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John Boyd’s Art of War

Off and on for about 20 years, I had the honor of working with the greatest military theorist America ever produced, Col. John Boyd, USAF. As a junior officer, Boyd developed the energy-management tactics now used by every fighter pilot in the world. Later, he influenced the designs of the F-15 and F-16, saving the former from becoming the turkey we are now buying in the F-35 and making the latter the best fighter aircraft on the planet. His magnum opus, a 12-hour briefing titled “Patterns of Conflict,” remains a vast mine of military wisdom, one unlikely to be exhausted in this century.

Boyd is best known for coming up with the OODA Loop or Boyd Cycle. He posited that all conflict is composed of repeated, time-competitive cycles of observing, orienting, deciding, and acting. The most important element is orientation: whoever can orient more quickly to a rapidly changing situation acquires a decisive advantage because his slower opponent’s actions are too late and therefore irrelevant—as he desperately seeks convergence, he gets ever increasing divergence. At some point, he realizes he can do nothing that works. That usually leads him either to panic or to give up, often while still physically largely intact.

The OODA Loop explains how and why Third Generation maneuver warfare, such as the German Blitzkrieg method, works. It describes exactly what happened to the French in 1940, when Germany defeated what was considered the strongest army on earth in six weeks with only about 27,000 German dead, trifling casualties by World War I standards. The French actually had more and better tanks than the Germans.

It is also a partial explanation for our repeated defeats by Fourth Generation non-state entities. Our many layers of headquarters, large staffs, and centralized decision-making give us a slow OODA Loop compared to opponents whose small size and decentralized command enable a fast one. A Marine officer stationed with our counter-drug traffic effort in Bolivia told me the traffickers went through the Loop 12 times in the time it took us to go through it once. I mentioned that to Colonel Boyd, and he replied, “Then we’re not even in the game.”

Another of Boyd’s contributions to military theory explains more of our failure in recent conflicts. To the traditional levels of war—tactical, operational, and strategic—Boyd added three new ones: physical, mental, and moral. It is useful to think of these as forming a nine-box grid, with tactical, operational, and strategic on one axis and physical, mental, and moral on the other. Our armed forces focus on the single box defined by tactical and physical, where we are vastly superior. But non-state forces focus on the strategic and the moral, where they are often stronger, in part because they represent David confronting Goliath. In war, a higher level trumps a lower, so our repeated victories at the tactical, physical level are negated by our enemies’ successes on the strategic and moral levels, and we lose.

Boyd had a reservoir of comments he repeated regularly, one of which was, “A lot of people in Washington talk about strategy. Most of them can spell the word, but that’s all they know of it.” The establishment’s insistence on an offensive grand strategy, where we attempt to force secular liberal democracy down the throats of every people on earth, is a major reason for our involvement and defeat in Fourth Generation conflicts. A defensive grand strategy, which is what this country followed successfully through most of its history, would permit us to fold our enemies back on themselves, something Boyd recommended. With us out of the picture, their internal fissures, such as those between Sunni and Shiites in the Islamic world, would become their focus. But as usual, Boyd was right: virtually no one in Washington can understand the advantages of a defensive grand strategy.

Being involved in every conflict on earth is useful if the real game is boosting the Pentagon’s budget rather than serving our national interests. Here too Boyd had a favorite line. He often said, “It is not true the Pentagon has no strategy. It has a strategy, and once you understand what that strategy is, everything the Pentagon does makes sense. The strategy is, don’t interrupt the money flow, add to it.”

July/August 2013 [1]Perhaps Boyd’s most frequently uttered warning was, “All closed systems collapse.” Both our military and our policy-making civilian elite live in closed systems. Because Second Generation war reduces everything to putting firepower on targets, when we fail against Fourth Generation opponents, the military’s only answer is to put more firepower on more targets. Ideas about other ways of waging war are ignored because they do not fit the closed Second Generation paradigm. Meanwhile, Washington cannot consider alternatives to our current foreign policy or grand strategy because anyone who proposes one is immediately exiled from the establishment, as was Boyd himself. It says something about our current condition that the greatest military theorist we ever produced retired as a colonel. At John’s funeral in Arlington, which I attended, most of the people in uniform were junior Marine officers. His own service, the Air Force, was barely represented.


John’s work was often elegant, but in person he was always the direct, and sometimes crude, fighter pilot. Boyd’s favorite, inelegant phrase for defeating one of his many opponents in the Pentagon was “giving him the whole enchilada right up the poop chute.” That is what history will shortly give this country if we continue to allow closed systems to lead us. Boyd’s work, which is best summarized in Frans Osinga’s book Science, Strategy and War: The Strategic Theory of John Boyd, could put us on a different course. But learning from Boyd would require open systems in Washington. Perhaps after the establishment collapses, Boyd can help us pick up the pieces.

