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#WavellReviews “The Blind Strategist: John Boyd and the American Art of War” by Stephen Robinson

Experimental Feature: Audio Read Version

Available here from Exisle Publishing

For anyone who experienced military education and/or training since the early 1990’s, it’s almost certain the concept of the ‘OODA loop’ model for military decision making will be very familiar.  I remember it as a staple of my early military education as a young Infantry officer through Sandhurst, the Platoon Commanders’ Division and later the (then) Junior Division Staff Course 1.  Similarly, the ‘manoeuvrist approach’ is part of our collective military DNA; it is the accepted basis for how we shape our operational approach and how we fight our wars.  But how many of us would have known (or cared) about the origins of these concepts, or the man who principally designed and embedded them as doctrine?  How many of us might have questioned what we have long accepted as effective and proven?  Stephen Robinson’s very persuasive study of John Boyd (1927-1997), a maverick fighter pilot turned author of (much) western military doctrine, invites more than just cursory consideration.  This is more than just a detailed history of military doctrine at pivotal moments in the evolution of US and NATO thinking.  Robinson might actually be onto something quite fundamental and even worrying with this book, and it has led me to reflect and to question.  This is no ordinary study of military history.

John Boyd started his professional life as an unconventional but eventually highly respected United States Air Force (USAF) fighter pilot/instructor, and the early parts of this book offer an interesting and occasionally entertaining context to Boyd’s military career.  But it’s the next phase of Boyd’s life that created his lasting legacy, and Robinson focuses on and cross-examines this with the scrutiny and diligence of a QC.  On retirement from the USAF, Boyd went on to forge a career as a strategist within US military circles, initially employed by the RAND Corporation which developed US military doctrine through the 1960’s.  Later and crucially, Boyd became perhaps the foremost thinker and influencer within very senior circles in the US Marine Corps (USMC); then, as now, the expeditionary arm of US land-based fighting power.  Robinson’s forensic study of Boyd’s career and of his ideas suggests 2 very important theses.  Firstly, that Boyd was and remains perhaps one of the most influential military strategists to have informed not only US military doctrine but also, by extension, UK and wider NATO thinking.  Secondly, and more significantly, that the genesis and logic that sit behind Boyd’s ideas are deeply flawed on a number of levels; in many ways tantamount to a form of intellectual fraud.  At the centre of Boyd’s ideas was not just the highly functional tool known as the OODA loop, but also his strong advocacy of manoeuvre warfare, an approach he argued had proven its value through the so-called ‘Blitzkrieg’ campaign of the German army in its French campaign of 1940.

This book is both a thought provoking but also a highly informative read.  If Robinson’s evidence is to be believed (and his book is certainly persuasive), then the whole premise of the OODA loop as an effective decision-making tool for the army is to be questioned.  More fundamentally, the genesis of manoeuvre warfare as a doctrine which we have long assumed and accepted was proven in the early days of WW2, is also now moot.  Robinson devotes much time to a compelling argument that our faith in the manoeuvrist approach may well have questionable foundations.  He goes to great lengths to set out what he claims was a flawed approach to analysing WW2 campaigns, born partly of a post-Vietnam doctrinal fragility within the US military which was searching for a step change in operational art.  The ‘Blind Strategist’ label from the book’s title refers to Robinson’s charge that much of Boyd’s analysis and subsequent advocacy of the manoeuvrist approach was founded on blind acceptance of historical accounts of WW2 by German Generals.  Many of whom had survived the war and were the re-employed by the US as experts in how to counter the threat of the Red Army in Cold War eastern Europe.  As Boyd succeeded in ingratiating himself within senior circles of the USMC, so the ideas which he had too easily accepted, became ingrained in subsequent USMC doctrine.  For us in the UK and others amongst our NATO partners, this migration of ideas, which can trace their lineage back to WW2, is inevitable, given our strategic reliance on the US and our consistent desire, since WW2, to offer military credibility through inter-operability.  Boyd matters to us in the UK, and particularly at this juncture, as we shape our response to the apparent military threat from Putin’s Russia.

This book is a compelling read and probably quite an important one also as we (the British Army) consider a new epoch in warfare and reconsider our capabilities and our doctrine.  Besides his analysis of the flaws in Boyd’s ideas, Robinson also offers a very detailed analysis of Soviet military doctrine, which, he argues, Boyd’s German Generals deliberately undermined in their post-WW2 accounts of German campaign successes.  What work could be more valuable now in 2022 than to understand Soviet military doctrine and the impact it might have on contemporary (Russian) operational art and tactics.  Similarly, what could be more dangerous than accepting the efficacy of our own doctrine as observed fact, when it might actually be formed of unevidenced opinion and shoddy historical analysis.  Robinson’s book asks those questions and so should be essential reading for anyone currently considering the threats we now face on NATO’s eastern flank.

Séan

Séan is a career army officer, with experience on several operational tours and across a range of regimental and staff appointments.  He is currently serving as a staff officer within a headquarters.

https://www.linkedin.com/in/sean-lundy-736302214

 

Footnotes

  1. For younger readers here; a pre-cursor of the current and undoubtedly more useful Intermediate Command and Staff Course

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