Small Wars Journal

Unlocking the Keys to Victory

Fri, 02/08/2008 - 7:21am
Frans P. B. Osinga, The Science, Strategy and War: The Strategic Theory of John Boyd, New York: Routledge, 2007, 313 pgs, $140 hardback, $35.95 paperback

I first met John Boyd on a very warm summer day in 1983 at Headquarters, Marine Corps. Frankly he did not make much of an impression to a then young Captain of Marines. The briefer went through an extensive set of slides extolling conflict over the ages. I recognized the various strands of Clausewitz, Sun Tzu and Liddell Hart (and thus indirectly T.E. Lawrence) weaved throughout the pitch. In the aftermath of a long run and a too large lunch, I preceded to take a somberly tour of the insides of my eyelids.

This mental rest stop did not impress my boss, a Vietnam veteran who was taken with Boyd's ideas. As penance for my nap, he insisted I take the brief again the next day. Although I did not know it at the time, I never got a more valuable or more intellectually enriching experience over a decade in the Pentagon.

The intellectual contributions of the late Colonel John Boyd, USAF, have already been the subject of two fine biographies. Robert Coram's Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War provided a window into Boyd's life as a fighter pilot, technical innovator and maverick defense reformer. Grant Hammond's Mind at War John Boyd and American Security summarized Boyd's main arguments. Both of these efforts are well regarded and helped rectify the limited record Boyd left behind. Regrettably, Boyd's career is too often truncated into well known "OODA Loop."

But Boyd had a lot more to offer. His contributions to flying tactics, fighter development, and operational theory are profound. The historical analyses and scientific theories he employed are not well documented nor well understood. This is principally due to Boyd's reliance on briefing slides. Colonel Frans Osinga fills out our collective understanding with The Science, Strategy and War. In this very deliberate review, the author works his way through the arguments and source material of Boyd's famous briefs including "Patterns of Conflict" and "A Discourse on Winning and Losing." He highlights the diverse sources that shaped Boyd's thinking and offers a comprehensive overview and remarkable synthesis of his work, and demonstrates that Boyd's is much more comprehensive, strategically richer and deeper than is generally thought.

Osinga is ironically a former F-16 pilot, a plane Boyd helped design, and a serving Royal Netherlands Air Force officer. He has lectured extensively in Europe, been posted at the Allied Command Transformation, Norfolk VA, and spoken at the annual Boyd Conference held in Quantico last July. The author is now stationed at the Royal Netherlands Defense Academy. This book, a version of his doctoral research, performs a superlative service as it expands our understanding of the utility of Boyd's work to modern conflict.

Over the years, my appreciation for John Boyd's intellectual achievement and moral character has grown. Others were less somnolent than I and quicker to understand what Boyd was offering. When he passed away in 1997, General Charles Krulak, then Commandant of the Marines, was quick to praise Boyd for his lifelong work in concepts, theory, and doctrine. General Krulak said that Boyd's theoretical contributions "rival those of the greatest military minds." Not only did he add considerably to America's understanding of the art of war, General Krulak credited him with contributing to the success of the U.S. military in Operation Desert Storm and as "one of the central architects in the reform of military thought which swept the services, and in particular the Marine Corps, in the 1980s."

The Marines attribute major influences in their fundamental doctrine of maneuver warfare to Boyd. He taught the Marines about competitive and intuitive decision making on the battlefield. He should be credited with stressing the importance of tempo as well as the time competitive nature of combat. Despite an Air Force background, he understood the proper role of technology in war. He is famous for insisting that "Machines don't fight wars. People do, and they use their minds." This emphasis on intellect and the human dimension found a home with the U.S. Marines, a Service with a valorous reputation but not previously open to intellectualism or doctrinal creativity. Boyd's stress on the psychological and moral dimensions of conflict over attrition-based strategies that emphasize firepower and technology resonated deeply with the Marines in the post-Vietnam era. Marine doctrine is infused with many of Boyd's critical observations, carefully transferred by Generals C. C. Krulak and Paul K. Van Riper.

