Much of this roundtable discussion and the the larger conversation on other sites, has centered on the merit of John Boyd’s ideas and how well-deserved is his rising reputation as a strategic thinker. This is understandable, given the focus of Science, Strategy and War, it is natural to hone in on the subject of Dr. Osinga’s study, the colorful and enigmatic Colonel John Boyd. I would like to take a moment and first consider the nature of Science, Strategy and War itself because this book represents a remarkably well-crafted example of scholarly writing.
With Science, Strategy and War: The Strategic Theory of John Boyd, which began as a doctoral dissertation, Colonel Frans Osinga engaged less in typical research and analysis than an expedition into intellectual archaeology. Boyd left a legacy that was at once impressive in terms of its depth and cognitive range, yet frustratingly elusive in the paucity and obscurity of the primary sources and the complexity and difficulty of the secondary ones. As many commentators have pointed out, John Boyd left behind no magnum opus; just a few formal papers, aging briefing slides, notes and copious marginalia furiously scrawled in books in fields as diverse as higher mathematics, classics, military history, theoretical physics, psychology, economics, philosophy, evolutionary biology and cybernetics.
The great historian Leopold von Ranke told his students that it was a historian’s job to “…show how it really was”. For Dr. Osinga, that meant getting into the head of John Boyd as his thinking evolved over several decades. For example, reading what Boyd read in order to ascertain how well Boyd understood, say, Complexity theory or Clausewitz, Postmodernism or Polanyi, Godel or Guderian. Most scholars would find that kind of secondary reading, absolutely required before subjecting Boyd’s briefs to a rigorous critical analysis, daunting. Thumb through the notes and bibliography of Science, Strategy and War and read the periodic commentary by Osinga on Boyd’s use or exclusion of particular sources – for example, Schumpeter, Douhet, Liddell Hart and van Creveld. This is not an analysis that could have be done with drive-by citations and Osinga’s effort shows in the resultant quality of Science, Strategy and War. Dr. Osinga, in my view, has “shown how it really was”.
Osinga’s John Boyd is a master synthesizer, itself a relatively rare intellectual quality, but also the author of highly original insights regarding the principles of moral conflict who wanted to teach his audience to be creative, adaptive, strategic thinkers who were hungry to survive and thrive in the competitive environment of life. Boyd was among the first to grasp that human organizations were really complex, adaptive, systems (what complexity theorist Yaneer Bar-Yam would call “superorganisms”) that thrived or declined in accordance with Darwinian conceptions. Boyd was, as I infer from Science, Strategy and War, an apostle of dynamism and the ecology paradigm just now coming into vogue. It was a pity that Boyd died when he did as the subsequent advent of network theory and research into scale-free networks and modularity have done much to lend validity to his strategic speculations and reinforce his rejection of static, mechanistic, linear thinking in military affairs.
What remains to be done with Boyd or exists outside the scope of Science, Strategy and War ? There is the matter of Boyd’s influence on the 1991 Gulf War, acknowledged by senior officials but unknown in specific detail. Boyd’s contribution to Marine Corps doctrine and other schools of thought ( NCW, 4GW, EBO) have been dealt with piecemeal by other authors, notably Robert Coram, and Boyd’s principal collaborators but not in a systematic fashion. Boyd’s efforts in the military reform movement also cry out for closer examination as well the continuation of the Boydian debate by Boyd’s disciples and critics. These matters have yet to be brought under one roof in the manner that Frans Osinga has done with Boyd’s strategic theory and remain as projects for investigation by future scholars.
Colonel Osinga has written a pivotal book in Science, Strategy and War that will be the touchstone text on John Boyd, an emergent classic at the intersection between 20th century intellectual history and strategic theory.
Buy Science Strategy and War from Routledge.
Previous Roundtable Posts
Click here to view all posts in the discussion.