By Wilf Owen
The central premise of this book is to explain the military thought of the late Colonel John Boyd. The intention is honest enough, and indeed it is somewhat extraordinary that ten years after the death of a man that so many have lauded as being a giant of late 20th century military thought, no one has previously attempted to do what this book succeeds in doing.
The fact that no one previously attempted such a task is to my mind indicative of John Boyd’s actual contribution to military thought. I admit to being a Boyd sceptic and this book merely confirmed all my doubts about his work, which I had harboured since reading the Coram and Hammond biographies. This book, like the biographies, is based on the premise that Boyd was an important and profound thinker on War. This is not a view I would share, but I concede he was vastly influential. Influential does not mean good. Was Boyd any good is the question the book should answer.
The book itself is a work of real scholarship. It is well written and well laid out, and Osinga does the best he can to make some of the more tedious aspects of Boyd’s work appear interesting. This is a not inconsiderable task given the nature of the material. It should be remembered that Boyd left no definitive published work. He did leave behind a vast pile of slides, papers and considerable personal library, and this is what forms his legacy. So unlike Sun-Tzu, Clausewitz, or even Machiavelli, there is no body of work to disseminate, critique and discuss. Despite this, he is constantly cited as being as the best brain behind the so-called transformation of the US military. The main problem I have with Osinga’s work is that this is just accepted, with no examination of the evidence that Boyd is worthy of all the accolades that are heaped upon him. While the work does illustrate the detail of Boyd’s military thought, I found myself writing “so what” in the margins far too many times. Those who are convinced of the efficacy of the OODA loop, will find much to aid in the defence of their position, while those of us who see no merit in the idea, are left un-swayed. Such is the nature is of military thought with all it’s human and intellectual impedimenta.
At the end of the day, you are still left with highly complex, arcane and somewhat pointless body of work, which is of dubious merit to either a student or practitioner of the military profession. Boyd undoubtedly knew and understood more about fighter air to air combat than almost anyone else in the USAF, but this insight did not translate to an understanding of land warfare and strategy in general.
The most intriguing part of the work is the revelation that Boyd was strongly influence by Basil Liddell-Hart and his work on the “Strategy of the Indirect Approach.” What Boyd, seemed to be unaware of, what that Liddell-Hart is a figure of some considerable controversy, as the works by Brian Bond, J.P. Harris and John Mearsheimer have clearly shown. Liddell-Hart probably did more harm than good, and might even provide a case study in the dangers or tampering with national defense policy, while unhindered by data or deep understanding. Add to this any informed analysis of the “Strategy of the Indirect Approach,” and it would seem that Boyd was greatly influenced by at least one thinker of dubious merit. I had always believed that Boyd started with a clean sheet of paper and studied military history with a view to identifying common patterns of success. Osigna’s research seems to indicate this is not so. Boyd seems to have embraced the inter-war polemicists, such as Liddell-Hart, Fuller and even T.E. Lawrence, certain that their insights may hold some kind of truth. To accept Lawrence, as having some kind of insight is particularly odd, unless one is prepared to give General Allenby more, if not at least equal, merit. Indeed Osinga’s work mentions Lawrence some 37 times while never once mentioning Allenby. Critically this might indicate that Boyd swallowed whole, Liddell-Harts self-serving criticism of Allenby.
However, my scepticism of Boyd’s contribution and the value of his work will be entirely irrelevant to an audience largely convinced of his sagacity. At the end of the day, those who believe John Boyd to be a great military thinker will merely cite this work as demonstrating it. Indeed I would suggest the Boyd’s reputation was built largely on the reaction of the audiences, and thus fan base, to his many lengthy presentations. That reaction was that an elderly and clearly well read Air Force Colonel an combat veteran had to be saying something profound and his citing of works that, at the time, almost certainly none of his audience had read (in the pre-internet book finding and .pdf age) merely contributed to image that they were standing at the feet of an intellectual giant. Everybody wants to love an outlaw, critique and radical thinker. “In the kingdom of the blind the one-eyed man is king”. This is in no way to suggest that Boyd was a fraud or that all of his audiences were stupid. They merely formed opinions that existed in isolation from ideas and information that would have challenged Boyd’s insights. The British military thinker, Brigadier Richard Simpkin pre-deceased Boyd by eleven years and one year after the publication of his magnum opus Race to the Swift. The size of the work, combined with the rank and the death of its author seemed to convince a whole generation of British and US Army officers that the work had un-questioned merit. Thus, it is of note, that Simpkin, an extremely well-known and widely published student of Deep Operations Theory, and thus it’s illegitimate step child, manoeuvre warfare, is not mentioned in Osinga’s work once. Indeed Simpkins views on Maneuver warfare are some of the most useful there are, yet it seems to have made no impact on Boyd’s work, or none that seems worthy of mention. This, in itself, is incredible. Even more so, in that Simpkin mirrored Boyd’s use of the language of science, and specifically physics, to create analogies he deemed useful to military theory (as did Clausewitz!).
