THE NEW GREEN BOOK:
The Need for an Anthology of John Boyd’s Work
Major Tyson Wetzel, USAF
As one of the twentieth century’s most influential military theorists, John Boyd belongs among the pantheon of grand military theorists. Boyd published little, preferring to use briefings as his primary method of influencing people and changing organization cultures, leaving few documents for academics, military theorists and practitioners to analyze. As a result, Boyd has not been widely recognized among grand military theorists such as Sun Tzu and Carl von Clausewitz. A compilation of Boyd’s writings and briefings published in an edited anthology would reinvigorate discussion of his relevance as a military theorist, would expand knowledge and understanding of his theories on war, and promote his influence on future generations of military historians and theorists. Part I of this paper examines Boyd’s military theories and his enduring importance as a grand military strategist. Part II explains the need for the publication of an anthology of his works, while Part III provides a proposal for the organization and publication of his works to be included in such an anthology.
Part I: John Boyd - Grand Military Theorist
It may seem duplicitous to say John Boyd is among history’s grand military theorists while simultaneously arguing that his influence has been artificially limited because of his lack of published works. However, these arguments are complementary; Boyd’s theories should place him among the pantheon of grand military theorists with the likes of Sun Tzu and Clausewitz, but few military historians and theorist make that contention, in large part because of his limited number of published works. Boyd revolutionized air combat, his theories on maneuver warfare led a post-Vietnam intellectual renaissance within the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD), his ideas were a major contributor to the U.S.’ success in Desert Storm, and his theories, in particular the observe – orient – decide – act (OODA) loop, remain influential in U.S. military warfighting doctrine.
Boyd’s ideas on war developed out of his experience as a fighter pilot. His Aerial Attack Study was an aerial combat manual that presented maneuvers and counter-maneuvers, as well as the reasons for choosing a maneuver in a given situation. The study literally wrote the book on air-to-air combat, and it is still in use by the U.S. Air Force, and air forces around the world. Boyd wanted to capture the scientific reason for his intuitive understanding of aircraft handling and aerial combat. While attending Georgia Institute of Technology, he developed a theory that would come to be known as the Energy – Maneuverability (E-M) theory. The theory explained aerial combat in terms of available energy and its application to aircraft maneuverability. E-M not only transformed aerial combat theory, but also how aircraft were designed. Boyd’s theories were instrumental in the development and success of the F-15 and F-16. Boyd consolidated the Aerial Attack Study and E-M theory into a brief he called New Conception of Air-to-Air Combat, which concluded, “he who can handle the quickest rate of change survives, which presaged his future grand theories of warfare and conflict.
Revolutionizing aerial combat itself is reason enough to study Boyd, but his post-retirement work was wide in scope and influence. He developed a theory on how humans learn, he examined more than two millennia of conflict to develop grand military theories on how to exploit the mental and moral aspects of war to paralyze and defeat an enemy, and he developed the OODA loop to describe the decision making process that humans and organizations use not only in warfare, but in all manner of conflict. His wide-ranging and enduring impact should at least put Boyd in the conversation of grand military theorists.
British historian and theorist Colin Gray is the most prominent proponent of Boyd’s influence as a grand strategist. In Modern Strategy (1999), Gray postulated that there are four levels of military strategy theories: the widest in scope, grand strategic theory, transcends a given era, its technology and social conditions. Gray highlighted Clausewitz and Sun Tzu as such grand strategic theorists, but explained Boyd should be considered for inclusion in this level because of his OODA loop as grand strategy:
Boyd found in the OODA loop the essential logic of success in battle…Boyd’s loop can apply to the operational, strategic, and political levels of war, as well as to tactics for aerial dogfights. Boyd’s theory claims that the key to success in conflict is to operate inside the opponent’s decision cycle. Advantages in observation and orientation enable a tempo in decision making and execution that outpaces the ability of the foe to react effectively in time…The OODA loop may appear too humble to merit categorization as grand theory, but that is what it is. It has an elegant simplicity, an extensive domain of applicability, and contains a high quality of insight about strategic essentials, such that its author well merits honourable mention as an outstanding general theorist of strategy.
Gray is one of the few historians and theorists that have examined the OODA loop as more than a decision-making process based on acting more quickly than one’s opponent. Gray’s examination of the four levels of strategists is exhaustive, and his inclusion of Boyd, even as a “honourable mention,” provides credence to the argument for Boyd’s inclusion in the group of Sun Tzu, Clausewitz, and other grand strategists.
