Nusbacher Associates

“Shaping” is the military buzzword of the postmodern era. Yet it doesn’t seem to work, as anyone who’s noticed the news can tell. But why does shaping fail? What can we do to stop failing?

The evidence to answer both questions is all around us, so let’s have a look.

First, here’s a quote that summarizes the essential problem – to put it simply, your mindset. A group’s mindset is called a “culture” but for you individually it’s called “ethnocentrism”. Here’s a quote that explains the basic problem with it:

Most people [consider themselves] “open minded” and “tolerant.” [Yet] everyone is ethnocentric, and there is no way not to be ethnocentric… it cannot be avoided, nor can it be willed away by a positive or well-meaning attitude.
— Ken Barger, Anthropologist

In short, to be human is to have ethnocentrism or culture or mindset; your ideas about the world will affect how you perceive the people and events happening around you, no matter how understanding you think you are. In order to escape your mindset / ethnocentrism, you must continually and consciously identify how your suppositions and projections compare to reality. Yet most people don’t have the critical thinking skills or the psychological sell-awareness or even just the time and energy to do this, let alone being human so that consistency is unlikely as well as physical or emotional influences that interfere. So, to whatever individual extent, every individual has a mindset/is ethnocentric.

So far so good for anthropologists, whose goal is understand your culture so they can explain it to their culture. 
But the warrior has to go a step beyond understanding and explaining, and work on shaping. 

So what is shaping militarily? Shaping means getting outside your own mindset and entering your adversary’s mindset so that you can turn it against him. This is what Psyops exist to do. But you also have to use your adversary’s mindset to look for weaknesses in your own mindset, where the adversary might be shaping you in return. This is what Red Teams exist to do.

In both psyops and redteaming, the essential first step is to account your own mindset first. As Col John Boyd wrote, in order to get inside the adversary’s thinking so that we can shape it, “..we must first shatter the rigid conceptual pattern, or patterns, firmly established in our mind.”

Seems straightforward… so how are certain political and military leaders not getting it? How is this not working in the real world? It’s not rocket science!

In fact, the clue lies in another word for ethnocentrism / mindset, a word which is the opposite of rocket science… Belief.

Belief is the absolute foundation of shaping for everyone concerned in shaping a conflict. Let’s take a look at some examples in recent events:

First, a key element of shaping for the American military has been the belief that acting and manoeuvring more quickly than your opponent is essential to shaping the conflict. (This is part of Col Boyd’s OODA loop.)  This is absolutely true when engaged in a conventional conflict, like the aerial dogfight in which Col Boyd specialized… but in shaping asymmetrical warfare, it applies differently than to the conventional warfare situation for which it was invented.

Unfortunately, when a conventional military faces an asymmetrical opponent like an Islamicist terror group or a factional civil war, the conventional military tends toward *reaction* rather than action. So it can manoeuvre as quickly as possible, but because it is reacting rather than acting, it is being shaped rather than doing the shaping. You simply cannot shape *reactively* to succeed in an asymmetrical situation. 

Thus we see that, when the conventional military forces worked to shape *actively* by bringing manpower to bear on civil affairs in Iraq during the Surge, they were mostly successful. When NATO *actively* brought air power to bear on the various ground forces in Syria, it shaped the ground conflict. Bringing massed power is what the conventional military does better than an asymmetrical adversary. So this was shaping that worked.

However, when the asymmetrical force causes a conventional force to react, then the conventional force tends to *believe* it shapes the conflict when, in fact, its *mindset* about shaping is overshadowing its reality… moving from reactive shaping to active shaping in asymmetrical conflict is something that conventional forces have only rarely achieved in recent wars. While it is possible to recover from the reactive position and shape – as with the Surge and the original Syrian air campaign – in fact the conventional military force rarely finds the political support required to win: Authorization of sufficient force; media messaging; and, especially, consistent commitment to long-term effort.

This last item is the reason a conventional force rarely recovers from the reactive position to initiate active shaping against an asymmetric adversary. It has to do with another tenet of Colonel Boyd’s model, which holds that successful shaping means dictating the conflict timeline. However, those holding the “dictate the timeline” mindset have failed on the strategic level to employ Colonel Boyd’s teachings about achieving leverage by “menacing”, which requires creating a threat to value.

Let’s take the example of Islamicist terror groups.  When your adversary is a religious type who’s in it for the eternal reward, dictating the conflict timeline is meaningless. Time has no value to an adversary with an eternal mindset – time is not a threat, because earthly things are transitory anyway. Thus, time provides no leverage because time is not perceived as a value. Tactically and operationally you can use time to menace an Islamicist adversary, because his/her asymmetric position means s/he has finite resources compared to a conventional military… but in the Islamicist mindset, time is a divine promise so, strategically, your adversary already knows he’s got forever – all he has to do is endure.