The merit of this book is that it contributes to a necessary debate on the perceived relevance of John Boyd to useful modern military thought. To my mind, this debate is long overdue, as Boyd’s ideas are often cited as being the foundation of a whole raft of vastly dubious concepts such as Maneuver Warfare, Effects Based Operations, Fourth generation warfare and even Distributed Operations. Military thought should be the product of logic, and empirical evidence. Indeed the faults in Boyd’s work, like many other military thinkers, lies in its selective use of evidence to support pre-existing conceptions of how something might be done better, and then branding this as insight, instead of confirmation of what we already knew. Ultimately, the thought itself becomes irrelevant to the human need to have a hero to follow or a bright new idea to cling to. Boyd contribution is to provide that in abundance, and this work succeeds in providing what should be judged a generally accurate analysis of the material that supports those beliefs.
Mr. Owen is the Editor of Asian Military Review.
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11 thoughts on “Osinga Roundtable on Science, Strategy and War: Wilf Owen”
Did this guy even read the book?
I welcomed Wilf’s participation because I knew he was going to challenge many preconceptions, spark debate and provide a very strong contrast with some of the other reviewers. His military background and theoretical interests are also very different from John Boyd’s and Colonel Osinga’s. A clash of views here is expected to be lively ( yet remain respectful).
The gauntlet is flung down.
I was also surprised to see Liddell Hart cited as a major influence. Osinga does say that LH was not trying to do sound history, but rather to write a polemic that would prevent a rerun of the Western Front attritional battles. However, how does one generates a viable theory based on defective history? I found myself wondering what an out-of-history John Boyd could have told Douglas Haig that would have been of value in 1916, or 1917 or 1918? That is a rhetorical question, but I ask it in all seriousness and I do not have an answer. Would he only be able to say, we should have never gotten ourselves into this strategic cul-de-sac in the first place? Or that the half-trained Kitchener armies should somehow be aware of and be able to execute stosstrupp tactics? Are we stuck saying Boydian ideas are only workable in “Boydian situations” employing “Boydian militaries”? If you are stuck in the wrong kind of situation and/or with the wrong kind of military are you doomed?
I think this review is just a larger rehash of the empty statement made on the small wars thread.
I don’t see any reasoning or evidence to support your views.
Your first critique of Boyd in relation where you stated “It should be remembered that Boyd left no definitive published work. He did leave behind a vast pile of slides, papers and considerable personal library, and this is what forms his legacy. So unlike Sun-Tzu, Clausewitz, or even Machiavelli, there is no body of work to disseminate, critique and discuss.” Can be answered that the premier method of information exchange in the military at that time was powerpoint presentations, slides and speeches. It is a shame he didn’t leave behind a book, but that is probably because he was construed by the communication method of his peers. He probably found it best to disseminate and discuss his thoughts in that manner. Secondly, his ideas were up to debate, that was part of his presentations. He welcomed people trying to shoot him down. Witness one of his acolytes Pierre Sprey to whom he referenced as “Buzz Saw” because that is what he did to Boyd’s ideas.
You stated “Despite this, he is constantly cited as being as the best brain behind the so-called transformation of the US military. The main problem I have with Osinga’s work is that this is just accepted, with no examination of the evidence that Boyd is worthy of all the accolades that are heaped upon him.” The problem I think you have here, you think Boyd is stuck in some ideological stone. Ideas aren’t like that, they move, they influence others. Boyd was an influential node on an ideological network at the time. His ideas mutated, or influenced other ideas and people. If you were to trace back some of the major ideological transformations in the U.S. warfighting (going from todays COIN, to EBO, to 4GW, to Boyd, to further back) they would eventually pass back through Boyd. That doesn’t mean Boyd was some be-all and end-all of U.S. strategy, it means he definitely was part of the ideological chance.
