Missed Opportunity, the Failed Legacy of John Boyd

I’ve recently had reason to look back at John Boyd‘s work. This has led me to review his “legacy.” Even today his writings are only available through a network of self-styled acolytes and has been enshrined as the rationale behind a lot of very dangerous and very silly thinking that’s “informed” U. S. military adventures over the last few decades. While the Manifest Destiny boys at the turn of the Twentieth Century found their theoretical framework in the writings of Alfred Thayer Mahan, the Cheney gang has looked for legitimacy for their schemes in Boyd’s thinking. I’m afraid they are confused. They have fallen into the same errors that befall so much of what passes for Systems Thinking of all stripes. They want to grab at the tricks without absorbing the underlying lessons.

Mahan was a rather astute strategic analyst of his day. John Boyd was a towering figure who’s work has yet to be fully digested by anyone. This makes it doubly tragic that we end up seeing him solely as “the man behind” the Rumsfeld/Cheney putsch.

What is so exciting about Boyd’s work, is exactly what has been left unexamined. He brings the conditions required for strategic thought into the age of Quantum Physics, but as he laid out the basis for not only working within the realm of strategy and tactics he also laid out a critique of the entire realm of strategy and tactics. To adopt the former without considering the profound implications of the latter has been a tragic error that will continue to leave us exposed to dangers of our own devising until we put some concerted effort into fleshing out what he has actually brought to our attention.

Ambiguity is central to Boyd’s vision. It is not something to be feared but something that is a given. Being creative organisms, we should welcome it and make use of it. The world is ambiguous. It is uncertain and unknowable in detail when we must decide what to do. We never have complete and perfect information. We are never completely sure of the consequences of our actions. Our decisions and actions are hypotheses to be tested against this ambiguous environment. The best way to succeed in it is to revel in ambiguity. Rather than fight against it and attempt to learn or know all, we should accept it and use it to our advantage. We do so by adapting to the circumstances around us and perfecting our ability to deal with incomplete information. Though anchored in moral conviction, we should remain fluid in our actions, being unpredictable and adaptable to unfolding circumstances.

This quote from one of his memorial sites lays out a fundamental question posed by Boyd. That anyone could read this, take it in, and then with a smile of smug satisfaction claim this thinker as the “mastermind behind” the current wars boggles the mind! Sure there is Rumsfeld’s “Known unknowns, and unknowable unknowns,” here; but where, in any of what those guys did with Boyd’s insights, is there any sign of having understood what “moral conviction” might mean in a world in which we are immersed in ambiguity?

This has been a prime example of willful misunderstanding by those who worship power and are unwilling to face the consequences within their own sense of how the world works as they confront and attempt to absorb thinking that draws them in for its power even as it counsels them to look past the pursuit of power as a means to survive and thrive.

The writer mentions “perfecting our ability to deal with imperfect information.” What does he think that means? This is a classic case of pushing ahead with an attitude that is contradicted by the thrust of what one is attempting to absorb and as a result turning the new insight on its head. There is no “perfecting” possible in this case. The point of “dealing” with ambiguity is to get over the expectation that there is anything to perfect at all! What he is wrestling with here is that Boyd has made clear that we need to match our expectations to our limitations. When we can’t know everything we must stop acting as if our “Plans” have taken everything into account. That much they give lip service to, but beyond this is a call for humility, for tuning what the writer again coarsely paraphrases as “moral certainty” – how can such a concept survive in contact to the thrust of Boyd’s insights? For tuning our moral compass to the incontrovertible necessities of ambiguity and imperfect knowledge.

…Boyd begins with the premise that the business of life is life. Life cannot be lived unless the organism survives. It can be lived better if it prospers. Hence, all organisms’ first priority is to survive and prosper. This is best done by acting in such a manner that you can provide for your own sustenance independently of others. You cannot control their actions, motives, and performance. Self-reliance is better than alliance. This being the case, the chief aim of an organism that seeks to survive and prosper is to achieve and maintain its independence, its freedom of action. There are times, however, when this is neither possible nor desirable. Some symbiotic relationships are prudent if not mandatory. In some cases, existence itself is dependent on such a relationship and at that point, since survival is the highest goal, it is a necessary element of continued life.

The emphasis is mine, but how does anyone square the circle, thinking that this man’s work would be best used to fight oil-wars with a “coalition of the willing” and establish a domestic security state that treats its citizens as potential internal terrorists if they disagree with those in power?

This is a case of the “Church Fathers,” unable to squash their Galileo and then attempting to fit his new framework into their own. Accepting whatever appears tactically useful and ignoring or completely missing the foundations of what he’s discovered.

Unlike the smug certainties of those who have taken credit for “interpreting” John Boyd, Boyd himself was keenly aware of the difficulties posed by a partial and fleeting familiarity with what he was doing. He worked by creating a series of presentations – in another sad tale of misappropriation, these have become the ancestors of the Power Point…. His thinking progressed by editing and extending these briefings. They were soon day long and by the end multi day long events. Of course his bosses and handlers were too busy to sit through that much time listening to a mere colonel so they would insist on précis and outlines. He spent most of his political capital making sure that no one got a shortened version, or even a printed version. If they wanted to hear what he had to say they had to sit there and follow his train of thought as it went through all the development and complexity of viewpoint required to have any chance of understanding what he was trying to get across.