Gray recognized the OODA loop as a grand strategy, but many analysts have pointed to Boyd’s articulate explanation of the mental and moral aspects of war as his most enduring military theory. Retired Air Force Colonel James Burton described the importance of Boyd’s examination of the immeasurable factors of war in his seminal work: “His treatise, ‘A Discourse on Winning and Losing,’ will go down in history as the twentieth century’s most original thinking in the military arts. No one, not even Karl von Clausewitz, Henri de Jomini, Sun Tzu, or any of the past masters of military theory, shed as much light on the mental and moral aspects of conflict as Boyd.” It is important to note that Colonel Burton was mentored by Boyd, but that should not indict his argument on the importance of Boyd’s innovative approach to the moral and mental aspects of war. While Clausewitz shed light on these aspects of war, Boyd examined the means to influence them, and developed a grand strategy based on dominating these aspects of war in order to sow discord, disorder, and eventual collapse of the enemy will to fight.
The influence of Boyd’s theories on war spread throughout the 1980s. He was the intellectual driving force behind the US Army and Marine Corps’ embrace of maneuver warfare. According to Dr. Grant Hammond, a professor at the Air War College: “Shifting the U.S. armed forces toward a philosophy of maneuver warfare was the most important and lasting contribution of Boyd and the reformers…it was the constant drumbeat of Boyd’s briefings and ideas that slowly drew the U.S. military into step with maneuver warfare.” His influence and concepts were clearly visible in Army and Marine Corps doctrine of the time, including the Army’s 1986 Field Manual (FM) 100-5, which codified the Air-Land Battle concept, and Fleet Marine Force Manual (FMFM) 1, Warfighting, the Corps’ definitive document on maneuver warfare. His critique of western-style attrition warfare had a profound impact on the U.S. way of war, highlighted in Desert Storm.
Boyd’s theories on war were put to the test in the air and on the ground in Iraq in 1991. General Charles Krulak, 31st Commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, gave significant credit to Boyd for the U.S.’ dominating victory in Desert Storm. In a commentary remembering Boyd immediately after his death, General Krulak wrote, “John Boyd was an architect of that victory as surely as if he’d commanded a fighter wing or a maneuver division in the desert. His thinking, his theories, his larger than life influence were there with us in Desert Storm. He must have been proud of what his efforts wrought.” In addition to the influence of maneuver warfare in the ground war, his theories were a critical intellectual foundation for the wildly successful air campaign. In particular, Boyd’s emphasis on paralyzing the enemy was crucial to the air campaign’s development and success. His vital importance in the U.S. military’s leap forward in warfighting capability from Vietnam to Iraq is another strong argument for Boyd’s historical importance as a grand military theorist.
Despite the drastically different character of the U.S.’ current wars from Desert Storm, Boyd’s OODA loop is still influential in U.S. military doctrine. The U.S.’ capstone doctrine document, Joint Publication 1, Doctrine for the Armed Forces of the United States, is heavily influenced by Boyd, and repeatedly refers to the OODA loop, though not calling it such and giving no credit to Boyd. Joint Publication 1 uses the OODA loop in its explanation of the Joint Command and Staff process, “The nature, scope, and tempo of military operations continually changes, requiring the commander to make new decisions and take new actions in response to these changes. This may be viewed as part of a cycle, which is repeated when the situation changes significantly (emphasis added).” The document goes on to discuss the military decision-making process, clearly Boydian in influence:
With well-defined commander’s critical information requirement, effective common operational picture and establishing clear objectives, the JFC can make timely and effective decisions to get inside the adversary’s decision and execution cycle. Doing so generates confusion and disorder and slows an adversary’s decision making. The commander who can gather information and make better decisions faster will generate a rapid tempo of operations and gain a decided advantage (emphasis added).
Boyd revolutionized aerial combat, was a primary driver of the DoD’s embrace of maneuver warfare, and his seemingly simple but elegantly designed OODA loop has and continues to define how the U.S. fights wars. Taken together, his theories and influence should at least warrant consideration with other grand military strategists.
