Arto's Notes re: John Boyd


Col. John Boyd, USAF, was undoubtedly the greatest military theorist America has produced.

Boyd was the greatest military theoretician since Sun Tzu.

Levels of War

To the traditional levels of war--tactical, operational, and strategic--Boyd added three new ones: physical, mental, and moral. It is useful to think of these as forming a nine-box grid, with tactical, operational, and strategic on one axis and physical, mental, and moral on the other. Our armed forces focus on the single box defined by tactical and physical, where we are vastly superior. But non-state forces focus on the strategic and the moral, where they are often stronger, in part because they represent David confronting Goliath. In war, a higher level trumps a lower, so our repeated victories at the tactical, physical level are negated by our enemies' successes on the strategic and moral levels, and we lose.

War is the province of chance. You cannot predict the outcome of a war just by counting up the stuff on either side and seeing who has more. Such "metrics" leave out strategy and stratagem, pre-emption and trickery, generalship and luck. They leave out John Boyd's all-important mental and moral levels.

The Moral Level of War

Fourth Generation war focuses on the moral level, where it works to convince all parties, neutrals as well as belligerents, that the cause for which a Fourth Generation entity is fighting is morally superior. It turns its state enemies inward against themselves on the moral level, making the political calculations of the mental level irrelevant.

In war, the moral is to the physical as ten to one.

Napoléon Bonaparte, attributed (since at least 1870)

In war, moral considerations account for three-quarters, the balance of actual forces only for the other quarter.

Napoléon Bonaparte, correspondence (August 27, 1808)

Even in these most favorable conditions it was only after great difficulty and enormous losses that we were finally able to win. A victory at such a cost was actually a moral defeat... Our people never knew [in 1940] that we had suffered a moral defeat, because they were never told the truth, Quite the contrary. When the Finnish war ended our country was told, "Let the trumpets of victory sound!" But the seeds of doubt had been sown.

Boyd said that the greatest weakness a person or a nation can have at the highest level of war, the moral level, is a contradiction between what they say and what they do. From that I think follows the basic definition of psyops in Fourth Generation war: psyops are not what you say but what you do. [...]

Washington and the CPA seem to define "liberation" as beating the Iraqis to a pulp, then handing them their "freedom" like a gift from a master to a slave. In societies where honor, dignity and manliness are still important virtues, that can never work.

From al-Sadr's perspective, the fact that he suffered an (inevitable) tactical defeat at the hands of the Americans is far less important than the fact he fought the Americans. Iraq and the world saw the same show they witnessed before America "returned sovereignty to Iraq," namely Iraqis armed only with AK-47s and RPGs fighting American tanks and aircraft. As always, when David fights Goliath, David wins, at least on the moral level.

The central dilemma in Fourth Generation war, that what wins at the physical level tends to lead to defeat at the moral level. Goliath may mop the floor with his smaller, weaker opponents, but in doing so he makes himself universally hated.

We continue to bomb and shell Fallujah, which pushes our enemies toward each other. We seem to be readying an all-out assault on the city, which will have the usual result when Goliath defeats David: a moral defeat for Goliath. Many Iraqis will die, the city will be wrecked (as always, we will promise to rebuild it but not do so), and any losses the insurgents suffer will be made up many times over by a flood of new recruits. Never was it more truly said that, "We have met the enemy, and he is us."

What "wins" at the tactical and physical levels may lose at the operational, strategic, mental and moral levels, where 4GW is decided. Martin van Creveld argues that one reason the British have not lost in Northern Ireland is that the British Army has taken more casualties than it has inflicted. This is something the Second Generation American military has great trouble grasping, because it defines success in terms of comparative attrition rates.

Here we see in dramatic fashion America's loss of the "Global War on Terrorism" at the moral level. By invading and occupying Iraq, a country that posed no threat to us, and threatening to do the same to other countries around the world, we have made America into a monster--even in Turkey, the country that has been our closest Islamic ally since the onset of the Cold War. So dramatically has America managed to reverse its post-9/11 moral ascendancy that not only can Turks imagine us attacking Turkey, they see Russia coming to their rescue! Russia has been Turkey's number one enemy for centuries.

I suspect that more than a few of our soldiers and Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan, enjoying as they do a daily diet of IEDs, ambushes and mortarings, were less than amused at watching Washington flee from a flea. More importantly, what message does such easy panic send to the rest of the world? Osama bin Laden has whole armies trying to kill him, but as best I know he has shown no signs of fear. Here again we see the power of the moral level of war. In cultures less decadent than our own, few men are likely to identify with leaders who fill their pants at one tiny blip on a radar screen.

