As the shelves of any bookstore attest, war is a major preoccupation of our culture, even in those rare interludes when we are not actually at war or preparing for it. This being the case, it is not surprising that our leaders consider it seemly to profess familiarity with the leading theoreticians of warfare. As Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has said in reference to his philosophic influences: “You can’t be in this business and not be attentive to people like Sun Tzu and Clausewitz.”
Whether or not Secretary Rumsfeld has truly absorbed Sun Tzu’s subtle maxims may be open to question, but Robert Coram’s engrossing biography, “Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War,” should definitely be on the bedside tables of all our current military leadership. Boyd was an Air Force fighter pilot who was never promoted beyond colonel, who wrote next to nothing, imparting his ideas by means of oral briefings, but who is nevertheless considered by many to be the greatest strategic thinker this country has ever produced, “the American Sun Tzu.”
Even before he died in 1997, Boyd was a legendary figure among those who had been exposed to his ideas and influence. Although this is no hagiography -- Boyd’s treatment of his family stands as a disturbing indictment -- Coram does an exemplary job in explaining why this man inspired, and deserved, such respect among his peers.
Emerging from a hardscrabble upbringing in Erie, Pa., Boyd first confronted the military system he would both serve and challenge as a draftee in the occupation force in Japan immediately after World War II. Forced by uncaring authority to sleep outside in subzero temperatures, he led his fellow draftees in tearing down an Army building for firewood, then maneuvered his superiors, who wanted to court-martial him, into providing decent accommodation instead.
After training as a combat pilot, he flew an F-86 Sabre fighter jet in the closing stages of the Korean War. Peace broke out too soon for him to rack up “kills,” but his subsequent assignment as an instructor at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada spawned the legend of “Forty-Second” Boyd. Considered the greatest fighter pilot of his day, he had a standing bet that he could beat anyone in a mock dogfight in 40 seconds or less. He never lost, partly because he developed entirely novel tactics. His experience led him to analyze how and why certain tactics worked in air combat, leading to his authorship of what became the standard U.S. manuals on fighter tactics.
Impressive though these contributions are, Boyd’s most consequential victories were won on the battlefields of the Pentagon, where the strategic objectives are the authorization and control of multibillion-dollar weapon programs. Gathering a group of like-minded allies, Boyd fought and won remarkable bureaucratic campaigns that forced a reluctant Air Force high command -- to which he was theoretically subordinate -- to buy fighters, most notably the F-16, incorporating the revolutionary design concepts he championed.
Though no actual blood was spilled, these bitter conflicts could and did exact a high price in terms of careers sacrificed for principle, a price that anyone who wanted Boyd’s trust and respect had to be prepared to pay.
After he retired, Boyd began distilling his reflections on the lessons of air combat, supplemented and vastly amplified by omnivorous research in military history, into what ultimately became “A Discourse on Winning and Losing,” a briefing with slides that, in its final form, took 14 hours to deliver.
The key conceptual breakthrough at the heart of this tour de force was what he christened the “OODA Loop,” the process (which he originally divined in the behavior of fighter pilots in dogfights) by which we observe what the enemy is doing, orient ourselves to this action, decide on what to do and act. Our action of course changes the reality -- as radically and unpredictably as possible -- of the situation as perceived by the other party, who must then try to take action to adjust. If we repeat the process and continue to take unpredictable actions faster than the other side can reorient themselves, an exercise that Boyd called “getting inside their decision cycle,” they lose any coherent grasp of the situation and succumb to something approaching mental paralysis. Their minds, in Boyd’s expressive phrase, “fold back on themselves.”
Apparently simple, Boyd’s formulation of the OODA loop is actually, as Coram points out, a complex and subtle concept, in which the orientation phase is key. A practitioner with an “intuitive [my emphasis] understanding of [his] relationship to the rapidly changing environment” can move from initial observation to action almost immediately.
Groups attempting to operate at a faster tempo than the enemy, such as an army faced with a shifting battlefield situation or a corporation in a competitive market, obviously profit from speed of communication, but Boyd decried efforts, fashionable in today’s military, to effect this with ever more complex electronic systems. Instead, he stressed the importance of cohesion and trust, such as can emerge in a revolutionary force fired by a common ideal -- or, undeniably, in the German army that perfected the blitzkrieg -- so that lower levels in the chain of command understand their commanders’ objectives and can implement their own OODA loops without waiting for orders but in a way that harmonizes with the objectives of the group.
Simultaneously, as Boyd emphasized, every effort must be made to break down cohesion and trust within the other side so that, as he put it, the enemy breaks apart into “non-cooperating centers of gravity” and becomes easy prey. Thus deception is a vital component of this system, not necessarily to give the enemy a false impression of reality but, more usefully, to project ambiguity, causing him “to pause, to wonder, to question.” The Allied operation to confuse the Germans as to the location of the D-day landings was a classic example: Hitler wasn’t totally fooled, but the uncertainty caused him a fatal delay.
Boyd’s concept of the mechanism by which an adversary can be disconnected from reality illuminates Sun Tzu’s famous dictum: “The way of war is a way of deception. When able, feign inability; when deploying troops, appear not to be.... if [the enemy] is weak, stir him to pride. If he is relaxed, harry him; if his men are harmonious, split them.” As John Minford observes in his commentary to a new translation: “On this basis of deception, of dissimulation and concealment, is built the whole principle of ‘manipulation’ of the enemy, which lies at the heart of Master Sun’s strategic thinking.”
Though basically unknown to the general public, at least until now, Boyd’s teachings have already had a significant influence among portions of the military, most significantly the Marines, as well as in the quasi-martial world of business studies. Modish references to OODA loops and other Boydian concepts are increasingly fashionable among national security and management experts who may never have heard of Boyd. Hence, following the U.S. reconquest of Kuwait in the last Gulf war, various generals claimed credit for conceiving the notion of outflanking the Iraqis by maneuvering far to the west. Coram makes a strong case that Boyd deserves much of the credit, though his backstage role was never officially acknowledged. As Sun Tzu remarked, “The common man ... understands the forms, the dispositions of my victory; but not how I created the forms of victory.”