In his concluding chapter, Osinga shows that Boyd's understanding of war is still very relevant. This important chapter underscores Boyd's grasp of the function of command and control, and the life of military organizations as a process of competitive discovery and interaction. This process of learning and adaptation was tied to Boyd's growing awareness of what we now know as complex adaptive systems. Colonel Osinga goes on to discuss the relevance of Boyd to the RMA debate, to Net-centric Warfare and to 4th GW. He correctly notes that Boyd would concur with the critical moral component of 4th GW but would have been leery about much of the RMA literature. He notes "it is unwarranted to see too much of Boyd's ghost at work here," since he would not have supported the emphasis on technology. However, "he certainly would agree with this emphasis on continuous innovation and agility."

Colonel Boyd's work remains relevant to the Small Wars community. His path finding work into organizational learning is the genesis for many follow on research efforts, including LtCol John Nagl's bestselling Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife. Boyd's emphasis on organizational fitness and constant adaptation in relation to a changing environment is the operational imperative in FM 3-24 Counterinsurgency (thanks to Dr. Nagl). Likewise, Boyd's exploration of what we now know as chaos and complexity theory was a decade ahead of its time. Students of the nonlinear sciences, including Dr. Dave Kilcullen, have exploited the concept of complex adaptive systems in relation to modern adversaries like Al Qaeda in his own ground breaking studies. Dr. Osinga makes it clear that we can and are still learning from the iconoclastic Boyd.

While John Boyd died in 1997, his influence lives on in the fighting doctrines of the Army and the Marine Corps, and in the halls of almost every educational institution of the U.S. military. This book explains why. Science, Strategy and War is a brilliant distillation of Boyd's research and the revolutionary theories about science and cognition he leveraged to better understand warfare. While the hardback price will scare off most readers, the new paperback version is more affordable and will make the book more accessible.

So while others have done more on bringing out the colorful life and the bureaucratic bashing personality of the irascible Boyd, no one has adequately framed his intellectual foundation in context, detailed his wide ranging research sources, or explored the full breadth of Boyd's undeniable intellect. Osinga's book is a long overdue corrective to those who too quickly dismissed Boyd's ideas as simplistic. Science, Stategy and War is a monumental contribution to military art and science, and is completely worthy of the genius it covers. This is an invaluable and prodigious piece of scholarship that belongs on the bookshelves of true professionals and anyone responsible for teaching strategy, operational art, and military theory.

Frank Hoffman is a national security consultant employed by the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies.


SWJ Editors LInks

SWJ Blog: Hoffman on Osinga and Boyd - Zenpundit

Weekend Yard Sale - The Belmont Club

Discuss - Small Wars Council


Bill Moore

Fri, 02/15/2008 - 3:53pm

While it may seem simplistic to compare Boyd to Bruce Lee, Bruce Lee was an accomplished philosopher who always challenged what he termed the "classical mess" referring to the traditional form of martial arts, especially the Asian styles. Im very loosely paraphrasing his ideas, as it has been many years since I have read them, but he argued that once a series of techniques became incorporated into a style or doctrine it quickly became dogma, and it the dogma became more important than the litmus test of whether it actually worked in combat.

One could make an argument that many officers have become indogmanated (worse than indoctrinated) in the "classical" texts of Clausewitz and others, who were actually revolutionary or on the tip of the spear in the evolutionary realm, in their time. Their time is not the 21st century and I think intellects of the likes of Clausewitz would be gravely disappointed with the mindless disciples who hold him up as a demigod of war dogma. Does his body of knowledge still have some use? Yes, of course it does. Is that body of knowledge the bottom line that will never change regardless of the significant changes in technology, social arrangements, political systems, economic systems, etc.? No, of course not.