William S. Lind is author of the Maneuver Warfare Handbook and director of the American Conservative Center for Public Transportation.


41 Comments (Open | Close)

41 Comments To "John Boyd’s Art of War"

#1 Comment By EliteCommInc. On August 16, 2013 @ 4:29 am

I appreciated this article.

Really appreciated it and no doubt would have appreciated Colonel Boyd.

I still maintain — the best strategy for Iraq was not to go.

Afgahnistan — a much much smaller foot print.

#2 Comment By Phillip On August 16, 2013 @ 10:11 am

Mr. Lind-

Insightful article- I’m a U.S. Air Force officer; one of the articles I had to read for Squadron Officer School (professional military education for AF CGOs) pertained to the Boyd/Horner relationship. This article presented a picture of Gen Horner, the JFACC (senior Airman leading the air portion of the campaign), hating Col Boyd. In particular, a story is told about when Col Boyd briefs Gen Horner on enemy course of action -Gen Horner disagreed with Col Boyd’s assessment (Iraq wouldn’t push south to Saudi Arabia) and basically belittled him in front a room full of senior officers. I can’t help but think Horner probably had something to do with Boyd only making Colonel, e.g. a phone call to a promotions board, bad performance report (if he was rating on him), etc. Did Boyd ever talk to you about Horner and what is was like to work for him?

#3 Comment By James Leroy Wilson On August 16, 2013 @ 11:07 am

I appreciate Lind’s work here and elsewhere. But I often think it would be good for new readers, when he writes about “generations” of warfare, to provide a link to an article where he explains what they are.

#4 Comment By Andrew On August 16, 2013 @ 12:27 pm

Wonderful article. Boyd was (and still is) a very influential figure and his contribution to, among many, Theory Of Operational Research is massive.

#5 Comment By FL Transplant On August 16, 2013 @ 2:01 pm

I’ve read a few biographies of Boyd–Corum’s and Hammond’s in particular. Listened to him speak when he went out to the USAF Academy in the early 70s to teach his energy management theory to aero engineering classes. Also spent a large amount of time following the Defense Reform movement he was a key part of in the 70s and 80s. And, of course, the OODA loop (it’s been the foundation of all air campaigns beginning with Desert Storm.)

In later years I spent some time in the Pentagon at the same level he was–O-6 Division Chief/DCS Deputy type jobs. I can say that while he may have carried off the persona of anti-establishment rebel speaking unpleasant truth to power he had to have enjoyed strong support at the highest levels of the USAF to have accomplished what he did. There’s absolutely no way that he would have accomplished anything otherwise–an O-6 in the Pentagon isn’t much more than an administrative assistant in the grand scheme of things (when an Academy classmate showed up in the building for his first tour there as a one-star he didn’t understand why I was laughing when I went by to say hi on his first day there and congratulated him on finally having clawed his way up to the lower levels of middle management; when we met for beers a month or so later all he could do was tell me that he now understood what I meant). I used to watch numerous highly intelligent, accomplished, hard-charging full Colonels ate alive by the system and spit out the back end when they tried to make changes much less than Boyd did without the necessary top cover and institutional support. So, no matter what you may think of him–and he remains a controversial character–his accomplishments were based on support and endorsement by senior USAF leadership. They may not have liked him personally, and his crudeness and inability to play nice with others may have limited his career, but they supported and instituted what he advocated.

#6 Comment By FL Transplant On August 16, 2013 @ 2:03 pm

Phillip–you’re confusing Boyd with Warden in the Desert Shield/Storm campaign.

#7 Comment By channelclemente On August 16, 2013 @ 2:35 pm

Very interesting article. I wonder how much the implied internal conflict in the article is playing out now over tactics and strategy in this Egyptian maelstrom.

#8 Comment By Andrew On August 16, 2013 @ 4:06 pm

Very interesting article. I wonder how much the implied internal conflict in the article is playing out now over tactics and strategy in this Egyptian maelstrom.