Now, this is part of your post I have a problem with. You stated: “I found myself writing “so what” in the margins far too many times. Those who are convinced of the efficacy of the OODA loop, will find much to aid in the defence of their position, while those of us who see no merit in the idea, are left un-swayed.” You ask So what? I ask Why? Why, and to what, did you say so what? Why are you not convinced of the OODA loop. You need to back up your assertions with reasoning and evidence. The onus is on you, since you are making the claim. There is plenty of reasoning and psychological studies on decision making loops to make Boyds theory quite relevant (Dietrich Dorner’s ‘The Logic of Failure’ or Klein’s ‘Sources of Power’ come to mind).
In your next paragraph you do the same thing: “is of dubious merit to either a student or practitioner of the military profession … this insight did not translate to an understanding of land warfare and strategy in general.”
Why is it of dubious merit, and why doesn’t it translate to landware or strategy in general? I almost feel embarrassed asking this, one would think you would add reasons and evidence to your claims.
In relation to the Liddel-Hart claim … I haven’t read the J.P. Harris book, but I have read the Bond and Mearsheimer. Bond’s main critique against Liddel-Hart, if I remember rightly, was of his mistake to favour defensive warfare against Blitzkrieg, when at one stage he was a champion of blitzkrieg. With Bond’s work I ask “so what?” too. Liddel-Hart got it wrong. That wouldn’t be the first time. Strategy and tactics is more about adapting to circumstances than looking for some handed down, perfected stone tablet of SOPs to run off. The Mearsheimer’s book ‘Liddel-Hart and the Weight of History’ is a good one. You allude to one of Mearsheimer’s aims in the book of Liddel-Harts (LH from now on) role in the policy-making process. That is a nice tangent, are you trying to allude that Boyd was the same and we should be wary of his influence on policy? If so, nice argument by analogy.
This paragraph: “Add to this any informed analysis of the “Strategy of the Indirect Approach,” and it would seem that Boyd was greatly influenced by at least one thinker of dubious merit.” is a whopper. Firstly, no doubt Boyd was influenced by LH, however he only quotes LH once, in one brief, patterns of conflict to be exact, and mentions the indirect approach twice, in hundreds of slides. Secondly, if LH was dubious, perhaps Sun Tzu and Napoleon and other strategists were also dubious since LH idea of the indirect approach was influenced by them. It would seem the entire realm of strategy is built on a house of cards.
I’ve probably rattled on enough. Regarding, the author leaving out Allenby and Simpkins influence. You should have really entitled your post “argumentum ad ignorantiam”. Your whole argument against Boyd is an argument from ignorance. You believe that lack of evidence of Boyds readings of Allenby, Simpkins and others constitute proof that Boyd doesn’t know what he is talking about. That isn’t proof, it’s a logical fallacy. I sat here and laughed for a good five minutes when you mentioned that military thought should be the product of logic and empirical evidence as it was clear you have no idea what those two terms mean as you have provided no evidence to some of your claims, and confuse lack of evidence for proof of your position.
Oh, and lastly, an attack on Boyd as a quasi-cult leader? Are you serious, that is all you have, perhaps you have heard of Ad Hominem as well?
Re. Wilf’s comment that “Military thought should be the product of logic, and empirical evidence.” – if you are talking about the great military thinkers, we shouldn’t be too precious about this. I think there is something of the charlatan in every great thinker – otherwise they would never get noticed , particularly in the face of unremitting opposition from military establishments.
The value of people like Liddell Hart, Lawrence, Fuller etc is that they challenge convention, provide new ways of looking at things, and broach new concepts for others to think about and develop. If the price of this is some exaggeration, selective reading of history and so on, then so be it.
I like reading Livy even though I know that his “history” of the Roman Republic is not accurate – one reads Livy for other reasons. Similarly, I like reading Liddell Hart not for his military history, but for the insights that he offers about strategy. I haven’t read much of what Boyd wrote, but I suspect that the best way to consider his importance or otherwise is not to get bogged down in the detail about whether he was right or wrong on particular points.
The great thing about Boyd’s work for me is his focus on the importance of managing psychology in conflict. He was surely right that this determines success or failure. You can have the best organisation in the world on paper – with the best materials and the best people – but it doesn’t count for anything if the structure doesn’t work and the correct decisions can’t be made rapidly. In that sense, while Boyd’s work was obviously very absract, this was a very practical lesson. I can’t believe you would ever say “so what” about Boyd’s work on this. Boyd seems to me to have perfectly described why most organisations (including political and business organisations) are a waste of space.