To attempt to determine the value of Boyds work based on the medium it was presented in is folly at its worst. Like much of Clausewitzs work, Boyds was a series of ever evolving notes and thoughts. What would be the use of freeze framing it in a book where it then would risk becoming dogma and no longer evolve, much as Clausewitzs works have? This is the 21st century and we have a number of mediums available to transfer knowledge, not just books. There have been numerous outstanding ideas posted to various blogs, are they of less merit because they are not in a book? If the world is evolving as fast as Boyd believed, wouldnt it better to post your thoughts to power point and blogs instead of writing a book? Power point and blogs can be an interactive form of communication with a community of various experts who may disagree and stimulate worthwhile debate; thereby, allowing the ideas to constantly evolve based on greater intellectual base than one man.

It wont take years to determine the value of Boyds work, if you have actually read any of it, you will realize if it doesnt evolve, in a few years it will be outdated. His point, as was Nagels in his book "Eating Soup with a Knife" was we need to learn quicker based on ever changing current reality.

Ill leave you with one more thought from Bruce Lee referring to the mind, "the usefulness of a cup is its emptiness". Empty your cup and sample some other ideas before you blindly reject them because they counter the dogmas we have all been poisoned with.

Norfolk (not verified)

Sat, 02/09/2008 - 1:38pm

It is too soon to tell whether John Boyd may prove to have usefully contributed to thinking about War, Tactics, Operations, and Strategy, and how to practice them, or to have detracted from said matter. Certainly there are those who have drawn from Boyd's body of thought and work who have in their turn derived critically flawed, even dangerous notions and faulty conclusions about how to think about war and how to wage it. And for that matter, many of Boyd's own wider observations about war and the factors that affect it may either be little more than repeating what classical theorists such as Sun Tzu have themselves observed (or implied), or may amount to little more than intelligent and even enlightening commentary on said. The proof as to whether Boyd's ideas are truly useful and practical (beyond his very laudable teachings on Aerial Tactics and related matter)remains to be definitively proven on the battlefield. It may take many years and much wartime experience to discern if, and if so, where and to what extent, Boyd's ideas are usefully and comprehensibly applicable, rather than rigorous intellectual calisthenics.

There is however, given the lack of a formal, structured body of work by Boyd, an inherent flexibility to his intellectual corpus, and in the best Boydian tradition, this does allow for one to take what is useful, and throw away what is not. Whether this was incidental or perhaps deliberate on Boyd's part, it nevertheless serves to render his thought both more accessible and more easily extractable.


Sat, 02/09/2008 - 12:36am

<b>"All the great if not even good war theorists have at least been able to do this"</b>

Hmmmm. As have the mediocre, second-rate, turgid, anachronistic and dead wrong military thinkers. I'm not certain that they do not outnumber the good and especially the great ones by many orders of magnitude.

<b>Is it perhaps that the appeal of Boyd has more to do with the idea that he reduced the complexity of war down to a simple process</b>

He did? I'd say that Boyd, in the first part, tried to shed light on the systemic complexity of war by trying to elict the principles upon which conflict turned. In the second part, he tried to inculcate a adaptive and creative mindset in his audience.

<b>and because he never wrote it down into a coherent body of work using the written word that others (institutions, individuals) have used Boyd as a surrogate for their own purported revolutionary thinking on war?"</b>

Fair criticism. Writing a book or books would have been a better way for Boyd to try to have preserved his intellectual legacy intact.

However, creating a "bible" hardly prevents future followers from rewriting it into dogma. Or even guaranteeing that they will read it at all. How many of Imperial Germany's Grossgeneralstab in 1914 actually had read <b>On War</b>? How many General Secretaries of the USSR had read Das Kapital ?

Gian P Gentile

Fri, 02/08/2008 - 9:01am

A few questions about Boyd:

Why should we consider him one of the great thinkers on war if he never wrote his thoughts down using sentences, paragraphs, essays, and perhaps even a book or two (not power point slides and notes)? All the great if not even good war theorists have at least been able to do this: Clausewitz, Douhet, Fuller, Mao, Galula, Warden, to name just a few.

Is it perhaps that the appeal of Boyd has more to do with the idea that he reduced the complexity of war down to a simple process, and because he never wrote it down into a coherent body of work using the written word that others (institutions, individuals) have used Boyd as a surrogate for their own purported revolutionary thinking on war?