Colonel John Boyd may be the most influential American strategist of the late 20th Century, yet he remains widely misunderstood. If you do a word search on the internet for “Colonel John Boyd” or OODA loop, you will get hundreds, if not thousands of hits — most superficial, many misleading, a large number downright incorrect. This applies as much to enthusiastic self-proclaimed ‘Boydians’ (a cultish term I detest) as well as Boyd’s many critics. (New readers: see this link for an Introduction to the Strategic Theories of John Boyd)
A large part of this interpretative problem stems from Boyd’s idiosyncratic way of presenting and documenting his ideas.
Boyd left only a paper trail of complex, ever-evolving briefing slides, almost aphoristic in content. Interpretation of his work is complicated further by the fact that Boyd was a master of “idea compression.” He obsessed over boiling down his ideas their essence. Therefore his work is open to competing as well as evolving interpretations.
His “idea compression” can be seen vividly in his elegant technical tour de force on energy maneuverability. His briefings on the nature of human conflict, assembled under the title, A Discourse on Winning and Losing, while far vaster in scope (covering ideas gleaned from history, evolutionary biology, anthropology, formal logic, mathematics, science, and philosophy), were constructed in the same spirit of idea compression. The building blocks take the form of an accumulating web of carefully worded pithy statements, punctuated occasionally by subtle changes in these statements. The result is a maddening mix of precision and ambiguity that is open to rich interpretive growth as well as confusion and misinterpretation. I am convinced, based on my many discussions with him over 23 years, this result was quite deliberate.
Colonel Boyd left no definitive text explaining his work beyond The Discourse. The word “discourse” in his title was not chosen lightly; and it implies a Socratic dialectic of a spoken discussion and debate — and that is the way he thought. My own view is that this construction was inspired by a desire to make his work open* to growth in the presence of changing conditions, and therefore timeless in the aphoristic style Sun Tzu, the only military theorist Colonel Boyd never criticized. He knew producing an open system of thought greatly increased the risk of accidental as well as deliberate misinterpretation, but that was the price to pay for and openness to spirited debate, future intellectual growth, and timelessness.
In this spirit, it is with great pleasure that I am attaching a very thoughtful and clarifying addition to the growing literature describing Boyd’s theories. This link will take you to a masters thesis written by Major Paul D. Tremblay Jr, (aka P.J. Tremblay)** USMC as part of his study in the Command and Staff College of the U.S. Marine Corps. In my opinion, Tremblay has produced precisely the kind idea expansion that Colonel Boyd was trying to inspire with his Discourse.
P.J. Tremblay’s thesis aims to clarify what is perhaps the single most misunderstood aspect of Boyd’s theory of interacting OODA loops: the confusion of absolute speed with relative quickness, particularly as it applies to agility in Orientation and Re-Orientation. Tremblay’s aim is to improve the Marine Corps training curriculum by clarifying Boyd’s ideas and laying out a way to better incorporate them in progressively more comprehensive ways at each level in the Marine Corps’ educational system, from the lowest to the highest level.
PJ’s thesis is a case study in the kind of intellectual development and stimulation that John Boyd was trying to achieve by leaving the Marine Corps Research Center with the complete archive of his briefings and note. Boyd, an honorary Marine, would say, “Semper Fidelus, PJ.”
* Understanding the distinction between open and closed systems is central to understanding Boyd’s epistemology. He discusses this in his paper Destruction and Creation and I relate that paper to his OODA loop in my lecture Evolutionary Epistemology. One can think of the construction of the Discourse as a meta-application of his philosophical viewpoint.
** Caveat emptor: PJ Tremblay is a close friend. Major Tremblay did not know Colonel Boyd but has been aware of his briefings since he was a 2nd Lieutenant at the Marine Corps Basic School. He is the only officer I know who has studied and applied Colonel Boyd’s ideas in a premeditated way in designing and the leading a combat operation (Operation Eastern Storm in Kajaki Sofla, Helmand Province Afghanistan, 2011 -- Major Tremblay's application of Boyd's ideas can be seen throughout his in end of tour report, but are especially notable in Topic F which contains his description of Eastern Storm) This multi-pronged reinforced company level attack on the Taliban was a stunning success and based on radio intercepts, it became clear he penetrated his adversary’s OODA loops and collapsed the opposing units into confusion and disorder, exactly like Boyd predicted. His thesis does not discuss this operation.