I really enjoyed Osinga’s book. I did, however, find the sections on the science really heavy going (not having any backgound in it). For this reason, I found Certain to Win a more useful book – CTW is the book I pass around to people interested in strategy.
In answer to all, but some in particular,
Boyd does seem to provoke comment!
This is far from a perfect review, but I had little time to digest the entire text and that was a .pdf file. I would like to have read the work several times (as I have done with BLH, Strategy, for example) and then given a more measured review. What I aimed to do was to provide my general view of the book, so there was something here to discuss.
I did my best to keep this from being in any way ad hominem. I think what Osinga did was an honest effort. I think Boyd was utterly unaware of his possible legacy. I have a great deal of respect for his “Be Someone or Do Something” advice.
I could have gone through every page of the book, blow by blow and would welcome the opportunity to do so. However, book reviews are limited in terms of acceptable format.
Though I am very happy defending my views on Boyd, there may be more mileage in actually discussing Boyd’s ideas themselves. Folks keep telling me I don’t understand his brilliance, so I would very much like to be let in on the secret.
Again, I stress, in terms of Military Thought, brilliant may not mean useful.
That is fair enough that it was a book review and you have limited time and energy to respond to the abundance of ideas. I can understand you might be a busy man.
However, when you make claims about seeing no merit in certain ideas, or some ideas are dubious, then you need to say why you made those claims, otherwise people can’t judge the validity of your statement. Blogs are a marketplace of ideas after all, and the best ones rise to the top. Who knows, perhaps underneath your opinions you really do have great reasons as to why Boyd’s ideas are dubious or without merit, but for the moment you really haven’t extrapolated on why that is. I imagine zenpundit invited you because you had different ideas to us on this topic. That is great, but at the moment I personally think your argument against Boyd’s ideas is really weak. I dunno about other commentators but I would have expected something with a bit more rigour (am I the only one thinking this?). I’m just not seeing that, as I outlined in my above post.
As to the request to see what ideas Boyd has, why don’t you go check out the other blogs that are on the roundtable, tdaxp for instance has an excellent post up on the history of the ooda loop and the psychological underpinnings of it.
“The problem I think you have here, you think Boyd is stuck in some ideological stone. Ideas aren’t like that, they move, they influence others. Boyd was an influential node on an ideological network at the time. His ideas mutated, or influenced other ideas and people”
I think this gets to Boyd operating in multiple but related roles – USAF officer, theorist, mentor, bureaucratic change agent. Roles that I think contribute to being greater than the sum of their parts but which can also be measured individually.
We have to recall the historical context in which Boyd operated and the highly antagonistic to outside information culture created by the senior leadership of the armed services at the time. Nagl quoted one of the Army’s own historians in Learning How to Eat Soup With A Knife as saying of MACV under Westmoreland and his patrons in the Pentagon, that ” They’d have listened to the French before they’d have listened to their own Special Forces” ( they didn’t listen to anyone else either – not the CIA, the press, State, the British advisory group or their own ranking dissenters). The same was true of the Air Force which was enamored of strategic bombing and little else. That kind of mental insularity needed to be broken.
Of course, many would say that little has changed in that regard but the top brass no longer can control the information agenda as their forebears in the 1960’s -1980’s once did.
The beauty of Boyd’s theory is that it applies. Even the usual thick head, knuckle draging military leaders (and I am included in that group) can see that it applies to all levels of war from conflicts, to battles and firefights. I fully understand the issue that Boyde never wrote a book but his briefings got everyones attention because it was the brightest light in the room compared to the standard set of dusty military books on the war college shelves.
Owne’s critique is wonderful. In a few hundred words he shows that Boyd, Lawrence, and Lidell Hart have little value. This will open quite a bit of room on my book shelves.
This is perhaps the best line: “So unlike Sun-Tzu, Clausewitz, or even Machiavelli, there is no body of work to disseminate, critique and discuss. Despite this, he is constantly cited as being as the best brain behind the so-called transformation of the US military.”
This insight will allow Biblical scholarship to leap forward, as I can think of someone else who left no “body of work” but is “constantly cited as being” behind the “so-called” transformation of the world.
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