My struggle with Boyd
by Colonel Frans Osinga, PhD
Boyd’s work is titled A Discourse on Winning and Losing and the series of reviews and comments form exactly the sort of intellectual interaction Boyd sought to inspire. Judging by the quality of the reviews and comments it’s been a very fruitful week that has propelled the Boyd debate into a wider arena and has, I hope, given it a renewed impetus. It has highlighted how we should approach Boyd’s work as well as areas for further research.
Somewhat to my surprise there was only one seriously critical review that questioned Boyd’s work, which was immediately hit upon in about 10 comments. I hope, and I believe Boyd actually would enjoy and encourage, that at some point we’ll see a substantial effort which in Popperian fashion aims to critique either Boyd’s work or my explanation/interpretation of his ideas, all in the spirit of the ‘dialectic engine’, the term Boyd often used for describing his comprehensive OODA loop. The debate can use someone who can be to Boyd what Mearsheimer has been to Liddell Hart.
In fact, my own research on Boyd started out in that vein, but never got there. In stead of penning a ‘rebuttal’ to specific roundtable posts, perhaps I may absolve my obligation to conclude the roundtable discussion by adding some words concerning my own struggle with Boyd.
I first came across Boyd’s name during the 1980s when, as a young cadet at the military academy, I (had to) read about this ‘new’ maneuver warfare school of thought. In the post Desert Storm doctrinal debates in NATO working groups I met Buster McCrabb, then at the faculty of the USAF School of Advanced Airpower Studies, who handed me a set of Boyd’s slides (Patterns of Conflict). It did not make much sense to me and I could not quite see what the fuss was about. In 1998-1999 I was fortunate to study at the SAAS and attend an elective on Boyd by Grant Hammond who was then working on his Boyd biography. Armed with these lectures Boyd’s slides began to gain meaning and depth, resulting in a chapter on Boyd as part of a larger paper in which I lined up a variety of strategists in the context of complexity theory.
Back in the Netherlands, as the Director of Strategy and Air Power Studies of the Netherlands Defence College, I started to expand this chapter with the aim to develop a critique, as I had the impression that the ‘rapid OODA loop’ idea was somewhat limited and that Grant’s book was somewhat devoid of critical notes (which he admits by the way). It had already struck me that Boyd’s personal papers hardly contained political science literature, nor did I see much in terms of air power and nuclear strategy. Moreover, I did not see all that much on decision making theory which I considered odd in light of my understanding of the OODA loop as a model of the decision making process. I therefore drafted a 60 pp. paper in which I lined up most major concepts concerning decision making such as Allison’s models I-II-III, group think, Klein’s RPD model, etc., and examined what others had to say concerning the influence of stress, experience and culture on decision making. In addition I looked for other cybernetic models en vogue in the past 3 decades in decision making theory, all this in order to assess the validity of the OODA loop model. Meanwhile, Grant Hammond came over to deliver several lectures on Boyd to my students. My research (and Grant commented gracefully on a whole series of immature drafts) and Hammond’s lectures brought home to me three issues. First, after 150 pp of writing, I could not find that much fault with the comprehensive OODA loop and saw many similarities with other cybernetic models. Second, there was much more in Boyd’s work than ‘only’ the rapid OODA loop idea. Thirdly, if I still intended to develop a well-founded critique, I first needed to explain Boyd because at that point there was no solid accepted academic interpretation of his work. This was during the summer of 2001.
By that time I was seconded to the Clingendael Institute of International Relations as the MoD Research Fellow. 9/11, OEF and OIF for some reason required my attention and only during the summer of 2003 could I seriously pick up the Boyd research (which had been accepted as subject of my dissertation). By then I had discovered that any proper attempt to explain his work would require explaining his ‘formative factors’. As any dissertation has distinct limits as far as length is concerned, it quickly transpired that explanation and not critique would be the main aim of my research (and the first 150 pp were therefore binned).
That brings me to the book. My discussion of his formative factors is somewhat imbalanced in the sense that it does perhaps not convey the depth of this study of military history, in comparison to his study of various scientific literatures (the Routledge edition is shorter on the science bit than the thesis by the way). I chose to highlight the latter because military history is actually the most common – and more straightforward – source that strategic theorists derive their arguments from. Moreover, the discussion of Patterns of Conflict would reveal Boyd’s deep study of history and strategy anyway. Finally, I had the impression that Boyd gleaned quite a bit of original insights from in particular the scientific zeitgeist, but also that those insights came from studies not all that familiar to most people, and therefore in need of some elaborate explanation.
