The Mind of War is partly a biography of John Boyd, but mostly an analysis of his work. Boyd was, and probably still is, an underappreciated military strategist, although over the last years his work is gaining more and more popularity. He is the inventor of the OODA Loop and contributed heavily to maneuver warfare strategies such as those used in the Gulf War. He was also essential to the development of the F-15 and F-16.
If you’re new to Boyd then this book is maybe a bit uninspiring and dry at times. A much better book to start with would be Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War. However, if you are already familiar with his background and theories then The Mind of War delves a bit deeper into his thinking and contributions.
If you’re interested in Boyd’s thinking and strategy, also check out my article on applying his strategy in business and war.
Book Summary & Notes
All text that is quoted & italicized is taken directly from the book.
Synthesis and analysis
John Boyd was mostly self-taught. If you look at the success of the OODA loop (despite never publishing a book on the topic) and his other accomplishments, it was entirely due to 1) reading a lot (history, mathematics, evolution, thermodynamics, physics, engineering, et cetera), and 2) by talking to people (contractors, engineers, pilots, businessmen, academics, et cetera).
‘He tried to summarize what he had learned from those different pursuits about how the world works, what life was all about, and how an organism should behave in order to survive and prosper.’
Hammond describes ‘Boyd’s Way’ as a process, or a state of mind, where insights come from examining the world through many different perspectives. One question could provide enough fuel for him to study and work on something for weeks until he understood it perfectly. Often this was due to synthesis, not analysis, taking information from different domains and combining it.
The difference between synthesis and analysis is that the former builds things together, while the latter takes things apart. It’s creation vs. destruction, deduction vs. induction.
Boyd’s trinity was: people first, ideas second, things third. He thought the mind was the greatest asset and that people who were well-educated, who think and act well, were the most important asset. Things and technology were last – most people focus on these things first, but as for example Guerilla style warfare shows, you don’t need technology to win.
Destruction and creation
Destruction and creation essay: ‘On one level it is deceptively simple. To create, we have to destroy. If humans aren’t willing to break the bonds of convention and destroy the old definitions, perceptions, and ways of doing things, then we are not likely to create a truly novel breakthrough, concept, product, or methodology to produce change.’
The essay also shows the importance of the ‘trinity’ of Gödel, Heisenberg and the 2nd law of thermodynamics:
– 2nd Law of thermodynamics: all observed natural processes generate entropy. Entropy tends to increase in closed systems that cannot communicate to the outside world. Over time, this means that when entropy increases ‘energy dissipates, efficiency decreases, and confusion and disorder increase. Thus the character or nature of a system, its consistency, does not remain constant and is unpredictable.’
– Heisenberg’s uncertainty and indeterminacy principle: ‘it is impossible to determine both the position and momentum of subatomic particles with high accuracy.’ Meaning: uncertainty is at the core of physical universe, so we can make relative statements, but not absolute ones.
– Gödel: ‘any consistent system is incomplete. There are statements of concepts that are true within the system that cannot be deduced from postulates within the system.’ So there’s always something beyond the current system.
Destruction and creation is essentially a synthesis of those three insights. ‘Taken together those three notions support the idea that any inward-oriented and continued effort to improve the match-up of a concept with observed reality will only increase the degree of mismatch. Boyd saw Gödel, Heisenberg, and the second law as keys to how to think, how to compete successfully, and how to adapt and survive.’
Patterns of Conflict
“Machines don’t fight wars. Terrain doesn’t fight wars. Humans fight wars. You must get into the mind of humans. That’s where the battles are won.” – John Boyd
Boyd’s view is that human beings don’t just want to survive, but also survive on their own terms. This means that life is conflict – there is struggle, conquest and survival. After looking at the literature he had the following impressions:
- It’s advantageous to have multiple responses in order avoid danger, gain sustenance, or to reduce an opponent’s capacity to act.
- It’s better to cooperate and harmonize our activities with others in order to survive.
- But in order to shape and adapt to the environment and change we need to take the initiative.
- Variety, rapidity, harmony, and initiative are the keys to adapting to changing environments.
Boyd’s summary of Sun Tzu: ‘One needs a certain harmony of ends and means if one wishes to succeed. Deception is critical to defeating the enemy, as is swiftness of action. A certain flow is essential, along with fluidity of action and the need for modulating dispersion and concentration artfully. Last, surprise and shocks are significant factors in attaining victory. The combination of these themes or traits explains the way one should attempt to win with the least cost and the greatest benefit. Guile, movement, training, and quickness are seen as essential to success.’
Cheng and Ch’i and deceptive tactics. The enemy is fixed and confronted with Cheng (orthodox – the expected), and consequently beaten with Ch’i (unorthodox – the unexpected). It’s like yin and yang but both need to be applied simultaneously.
