Posted by Lexington Green on February 10th, 2008 (All posts by Lexington Green)
Why Didn’t Boyd Write a Book?
The study of the life and thought of John Boyd has taken a major step forward with the publication of Col. Osinga’s Science, Strategy and War: The Strategic Theory of John Boyd. The earlier books are not superseded. Grant Hammond’s The Mind of War: John Boyd and American Security is an overview, and probably the best introduction, with both biography and an overview of the ideas. Robert Coram’s Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War is more of a straight biography, focusing on the remarkable man more than the remarkable ideas. Where Coram drilled down on Boyd’s life and personality, Osinga has drilled down on Boyd’s intellectual foundations and his ideas. Osinga’s book is the more challenging read, though it is written in a nicely plain and comprehensible style, given the rather dense set of ideas that Boyd formulated and conveyed. Osinga’s book has a further strength. He is respectful but not worshipful of Col. Boyd. Rather than saying “Boyd was the greatest strategic thinker since Sun Tzu”, Col. Osinga sets out what Boyd’s strategic thought actually was, and lets the reader decide where he belongs (if at all) on the “top ten list”.
I strongly suggest that anyone with the remotest interest in Boyd buy and read Col Osinga’s book.
Col. Osinga’s book suggests so many connections to other writers, to other issues, and to contemporary concerns, that I could have written a lengthy review essay just based on my many underlinings and marginal notes. Time and space will limit me instead to a few observations on one sub-topic.
Boyd presents an analytic challenge. He was not an author. He did not write a book. He was nonetheless the originator and presenter of ideas and theories and arguments. He read a very large number of books, carefully, mining them for ideas, to fortify or challenge intuitions he had about conflict, strategy, winning and losing. Over time Boyd moved his reading more and more into realms paralleling his apparent core interest, away from the realm of military history and theory, taking the idea of strategy to high levels of abstraction. Boyd looked for analogies, for insights which could only be gained standing outside the particular area of interest. In fact he believed that this process of “standing outside” was the only way to understand the system or subject under consideration.
Boyd organized his theories and arguments into briefings, not into books and articles, as an academic or journalist writer would be expected to do. The written residuum of these briefings is Boyd’s slides. But the slides are only the skeleton of a briefing. Boyd himself gave life to the slides. Boyd’s briefings were dynamic in all senses. Boyd was speaking and arguing, responding to the audience’s questions, or even their expressions of irritation or agreement that may not have been voiced. The process was interactive, and as the briefings were given over and over, they were refined. Boyd’s presentation slides evolved over time, and were subject to change at any time, though as he refined his presentations they firmed up. But, in theory, none of it was necessarily fixed.
Some of the contributors and commentators to this roundtable have offered the thought that it is “too bad” that Boyd never wrote a book. In a sense, Col. Osinga has provided the “bookification” of Boyd’s final work, so if we want “Boyd’s book”, we now have the nearest approximation that is probably achievable. As Col. Osinga notes, there will be no more Boyd briefings. So, a compilation of what can be preserved is very much worth having.
However, the absence of a book from Boyd is not an oversight, nor is it to be regretted. Nothing Boyd ever said or did causes me to think he had any serious interest in writing a book. Time and energy are finite. The opportunity cost of writing a book, and all the attendant hassle, was not worth it to Boyd. He was doing something else.
Boyd had a famous speech he would make to people he encountered professionally whom he respected, which went, more or less like this:
…one day you will take a fork in the road, and you’re going to have to make a decision about which direction you want to go. If you go that way you can be somebody. You will have to make compromises and you will have to turn your back on your friends. But you will be a member of the club and you will get promoted and get good assignments. Or you can go that way and you can do something – something for your country and for your Air Force and for yourself. …If you decide to do something, you may not get promoted and you may not get good assignments and you certainly will not be a favorite of your superiors. But you won’t have to compromise yourself. To be somebody or to do something. In life there is often a roll call. That’s when you have to make a decision. To be or to do? Which way will you go?
I suspect that to Boyd, writing a book was more a “being” than “doing”. Why? Surely writing a book, adding to the stock of ideas, setting those ideas out in the world in a coherent and permanent way is “doing”?
But what Boyd actually did – read, think, argue, and make live, in-person briefings — was more consistent with his own theories and his own ethic of “doing”. This is true for several reasons.
First, Boyd was theoretically committed to “living, open-ended” systems. As Boyd put it:
Godel’s Incompleteness Theorems, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle and the Second Law of Thermodynamics, all taken together, show that we cannot determine the character of a system within itself. Moreover, attempts to do so lead to confusion and disorder – mental as well as physical. Point: We need an external environment or outside world, to define ourselves and maintain organic integrity, otherwise we experience dissolution/disintegration – i.e., we come unglued.
Living systems are open systems; closed systems are non-living systems. Point: If we don’t communicate with the outside world – to gain information for knowledge and understanding as well as matter and energy for sustenance – we die out to become non-discerning and uninteresting parts of that world.
By this analysis, once a book is written, it is dead. It is already superseded before the first copy is printed. Hence, Boyd kept his briefing process open. The Boyd briefing was a living and evolving thing in a way a putative “Boyd book” could never have been. Col. Osinga specifically notes Boyd’s “deliberate refusal to ‘finish’ a briefing.” The briefings were never set in stone, as a book would have to be. Again, this is not to say there is no value in writing and reading books. Boyd read lots of books. But he did not write one himself because he was doing something different from what book-writers do.