Very simple (from OODA perspective, the higher is the “frequency” (occurrence) of the loops, the more favorable is the outcome–in the nutshell. There is one difference, however, a decisive one. Boyd was operating in the peer-to-peer paradigm, once the framework shifts “down” it becomes a very different game. Just an example–for Muslim Brotherhood to really have an impact on the abstract battlefield in Egypt they have to have modern anti-tank weapons, air-defense weapons etc. MB does not have that, so, even if their frequency of running OODA loop is higher than that of the Egypt’s Armed Forces the quantitative (and qualitative) factors become immensely more powerful. It is just the matter of political will bringing an overwhelming force (firepower) to bear. AK-47 is not very effective against M1 Abrams tank.Plus, for now, it is mostly law enforcement operation in Egypt. It may yet deteriorate to the full blown civil war, hopefully not.

P.S. Russians spend a lot of time studying Boyd and developing own concept of ‘suppression” of the OODA loops. I am beginning to feel the pull of Admiral Cebrowski and Net-Centric Warfare;-)

#9 Comment By Eric Hutchins On August 16, 2013 @ 7:21 pm

I have not yet read John Boyd’s biographies. In skimming through them at the bookstore, I have come to the conclusion that he was an extraordinary military thinker, officer and patriot. I would like to see or read his magnum opus. Can it be found on line? In my Air Force dependent personnel youth, my father took me to see “The Court Martial of Billy Mitchell” The sand bagging of John Boyd is inexcusable.

#10 Comment By Phillip On August 16, 2013 @ 8:25 pm

FL Transplant – you’re right. My mistake

#11 Comment By EliteCommInc. On August 17, 2013 @ 2:14 pm

Given that US forces pulled back into a confined space in Iraq for the purposes of decreasing thecasualty count, I would say that any analysis that superior weapons were effective in managing asymmetrical unpredictable warfare is wholly false.

And given that we are still Afgahnistan suggests we have fared no better there.

Had the Nazis not had to contend against allioed forces one wonders how long and their police state would have survived against internal insugencies on multiple fronts.

This is not the westward of some tecnically adavanced civilization. The tecnology of today has made assymetrical warfare far more effective.

#12 Comment By seydlitz89 On August 17, 2013 @ 3:56 pm

This of course was the same “art of war” that was all the rage among US “warriors” going into Iraq way back in 2003 . . . Dick Cheney is of course Boyd’s most famous “acolyte” as Boyd’s biographer Robert Coram, indicates: “Cheney had enough one-on-one sessions with Boyd to give him the knowledge and self-confidence to second-guess even a head-strong four-star general such as Norman Schwarzkopf. Simply put, Cheney knew more about strategy than did his generals.” (Boyd, p 424)

Well, no he didn’t and the war that he did so much to get started and wage twelve years later has turned out to be arguably the worst strategic disaster in US history . . .

Doctrinal speculation like 4GW has been around since 1989 and doesn’t have much to say for itself. John Boyd as an engineer and aircraft designer has left a great legacy, but “an art of war” or having “changed the art of war” (as Coram’s sub-title claims)? Moonshine . . .

#13 Comment By BrockB On August 17, 2013 @ 5:34 pm

A very nice synopsis of Boyd’s contributions. However, Robert Taber’s The War of the Flea, published in the 1960s, pinpointed the importance of the mental and moral elements of war, using a number of guerrilla conflicts as prime examples. And Basil Liddell Hart’s Strategy, first published in 1954, discussed at length the strategy of indirect approach which in many ways involves getting inside the enemy’s OODA loop, as well as unbalancing him mentally and morally. Hart’s biography of Scipio Africanus, published in 1926, names Scipio the greatest commander of all time because of his mastery of OODA-type tactics combined with a profound understanding of the moral dimensions of war. Hart, as valuable as his contributions were, built on the contributions of others.

#14 Comment By Andrew On August 17, 2013 @ 6:12 pm

that superior weapons were effective in managing asymmetrical unpredictable warfare is wholly false.

“Superior weapons” is a very vague term. Once the nature of those “superior weapons” is defined, the tactical and operational aspects begin to unfold. Tactics seeks maximization of the weapons systems’ effectiveness, operational art does the same on the level of large units within the theater of operations. I omit strategy here. Superior weapons could be and very often were effective in managing asymmetrical warfare when used (tactically and operationally) properly. The term “properly” stands here for a lot of things, which are too big to be discussed here. The failures with asymmetric warfare usually happen on operational and strategic and political levels. Ka-50 or AH-64 Apache helicopters are extremely effective against “asymmetric” threats under some specific conditions, for other conditions there units of highly capable special forces who would manage (mitigate) the difference with the weapons even if the threat (adversary) would have better weapons.

It is here, where we get into the nature of the conflict (war) which is multi-dimensional, not merely tactical or technological. Michael Howard wrote about “forgotten dimensions of strategy”, which range from social to cultural, in 1980-s. He wrote: “We appear to be depending on the technological dimension of strategy to the detriment of its operational requirements, while we ignore its societal implications altogether…” Asymmetry is also a two way street. In other words asymmetric weapons ARE mutually asymmetric.

