Where Boyd Got the Discourse
By Chet Richards
Boyd, like Clausewitz and Musashi, drew on the totality of knowledge in his day for ideas. As Osinga and Coram documented (and I know from personal experience), Boyd devoured his sources. We used to joke that if Boyd didn’t write more in a book than the author did, it must not have been a very good book. As a result, he developed not just a knowledge of but a fluency in most of these subjects.
Sources in the red and blue zones are largely documented within his works (the leftmost red zone is military history and the other is military strategy). They, along with Gödel, Heisenberg, and the Second Law, underlie “Destruction and Creation” and Patterns of Conflict. The rest of the blue zone feeds into and is cited in Strategic Game of ? And ? and Organic Design.
Then there’s the big gap, 1987 – 1995 and finally the OODA loop appears in his last briefing, The Essence of Winning and Losing. What happened? Partly it was probably the emergence of the prostate cancer that would later kill him, but partly it was that with the fall of the Soviet Union it became clear that the era of war deciding things among the major powers was over. So he turned his attention to other things, including business and most particularly the types of business strategy based around the Toyota Production System. One reason for this was not that he drove a Toyota (when I visited him in 1992, he had a Honda and a Mercury), but that the descriptions of the Toyota System mirrored to an uncanny extent what he had written in his earlier works on warfare. [There's more on this in Certain to Win.]
Was this just a coincidence? It turns out that it was not, as Boyd realized primarily from Thomas Cleary’s book, The Japanese Art of War. As this chart suggests, Boyd was quite familiar with the influence of Taoism on Sun Tzu and thence on Mao and Genghis Khan (and perhaps from there on the Blitzkrieg). Cleary’s book, which became one of Boyd’s favorites, also linked Sun Tzu/Taoism through Zen to Musashi and the modern study of the martial arts, which resonated with Boyd since his early career could be described as kung fu at 30,000 ft.
This stream also flows through Zen to present-day Japan and the Toyota Production System. Although he never included any Zen works explicitly in his briefings, we did discuss its influence on Toyota when he was reviewing the early drafts of what became my book, Certain to Win. I have no indication, by the way, that Boyd ever actually practiced any Zen techniques or that he ever read more deeply into it.
The more research I do in these areas, though, the more striking the connections between Boyd’s work and Zen concepts like clearness of vision, non-attachment to (fixed) forms and concepts, fluid awareness, and spontaneity. In fact, ideas such as these, along with Prigogine’s notion of far-from equilibrium “dissipative structures,” are what distinguish Boyd’s ultimate concept of the OODA loop, with its centrality of Orientation, from the cyclical version that he started with.
So when we’re comparing Boyd to other strategists, it is important to place everyone into historical context. A chart like this for Clausewitz would be sparse by comparison — the red zones including personal experience and down through about Napoleon (no Sun Tzu, of course), and the blue would stop at Newtonian mechanics. There would be no green zone at all. Such a comparison is, however, most unfair. Were Clausewitz to have lived in the late 20th Century, there is no reason, given his history, to think that he would have limited himself to the knowledge base of 1831 any more than Boyd did.
This entry was originally posted at Certain to Win.
Previous Roundtable Posts:
Click here to view all posts in this discussion.