In this he was a pioneer in an experiential form of thinking, learning, and teaching that is still rarely used. He sought to embed his insights within the process from which they grew and to sensitize his audience to how critical this process is if we are to gain anything from this type of thinking and not fall into precisely the traps his present-day fans have been stuck in. Boyd, for me has been an instrumental influence in my own instincts in this direction. The form I use in my essays grows out of my sense of Boyd’s work.

Boyd’s life was tragically flawed. He was a tremendous intellect, actually an embodied intelligence, so much of what he did was achieved by respecting his physical responses to intuitions that he would follow intellectually wherever they led. But he was raised poor and after joining the military at the tail end of WWII, he struggled along the path of the autodidact, rising to a colonel’s rank from an airman and inserting himself into the center of power without any advantages and without playing politics. He paid for this in many ways. He was never accepted and never felt that his work was taken seriously. His private life was a mess. He carried many contradictions within himself and seemed to have been aware of how much of his own thinking he was incapable of following through to its conclusions. He combined personal courage with the bravado of a combat pilot, but everything about his approach to his work came out of a ruthless humility about where the conclusions of his work might lead. He resisted any efforts by himself or others to predigest or frame the implications of his work a priori.

His life was an example of the gulf between the privileged and their inability to reach beyond their own ease, and the crucible of having no easy path and no easy certainties to buoy him up as he went ahead.

In my investigations of Boyd, I find him to be at a confluence between Einstein, Quantum Physics, and David Bohm on the one side and Gandhi and Krishnamurti on the other. He has taken the abstractions of the theoretical physicists of the Twentieth Century and embodied their insights in the “seat of the pants” mode of the natural pilot. He has also, in this way similar to David Bohm, taken the implications of this new physics and brought it around to meet with the intuitive and empathic, compassion-centered work of Gandhi and Krishnamurti.

In his day to day efforts – he worked in the Pentagon for Chris-sakes! He never spelled out those latter connections explicitly, but they are there implicit in all his work, and this even shines through in abstracts like the one I’ve quoted above made by one of those who refuse to see where his implications lead!

I never heard of John Boyd until a quarter century after his death. I also never came across David Bohm’s work, or Krishnamurti, until just a few years ago. They all were active throughout the years of my youth, but I never came across any meaningful reference to any of them. Even now, Boyd I see as having found a certain popularity, but I’ve not found anyone writing anything about what his work might actually mean to us. Bohm and Krishnamurti have smaller fringe followings than the most obscure UFO conspiracy. It’s as though they never existed for the most part. Toss in Rupert Sheldrake, whose latest book has just come out and who I also only read in the last five years or so, and a great swath of my personal “Pantheon” is in an almost total functional obscurity!

I could smolder under the feeling that they have all suffered under a grand conspiracy to keep valuable information out of our hands. As much as I can sympathize with those who see conspiracies all around us, I’d rather see this as a sign of the power of the failing framework to hold onto a hegemonic hold over our attention through the sheer volume of its inertial mass. A central lesson of John Boyd’s work is in how much friction must be overcome, how much we have to learn to trust what we actually embody if we are to break out of mass delusions.

At the bottom of John Boyd’s actual legacy is a challenge to us to come up with a synthesis of the way his implications destroy the traditional rationale behind strategy and tactics. His work does not give us a jet-age version of Lao Tzu.  He opens up an avenue to exploring the legitimate pursuit of the use of force in ways that do not condemn us to suffer the unavoidable “unintended” consequences inherent in the ways we deal with power. I don’t know what this will lead to, or what we will find there; but I do know it won’t be the farcical and tragic “lessons” his present followers have inflicted on the world!

Published by Antonio Dias

My work is centered on attending to the intersection of perception and creativity. Complexity cannot be reduced to any given certainty. Learning is Central: Sharing our gifts, Working together, Teaching and learning in reciprocity. Entering into shared Inquiry, Maintaining these practices as a way of life. Let’s work together to build practices, strengthen dialogue, and discover and develop community. Let me know how we might work together.

7 thoughts on “Missed Opportunity, the Failed Legacy of John Boyd

  1. You say: “This is a classic case of pushing ahead with an attitude that is contradicted by the thrust of what one is attempting to absorb and as a result turning the new insight on its head.”

    Ah. Bless you. That reminds me. Reading up on complexity, one of the supposed mavens says: “How do you push your emergent system toward the goal you set for it?” With a straight face, as far as one can tell. Mindboggling. The world is full of hollow men who couldn’t embody what they try to teach if their life depended on it.


    1. This is frustrating. It’s all around us. We shouldn’t be surprised though. This is a direct result of the reward structures that have given us the “success” stories we have. This is why it is so much more difficult for someone who is “well-adjusted” to the current insanity to adapt. They lack the strength one gets from having to deal with powerlessness and arriving at a point where we can recognize that power and strength are incompatible and that we need strength and need to resist our addictions to power.


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