The Blind Strategist: John Boyd and the American Art of War

In his introduction to this exceptionally worthwhile volume, Stephen Robinson describes how, during the Gulf War, General Tommy Franks, a true believer in what had become the US Army’s dominant doctrine of ‘manoeuvre warfare’, formulated what historian Thomas Ricks referred to as ‘perhaps the worst war plan in American history’.

It was thus fortunate that his plan was overridden by his boss General Norman Schwarzkopf, who rejected Franks’ ideas and forged a strategy which achieved an overwhelming and rapid victory.

Very few realised how exceptionally close the allies came to waging a fruitless and much more costly war. While the political and military situation in that region remains unstable, it could have been so much worse. For all its strengths, professionalism, and superior technology, the American military has for years been hamstrung by the illogical and tortuous ideas espoused by a small coterie of armchair theorists.

At the height of the Cold War, a relatively obscure Air Force officer working at the Pentagon began formulating a vision of the future of warfare as it ought to be waged by the United States. Based on his experiences as an instructor of fighter pilots, Colonel John Boyd deduced that all future conflicts could be favourably resolved by applying a relatively simple formula that he described as an ‘OODA-loop’.

This formula was essentially a four-step process during which a combatant would ‘O’ observe the enemy’s actions, ‘O’ orient himself to the unfolding situation, ‘D’ decide on the most appropriate counter-move, then ‘A’ act on that decision. Any combatant who cycled through this process most expeditiously would gain an ‘an inestimable advantage by disrupting his enemy’s ability to respond effectively’.

Certainly, this was an appropriate and useful technique… for fighter pilots. But Boyd did not stop there. Rather than remaining satisfied that he had cogitated a useful tactical ploy for fighter pilots, he went on to delve further into the intricacies of strategy at large. His ‘research’ and subsequent proselytising would seriously affect the American (and many allied nations’) approach to warfare for years to come.

When I entered the Army in 1973, the chief of the Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) was General William DePuy – a veteran of fighting in Normandy with the 90th Division, and later commander of the 1st Infantry Division in Vietnam. DePuy, having observed the results of the Yom Kippur Arab–Israeli War (in 1973), decided that the modern battlefield needed a thorough rethink and set about rewriting the US Army’s Operations Field Manual (FM 100-5).

DePuy knew that the primary threat to the Western Alliance was from the massed forces of the Soviet Union and that the NATO allies would necessarily have to stop a potential Soviet invasion as close to the West German border as possible. Given the improved lethality of weapons systems, as demonstrated in the Yom Kippur War, there would simply not be time enough to mobilise the American military for a conflict in Europe. Any conflict would have to be decided by the troops already in theatre.

Dodgy sources

Aided by a small group of like-minded professionals, DePuy developed and fielded the concept of ‘active defence’. This was, in simple terms, a method by which NATO troops would employ an elastic defence using a series of prepared positions to deliver overwhelming firepower on advancing Soviet forces until the main effort could be identified and then destroyed by a massive counter-attack.

Boyd disagreed with this concept. When he retired from active duty in 1975, he began a self-guided and self-taught review of texts formulating a divergent view of warfare from that of DePuy. Citing somewhat questionable examples – including Sun Tzu’s writings, Hannibal’s tactics at Cannae, and Genghis Khan’s direction of Mongolian warfare – Boyd advanced a rather convoluted concept which he labelled ‘manoeuvre warfare’ and which would later evolve into what was termed ‘AirLand Battle’.

Colonel John Boyd [TOP] devised the OODA-loop formula, which he believed would give adherents an ‘inestimable advantage’ on the battlefield. Boyd had been influenced by the work of Basil Liddell Hart [MIDDLE] and J F C Fuller [BOTTOM], both forthright
Colonel John Boyd devised the OODA-loop formula, which he believed would give adherents an ‘inestimable advantage’ on the battlefield.

He then went on to preach throughout the military community, gathering scores of adherents and acolytes, many of them at the highest levels of the military hierarchy.

Boyd leaned heavily on Basil Liddell Hart’s work with former Nazi generals. Liddell Hart, who had served as a captain in the First World War, was a very prolific British military historian and theorist of the mid-20th century. Much of his work was outstanding, but some of it was much more questionable, especially when he was at pains to advance his own theories, like that of ‘the indirect approach’ – a direct challenge to traditional interpretations of Clausewitz, born of his generation’s searing experience of Western Front trench deadlock and attritional warfare.

