.  Triumph puffs up the bellows of the national ego leading to excessive complacency.  Meanwhile, American triumphalism helps to foster resentment among those around the world who wish us ill.
"Wild" Bill Donovan of the OSS
Truman's decision to eliminate the OSS (Office of Strategic Services) in September 1945, just one month after the atomic bombs were dropped, offers a precise historical example of how this operates in practice.  Truman was a frugal man from Missouri and the OSS was run by a "Wild" Bill Donovan -- a notorious playboy and...Republican.  Truman concluded that the war had been won and there would be no more need for intelligence services.  Truman would readjust his adjustment when the CIA was reconstituted out of the ashes of the OSS in 1947 to address the challenges of the Cold War.
9/11 Memorial, Lower Manhattan, NY
Moreover, Decisive Victory is, by definition a very public event.  Every Decisive Victory that is won effectively hands the American playbook over to any future enemies that may arise.  Osama Bin Laden, for example, knew well to avoid Saddam's experience from the First Gulf War that was won in just 100 hours of ground fighting in 1991.  He would be the architect of an altogether different attack on America.


Where are we today on the OPAD loop of American military history? President Obama was quick to dismiss ISIS as the "JV team" demonstrating the American penchant for Overconfidence once again.  Will we now accelerate towards Decisive Victory against ISIS or must we endure more Painful Lessons and Adjustments?

Everyone has an opinion but only future historians will be able to provide the complete answers.

Thanks Washington Times...

Thanks Courier Post...

Thanks Daily Journal...

Thanks South Coast Today...

Thanks Tampa Tribune...

Thanks Times Tribune...

Christopher Kelly is the Co-Author, with Stuart Laycock of America Invades and Italy Invades: How Italians Conquered the World.   

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And unsigned copies are available here 
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