#15 Comment By Lynn Wheeler On August 17, 2013 @ 8:57 pm

I had sponsored Boyd’s briefings at IBM … after this article, the SECDEF tried to have Spinney thrown in jail for releasing classified information
sometimes behind paywall so also
from earlier this year: It was 30 Years Ago Today…

Boyd would talk about part of the 18month preparation was obtaining written approval for release of each piece of information covered in the article … aware that MIC was all too willing to (fraudulently) claim violations involving release of classified material on the slightest pretense (joke that the highest security classification in washington is “downright embarrassing”). At the time Boyd (& Spinney) had significant congressional cover … but all that has gone by the wayside … now fully aligned MICC.

In Boyd’s briefings he would cover Guderian’s “verbal orders only” for the blitzkrieg (encouraging local person on the spot to make decisions). Boyd would mention that entry to WW2, US had to deploy large number of unskilled and inexperienced … so created a rigid, top-down, command&control structure to leverage the few skills available … that Germany had 3% officers but US required 11% (growing to 20%) for its rigid, top-down command&control. By early 80s, Boyd commented that former US military officers moving into executive positions were contaminating US corporate culture (with top-heavy and rigid, top-down command&control structures).

#16 Comment By REMant On August 17, 2013 @ 11:55 pm

Blitzkrieg developed directly out of the WWI experience, indeed was begun in the Ludendorff Offensive. To an historian it seems Boyd understood nada about the origins of conflict. And you can take it from one who began studying it 50 years ago, outside of electronics, cybernetics is about as useful as a screendoor on a submarine. As for the fighters, there was the Soviet example, as well as, the obvious overemphasis on strategic bombing in WWII. Nevertheless the future seems to lie with stand-off tactics.

#17 Comment By Kent Johnson On August 18, 2013 @ 8:02 am

Mr Lind,

I am a long time “student” of yours as well as Col Boyd’s. His success in good part was based upon surrounding himself with some very brilliant and dedicated people.

I wonder if you (and your followers) have ever heard of Charles E. Hansen?

A close personal friend of mine and an acolyte of Boyd’s, Franklin Spinney, became a very public figure. He in turn mentored another close friend ours, Charles E. Hansen who remains quite obscure to this day in the world related to the works of Col Boyd.

Hansen’s thirty years of research, published in 2005 under the book title “The Technology of Love” brilliantly models Love/War (including mathematical and energy related concepts as well).

It has an OODA loop concept that translates directly as Respect, Knowledge, Responsibility, and Care. Care (action) is further refined and scientifically defined into 30 “vectors of love” (10 positives, 10 neutral, and 10 Negative).

What we get from Hansen’s research is an innovative new model of the Boyd’s “nine box grid” as follows: One axis-tactical, operational, and strategic; The other axis-Love’s positive vectors, neutral vectors, and negative vectors (replicating the moral, mental and physical levels, on the Boyd grid).

Translated: Love’s ten negative vectors applied at the tactical level is very destructive to society (high entropy). Love’s ten positive vectors applied at the stratigic level is most constructive (energy efficient). Hansen: “warfare employs all 30 vectors of love”!

What we can conclude from Hansen is that the US is conducting war very inefficiently, to say the least (it is showing up as a decline in our economic and geopolitical power, and putting us on a path of self destruction.

Hansen’s gives us the blue print (reinforcing Boyd) for alternatives to our current foreign policy or grand strategy redirection.

I’m not optimistic. Historically the needed changes come at a terrible price (somewhere in the lower quadrants of the “nine box grid”).

Lt Col Johnson USAFR(Ret)

#18 Comment By Dean Michael Jackson On August 18, 2013 @ 10:29 am

The article reads, “With us out of the picture, their internal fissures, such as those between Sunni and Shiites in the Islamic world, would become their focus.”

In fact, the Sunni/Shiite “fissures” are manufactured for strategic purposes themselves. This “Good Cop/Bad Cop” strategy allows certain Muslim nations to obtain Western military/economic advantages that they otherwise wouldn’t be awarded. You see, other peoples around the globe have their favorite strategies to deal with enemies that are more advanced technologically then they are.

In 1960 all Communists signed onto the “Long-Range Policy” (LRP) as their “new” strategy to defeat the West, the “collapse” of the USSR being the last major disinformation operation under the LRP. The next major disinformation operation will be the imminent fraudulent “collapse” of the Chinese Communist government.

