Callsign Wiener

Listening to a podcast recently, I heard about the decision-making strategy known as the “OODA Loop” developed by US military strategist and air force pilot, John Boyd. (OODA stands for: observe, orient, decide and act.) The process was conceived as a simple tool to aid decision making in confusing, chaotic or dangerous situations, primarily with fighter pilots, although in Vienna this is also applicable when queueing for an ice-cream.

Over time, the model has been used in many other fields from business to politics and although it is extremely effective in navigating complex situations, it apparently falls short when the context is complicated. Which is why it is highly efficient in aerial combat or winning a referendum campaign but less when dealing with the after-effects of war (securing the peace) or running a government (where it doesn’t serve anyone to constantly pick fights).

As I listened to this account, it struck me that such broadcasts not only tell a good story about something unexpected – the getting to the root or something based on a reinterpretation of data which are all the rage in podcast land – but often they help to provide the vocabulary to articulate specific psychological behaviours. In the sense that you are aware of doing something similar but often lack the words to verbalize it. And so on hearing the thinking behind OODA, it occurred to me that the principles of acting with urgency, especially under duress, with enough agility to change course and react when needed, resonated perfectly with many facets of life in the number one city.

One example is shopping in supermarkets. Now I don’t proclaim to possess many talents, but when it comes to bag packing at Spar or Hofer, I am in the top 1% of my class. The reason for this is that not only have I had years of intensive training (especially this last year), but that checkouts and conveyor belts are generally designed for somebody buying a can of Red Bull and a Leberkässemmel (like Rishi Sunak, small). This means if you are shopping for a family, then you need the dexterity, skill and speed of a navy pilot engaging with the Russians. Otherwise it’s the social Gulag.

Then again, this is a walk in the park compared to driving, where you need the temperament of psychopath. Although to be fair, the mental process developed by Boyd has taken on a characteristic Viennese interpretation and usually describes the typical reaction when a non-city-native unknowingly breaks ANY accepted traffic convention: “Orsch! Idiot! Depp! Arschloch!” (the so-called OIDA Loop).

That said, OODA, as a mental process, made a lot of sense because its essential premise, with a focus on neutralizing your enemy, made me immediately think of my dealings over the years with Homo Twatus (my neighbour). Remember, as I have alluded to before, if you have a fatheaded twit living next door, it doesn’t matter if you live in the number one city or on the streets of … somewhere not so appealing … life quality is an irrelevance. But a cautionary tale and a reminder that constant vigilance and reaction will ultimately condemn even the most tenacious into a tailspin of self-loathing. Sometimes you have to break the loop and choosing not to “act” is probably the most effective and healthy way to respond. Emphasis is thus not on a set of interrelated actions but on a single mental process – “I” (ignore).  

But equally, hearing the OODA principle made me think of the immigration office and my recent application for the new visas for the Brits in Austria post-Brexit. Because it fits the model perfectly: observe (the authorities, social media and the machinations of the Foreign Office); orient (get your paperwork in order, check your bank balance and ascertain whether your wife/husband/partner still digs your crazee British humor); decide (in fact, decide nothing, the decision has been made for you); act (drink two glasses of schnapps, replace your mask and enter the Magistrat).

Normally, the procedural peculiarities of the designation of immigratory status in Vienna are above reproach, and can I just say how much I have enjoyed my three visits in the last four years. But when I commit to a decision (big or small) and have marshalled the necessary motivation to act, I expect the consequences of my actions to be executed with the efficiency and speed of a fast-moving jet in a dogfight. Delay, if unexplained, is intolerable. Yet this explains why vexation has been superseded these last couple of weeks and the fret-level has been raised to “red”.  

It is for this reason alone that I probably wouldn’t have the aptitude to be a fighter pilot. More so because I can’t imagine saluting anyone, except after a Zoom call, and I am no good with people ordering me to give them twenty (although I can). Admittedly, I am fairly good at surveying a scene, organizing my shit, executing any commitment, and doing the deed with the minimum of fuss (which is now good to know if I am ever tempted to apply for a job as a hitman). And yes, I generally consider myself to be “decisive”. Although there was that time at IKEA going through the emotional torture of ordering a new kitchen, when I got slightly agitated by the permutations of EVERYTHING (the “illusion” of choice, a process where we are tricked into thinking that more variety is better whereas in fact it makes us more stressed and simply serves as a reminder of how little we know). But two months since my application, there is still no sign of a small card confirming my status as foreigner class 3 and I am beginning to feel a bit jangly. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, check out Vienna’s newest and slickest wingman: inconsequential Wiener.