Part II: The Need for an “Official Anthology” of John Boyd’s Works
Despite Boyd’s contributions to aerial combat and maneuver warfare, and his development of the OODA loop, knowledge and recognition of Boyd has remained limited in relation to his contributions. The primary reason for the minimization of his importance is his lack of finished and published work. One of Boyd’s biographers, Robert Coram, summed up the problem: “[T]here is almost nothing for academics to pore over and expound upon. That is why today both Boyd and his work remain largely unknown outside the military.” Coram’s biography made Boyd come alive for a new generation of military practitioners and enthusiasts, but that recognition has not translated into detailed knowledge of his theories.
There have been studies of Boyd’s work, starting with Dr. Hammond’s Mind of War: John Boyd and American Security, published in 2001. Dr. Hammond worked with Boyd during the last years of Boyd’s life, and his book provides the first in-depth look at Boyd’s briefings and theories, which even Hammond concedes is an initial volley in the academic examination of Boyd’s work. In 2007, then Royal Netherlands Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Frans Osinga published Science, Strategy and War: The Strategic Theory of John Boyd. Osinga’s book is considered by many to be the definitive examination of Boyd’s work. However, Osinga’s text, though quoting Boyd’s briefs extensively, fails to present Boyd’s theories and writings in their entirety. Osinga recognized the confusion Boyd’s lack of published works causes for those who attempt to understand his theories: “An obvious factor that contributes to the variety of interpretations is the fact that his ideas have been conveyed through, and contained in, presentations he gave, instead of a coherent book-length study.” Hammond and Osinga, who studied under Hammond while he attended the School of Advanced Airpower Studies at Air University, share a very similar interpretation of Boyd’s work. However, the lack of a published anthology makes further examination and interpretation of Boyd’s theories less likely. The fact that a decade has passed since the last in-depth analysis of Boyd’s work is indicative of the academic stasis associated with Boyd’s theories. Publication of a comprehensive tome could spark a flash of “New Boydian” thinking and analysis, which would enable current and future military leaders to more appropriately and accurately use Boyd’s ideas, and hopefully improve the way the U.S. military prosecutes its current and future wars.
Part III: Proposal for a John Boyd Edited Anthology
Though Boyd never officially published anything after the Aerial Attack Study in 1963 (revised and re-published in 1964), he did leave a wealth of work to analyze. However, his work is in briefing form and can be difficult to access for those unfamiliar with websites dedicated to Boyd’s work or with the Marine Corps Archives. Osinga explained this two-fold problem of accessibility and understandability: “The stack of slides is not really widely or easily available to the wider public, they have not been officially published, nor are they in themselves self-explanatory throughout.” Any new work on Boyd should address these problems, making his works easily accessible to the masses, while providing a roadmap for reading and understanding his rich, and admittedly complicated theories.
The most important component of this book is the byline, it must be written by John Boyd. Coram has written an outstanding biography of the man, Hammond and Osinga have already written thorough examinations of Boyd’s work. What is missing is a book that can honestly be called Boyd’s own. The release of his works in an “official” anthology would reinvigorate scholarly debate on his ideas, and provide a much easier means for his works to be studied by military theorists and practitioners, at military academies, as well as command and staff and war colleges. Thus, the book must be based on Boyd’s own work, not an interpretation of it. The model for this book should be Michael Howard and Peter Paret’s edited and translated version of Clausewitz’s On War, which made Clausewitz much more accessible and readable. Howard and Paret began the book with an editor’s note, followed by introductory essays that provide the reader context before they dive into Clausewitz’s text, which follows next in the book. Howard and Paret end with a commentary by eminent historian Bernard Brodie. Boyd’s anthology, tentatively titled “Understanding War,” should follow this general outline.
The editor’s note and introductory essays should help the readability of the book and introduce Boyd’s major themes. The editor’s note would explain the need for the book, the selection and organization of Boyd’s works, and any editorial modifications or choices made to improve the reader’s experience. The essays should provide a roadmap for the reader to understand Boyd’s text. The intent is to have one of Boyd’s “acolytes,” a retired and eminent military officer, and one current and influential officer provide introductory essays.