The fact is, both sides don't get to operate by the same rules in 4GW. While the very strength of the intervening power means it must be careful how it applies its strength, that is much less true of the weaker forces opposing it. This is an aspect of what Martin van Creveld calls the power of weakness. Viewed from the moral level, a weak force can get away with tactics that damn its vastly stronger enemy. Its weakness itself tends to justify whatever it does.

Suicide bombing is itself a tactic of the weak (which does not mean it is ineffective). The United States bombs from aircraft, where the pilot operates in complete safety against 4GW opponents, with rare exceptions. At the moral level, that safety works against us, not for us. In contrast, the fact that 4GW fighters often have to give their lives to place their bombs works for them. Their combination of physical weakness and apparent heroism leads civilians from their own culture to excuse them much, including "collateral damage" they would never excuse if the bomb came from an American F-18.

What Fourth Generation opponents actually do to a state is not play mind-games with the state's leaders, but use the power of weakness to bring the opposing state's whole population to regard the war as an abomination. Paradoxically, the more the state is successful in winning on the battlefield by turning its immense, hi-tech firepower on guys in bathrobes who are armed only with rusty World War II rifles, the more it becomes disgusted with itself. The weaker the Fourth Generation enemy is physically, the stronger he is morally. And the moral level is decisive.

Mistreatment of civilians by the forces of an occupying power are a central element of Fourth Generation war. They are one of the main reasons why occupiers tend to lose [...]

Every firefight we win in Iraq or Afghanistan does little for our pride, because we are so much stronger than the people we are defeating. Every time we get hit successfully by a weaker enemy, we feel like chumps, and cannot look ourselves in the mirror (again, with IED attacks this happens quite often). Whenever we use our superior strength against Iraqi civilians, which is to say every time we drive down an Iraqi street, we diminish ourselves in our own eyes. Eventually, we come to look at ourselves with contempt and see ourselves as monsters. One way to justify being a monster is to behave like one, which makes the problem worse still. The resulting downward spiral, which every army in this kind of war has gotten caught in, leads to indiscipline, demoralization, and disintegration of larger units as fire teams and squads simply go feral.

There is no surer or faster way to lose in 4GW than by calling in airstrikes. It is a disaster on every level. Physically, it inevitably kills far more civilians than enemies, enraging the population against us and driving them into the arms of our opponents. Mentally, it tells the insurgents we are cowards who only dare fight them from 20,000 feet in the air. Morally, it turns us into Goliath, a monster every real man has to fight. So negative are the results of air strikes in this kind of war that there is only one possible good number of them: zero (unless we are employing the "Hama model," which we are not).

The Mental Level of War

At the mental level, there were a few mentions of PSYOPS, but even these were misconceived as what we say. Real PSYOPS are what we do, like stepping on the heads of detainees. Only one briefing grasped this essential point.

At the mental level, the Fourth Generation elements have already gotten inside the heads of Iraqi police and National Guardsmen. How? By killing them in large numbers. More than 700 have died in the past year [2003], with many more wounded. A story on four recruits for the Iraqi police in the September 27 Washington Post quotes one of them as saying, "We're walking dead men."

That fear opens the door to the sort of deal that typifies Arab countries: the police and Guardsmen collect their paychecks, but look the other way when the resistance is up to something. In some cases, the deal can go further and create double agents, men inside the security forces who actually work for one or more of the resistance organizations. [...]

At the moral level, the position of the Iraqi police and Guardsmen is almost hopeless. They are being paid to fight their own countrymen and fellow Mohammedans on behalf of an occupying foreign power that is also (nominally) Christian.

The Physical Level of War


Boyd Cycle (aka the OODA Loop)

Full diagram originally drawn by John Boyd for his briefings on military strategy, fighter pilot strategy, etc.


[Chet] Richards [thinks] Boyd is the most recent link in a chain that began with Sun Tzu and continued with Musashi, the sixteenth-century samurai, and then with Mao Tse Tung. Richards says the similarities between Musashi and Boyd are many: Boyd's shiny fighter aircraft was like the lacquered armor of a samurai. Both went into battle one-on-one. Both had personal habits that caused others to think them uncouth. Both lived by an austere code of honor and self-sacrifice. Both believed that if they confused an enemy before the battle, they had won even before the fight. In combat, neither ever lost a battle. Both read widely and were single-minded in their search for enlightenment. Both loomed large in their times. Both evolved from fighters into teachers and both left works that lived long after their death. Musashi's famous work was A Book of Five Rings and Boyd's was the OODA Loop. The OODA Loop is in five pieces, the "Loop" itself being the fifth.