Liddell Hart was given privileged access to the captive German generals at Nuremberg, accumulating a vast mass of primary archive testimony for the US Army, much of which was subsequently published by the US Army Historical Series. A tight distillation appeared in Liddell Hart’s The Other Side of the Hill (1948), a book now regarded as a military classic, one of a kind that is perhaps unique in the annals of military history, where the story of a war is retold from the enemy’s perspective by a leading historian on the opposing side on the basis of direct first-hand testimony.

Boyd eagerly consumed Liddell Hart’s work, despite the fact that much of the testimony was tainted by the self-serving accounts of defeated men. Men like Franz Halder, Heinz Guderian, and Erich von Manstein peppered their recollections with misleading information as they strove to redeem their own reputations (and that of the German soldier in general) by laying the blame for virtually every strategic or tactical blunder at the feet of Adolf Hitler.

When fellow German generals, such as Hermann Balck and Friedrich von Mellenthin, protested that Boyd’s conclusions were misinformed, sometimes bordering on nonsense, their spirited objections were simply ignored. The distorted and carefully manipulated reminiscences for the US Army Historical Series were ambrosia to Boyd and his cohorts.

In his peripatetic readings in the history of human conflict, Boyd was particularly taken by the writings and philosophies of both J F C Fuller and Liddell Hart. Fuller, like Liddell Hart, had an agenda in much of his voluminous output, being a forthright exponent of armoured warfare, again in large part in reaction to the experience of the First World War.

But Fuller was also an oddball. He was interested in the occult, was sympathetic to Hitler in the interwar period, and was one of the most high-profile supporters of Oswald Mosley’s virulently antisemitic British Union of Fascists.

Fuller and Liddell Hart

Nonetheless, Boyd enthusiastically embraced Fuller’s theories (as had Heinz Guderian and other German advocates of Blitzkrieg), despite their lopsided emphasis on only one aspect of modern warfare.

I myself have a shelf of books and monographs based on Liddell Hart’s work. These were freely distributed through the Staff College and the War College during my time in the US Army. They had a monumental impact on the training and philosophy of the American armed forces and helped to shape first the education and then the inculcation of theory and practice in training and on the battlefield.

Boyd had been influenced by the work of Basil Liddell Hart (above) and J F C Fuller [below].

The great problem with this is that it was all based on half-truths and sometimes outright lies. What Fuller and Liddell Hart were both obsessed with was trying to avoid the massive losses of men and matériel which had been incurred during the First World War. They wanted a quick and relatively bloodless means by which to achieve victory. They were searching for a quick fix.

Unfortunately, being an energetic and persuasive lecturer and strategic prophet, Boyd and his acolytes, with their horribly flawed concepts, captured the imaginations of influential US military and political leadership. They were eventually embraced and subscribed to by figures such as Vice-President Dick Cheney, Senators Gary Hart and Newt Gingrich, Secretaries of Defence Robert Gates and Colin Powell. Throughout the 1990s and up to the First Gulf War, the concepts of manoeuvre warfare/AirLand Battle dominated US strategy.

Replete with photographs, well-placed diagrams, and appropriate maps, this excellent book describes Boyd, his career and questionable research methods, examines the actual historical record, and then goes on to show how the American defence establishment was enchanted by his siren song.

Clearly written and well-annotated chapters trace the origins and development of Boyd’s theories and explain how German military operations, however duplicitously described, coloured his thinking.

One can only hope that the day of AirLand Battle as championed by Boyd and his minions has passed. In his epilogue, Robinson is apt in his quotation of scholar James Hasik, who noted that ‘to generalise at the grand strategic level of all warfare from the tactical level of aerial dogfighting is a considerable leap’. Hasik’s observation is wonderfully apposite.

This remarkable volume is absolutely essential reading for any military professional, and highly recommended for their political masters as well.

Review by Frederick J Chiaventone
The Blind Strategist: John Boyd and the American Art of War, Stephen Robinson, Exisle Publishing, hbk (£25.99), ISBN 978-1925820348.
Images: Wikimedia Commons.