The LRP uses the “Good Cop/Bad Cop” strategy too, though Communists prefer to call the tactic the “Scissors Strategy”. Examples of the “Scissors Strategy” include the Sino/Soviet Split and, more recently, hostilities between Russia and Georgia.

#19 Comment By NortonSmitty On August 18, 2013 @ 1:15 pm

Very interesting. I had heard of Col. Boyd, but I will look further at his work after reading this. He sounds like another Colonel in my time who wasn’t listened to because his reality did not match the Pentagon’s point of view, John Paul Vann.

#20 Comment By Robert On August 18, 2013 @ 3:32 pm

This is a great article written by Lind nearly ten year ago that explain 4th Generational Warfare to the novice.


#21 Comment By Richard Steven Hack On August 18, 2013 @ 5:33 pm

“AK-47 is not very effective against M1 Abrams tank.”

Tell it to the Taliban who have stymied US/NATO forces over five times their size for twelve years and who have clearly won that war.

The situation in Egypt is entirely different. There simply is no credible armed opponent of the Egyptian military. The MB have made a point of NOT being an armed opponent for decades. This was a fundamental mistake but it did keep them in existence for that period because they were not a credible threat to the establishment.

Hizballah OTOH is an example of the most effective resistance movement in the world, defeating the most powerful military in the Middle East in 2006 within a few weeks and holding the line, at least until today.

Unfortunately, Israel and the US have now responded with the Syria crisis, essentially “outflanking” Hizballah. Once Syria comes under the US/NATO airstrike “gun”, Israel will use that opportunity to carry the fight through Syrian territory into the Bekaa Valley as well as southern Lebanon, a classic “pincer” movement which will try Hizballah’s defenses. I expect this to occur within the next 6-12 months, probably sooner than later.

The Palestinians, on the other hand, are still applying incorrect strategy by blowing up civilians rather than their actual enemy – the Zionist leaders.

OODA loop only works if you understand the basics of conflict, i.e., know who your enemy actually is, and kill him.

#22 Comment By Amicus Curiae On August 19, 2013 @ 7:13 am

Perhaps Col. Boyd used OODA loop strategy too much in his personal relationships, where some diplomacy or persuasion was more appropriate.

#23 Comment By T. Sledge On August 19, 2013 @ 10:59 am

I’m wondering what role such things as the skill and dedication of commanders and troops, the support of the civilian population, and the superior knowledge of and adaptability to the terrain and local customs play in this grand strategy.

I can see readily how this theory may be beneficial in air combat, but it just appears to be of questionable value for ground warfare.
For all of our superior mobility (helicopters) in Vietnam, the enemy was for almost a decade completely able to determine when and where major battles would be fought, and they were fought almost entirely on THEIR terms.

Furthermore the NVN and Viet Cong knew EXACTLY what they were fighting for, and were in it for the long haul.

The typical marine or army infantryman was only fighting until his tour of duty was over, and he could say goodbye to that hell hole forever.

How can one quantify how much sheer determination and complete dedication to a cause measures up against a theory.

#24 Comment By Lynn Wheeler On August 19, 2013 @ 11:09 am

“There are two career paths in front of you, and you have to choose which path you will follow. One path leads to promotions, titles, and positions of distinction…. The other path leads to doing things that are truly significant for the Air Force, but the rewards will quite often be a kick in the stomach because you may have to cross swords with the party line on occasion. You can’t go down both paths, you have to choose. Do you want to be a man of distinction or do you want to do things that really influence the shape of the Air Force? To be or to do, that is the question.” Colonel John R. Boyd, USAF 1927-1997

From the dedication of Boyd Hall, United States Air Force Weapons School, Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada. 17 September 1999

#25 Comment By Andrew On August 19, 2013 @ 1:50 pm

@Richard Steven Hack

“AK-47 is not very effective against M1 Abrams tank.”

Tell it to the Taliban who have stymied US/NATO forces over five times their size for twelve years and who have clearly won that war.

So, Taliban found the way to defeat M1 Abrams by AK-47, alrighty then. I am pretty sure that people at Izhmash are desperately trying to figure out what did they miss in their (Kalashnikov’s) venerable design. I guess Russia is on the verge of stopping the production of the Kornet ATGMs (sarcasm).

Hizballah OTOH is an example of the most effective resistance movement in the world, defeating the most powerful military in the Middle East in 2006 within a few weeks and holding the line, at least until today.

Allow me to remind you that this “most effective resistance movement” would have been rolled over if not for the Russian-made AK-…..oops..Kornet anti-tank weapons. One of those wonderful examples of the technological dimension of the war. War–is a multidimensional affair.

