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Tuesday, September 23

Colonel John Boyd and the revolution within

Just published: The John Boyd Roundtable: Debating Science, Strategy, and War is edited by the blogosphere's ZenPundit, otherwise known as Mark Safranski, with a forward by Thomas P. M. Barnett.

The book is the perfect gift for friends and relatives who complain that you spend too much time on the blogosphere. The Roundtable book arose from a cooperative effort by bloggers from a variety of disciplines and who analyze what is arguably the best book ever written on Boyd's ideas -- Colonel Frans Osinga's Science, Strategy and War: The Strategic Theory of John Boyd.

Because this era is one of unrestricted warfare you can't really understand the times unless you understand something of Boyd's thinking and contributions to military strategy. So the book reflects the blogosphere at its most useful because Boyd's ideas can be difficult to approach, even for those versed in military history.

My reaction to the book includes a trip down memory lane to a rather traumatic moment in my life.

Asia's karate mandarins were so upset by their estimate of Bruce Lee's teachings that they put forward their best to challenge him to a match on a Hong Kong live TV show. The Master and Bruce stood, the Master bowed -- the traditional way to signal the start of a match -- and while he was bowing Bruce decked him with a boxing punch.

Initially this led to howls of "Cheap stunt!" and "Cheat!" across the martial arts world. But he had cheated only if threats against one's life were considered a game, which was the point of his preemptive strike.

Death does not bow before striking. Out there in the real world, the world outside the rules and regulations of art and gamesmanship, the idea was quite simple: by any which way, demoralize and disable the attacker before he harms you. For this, emphasis had to be on rapid situational analysis rather than adherence to any one style of fighting.

It was an emphasis that the martial arts world had forgotten, but it would take Bruce Lee more than one boxing punch to make the point.

One of Lee's disciples, a film star who was a veteran practitioner of the martial arts, summed the problem for many martial artists struggling to encompass Lee's teachings. He observed wryly that he understood Lee's ideas perfectly but only so long as he was in Lee's presence.

A female novice student asked Lee what was the best martial arts fighting style for a woman to fend off two male knife-wielding attackers.

He replied, "Poke 'em in the eyes, kick 'em in the balls, yell bloody murder and run like hell."

Hearing those stories and similar ones, discussing his ideas for hours on end, I said in awe to a friend, "He could inspire a revolution in U.S. military thinking and even police work."

The friend replied, "I hate to tell you this but Bruce Lee died two weeks ago."

You would need to have watched the Vietnam War unfold, and seen the fervent appreciation for Lee's fighting prowess spreading like wildfire in New York and every other U.S. city where his films were shown, to understand my reaction.

I answered stupidly, "That's not possible."

That was in 1973, two years before Colonel John Boyd retired from the U.S. Air Force and entered a phase of his life as a defense consultant that spawned a veritable universe of revolutionary ideas about war strategy.

One of Boyd's nicknames was "Thunder and Lightning," which derived from his habit of standing in the doorway of his office at the Pentagon while gesturing and screaming, "Out there -- business as usual! In here -- thunder and lightning!"

Boyd's Thunder and Lightning shop profoundly influenced the U.S. military's approach to warfare. He died at the age of 70, a year before al Qaeda's one-two punch in 1998 against U.S. embassies officially launched the era of unrestricted warfare.

The U.S. government's lumbering and wholly ineffective response to the attacks underscored that the "business as usual" mindset in Washington had confined Boyd's ideas to narrow parameters. It took almost four years of the U.S. military stumbling around in Iraq before men steeped in Boyd's ideas were finally let loose on the situation.

I venture that John Boyd was the closest the modern U.S. military ever came to Bruce Lee's view. But as with Lee it was easier to understand Boyd in person -- in Boyd's case, in marathon lecture sessions and the give-and-take of dialogue and debate.

Boyd did not leave behind a magnum opus or even an organized body of writings. So once out beyond the firm intellectual terrain of his OODA loop, the confluence of Boydian ideas taken from Zen, Daoism, mathematics, science, economics, business principles, epistemology, psychology, theoretical physics, biology, cybernetics, and classical military strategies created a kind of philosopher's stone.

The ideas couldn't be approached from the comfortable armchair of the intellect; they had to be wrestled with in the alchemy of personal transformation, through pushing the boundaries of one's experience, instincts, and knowledge.

This process helped develop some great military thinkers but also limited the applicability of Boyd's ideas. If there's one thing that the top military command and its funders don't like to hear it's the words, "It depends."

For all his emphasis on not being stuck on style, Bruce Lee defended classical martial arts training and he excelled at several of those arts. He was a synthesizer, not a rejecter of structure. In the same manner the nature of war means there has to be a structured approach to it, no matter how amorphous the enemy.

The debates that have raged in the Pentagon between the small war and big war proponents are not really to the point, which is the need for maximum flexibility within the confines of organized combat. Thus, the crying need for an examination of Boyd's ideas as they are, not as they've been interpreted by various camps.

That is where Dr. (Col.) Frans Osinga came in; he took an almost forensic approach to examining the development of Boyd's thinking, or what Mark Safranski calls "an expedition into intellectual archaeology."

The drawback to Osinga's book is that with a $100+ pricetag (paperback version) it's too expensive for most general readers, and also it's written for readers who already have some familiarity with Boyd's ideas and military strategy.

The Roundtable book (a bargain at $27) is a patch around the drawbacks, and a bonus is that Osinga contributed two essays to the discussion. For more introduction to the book, see Mark's discussion at ZenPundit.

In his own essay for Roundtable, Mark observes:
It was a pity that Boyd died when he did as the subsequent advent of network theory and research into scale-free networks and modularity have done much to lend validity to his strategic speculations and reinforce his rejection of static, mechanistic, linear thinking in military affairs.
Bruce Lee would have loved John Boyd's mind. But I was wrong to assume that a revolution in military thinking could come from outside. Boyd, for all his railing at the system, understood the collective aspect of the military experience. A revolution, if it was to occur, would have to come from within the military.
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