John Boyd was arguably the most important American military thinker since the late 19th Century sea power theorist, Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan. Best known for his formulation of the “OODA Loop” as a model for competitive decision making, Colonel Boyd left his mark as well on air combat tactics, maneuver warfare, and what we now call “fourth-generation warfare.” On no branch of the service was his influence greater than on the U.S. Marine Corps. “From John Boyd,” wrote General Charles Krulak, then the Marine commander, “we learned about competitive decision making on the battlefield – compressing time, using time as an ally.”
An aggressive man, Boyd naturally favored the offense, as exemplified by the blitzkrieg or “lightning war” advocated by the Chinese master Sun-tzu, the German tank commander Heinz Guderian, and the British partisan leader T. E. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia. Boyd was less interested in defensive tactics, though in his culminating, fifteen hour brief, A Discourse on Winning and Losing, he did dwell at some length on the problem of what he called “counter-guerrilla” operations.
Boyd died in 1997, after Osama bin Laden’s “declaration of war” against the United States, but before America’s trauma of September 11, 2001, in which the al-Qaeda leader set us on a course to our subsequent difficulties in Afghanistan and Iraq. Given another ten years of life, Boyd certainly would have addressed the question I attempt to answer here: How to fight the War on Terror? How should we have orchestrated our response to the al-Qaeda attacks – or, in the parlance of the 21st Century: how would John Boyd have us fight a fourth-generation war?
I was a college student during the Korean War, and I was drafted soon after graduating, to serve the then-customary two years in an Army essentially the same as the one that landed at Normandy in June 1944. Nor had it changed that much when I bought a ticket to Saigon in 1964, to work for a time as a correspondent for a progressive journal called The Nation. In my travels around South Vietnam, I found that Special Forces had acquired a new respectability, along with the iconic green beret and a lightweight rifle that would eventually be adopted as the M-16. Similarly, helicopter pilots had been supplied with Kevlar flak vests (which they usually chose to sit on rather than wear). Such minor improvements apart, the U.S. Army that struggled in the rain forests and paddy fields of Vietnam was identical to the one I’d served somewhat reluctantly a few years before, and that in turn had helped win the Second World War. That was the conception of military operations that I carried into the 21st Century.
But in April 2003, as I followed the invasion of Iraq on real-time television – itself an astonishing innovation – I discovered that my knowledge was badly outdated. American weapons were subtly different; and American troops could see in the dark – indeed, preferred to move at night, whereas in earlier wars their fathers and grandfathers had been notably afraid of the dark. The troops were so accustomed to moving in armored vehicles that men on foot were known as “dismounts.” Most surprising of all, to me anyhow, was the sight of American columns running and gunning up both banks of the Euphrates with no apparent concern for securing their rear or maintaining a supply route. This was, I realized, an entirely new sort of warfare.
Accordingly, I signed up for an online master’s program at King’s College London, where my tutors would be bright young men and women of that institution’s War Studies program, and my classmates a medley of mid-career military officers and civilians. About half of them, I suppose, were majors in the British Army. (Not the least of my findings was that, while Britain has a Royal Navy, it doesn’t have a Royal Army. It seems that the ground forces were founded by the regicide Oliver Cromwell.) The others were serving officers in the Royal Air Force and the American, Danish, and Swedish armed forces, along with teachers, entrepreneurs, and civil servants from Singapore to Los Angeles, plus a seventy-something journalist from New Hampshire. War in the Modern World was a three-year program based on online textbooks and discussions, plus more reading than anyone possibly could have accomplished. Instead of sitting for exams, we submitted essays – research papers, in American usage.
My final term was given over to what was grandly termed Strategic Dimensions of Contemporary Warfare. Among the strategists, of course, was Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831), whose On War became the foundation of Western military thought. I enjoyed my introduction to the Prussian master, though I agonized over the linear nature of his concept of war, stepping so neatly (as it seemed to me) from Strategy to Planning to Tactics, without any possibility that tactics might in turn influence strategy. Perhaps that worked for the Napoleonic wars, when the strategist and the field commander were one and the same person, but it hardly seemed appropriate in a day when the commander of the U.S. Marines could write in all seriousness of the “strategic corporal” – that is, the young soldier in charge of a fire team who could, by calling in bombs upon a village, affect the standing of a nation.