Initially I limited myself to those studies that were explicitly annotated and those that Boyd explicitly referred to (buying most of the books second hand at Powell’s). It struck me how significant and deep the scientific developments have been during the years that Boyd developed his ideas and how many cross references one can find among the books Boyd read. I had problems with understanding information theory but secondary sources helped out with that. A fruitful visit to the archives at the USMC University at Quantico underpinned my suspicion that Boyd was ‘deep’ into science from the first moment on, and that in his subsequent explorations he continuously found confirmation of his initial impressions that he laid out in the essay Destruction and Creation and A New Conception of Air to Air Combat. It also highlighted that the influence of science grew over the years in comparison to military history.
In the end I had to hurry finalizing the thesis as I learned in September 2004 I was to be posted to HQ SACT, the NATO HQ in Norfolk Virginia in January 2005. The thesis is therefore marred by a variety of editorial glitches. The subsequent Routledge edition has benefited from a major editorial (and painfully frustrating) process lasting about a year. It is shorter, more concise and it allowed me to add some relevant comments concerning Boyd’s scientific sources. For both the thesis and the shorter book I want to acknowledge my considerable debts to Grant Hammond, Chet Richards, Barry Watts, Dick Safranski and Bill Lind.
My own view of Boyd – briefly – is that (albeit biased) he developed a very impressive, rich and coherent set of ideas, often with elements of profound novelty, with a wide range of applicability (see for instance the presentation of Chet Richard’s et al on Boyd/4GW and the Iraqi insurgency, but also the various presentations/papers on the DNI site where Boyd’s ideas are applied in an increasing number of environments). It is many things and refuses to be captured by one-liners or simple icons. In my presentation at the Boyd Conference last July I tried to convey a sense of ‘what’ Boyd’s work is in the following slide.
A Discourse is:
An epistemological investigation
A military history & search for patterns of winning and losing
An argument against:
– Attritionist mindset
– Deterministic thinking & predictability
A rediscovery of the mental/moral dimensions of war
A philosophy for command and control
A redefinition of strategy
A search for the essence of strategic interaction
A plea for organizational learning and adaptability
An argument on strategic thinking
It must rank among the few general theories of war. He is certainly one of the prime contemporary strategists. Sure, his is not the final word on strategy. Indeed, he left an unfinished legacy, in line with his view that understanding war – a social behaviour with evolving features – requires a constant multidisciplinary search for improved and updated insights. Moreover, one will struggle if one wants to distil from Boyd’s work distinct ‘how-to’ guidelines for campaign planning. As with all major theorists and intellectual innovators there are also distinct ‘hooks’ in his work for developing critique. But as a guide on what sort of intellectual attitude and activity is required for understanding war and strategy I’ve found him invaluable. Trying to understand him was (and remains) a challenging but equally rewarding education. It has significantly broadened my intellectual horizon. Boyd made me think. And that was his whole point because A Discourse on Winning and Losing at heart is about ‘intellectual evolution and growth’, as he wrote in the margins of a number of books.
As with Liddell Hart or Clausewitz, a period will come when his ideas will be dismissed, completed or improved upon. Areas for further research might be gleaned from my various shortfalls. I did not explore to the full the literature on business and management, as I could not find that many direct references to that literature in Boyd’s work, nor have I properly assessed whether Boyd interpreted the various scientific literatures correctly. Although I believe Boyd was certainly not alone in applying concepts gleaned from the sciences to human behaviour, perhaps he sometimes overstepped the bounds, but I have not explored that either. Neither have I examined fully to what extend Boyd was unduly selective or biased in his study of military history (although at times I’ve hinted at it).
Last week’s roundtable itself however is indicative of the rising stature of Boyd, a decade after his death. This roundtable also confirms once more my view that, among the Western nations, the US harbours the liveliest intellectual environment for debating security and strategy related issues. From my perspective it was very gratifying – indeed flattering – to read all the positive comments. But I am also sincerely modest. The roundtable was first and foremost about Boyd’s intellectual legacy, and I consider my book akin to the Sawyer or Cleary introductions to Sun Tzu; they serve as texts to tease out meaning of sometimes rather cryptic sentences and paragraphs handed to us by greater minds. As I’ve told Chet Richards, Dick Safranski, Grant Hammond, Bill Lind and Frank Hoffman, what pleased me most about their positive reviews of my book in the past two of years were their remarks that I’ve done justice to Boyd’s intellectual efforts. That was my main aim but also my prime concern throughout the process.
Boyd generously shared his ideas, liberally handing out his presentations, all with the intent to educate. He would probably have loved the blogs. Hence, although I am probably shooting myself in the foot with this, but in the spirit of Boyd, I have attached a pdf copy of my dissertation from which the book has been derived. Let’s spread the meme of Boyd’s ideas.
Any questions/comments? You can contact me at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Download Dr. Osinga’s Dissertation on Colonel John Boyd here (1.7 MB pdf).
Buy Science Strategy and War from Routledge.
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