Second, a related point, Boyd may have realized that if he wrote a book it would have become a sort of “Koran”. Once something is down in black and white, it takes on a life of its own. It becomes canonical, an ur-text to be consulted for wisdom. Boyd was surely aware of his intensely charismatic style of leadership. He gathered a remarkable group of talented people as friends, students and allies. I suspect that he wanted to avoid to the extent possible a cult of personality, where his dynamic and living approach would harden into an orthodoxy. Some of this process seems to be happening in the writing of William Lind. For all the value of Lind’s thinking and analysis, Lind has a “closed” and doctrinaire tone very much at odds with what I understand to be the Boydian approach. For example, Lind’s enunciation of a small number of books as “the canon” is profoundly un-Boydian. Boyd’s book-pile was ceiling-high, and he found analogies and metaphors and insights in books seemingly unrelated to military matters. There is not a fixed canon to understand strategy, nor can there be. Valuable books are where you find them, and they come along all the time, and the ocean of books is vast.
Just as the old German manuals had stamped on the examples provided “not a formula!”, so Boyd’s ideas cannot be applied in cookie-cutter fashion. Had Boyd written a book, the temptation to do this would be inevitable, since the “master” could be cited for this or that purpose, and legalist wrangling would replace analysis of real facts. As it is, the reduction of Boyd’s thinking to “Boyd = (simple version) of OODA loop” is already unfortunately well advanced. Hopefully, Col. Osinga’s book will help to arrest that trend.
Third, I will venture yet more speculation. Boyd’s main aim, I think, was not the promotion of a set of ideas, or even an analytical approach, but the creation of a kind of person. This is the key thing he spent his time “doing”. Boyd did of course believe in his OODA loop as a valuable and accurate insight. And he did of course believe that the kind of intellectual openness he taught was the correct way to study and think and approach problems. But he was not in the business of promoting “one killer slide”. In fact, the OODA loop slide emerged late in the development of his thinking.
Boyd was aiming his presentations at his audience at multiple levels. At the lowest level, he could get the listeners to think in terms more akin to what he had discovered than they had previously done. Such listeners would be open to innovative ways of thinking and doing, at least. That was a minimum level of success.
A higher level of success would be to get his listeners to see that they needed to widen their thinking and step back from their preconceptions and look at a larger picture. This was particularly true in the Cold War era military. As the Cold War era ended and we began to face new and as yet inchoate challenges, Boyd was pushing his listeners to be open to radical rethinking. As Boyd put it:
We can’t just look at our present experiences or use the same mental recipes over and over again; we’ve got to look at other disciplines and activities and relate or connect them to what we know from our experience and the strategic world we live in.
This is a demanding intellectual program for anyone who seriously tried to undertake it. Mastering the canonical material in one field is hard enough. Boyd is saying, be ready to go beyond all that, to look at what you do skeptically, from without, and be ready to use what you learn.
The ultimate level was demonstrated by his “elevator speech” to people who approached him and were drawn to his ideas: To create well-formed “doers”.
The three levels then are (1) conveying ideas, (2) providing intellectual formation, creating a certain way of thinking, and (3) providing, beyond these, personal formation, creating people who operated to some degree as Boyd himself would have done.
Boyd did not want to send forth from his briefings a bunch of people carrying a “how to” manual of Boyd’s Greatest Hits. Rather, he wanted a large army of people who at least understood that there were alternative pathways to studying issues of professional concern, including the OODA loop, broadly understood. Beyond that, he wanted Boydian thinkers, who would at least take his analogic approach and look for patterns rather than formulas, etc. And beyond even that, he wanted, at the highest level, people who would adopt what we might term a “Boydian ethic”.
Boyd’s asceticism and intellectual drive, his sacrifice of virtually everything the world values for the development and application of his ideas, is a living embodiment of service. Of course, Boyd’s life has the peculiarities of his particular and unique personality. But the larger message is – to do something great, to do something important, to live the warrior ethic of combat and sacrifice for victory, you will likely have to adopt the classical virtues of fortitude and humility and self-denial. Mere physical courage is not enough. People fear failure and humiliation more than death and wounds. Wars are often lost in a grey corridor somewhere years before the first shots are fired. Battles fought there, with no glory, no medals, no recognition, can be decisive. Boyd is asking: Can you be the person to fight those? Do you have what it takes, mentally and intellectually, but also in terms of personal character? So, to those who were open to it, Boyd was teaching not only with his briefing, but with his approach to life and service.
A book would have been a distraction from all that.
A final note.
There is so much more in Col. Osinga’s book, that I wish I had time to discuss.
* There is an article to be written about the analogies between Boyd and Hayek, on the ideas of spontaneous order, and perpetually imperfect information.
* There is an article to be written about Boyd’s concepts of cooperative behavior and Alan Macfarlane’s study of the roots of civil society, i.e., theoretic v. empirical study of this phenomenon.
* There is an article to be written about the new scholarship on World War I and what Boyd might have made of it, and what it does to the growing orthodoxy of “4GW”.
* There is a lot to be thought through and to be written about the idea that Boyd’s seemingly more abstract thinking is in fact highly relevant. We now face a “Huntingtonian” world of cross-civilizational interaction and/or conflict between the USA (and/or the Anglosphere, and/or the “West”) on one side, and the very different mental worlds of the the Chinese and Muslims on the other side. A “Boydian” cross-disciplinary approach is virtually mandated.
And I noticed these items only on a rather harried and rapid read-through of the book. A careful reading will suggest many other ideas for further analysis.
Col. Osinga has made a huge contribution by putting much of Boyd’s thinking before us in a format which is orderly and usable. This achievement will make such further comparison and analysis possible in a way that they were not previously.
I look forward to a renaissance in “Boyd studies” inspired by this remarkable book.
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