After the editor’s note and the introductory essays, the bulk of the book would be dedicated to Boyd’s work. The book should be broken into two major sections: his aerial combat theories, and his general military and conflict theories. Section 1, Aerial Combat Theories would be based on the Aerial Attack Study, and also include New Conception for Air-to-Air Combat. These documents, though very much focused on aerial combat, show the beginnings of Boyd’s more comprehensive theories, in particular the OODA loop, the foundation of which makes its nascent debut in New Conception. Much of Aerial Attack Study can be left out, such as the sections on Fighter versus Bomber tactics and air-to-air weaponry of the time, which have limited practical application today and do not advance his grand theories. New Conception is the bridge from Boyd’s focus on aerial combat, to his wider focus on war and conflict.
Section 2, General Theories on War and Conflict, would essentially be an updated re-issue of the Green Book, in written form instead of slide form, with the most recent and complete versions of each component of the book, and the addition of presentations developed after the Green Book. Section 2 would begin with Boyd’s abstract to Discourse on Winning and Losing, which provides his summary of each of the five components and how they fit together in a coherent narrative. Using Boyd’s organization, Section 2 would continue with Patterns of Conflict, Organic Design for Command and Control, The Strategic Game of ? and ?, and Revelation. Section 2 would continue with the post-Green Book presentations of Conceptual Spiral and Essence of Winning and Losing. This section would show Boyd’s development of his theory on learning, his concepts on warfare, and the development of his overarching theory on conflict. Finally, the book would conclude with a commentary by a leading “New Boydian” scholar, explaining John Boyd’s enduring legacy, and the continued relevance of his theories on aerial combat, warfare, and conflict in general.
Knowledge of John Boyd within the U.S. military remains high, in large part because of Robert Coram’s riveting biography. However, understanding of his theories, especially subjects beyond the OODA loop are waning. A major factor in his marginalization is that he left very little published work for others to review, debate, and interpret. However, there remains a strong level of interest in Boyd, and a book that promises to provide John Boyd’s ideas in his own words could energize study of Boyd’s theories, beyond the superficial understanding of the OODA loop. His theories on warfare and conflict have applicability today and should be studied for generations to come. As his acolytes, peers, and those directly influenced by him retire or fade from the academic and military scene, there is a very real risk that his unique and exceptional theories and insights will be narrowed to “OODA looping faster than one’s enemy.” Publication of his works in a comprehensive and official anthology would solve the accessibility issues, while introductory essays and commentaries would guide the reader through Boyd’s intellectual development, theories, and themes. Such a book could rejuvenate academic and military examination of Boyd’s theories, benefiting contemporary and future military theorists and practitioners. Finally, the publication of an official anthology would allow historians and academics to analyze and synthesize his ideas, and debate Boyd’s place among the pantheon of grand military strategists.
Appendix A: DRAFT Table of Contents
TBD (Boyd Acolyte)
TBD (Boyd Scholar)
TBD (Active Duty New Boydian Scholar)
Section 1: Boyd’s Aerial Combat Theories
Part I: Aerial Attack Study (revised version dated 11 August 1964)
Part II: New Conception of Air-to-Air Combat (dated 4 August 1976)
Section 2: Boyd’s General Theories
Part I: Abstract to Discourse on Winning and Losing (dated 18 August 1992)
Part II: Patterns of Conflict (dated 1990)
Part III: Organic Design for Command and Control (dated May 1987)
Part IV: The Strategic Game of ? and ? (dated June 1987)
Part V: Destruction and Creation (dated 3 September 1976)
Part VI: Revelation (dated 1986)
Part VII: The Conceptual Spiral (dated July/August 1992)
Part VIII: The Essence of Winning and Losing (dated January 1996)
Commentary: USAF Colonel Jason M. Brown
Appendix A: The “To Be or To Do” Speech
Appendix B: Boyd Hall Rededication Speech, Maj Gen Jack N.T. Shanahan, 13 June 2013
Boyd, John R. Aerial Attack Study, 1964 (monograph, revised 11 Aug 1964).
--------. New Conception of Air-to-Air Combat, 4 August 1976 (presentation, 24 slides).
--------. Destruction and Creation, 3 September 1976 (essay, 16 pages).
--------. Patterns of Conflict, December 1986 (presentation, 194 slides).
--------. Organic Design for Command and Control, May 1987 (presentation, 37 slides).
--------. Strategic Game of ? and ?, June 1987 (presentation, 60 slides).
--------. A Discourse on Winning and Losing, August 1987 (essay, 2 pages).
--------. The Conceptual Spiral, July/August 1992 (presentation, 38 slides).