Napoleon actually was both a brilliant maneuver general and a traditional attrition general later on. In the beginning he focused on movement, variety, and ambiguity and deception to win superior forces. But as an emperor he changed his approach to rigidity – attacking with massed artillery and dense infantry columns aimed at pockets of strong resistance.
Interestingly, Napoleon used ambiguous and deceiving movements before amassing his troops, but after that the actual tactics became obvious and stereotypical. So his tactics destroyed all the effort of the ‘strategic fog’ he had created; he couldn’t produce victory anymore since his actual assaults were predictable.
A big issue according to Boyd in WOI was that the aristocratic command and the control systems in place emphasized a concentrated approach, a drill, and had an obsession for control. Infiltration tactics (e.g. Ludendorff) work on a tactical level, but failed on the army level – reserves were often used on hardened resistance rather than exploiting pockets of success (low resistance). On top communications were too immobile to quickly allocate reserves to those pockets, and logistics were often too slow to support rapid advancement.
Guerilla and Blitzkrieg strategies are effective because it combines infiltration and isolation. Infiltration is used to disrupt the moral fiber of the societal, economical or political system. Isolation is used to stop any potential allies from joining in or helping out, so the target needs to be isolated using diplomatic and psychological means.
Boyd summarized what a guerilla or Blitzkrieg strategy needs to do:
- “probe and test the adversary and any allies that may rally to his side, to unmask strengths, weaknesses, maneuvers, and intentions;
- exploit critical differences of opinion, internal contradictions, frictions, obsessions, etc., to foment mistrust, sow discord, and shape both the adversary’s and allies’ perception of the world. This is turn will
- create an atmosphere of mental confusion, contradiction of feeling, indecisiveness, and panic;
- manipulate or undermine the adversary’s plans and actions;
- make it difficult, if not impossible, for allies to aid the adversary during his time of trial.”
Blitzkrieg operational philosophy: giving lower-level commanders the freedom to direct their own actions as long as it fits within the larger pattern of the strategy. This requires trust, it means that everyone needs to understand the overall goal or objective or mission concept, that the officers should have received the same training (i.e. common outlook), and that initiative and responsibility is encouraged at lower levels.
‘Schwerpunkt is a focusing agent that naturally produces an unequal distribution of effort, generating superiority in some sectors by thinning out others. It is also a medium to realize superior intent without impeding subordinate initiatives. It is the unifying concept. It provides a way to shape, focus, and direct effort rapidly and to harmonize support activities with combat operations.’
The characteristics of successful blitzkrieg operations: ‘mission concept, Schwerpunkt, flexible command, low-level initiative, deception, fast tempo, superior mobility, slim essential logistics, rapidity, variety, and harmony of purpose. Failures occurred when these elements were lacking, the weight of enemy forces was too great, or supply of resources was insufficient to accomplish the mission.’
‘The essence of a modern guerilla campaign is to capitalize on corruption, injustice, and incompetence (or their appearance) to generate an atmosphere of mistrust and discord and to sever the moral bonds that bind people to the existing regime. Simultaneously, one needs to share the existing burdens with the people and work with them to root out and punish corruption, remove injustice, and eliminate grievances, forming moral bonds between the people and guerillas to bind them to guerilla philosophy and ideals. The intent of all this is to shape and exploit crises in the environment that permit the guerilla vanguards or cadres to pump up their resolve, attract the uncommitted, and rain away adversary resolve, building a foundation to replace the existing regime with a guerilla regime.’
Synthesis or Guerilla and Blitz theme: Both strategies tend to avoid battle – disruption and destroying cohesion are essential. Both also shape the opponent’s reactions and perceptions. This can be through ambiguity or superior movement or through sudden violence. Either option comes as a shock. These shocks help to shatter the opponent by destroying their commitment, or utilization of military assets, not necessarily destroying the forces itself. Disruption, not destruction.
Counterblitz / counter-guerilla strategy should focus on stopping cohesion of effort and reducing the overall tempo.
Maneuver war theory: ‘It begins with the importance of the commander’s intent, the vision of what is to be done vis-à-vis the enemy. This must be shared with principal subordinate commanders and cascade through all levels of command so that all pieces of the units involved know their role in the larger vision and understand their mission. It operates through what is called reconnaissance-pull: that is, forward elements of the force find or create gaps for large units to follow. It is strength against weakness, not strength against strength. Force should flow like water traveling the path of least resistance. The aim is to infiltrate and penetrate the enemy’s forces with multiple thrusts. A driving principle is the concept of surfaces and gaps; one wants to create gaps to flow through and thus flow around surfaces rather than against them.’