#26 Comment By EliteCommInc. On August 19, 2013 @ 2:31 pm

If the current frustrations of the US military are not enough — I have one word -=-


#27 Comment By Lynn Wheeler On August 19, 2013 @ 2:41 pm

Early on during the invasion, they were told to bypass huge ammo dumps as part of looking for the (fictitious) WMDs (law of unintended consequences) … when they went back later, they were empty (over million metric tons). Significant amount of the large artillery shells found their way into IEDs.

a son-in-law’s first tour in Iraq was 2004-2005 in Fallujah, foot-patrol, 2nd tour was 2007-2008 in Baqubah, mounted. He says this is fairly accurate description (some caveat that the author didn’t do that much time outside the wire) Battle for Baqubah: Killing Our Way Out (does say it was worse that Fallujah)


I was overwhelmed at the amount of destruction that surrounded me. The sterile yard was about 150 meters wide by about 100 meters deep, and it was packed full of destroyed vehicles (words can’t describe what I saw)

… snip, and …

I saw other Bradleys and M1 Abrams main battle tanks, the pride of the 1st Cavalry Division—vehicles that, if back at Fort Hood, would be parked meticulously on line, tarps tied tight, gun barrels lined up, track line spotless, not so much as a drop of oil on the white cement. What I saw that day was row after row of mangled tan steel as if in a junkyard that belonged to Satan himself.

… snip …

and then there is this: The great M-1 tank myth

#28 Comment By J Harlan On August 20, 2013 @ 9:43 am

The US defeat in Viet Nam and various failures in the Muslim world have very little to do with OODA lops or weapons. The US failures were because no vital US interests were involved, the American public began to realize it and recoiled at the cost. The enemy also knew it and since the had no other place to go were able to wait out the US. Low intensity war fought against occupying foreigners is a matter of will not technology.

#29 Comment By EliteCommInc. On August 20, 2013 @ 1:03 pm

“The US defeat in Viet Nam . . .”

Excuse me, but we did not lose in Vietnam. President Nixon negotiated a truce and they violated it immediately or almost immediately after our major contingent departed.

There were strategic errors. However, our troops in Vietnam by and large held their own and more times than not, won every major battle of consequence.

Walter Cronkites, comments all butreflected the goal of the conflict — a stalemate in which a North and South Vietnam co-existed.

There was no loss as we were not there to so engage.

#30 Comment By Gibbon On August 20, 2013 @ 2:16 pm

Field Marshal Lind like so many American experts on war and force took great pains to excuse himself when his chance to fight evil in Vietnam existed. If he had gone, he possibly would have learned our ignorance of realistic goals was the great mistake.

George Kennan preached the American lack of historical sense has caused most of our mistakes. We reject history, not only our own, but that of others. Nobody can teach us anything. That we can change the Middle East is a policy for idiots and will continue to be so.

#31 Comment By J Harlan On August 20, 2013 @ 2:26 pm

“Excuse me, but we did not lose in Vietnam.”

That should be news to the single government of a united communist Viet Nam.

The same rationale will be used to explain why Iraq and Afghanistan weren’t defeats. The traditional definition of victory was the side that remained on the battlefield. That would be (so far) the NVA, VC, JAM, AQ as applicable. In DC new speak an organized withdrawal that abandons your allies now seems to be “victory”.

#32 Comment By Medpol1 On August 20, 2013 @ 2:57 pm

Calling Vietnam anything except a clear loss is just silly semantics. Akin to the Confederacy didn’t really “lose” since there wasn’t any government left to surrender. Etc.

The troops did their job, as they always do. However, they couldn’t overcome the real enemy: stupid officers and politicians.

#33 Comment By T. Sledge On August 20, 2013 @ 3:01 pm

It is a myth that U.S. forces never lost a major battle in Viet Nam.

(see Battle of Ong Thanh, a galling example of this myth making)

What is true is that the NVN and Viet Cong did NOT have the capability to force the American forces into a german style surrender (of whole armies, as at the end of WW II).

What the NVN did accomplish was to prevent the americans from forcing such a surrender on THEM, and thereby, broke the american public’s will to see another decade of war, which the NVN were perfectly willing to fight.

To put an end to this myth, don’t take MY word for it. Go to Youtube and look at the documentary on the above battle, and listen the comments of Clark Welch (a company commander at the battle), and grizzled old First Sgt Barrow.

#34 Comment By Andrew On August 20, 2013 @ 4:28 pm

Excuse me, but we did not lose in Vietnam.