Instead, by limiting your own time – say, to a drawdown that you have publicly promised, especially in an election year when you have your own time concerns – then you have failed to recognize your ethnocentrism, your belief about time. You provide your religion-inspired, eternal-mindset adversary with leverage over you. He knows you don’t have forever, now. He knows that you’re not willing to commit resources past a certain point. You’ve just demonstrated his belief that his God is everlasting while everything in his own life, like your time-limited threat, is transitory – all he has to do is endure.

This is why belief-inspired asymmetric warfare simply does not stop. (The belief can be any cause which the opponent believes to be greater than himself or herself. Islamism is just a handy example but any sort of deep conviction or Faith will do… Communism is an example from last century that I’ll address in a moment.)

This is why shaping on a time basis simply does not work on Believers… and why this shaping has rebounded so badly onto the conventional forces forced to work with their leaders’ own belief about time. The fact that the conventional forces have enacted drawdowns (as one example) shows that not only are these powers failing to shape the conflict, but that the Islamicists have the upper hand in shaping the conflict against them (for now).

To emphasize, it all comes down to two things: A belief that makes you behave a certain way (ethnocentrism/mindset) and its strategic value.

Another example of the same problem, just in a different way, is what occurred in the Viet Nam conflicts. (Here’s where the Communism comes in.) In that conflict, the belief that wound up as the center of the shaping strategy was the “body count”. French and then American shapers simply could not or would not grasp their adversary’s belief about human life as a resource to be expended (in the militant Communist mindset, the individual is just one insignificant and thus disposable part of the greater good) rather than their own idea about human life as a value to be preserved. And so the adversary was able to shape the conflict to be about body count, because the adversary understood very well that you don’t have to share a belief in order to make it a weapon, you just need to figure out how to *use* it. The Communists’ media psyops campaign in France and America provides many interesting examples of shaping this war… Shaping that worked.

This is why military powers, and intelligence agencies, and people selling products or politicians to the public all spend so much time and money on psychology and advertising. Shaping works, and shaping can work amazingly well for a lot less time and money than a physical conflict. “It’s better to psych your opponent out of fighting than to have to fight him,” is a lesson of military history from the very first recorded conflict. That’s shaping!

But shaping only works if you’re the one doing it. This is why psyops isn’t enough, so that you need redteaming too. As the Red Queen said to Alice, you have to keep running just to maintain your position. As shown by the aforementioned examples of failing to overcome the primary problem of mindset/ethnocentrism… those who wish to shape must be vigilant lest they be shaped themselves.

This is the essential point of adapting shaping to asymmetric warfare, where the psychological battlespace is the one place the enemy can hope to dominate.

This is why shaping can work amazingly but why it hasn’t worked for conventional forces lately: It’s not enough to shape reactively, you must gain an active stance for shaping to work; then you have to commit to shaping actively as a strategy, not just as a tactic or an operation; and you must supplement your shaping with self-checking by red teams, lest your enemy damage you through your own mindset. Or, if you’re an intel briefer, here’s how you put all of Colonel Boyd’s work together in one slide:

– Identify your own beliefs (ethnocentrism, mindset, culture);

– Identify your adversary’s beliefs;

– Learn how your adversary’s beliefs function as a real and valuable mental tool for him, working both for and against him;

– In that context, determine how to create a threat that your adversary will understand and accept as actionable;

– Pose that threat *consistently* (shaping)

– Constantly monitor how your own beliefs are working for and against you at strategic, operational, and tactical levels as the conflict evolves (counter-shaping).



I am an enormous fan of taking an interdisciplinary approach to intelligence studies. I think anthropology can provide a lot of perspective to intelligence — both anthropologists and intelligencers study people — and I’m particularly interested in solving the problem of conventional forces engaged in asymmetrical warfare since my experiences as a former academic-turned-Marine on deployment.

The following were the sources for my blog’s quotes:

If you’re interested in reading more about ethnocentrism and ways of overcoming it by thinking, start with Dr Barger’s introduction to anthropological psychology — 

If you’d like to know more about how military shapers are supposed to account for ethnocentrism, start with Col John Boyd’s presentation to Air University on Youtube — is a classroom series.  You can read his article, a very tight technical explanation (free PDF download) with his mnemonic diagram of an OODA loop also presented to AU.

For excellent analyses of asymmetric conflict by conventional forces, Max Boot’s 4GW books provide helpful case studies for anyone without military experience who really wants to understand why it hasn’t worked, and proposes the SWORD model for thinking how it might. Boot’s critical lessons aren’t as popular as Boyd’s loop, but equally essential.

(As usual, citation isn’t endorsement by my bl‎og’s host.)


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