A Discourse on Winning and Losing
The ultimate game is that we should diminish an opponent’s ability to communicate or interact with their environment, while trying to stimulate our own. There are three planes involved here: moral, mental and physical. Physical represents the world we live in, of matter and energy and information. The mental plane is intellectual and emotional activity used to understand the physical plane. Finally, the moral plane is culture, standards of behavior, that both shape the intellectual and emotional responses.
‘Physical isolation occurs when one fails to gain support in the form of matter, energy, or information from others outside oneself. Mental isolation occurs when one fails to discern, perceive, or make sense out of what is happening. Moral isolation occurs when one fails to abide by codes of conduct or standards of behavior in a manner deemed acceptable or essential by others.’
John Boyd’s definition of strategy: “a mental tapestry of changing intentions for harmonizing and focusing our efforts as a basis for realizing some aim or purpose in an unfolding and often unforeseen world of many bewildering events and many contenting interests.” Its aim was “to improve our ability to shape and adapt to unfolding circumstances, so that we (as individuals or as groups or as a culture or as a nation-state) can survive on our own terms.”
War and friction. Friction is increased by ambiguity, deception, uncertainty and rapidity – but implicit understanding, cooperation, and trust reduces it. So while variety and rapidity increase friction, harmony and initiative reduce it. V+R without H+I = confusion, chaos. H+I without V+R = predictability and uniformity.
‘People using theories or subsystem evolved from a variety of information will find it increasingly difficult and ultimately impossible to interact with and comprehend phenomena or systems that move beyond and away from that variety. That is, they will become more and more isolated from that which they are trying to observe or deal with, unless they exploit the new variety to modify their theories and systems or create new ones.
The record reveals that science, engineering, and technology produce change via novelty. To comprehend this process of novelty, one reduces it to patterns and features that make up that pattern. In studying the patterns and features, one can combine and cluster them according to different types of similarities) different advances related to chemistry or electricity, for example). Finding some common features that are shared and connected across disciplines or fields of scientific endeavor helps create a new pattern, new insights. This process of connections is called synthesis. Testing these relationships creates an analytical synthetic feedback loop for comprehending, shaping, and adapting to the world. Novelty is created through a combination of analysis and synthesis of our environment and our interactions with it.’
OODA Loops & Novelty
If our ideas and interpretations of the world matched perfectly with reality there would be no novelty because there is no basis for creating insight or new ideas. Mismatches between interpretation and reality are at the core of science, engineering and technology. Identifying these mismatches, analyzing & synthesizing, hypothesis and tests are responsible for the world’s progress.
It’s also how we learn and grow in this world.
Why do things keep changing?
- ‘Uncertainty associated with the nonconfinement, undecidability, incompleteness theorems of mathematics and logic
- Numerical imprecision associated with using rational and irrational numbers in the calculation and measurement process
- Quantum uncertainty associated with Planck’s constant and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle
- Entropy increase associated with the second law of thermodynamics
- Irregular or erratic behavior associated with far-from-equilibrium, open, nonlinear processes or systems with feedback
- Incomprehensibility associated with inability to screen, filter, or otherwise consider spaghettilike influences from a plethora of ever-changing, erratic, or unknown outside events
- Mutations associated with environmental pressure, replication errors, or unknown influences in molecular and evolutionary biology
- Ambiguity associated with natural languages as they are used and interact with one another
- Novelty generated by the thinking and actions of unique individuals and their many-sided interactions with each other.’
“Where do ideas come from?” Boyd’s answer is that you use changing metaphors, thought association, and forced analogies to make connections and explore for them. He cautions that every time you do an analysis of something, you should conduct a synthesis that uses it in a novel way. Nuances, analogies, and metaphors produce new concepts. “They’re there,” says Boyd, “it’s just that they are prisoners of other concepts, and you need to liberate them. It’s just a sort of guerilla warfare of the mind.” We then discuss how to go about playing with ideas to see new facets and connections with other ideas: turn them upside down and inside out, reverse order insights, be deductive and inductive. All these will produce new insights and generate novelty that may be valuable.”
‘The process of observation-orientation-decision-action is rich with possibilities and nearly infinite in its variety; yet it is profoundly simple in the way in which all organisms utilize the same processing of stimulus and response to make their way in the world, to spend their lives, winning and losing in the struggles of life.’
The process of the OODA loop depends on the recognition that something is wrong – that there is a discontinuity, or a mismatch, between reality and our perceptions. This spark leads to creativity and determines the success or failure of our adaptation to the new reality. (
‘OODA loops are merely an explanation for our existence, the general process by which we cope and interact with others and our environment. As an insight, it is hardly earth-shattering. As a thought process, it is rich in consequence and an empowerment tool of limitless possibilities. The habit of mind of synthesizing as well as analyzing makes one routinely and expansively creative, not merely analytically critical. Connections enrich us. Conflict challenges us. Competition motivates us. Our responses (insight, imagination, innovation, and initiative) give us hope and inspiration.’
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