--------. Revelation, 1987 (presentation, 1 slide).
--------. The Essence of Winning and Losing, January 1995 (presentation, 5 slides).
Burton, James. The Pentagon Wars: Reformers Challenge the Old Guard, Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1993.
Clausewitz, Carl von. On War (edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret), Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976.
Coram, Robert. Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War, Boston, MA: Little Brown & Company, 2002.
Fadook, David S. John Boyd and John Warden: Air Power’s Quest for Strategic Paralysis, Maxwell AFB, AL: Air University Press, 1995.
Fallows, J. National Defense, New York: Random House, 1981.
Ford, Daniel. A Vision So Noble: John Boyd, the OODA Loop, and America’s War on Terror
Gray, Colin S. Modern Strategy, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Hammond, Grant T. The Mind of War: John Boyd and American Security, Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2001.
Krulak, Charles C. ‘Obituary,’ Inside the Pentagon, 13 March 1997.
Osinga, Frans P.B. Science, Strategy and War: The Strategic Theory of John Boyd. London, UK: Routledge, 2007.
United States Department of Defense, “Joint Publication 1, Doctrine for the Armed Forces of the United States,” 25 March 2013.
 Frans P.B. Osinga, Science, Strategy and War: The Strategic Theory of John Boyd, London, UK: Routledge, 2007, pp. 22.
 James Fallows, National Defense, New York: Random House, 1981, pp. 27.
 John R. Boyd, New Conception of Air-to-Air Combat, 4 August 1976, presentation, slide 24.
 Gray’s four levels of a general theory of war are; 1) Theory that “transcends time, environment, political and social conditions and technology” (Gray includes Sun Tzu and in this level); 2) Theory that “explains how the geographical and functional complexities of war and strategy interact and complement each other” (Gray includes Julian Corbett and some of his own work); 3) Theory that “explains how a particular kind or use of military power strategically affects the course of conflict as a whole” (Gray includes Alfred Thayer Mahan and Giulio Douhet in this level); 4) Theory that “explains the character of war in a particular period, keyed to explicit assumptions about the capabilities of different kinds of military power and their terms of effective engagement.” (Gray includes books by Richard Hallion and Williamson Murray about airpower in the Gulf War in this level). Colin S. Gray, Modern Strategy, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999, p. 125-7.
 Gray, Modern Strategy, pp. 91.
 Col (ret.) James G. Burton, The Pentagon Wars: Reformers Challenge the Old Guard, Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1993, pp. 10.
 Dr. Grant T. Hammond, The Mind of War: John Boyd and American Security, Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2001, pp.151.
 Osinga, Science, Strategy and War, pp. 47-49.
 General Charles C. Krulak, ‘Obituary,’ Inside the Pentagon, 13 March 1997, quoted by Hammond in The Mind of War, pp. 3-4.
 David S. Fadook, John Boyd and John Warden: Air Power’s Quest for Strategic Paralysis, Maxwell AFB, AL: Air University Press, 1995, pp. 47-8.
 U.S. Department of Defense, “Joint Publication 1, Doctrine for the Armed Forces of the United States,” 25 March 2013, pp. xxiii.
 U.S. DoD, “JP 1,” pp. V-15-16.
 Robert Coram, Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War, Boston, MA: Little Brown & Company, 2002, pp. 7.
 Hammond, The Mind of War, pp.17.
 Osinga, Science, Strategy and War, pp. 6.
 Now known as the School of Advanced Air and Spacepower Studies (SAASS).
 The “New Boyd” or “New Boydian” “school” or “scholars” are terms coined by the author to refer to the generation of scholars exposed to Boyd’s work second-hand, after his death in 1997.
 Osinga, Science, Strategy and War, pp. 7.
 Understanding War is a working title designed to evoke the grand theory implicit in titles such as Sun Tzu’s Art of War and Clausewitz’s On War. However, Trevor N. Dupuy published Understanding War: History and Theory of Combat in 1987, and Peter Paret published Understanding War in 1993, so other titles are under consideration.
 See Appendix A: DRAFT Table of Contents for Understanding War.
 Boyd, New Conception for Air-to-Air Combat, slide 24.
 The most recent and complete versions of each work would be based off of the Marine Corps Archives’ records. The version number and/or date are included in Appendix A: DRAFT Table of Contents for Understanding War