In fairness, I should just stop faffing about and phone the Magistrat. Not so much OODA but GMST (get my shit together). But in spite of a twenty-year apprenticeship as an Austrian, I am still British in many respects and never far from my consciousness is the fear of making a fuss. For example, I am typically one of those people who always seem to be forgotten when I visit a doctor. You know the scenario, where successive patients are inexplicably seen before you, although ALL of them arrived later. Resisting the uncomfortable urge to say something I will invariably wait for at least an hour before I can muster the moxie to even ask when it is my turn. Then only to do so to be embarrassingly chastised in a sarcastic voice with a: ”You’re next, stop fretting, SITZEN MACHEN!”* In contrast, Mrs Barratt (forged in Vienna) will pipe up in about five minutes of being seated (also in a restaurant) if even there is the tiniest hint of queue manipulation or the flimsiest evidence that a waiter has not seen us. Shameless and without emotion. Like a genuine assassin. 

So, assuming I can even get through to a human at the immigration office, I know the response will either be something reassuringly specific like, “Herr Barratt, your card will be delivered tomorrow. If you contact us again, you will be on the first Easyjet back to Gatwick!” Or something worse, “Es tut mir sehr Leid, Herr Barratt, but there seems to be a problem with your paperwork. You will have to re-apply. In person. Again. Welcome to Vienna. Now eat your Coney Island.”

It is one of the reasons why I avoid (for now) such totemic matters of citizenship. Applying to become Austrian is a complex (or is it complicated?) procedure, not to mention the expense. And remember this is only under consideration because of Brexit. But like many of my fellow Brits in Vienna since the referendum, of course have I given it some thought. Does the OODA cycle really help in this case? I am not so sure. Yes, in the sense of making the application – the cycle is Kafka in simple words and therefore ideally suited to the Viennese Amt. However, relinquishing your passport is in essence a binary choice, albeit loaded with certain emotional attachments (mostly to baked beans and proper tasting crisps).

So, my alternative in such dualistic decisions is simply to ask myself two simple questions: do I want something, and do I need it? If I can answer both questions with a “ja”, then the decision is simple. The same applies if both are a clear and honest “nein”. Yet, “want” is never enough because the good Catholic boy in me must sense a greater need. Which of course means that sometimes the need will outstrip the want (it just becomes necessary like buying a new dishwasher). Of course, the degree of “want” may shift over time but I have found the important “need” part remarkably consistent. I either do or I don’t and for me this is pivotal (and it also works if I have to decide to go to the doctor, clean the car or apply for a ten-year visa).

All in all, it means that when it comes to deciding to want to become Austrian, my answer for now is, nope, at least I don’t think so. Do I need Austrian citizenship? All I can say for sure is that on current evidence, it’s not a definite no but it is most likely not yet a yes. So, we go back and forth. Do I want it? Do I need it? … and so on.

Fortunately, in my mind, being decisive also applies to the notion of deciding not to act (essentially taking the decision not to take a decision). And there is good reason to do so. Because having too much to decide will provoke the same existential hysteria as an extended period of lockdown home-schooling. This is completely different to procrastination and merely means a decision has been deferred. Observation is perhaps intermittent, but this then renders the three other OODA elements irrelevant. So, in the case of citizenship, there is no need to shuffle the paperwork, no need to make a commitment and decide and no need to head off to the immigration office and act. The decision is in deep-freeze and I don’t have to spend hours every week ruminating on the possibilities … at least not until after my Article 50 card arrives.

*To fully appreciate the comic beauty of the mangled German phrase ”SITZEN MACHEN” (it should be Setzen Sie Sich”), check out the Billy Wilder classic, One, Two, Three. 

© 2021 RJ Barratt