I first met John Boyd on a very warm summer day in 1983 at Headquarters, Marine Corps. Frankly he did not make much of an impression to a then young Captain of Marines. The briefer went through an extensive set of slides extolling conflict over the ages. I recognized the various strands of Clausewitz, Sun Tzu and Liddell Hart (and thus indirectly T.E. Lawrence) weaved throughout the pitch. In the aftermath of a long run and a too large lunch, I preceded to take a somberly tour of the insides of my eyelids.
This mental rest stop did not impress my boss, a Vietnam veteran who was taken with Boyd's ideas. As penance for my nap, he insisted I take the brief again the next day. Although I did not know it at the time, I never got a more valuable or more intellectually enriching experience over a decade in the Pentagon.
The intellectual contributions of the late Colonel John Boyd, USAF, have already been the subject of two fine biographies. Robert Coram's Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War provided a window into Boyd's life as a fighter pilot, technical innovator and maverick defense reformer. Grant Hammond's Mind at War John Boyd and American Security summarized Boyd's main arguments. Both of these efforts are well regarded and helped rectify the limited record Boyd left behind. Regrettably, Boyd's career is too often truncated into well known "OODA Loop."
But Boyd had a lot more to offer. His contributions to flying tactics, fighter development, and operational theory are profound. The historical analyses and scientific theories he employed are not well documented nor well understood. This is principally due to Boyd's reliance on briefing slides. Colonel Frans Osinga fills out our collective understanding with The Science, Strategy and War. In this very deliberate review, the author works his way through the arguments and source material of Boyd's famous briefs including "Patterns of Conflict" and "A Discourse on Winning and Losing." He highlights the diverse sources that shaped Boyd's thinking and offers a comprehensive overview and remarkable synthesis of his work, and demonstrates that Boyd's is much more comprehensive, strategically richer and deeper than is generally thought.
Osinga is ironically a former F-16 pilot, a plane Boyd helped design, and a serving Royal Netherlands Air Force officer. He has lectured extensively in Europe, been posted at the Allied Command Transformation, Norfolk VA, and spoken at the annual Boyd Conference held in Quantico last July. The author is now stationed at the Royal Netherlands Defense Academy. This book, a version of his doctoral research, performs a superlative service as it expands our understanding of the utility of Boyd's work to modern conflict.
Over the years, my appreciation for John Boyd's intellectual achievement and moral character has grown. Others were less somnolent than I and quicker to understand what Boyd was offering. When he passed away in 1997, General Charles Krulak, then Commandant of the Marines, was quick to praise Boyd for his lifelong work in concepts, theory, and doctrine. General Krulak said that Boyd's theoretical contributions "rival those of the greatest military minds." Not only did he add considerably to America's understanding of the art of war, General Krulak credited him with contributing to the success of the U.S. military in Operation Desert Storm and as "one of the central architects in the reform of military thought which swept the services, and in particular the Marine Corps, in the 1980s."
The Marines attribute major influences in their fundamental doctrine of maneuver warfare to Boyd. He taught the Marines about competitive and intuitive decision making on the battlefield. He should be credited with stressing the importance of tempo as well as the time competitive nature of combat. Despite an Air Force background, he understood the proper role of technology in war. He is famous for insisting that "Machines don't fight wars. People do, and they use their minds." This emphasis on intellect and the human dimension found a home with the U.S. Marines, a Service with a valorous reputation but not previously open to intellectualism or doctrinal creativity. Boyd's stress on the psychological and moral dimensions of conflict over attrition-based strategies that emphasize firepower and technology resonated deeply with the Marines in the post-Vietnam era. Marine doctrine is infused with many of Boyd's critical observations, carefully transferred by Generals C. C. Krulak and Paul K. Van Riper.
In his concluding chapter, Osinga shows that Boyd's understanding of war is still very relevant. This important chapter underscores Boyd's grasp of the function of command and control, and the life of military organizations as a process of competitive discovery and interaction. This process of learning and adaptation was tied to Boyd's growing awareness of what we now know as complex adaptive systems. Colonel Osinga goes on to discuss the relevance of Boyd to the RMA debate, to Net-centric Warfare and to 4th GW. He correctly notes that Boyd would concur with the critical moral component of 4th GW but would have been leery about much of the RMA literature. He notes "it is unwarranted to see too much of Boyd's ghost at work here," since he would not have supported the emphasis on technology. However, "he certainly would agree with this emphasis on continuous innovation and agility."
Colonel Boyd's work remains relevant to the Small Wars community. His path finding work into organizational learning is the genesis for many follow on research efforts, including LtCol John Nagl's bestselling Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife. Boyd's emphasis on organizational fitness and constant adaptation in relation to a changing environment is the operational imperative in FM 3-24 Counterinsurgency (thanks to Dr. Nagl). Likewise, Boyd's exploration of what we now know as chaos and complexity theory was a decade ahead of its time. Students of the nonlinear sciences, including Dr. Dave Kilcullen, have exploited the concept of complex adaptive systems in relation to modern adversaries like Al Qaeda in his own ground breaking studies. Dr. Osinga makes it clear that we can and are still learning from the iconoclastic Boyd.
While John Boyd died in 1997, his influence lives on in the fighting doctrines of the Army and the Marine Corps, and in the halls of almost every educational institution of the U.S. military. This book explains why. Science, Strategy and War is a brilliant distillation of Boyd's research and the revolutionary theories about science and cognition he leveraged to better understand warfare. While the hardback price will scare off most readers, the new paperback version is more affordable and will make the book more accessible.
So while others have done more on bringing out the colorful life and the bureaucratic bashing personality of the irascible Boyd, no one has adequately framed his intellectual foundation in context, detailed his wide ranging research sources, or explored the full breadth of Boyd's undeniable intellect. Osinga's book is a long overdue corrective to those who too quickly dismissed Boyd's ideas as simplistic. Science, Stategy and War is a monumental contribution to military art and science, and is completely worthy of the genius it covers. This is an invaluable and prodigious piece of scholarship that belongs on the bookshelves of true professionals and anyone responsible for teaching strategy, operational art, and military theory.
Frank Hoffman is a national security consultant employed by the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies.
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