Failure to attain the political objective==defeat. Same goes for Russians in Afghanistan, although some other factors were in play there. The chain: tactics-operational art-strategy (as the final product) works for only one purpose: attainment of the political objectives of the war. Hell, wars are fought for the political objectives. The rest is for the Military and History Channels pop-war hindsight.

#35 Comment By Lynn Wheeler On August 20, 2013 @ 6:01 pm

Boyd would say that he predicted that the sensors on the trail wouldn’t work … apparently as a reward, they gave him command of spook base … URL gone 404, but lives on at wayback machine

Boyd would say it had the largest air conditioned bldg in that part of the world, Coram’s biography mentions it was $2.5B windfall for ibm. other folklore was large number of air strikes on elephants.

#36 Comment By Lynn Wheeler On August 21, 2013 @ 8:26 am

Boyd had story of being asked to review USAF air-to-air missile (prior to vietnam). they presented specs and show film of missile hitting flares on drone every time. At the end he said that it would be lucky to hit 10%. They said how can you say that, we just showed you it hit every time. He asked for film to be replayed. Just before the missile hits, he asks them to stop the film and asked what kind of guidance does it have. They say “heat seeking”. Boyd asks what specific kind of “heat-seeking”. They say pin-point. He asks what is the hottest part of a jet. They say the engine. He says *NO*, it is in the plume behind the jet … the only time the missile will hit if its shot straight up the tailpipe and the target continues to fly straight. They close the books and leave … and bury his analysis.

roll forward to vietnam where his analysis proves to be correct, one-star in vietnam grounds all fighters and converts to Navy sidewinders (which had better than twice hit rate) and started shooting down more enemy, loosing fewer fighters and jets, and using Navy air-to-air instead of Air Force. The general lasted 3months and called on the carpet back in Pentagon for reducing USAF budget share (needing fewer replacement jets & missiles) and increasing Navy budget share (using sidewinders). A frequent refrain of Boyd’s was USAF was mostly composed of bean counters … and within the halls of the pentagon, budget share is the most important issue in fighting a war.

#37 Comment By seydlitz89 On August 23, 2013 @ 11:44 am

Having read through the comments a few points come up:

First, there seems to be the assumption of a close connection between Boyd’s Loop and Lind’s concept of 4GW. Lind later defined a new generation of warfare as a “dialectically qualitative shift” from one generation to the next. But from what we know of the Wehrmacht’s victory over France in 1940, it wasn’t a “dialectically qualitative shift” at all, but the result of traditional Prussian Bewegungskrieg, command assumptions, application of new technologies, and not a small amount of luck, which was not repeated in Russia the next year. Relatedly the whole sequence of the 1st, 2nd and 3rd generations of warfare required state support to achieve whereas the 4th relates to the assumed “twilight of the state”? In terms of military history, as Antulio J. Echevarria has shown, the whole reified concept collapses into incoherence.

Second, and related, is the assumption that observations in tactics (the cockpit design of the F-86 as opposed to the MiG’s in this instance) translate seamlessly to the operational and the strategic levels. But this is not the case at all. You can’t control an Army Group or even a mechanized division the same way that you can control an aircraft as a pilot. There is a whole series of necessary time lapses between the layers of command, as Jim Storr’s “The Human Face of War” plainly shows, that is the time spans increase the farther up the chain one goes (not to mention the question as whether they are cycles at all), or even more simply the length of time between Decision and Action in OODA, varies according to what exactly we’re dealing with. At the operational and strategic levels the OODA ceases to be a “decision cycle” and becomes much more a model of associated frictions, especially at the strategic level. This doesn’t even address the political/policy level above that of military strategy.

Third, the famous “moral, physical and mental spheres” are not original to Boyd, but were first developed by the British strategic theorist J.F.C. Fuller in the 1920s (see his “Foundations of the Science of War” from 1926). Fuller also only applied them to the military, not the political level, since he rightly assumed that both sides would see the righteousness of their own side, but were highly unlikely to see that of the other, let alone question their own.

Fourth, of course is the whole legacy of Boyd’s ideas on strategy and Lind’s 4GW in general which goes conveniently unquestioned. The 2003 invasion of Iraq was seen very much in Boydian terms by many at the time . . . consider the 4GW “classic” “When Sun-tzu met Clausewitz: the OODA Loop and the invasion of Iraq” of 2005. Perhaps it would be better retitled today as the first volume of, “How the OODA Loop Led to America’s Greatest Strategic Disaster”?

Anyway, just a bit of realism while the followers of 4GW continue to recite their mantras . . .

