Colonel John Boyd, America’s greatest military theorist, never wrote a book. But as a Marine friend of mine said, Lt. Col. Frans Osinga’s new book, Science, Strategy and War: The Strategic Theory of John Boyd, is the book Boyd would have written if he had written a book. (As someone who worked with Boyd for about 15 years, I think the reason he did not write a book is that he loved giving his briefings, and he feared that if people could find his work in a book they would not ask him to brief.)
The central point Osinga makes is that, contrary to what is widely believed, Boyd’s work cannot be summarized in the concept of the OODA Loop. The OODA Loop concept says that in any conflict, all parties go through repeated cycles of Observing, Orienting, Deciding and Acting, and whoever can go through the cycle consistently faster will win. At the tactical level, this is often true.
But as Osinga points out, as soon as one moves up into the operational, strategic and grand strategic levels, Boyd’s theory grows far more complex. There, accuracy of observation and especially of orientation become at least as important as tempo. Attaining accuracy requires far more than “information.” In Boyd’s own less-than-simple words,
Orientation is an interactive process of many-sided implicit cross-referencing projections, empathies, correlations, and rejections that is shaped by and shapes the interplay of genetic heritage, cultural tradition, previous experiences and unfolding circumstances.
Orientation is the Schwerpunkt. It shapes the way we interact with the environment — hence orientation shapes the way we observe, the way we decide, the way we act.
In this sense Orientation shapes the character of present observation-orientation-decision-action loops — while these present loops shape the character of future orientation.
To make sense of all this, and more, Osinga begins by studying what Boyd studied. He works his way through Boyd’s vast bibliography, which includes not only military history but also scientific thought and epistemology. Boyd immersed himself in multiple disciplines, applying his own prescription of analysis and synthesis, intellectual openness and constant cross-referencing to the creation of his military theories.
Osinga then proceeds to describe, discuss and analyze Boyd’s vast briefings in chronological order, that is to say in the order in which Boyd developed them. Boyd’s most famous briefing was Patterns of Conflict, with its contrast between attrition warfare and maneuver warfare. Again, Osinga notes that there is far more here than speed through the OODA Loop. Of key importance to Fourth Generation war, Boyd introduces his three levels of war: not the traditional tactical-operational-strategic but physical-mental-moral. As Osinga writes,
In Patterns of Conflict Boyd has thus offered his audience a new look at military history. With the conceptual lenses science offered him, with uncertainty as the key problem organisms and organizations have to surmount, he sheds new light on the dynamics of war …
Gradually he unfolds a novel conceptualization of tactics, grand tactics, strategy and grand strategy that revolves around the process of adaptation in which open, complex adaptive systems are constantly engaged.
Boyd’s next briefing, my personal favorite, was Organic Design for Command and Control. It offers a devastating implied critique of the way the U.S. military is using technology to “improve” command and control. Boyd argues that, from a maneuverist perspective, you don’t even want command and control, but rather appreciation and leadership.
From this point on to the conclusion of Boyd’s work, each briefing becomes more theoretical and abstract. He offers one of the few useful definitions of strategy: “The Strategic Game is one of Interaction and Isolation.” He describes a “conceptual spiral” that leads to a deeper understanding of how we can cope with uncertainty. Finally, he offers “the real OODA Loop,” which is far too complex to present here but supports Osinga’s assertion that there is more to it than speed, at least above the tactical level.
The John Boyd who emerges from this outstanding book is the John Boyd I knew. He was the opposite of the narrow technician, the type our armed services seem to prefer and promote. He ranged across a vast intellectual landscape, drawing from the most unlikely places ideas he could assemble in new ways to reveal more about the nature and conduct of war. (I must relate one anecdote, one of the few occasions where I saw Boyd get shot down. Over dinner with General Hermann Balck, Boyd thought to pay Balck a jocular compliment. He said to him, “General, with your extraordinarily quick reactions (still evident despite Balck’s 80+ years), you would have made a great fighter pilot.” Balck instantly replied, “Ich bin kein Techniker” — I am not a technician!)
I say unreservedly, “Buy this book!” Yes, it costs more than $100. But Lt. Col. Osinga (Royal Netherlands Air Force — truly, no prophet is honored in his own country) told me that if he can sell just a few more, his publisher will bring it out in paperback. So let the kids go hungry for a few nights and plunk down the cash. If you have any interest in war, this is a book your library cannot do without. Just as America cannot do without John Boyd’s ideas, although our military has not yet figured that out.
WILLIAM S. LIND, expressing his own personal opinion, is Director for the Center for Cultural Conservatism for the Free Congress Foundation.