Don’t Take John Boyd’s Name in Vain

Some senior American military officers and a number of military commentators are now saying that America’s swift victory in the first phase of the war with Iraq shows that the U.S. armed forces have learned the lessons John Boyd tried to teach them. As someone who knew and worked with John Boyd, I have to say, not so fast. There is a lot less here than meets the eye.

Col. John Boyd, USAF, was undoubtedly the greatest military theorist America has produced. An important part of his theoretical work dealt with what is known as maneuver warfare or Third Generation warfare. Boyd argued that in any conflict, each side goes through repeated cycles of Observing, Orienting, Deciding, and Acting, Boyd’s famous OODA Loop. Whoever can consistently go through the OODA Loop faster than his adversary gains a decisive advantage. This concept explains how and why maneuver warfare works, how it “gets inside the other guy’s mind,” as Boyd liked to say.

Supposedly, the U.S. military got inside the OODA Loop of the Iraqi armed forces during the recent campaign, thereby proving that they can do maneuver warfare. This claim is, at best, premature. At present, we do not know why the Iraqis did what they did, especially why the Republican Guard went home rather than fight for Baghdad. Nor do we know how our own forces actually operated. A few preliminary reports suggest the 1st Marine Division may indeed have followed maneuver warfare concepts, echeloning its forces, using mission-type orders, bypassing enemy strong points to keep up the speed of the attack, etc. One of the Marine Corps’ premier maneuverists, Brigadier General John Kelly, is the Assistant Division Commander of 1st MAR DIV, so this is not entirely surprising. In fact, 1st MAR DIV also followed maneuver warfare precepts in the first Gulf War, under a very talented commander, General Mike Myatt.

But one division’s actions by no means prove that the Marine corps as a whole has successfully internalized maneuver warfare. Nor does it say anything about the Army’s performance. The Army’s Third Infantry Division, the campaign’s focus of effort (Schwerpunkt), did move quickly. But a Second Generation force can also move quickly, if and when it has planned to do so. What it generally cannot do is move quickly in response to unexpected threats and opportunities. It does not have the cultural characteristics required to do so, qualities John Boyd stressed such as decentralization, initiative (and the tolerance for mistakes that must accompany initiative), trust up and down the chain of command and reliance on self-discipline rather than imposed discipline. Those characteristics are mighty hard to find in today’s United State’s Army.

More fundamental still is the point that while the OODA Loop was an important part of Boyd’s work, there was a great deal more to what John Boyd said and did than the OODA Loop. For example, we are now told that America’s armed forces simply cannot be challenged by any state opponent on air, land or sea. What would John Boyd say to that? I can tell you because I often heard him say it. “When we went into Vietnam, I heard the Pentagon say that if you have air superiority and land superiority and sea superiority, you win. Well, in Vietnam we had air superiority and land superiority and sea superiority, and we lost. So I said to myself that there is obviously something more to it.”

Another of John Boyd’s most important contributions to military theory was his observation that war is waged at three levels, the physical, the mental and the moral. The physical level is the weakest and the moral level is the strongest, with the mental in between. How would Boyd assess our performance thus far in terms of his three levels of war? If we could ask him, I think his assessment might go something like this:

At the physical level, we won. At the mental level, we just don’t know yet, because we don’t know what was going on in the other guy’s mind. At the moral level, we did good by getting rid of Saddam. But now the hard part comes. Remember, these three levels have to work in harmony. If we come across as the bully, pushing everyone else around not only in Iraq but all over the world, it isn’t going to work. If we don’t let the people of Iraq run their own country, we’re going to lose at the moral level, and then we will lose at the mental and physical levels too. We’ll end up giving ourselves the whole enchilada right up the poop chute.

Some of the same generals who are now claiming that our initial victory in Iraq shows we have mastered John Boyd’s theory feared and hated the real John Boyd. For them now to take Boyd’s name in vain would not have made John happy. I can guess what he would have said, but I can’t put those words into print.

WILLIAM S. LIND is Director of the Center for Cultural Conservatism at the Free Congress Foundation.


WILLIAM S. LIND, expressing his own personal opinion, is Director for the Center for Cultural Conservatism for the Free Congress Foundation.