#38 Comment By EliteCommInc. On August 24, 2013 @ 2:44 am

There is nothing semantic about the following:

Chapter I

The Vietnamese People’s Fundamental National Rights

Article I

The United States and all other countries respect the independence, sovereignty, unity, and territorial integrity of Vietnam as recognized by the 1954 Geneva Agreements on Vietnam.

Chapter II

Cessation of Hostilities-Withdrawal of Troops

Article 2

A cease-fire shall be observed throughout South Vietnam as of 2400 hours G.M.T., on January 27, 1973.

At the same hour, the United States will stop all its military activities against the territory of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam by ground, air and naval forces, wherever they may be based, and end the mining of the territorial waters, ports, harbors, and waterways of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. The United States will remove, permanently deactivate or destroy all the mines in the territorial waters, ports, harbors, and waterways of North Vietnam as soon as this agreement goes into effect.

The complete cessation of hostilities mentioned in this Article shall be durable and without limit of time.

Article 3

The parties undertake to maintain the cease-fire and to ensure a lasting and stable peace.

As soon as the cease-fire goes into effect:

(a) The United States forces and those of the other foreign countries allied with the United States and the Republic of Vietnam shall remain in-place pending the implementation of the plan of troop withdrawal. The Four-Party Joint Military Commission described in Article 16 shall determine the modalities.

(b) The armed forces of the two South Vietnamese parties shall remain in-place. The Two-Party Joint Military Commission described by Article 17 shall determine the areas controlled by each party and the modalities of stationing.

(c) The regular forces of all services and arms and the irregular forces of the parties in South Vietnam shall stop all offensive activities against each other and shall strictly abide by the following stipulations:

—All acts of force on the ground, in the air, and on the sea shall be prohibited.

—All hostile acts, terrorism and reprisals by both sides will be banned.

Article 4

The United States will not continue its military involvement or intervene in the internal affairs of South Vietnam.…

Article 15

The reunification of Vietnam shall be carried out step by step through peaceful means on the basis of discussions and agreements between North and South Vietnam, without coercion or annexation by either party, and without foreign interference. The time for reunification will be agreed upon by North and South Vietnam.

Pending reunification:

(a) The military demarcation line between the two zones at the 17th parallel is only provisional and not a political or territorial boundary, as provided for in paragraph 6 of the Final Declaration of the 1954 Geneva Conference.…

(d) North and South Vietnam shall not join any military alliance or military bloc and shall not allow foreign powers to maintain military bases, troops, military advisers, and military personnel on their respective territories, as stipulated in the 1954 Geneva Agreements on Vietnam.

Source: Department of State Bulletin, February 12, 1973.

The military invasion by the North was violation of the treaty agreement. The fact that the US did not have the political support or will to rejoin combat operations does in no manner support a failure on the part of the US.

One could argue whether we should have been there in the first place.

But there is no doubt. That the military did its job. We were not beaten on the ground. There is nothing semantic about those military engagements and the result.

Nor is there anything semantic about the treatey — which reqiuired both parties to act in a certain accord. The North did no such thing, creating an unneccssary crisis.

If there was defeat, it was not about the actual events in Vietnam but here at home. And again that is another debate and discussion.

I can tell you what is game playing — “Furthermore the NVN and Viet Cong knew EXACTLY what they were fighting for, and were in it for the long haul.”

Apparently they didn’t think they were going to win or else they would not have agreed to any unfication on the terms other than there own. As it is they waited until the US ground forces left in accordance with the agreement. If they were victorious ==

1. they would have needed any agreement. They woudld have said “Treaty? We don’t need no stink’in treaty” (Sierra Madre).

2. I am looking at actual events in light of the politics.

I stand with my previos comments and have read nothing which would suggest that I am incorrect

Comparing the treaty agreement plus withdrawal with the utter and clear quit of the former Soviet Union minus any treaty of protection for those they left behind is a false comparison.

#39 Comment By EliteCommInc. On August 24, 2013 @ 2:46 am

I would agree that the Soviets were defeated. But it was no Vietnam. Not even close. The Soviets not only lost the will, but a large part of that was they simply had no economic engine to support the endeavour.

Vietnam and Soviet Occupation in Afgahnistan? That’s almost funny.

#40 Comment By Andrew On August 27, 2013 @ 6:20 pm

I would agree that the Soviets were defeated. But it was no Vietnam. Not even close. The Soviets not only lost the will, but a large part of that was they simply had no economic engine to support the endeavour.

My answer is simple–read Lester Grau. I got pop-corn, if you know what I mean;-)

#41 Comment By steve On November 26, 2017 @ 9:19 am

great article.