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

  • Published

 The Blind Strategist: John Boyd and the American Art of War by Stephen Robinson. Exisle, 2021, 352 pp.

John Boyd, the innovative pioneer of the Observe-Orient-Decide-Act (OODA) loop methodology and the Energy-Maneuverability approach to dogfighting often receives credit as the primary motivator behind the maneuver warfare concept underpinning modern American strategy. Stephen Robinson’s The Blind Strategist: John Boyd and the American Art of War suggests Boyd’s historic research was flawed, the conclusions based on that research were poor, and American maneuver war strategy in implementation was simply attrition warfare.

Robinson begins the first section by examining maneuver warfare origination through various US Army strategic political decisions before moving on to a comprehensive look at how World War I and II campaigns may have incorrectly led to Boyd’s maneuver warfare conclusions. The last section summarizes all US military actions since World War II.

One of the primary arguments against Boyd was he never published consolidated works, papers, or books, and so much of his approach appears through interpretations from his students. This gap allows Robinson to highlight Boyd’s scholarly inaccuracies in using misleading testimony from primary sources. This book provides an interesting alternative viewpoint to Boyd’s strategic concepts and should be read by all historical scholars.

Robinson’s thesis suggests Boyd’s concepts gained ground through military leaders and politicians unhappy with American results in Vietnam and were seeking more efficient strategies. Boyd’s OODA concept, based on his own aerial dogfighting experience, states achieving military success occurs from observing the enemy, orienting one’s path, deciding, and then acting faster rate than the enemy. The opponent then makes decisions further and further removed from actions without being able to decide before current actions are completed.

The book’s argument focuses on William Lind’s interpretations as Boyd’s primary student as much as on Boyd’s own concepts. The Blind Strategist’s primary discussion finds the German General Staff who emigrated to the United States after World War II produced misleading and incorrect reports to improve their own record.

One primary example relates how B. H. Liddell Hart, a British strategist, reinterpreted his defensive theories post-World War II to incorporate blitzkrieg concepts and increase his own importance. Additionally, Robinson assumes any action based on the enemy force’s destruction should be considered attrition warfare regardless of how those results are achieved.

The first section thoroughly examines Lind and Boyd’s role maneuver war proponents following Army General William E. DePuy’s active defense strategy proposal following his Vietnam and the Yom Kippur war studies. Lind, as a civilian defense analyst, met DePuy, the first commander of the US Army Training and Doctrine Command, in 1976 and was highly critical of active defense. DePuy squashed much of Lind’s public criticism, including banning his publication in Military Review for more than a year.

After DePuy’s retirement, the Army strategy shifted to AirLand Battle and incorporated some maneuver concepts. Robinson concludes here that maneuver warfare and destruction should be viewed as polar opposites rather than supporting concepts. This conclusion is based on Boyd’s own words stating AirLand Battle’s focus on strength-on-strength engagements runs contrary to maneuver theories.

Maneuver strategies can, however, be used to destroy an enemy’s strength through attacking centers of gravity, with minimal friendly losses, and inside their decision loop. This version seems to exemplify Boyd’s approach rather than running contrary as found by Robinson.

One of the primary arguments examines a difference between when Schwerpunkt (“the main effort”) appears as a military objective versus a unit or a combination of the two. Robinson never seems to understand the main effort in military strategy can incorporate multilevel theoretical concepts. These assumptions lead to Robinson’s conclusions about how Boyd misinterpreted historical results about World War II.

 The histories written and studied by the US Army’s Historical Branch after World War II were produced by German expatriates, including the former General Franz Halder. Halder slanted many of his historical approaches to place blame for failures on Hitler rather than his own missteps. The slanted references lead to Liddell Hart’s soliciting manipulative statements from several German generals to praise Hart’s own theories. Hart advocated warfare strategies using an indirect approach based on his expanding torrent concept after World War I to highlight the defender’s advantage. After World War II, Hart consulted with German Generals Erwin Rommel and Heinz Guderian, and others to obtain endorsements for his previous strategic works. Robinson suggests these endorsements then become the basis for Hart’s later works even with a lack of substantial evidence.

The analyzed World War II campaigns focus on the land component and state the German army almost always sought to destroy opposing forces even when maneuver was possible. No discussion of aerial bombing campaigns appears in the book. Also called out are strategies and decisions being made at upper command echelons rather than tactical units as advocated by maneuver warfare. An entire chapter evaluates stormtroopers as a maneuver element focused on strong points.

One other argument raises the question of whether a slower, more accurate OODA loop would gain improved success over a faster one based on inaccurate information. Modern trends toward increased intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities suggest faster and more accurate loops may be possible.

The last section explores modern wars through the proposed defense of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the first Gulf War, and the Global War on Terror. Analyzing the NATO defense strategy first examines active defense roles in defeating a first Soviet thrust while the subsequent AirLand Battle employment worked to destroy the first echelon while disrupting the second echelon’s advance. AirLand Battle thus incorporated maneuver war concepts into the overall strategy.

Robinson’s Gulf War analysis centers on General Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of United States Central Command during Operation Desert Storm, intending to destroy the Republican Guard as a fighting force and concludes that does not constitute maneuver war strategy, again ignoring the aerial component. The analysis also suggests centralizing command removes maneuver war’s key elements without considering how technology compresses time and space to allow commander’s improved information to make battlefield decisions.

The second Gulf War analysis concludes while maneuver warfare attained operational ends, it failed to achieve strategic ends through not securing urban areas or establishing order as part of the regime change objective. The analysis failed to separate the operational regime change from the long-term strategic objective to stabilize Iraq with a new government. Unfortunately, Robinson fails to draw any distinction between force-on-force strategies and the different counterinsurgency approaches one would require like those advocated by David Galula in Counterinsurgency Warfare as distinct from maneuver war strategies.

The largest critique for Robinson’s analysis must be the sole concentration on land-based war without evaluating combined arms. Boyd advocated for overall maneuver war concepts but began his approach from an airpower perspective.

The OODA concept originates from a fighter pilot’s ability to create and maintain situational awareness to act inside an opponent’s tactical decision cycle. The concept then expanded to force-on-force consideration where similar size levels can decide and act faster than the opposing force. The close lens on World War II land warfare ignores technological advances since 1947 when analyzing the improved battlespace awareness present in modern warfare.

The current US war effort depends on maintaining multilevel situational awareness through the compression of time and space made possible by better technology and practices. The work does pose some serious criticisms of Boyd’s strategies but only when considered in a single dimension.

Overall, The Blind Strategist: John Boyd and the American Art of War offers some serious criticism of Boyd’s prowess as a historian rather than as a strategic thinker. The first two sections portray the maneuver war’s origins and how the concept may have ingested the wrong lessons from World War II’s land combat. The final section moves to modern impacts without but still does not expand beyond the land combat or seriously consider counterinsurgency challenges.

The research is well-referenced with multiple primary sources and outstanding pictures and diagrams. The bibliography offers an extensive assortment of works any serious military historian should read. However, the book never fails to live up to the promise of debunking the OODA loop as a foundational concept for modern warfare.

As a scholar, I would recommend this work to all historians who seek an understanding of a critique on how and why the US military fights and wins modern wars.

Lieutenant Colonel Mark Peters II, USAF, Retired, PhD

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."