In my first essay for the course, I tried to make the process circular by applying the Hegelian dialectic, whereby the final term in each triad (thesis – antithesis – synthesis) begins another, similar, and more elegant round. Alas, it didn’t work, or at least not well enough. Tactics do indeed influence Strategy, or should, but only in the sense of refining it, not in creating something new. In the end, I punted the effort into the future, hoping that John Boyd and his OODA Loop might provide a way to break out of the Clausewitzian triad. So it proved – or so I argued in my last essay for War in the Modern World.
This small book melds those two essays with my concluding dissertation on how Boyd’s theories might be applied to counter-insurgency. Limited respectively to 1,500, 3,000, and 15,000 words, they didn’t provide much latitude for expression, so now I take the opportunity to expand on them. In what follows, I discuss John Boyd’s written and oral legacy and his influence upon the U.S. military toward the end of the 20th Century, as demonstrated in our two wars against Iraq. I pay particular attention to the relationship Boyd saw between blitzkrieg and guerrilla operations, and the ways in which each might be countered. As a test of his methodology, I advance (and tentatively discard) the U.S. Marines’ Combined Action Platoon of the Vietnam War as a solution that he might have embraced.
1 - The Mad Major
John Boyd was born in the hardscrabble town of Erie, Pennsylvania, in 1927. His father died when he was three, at the onset of the Great Depression, and he was brought up by his widowed mother, who worked three jobs to rear him and four siblings, one of whom was stricken by polio and another by schizophrenia. Toward the end of World War II, young Boyd enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Forces but was rejected for flight training because of “low aptitude.” Instead, the Army put him to work as a swimming instructor in occupied Japan.
Discharged in 1947, he enrolled as an engineering student at the University of Iowa. It wasn’t a success. “Academically,” as Grant Hammond tells us in The Mind of War, “Boyd was competent but inconsistent, undisciplined, and occasionally just not interested.” He switched his concentration to economics, partied, swam competitively – and joined the Reserve Officers' Training Corps then ubiquitous on American campuses. In 1951, the second year of the Korean War, Boyd earned his bachelor’s degree and a commission in the newly fledged United States Air Force. Again he applied for flight training, and this time he demonstrated a considerable aptitude, throwing his North American T-6 trainer “around the sky in such a fearless manner that it seemed to others as if he had done it a thousand times.”
Transitioning to jet fighters, Lieutenant Boyd was just as aggressive. “I had to bend the shit out of that airplane,” he once boasted of his mock combat with flight instructors and fellow students. He especially enjoyed the lack of structure in flight training in the 1950s, as he recalled on another occasion: “We didn’t have any rules when I went into it. It was fantastic. Of course we killed a lot of guys. We killed more guys in training than we did in Korea.” The Air Force did have rules, of course, but Boyd preferred to make his own.
Oddly, for a man often called America’s greatest fighter pilot, Boyd was never credited with an air-to-air victory over an enemy aircraft. He reached Korea in March 1953, four months before the armistice was signed, and not time enough to accumulate the thirty missions that would qualify him as a “shooter,” instead of a wingman tasked with guarding his flight leader.
Postwar, Boyd was assigned to the USAF Fighter Weapons School at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, first as a student, then an instructor. He was a demanding teacher. “If the guy really wants to learn and has some problem,” as he explained his system in later years, “you do not have to give him the 2x4. But if the guy has an obstruction” – i.e., had an overly high opinion of his abilities – “I would cut his balls off in 10 seconds.” The castration would take the form of an air-to-air humiliation. Boyd began the dogfight as he usually did, with the student directly behind him – “on his six,” as pilots say, the six o’clock position being the most advantageous for the attacker – and in under forty seconds reverse their positions, meanwhile shouting “Guns, guns, guns!” to let the student know that in the real world he would have been a dead man. In this manner he earned the nickname of Forty Second Boyd.
Boyd loved the freedom he found in aerial combat. And he too was learning. In the air with his students – or a fellow instructor, or a challenger from another airbase – he made one of those connections for which he would become famous. “I had a degree in economics,” as he recalled toward the end of his life. What a fighter pilot did in the clear Nevada air, he realized, was not all that different from what John D. Rockefeller had done with Standard Oil, or E. H. Harriman with the Union Pacific railroad. “This is like 19th Century capitalism in the sky!” he exulted. “All we’re doing is free-booting. We’re buccaneers. This is fantastic. We can do whatever in the hell we goddamn please. Those generals don’t know what the hell we’re doing.”
In an interview taped after he retired, Boyd describes that mock combat over the Nevada desert in terms that illuminate the unique way his mind worked: