Thursday, January 11, 2007

Boyd's Last Briefing

An amateur military historian showed me this link to Boyd's last briefing, a presentation made by the military strategist Col. John Boyd of the U.S. Air Force. This concise briefing covers warfare strategy from ancient times through WWII.

Byrd also introduces the "Observe, Orient, Decide, Action time" loop that is key to the enemy's response to any strategy. It is worthwhile reading by anybody interested in military history in any era, whether the war was well-fought or not.

Interestingly, he combined concepts from physics and mathematics as axioms-- entropy, uncertainty, etc. He helped design the tactics for the First Gulf War, which lead to the mass surrender of the Iraqi army.

He also used a concept of natural selection which is not well explained, but goes to the basic need for survival and the drive to keep as many chances to survive open, from food acquistion, trust of others, etc. "Natural selection" has often acquired an idiomatic cultural meaning that is totally distinct from the Darwinistic sense.

Perhaps "The Red Queen's Race" is more apt. That every survival strategy is always in a race against opposing strategies is indeniable. Any kind of survival strategy must be flexible, ever-changing, and never stationary or it will be exploited by disease, predators, etc. (This concept also recurred in a popular motivational book called "Who moved my cheese?", which is kind of... cheesy.)

Boyd approaches war strategy as survival strategy, period. The enemy must never have time to adapt to the opposing strategy. The enemy must be demoralized and ready to surrender rather than fight you. Resistance must not continually breed itself from the resentment of the people. That is the surest way.

This 1976 paper lays out his concepts of the laws of nature as applied to war. Everything destroys itself in part or in whole to re-create itself. Nothing is fixed and certain. They cannot be, by the laws of physics. Couched in the language of math and physics, it still sounds Taoistic. This makes me wonder if Col. Boyd had read the "Tao of Physics". Certainly he would have been aware of this book as it was written in 1975 and became a bestseller. He would have wanted to explore the connection between Taoism and Sun Tzu's Art of War.

Dawkins once spoke of cultural ideas as "genes" which he called memes, which mutate and adapt as they spread, and are subject to pressures from the real world, as well. Boyd's last Briefing is a nice example of the memes of war, but what interests me even more is how he incorporates memes from so many sources in his analysis.

When tracking down those memes, I also learned about Heraclitus of Ephesus, a Greek philosopher who had a Tao-like philosophy and who directly influenced Socrates and Plato. His comments have become memes, as well. "Everything flows." "You can't step in the same river twice."

Boyd's take-home message: Adapt, never hold still, fight the enemy that exists, not the enemy you wish you had. Holding the course and using predictable tactics will lead to failure.

We shouldn't ignore the guy who did help engineer a victory in Iraq last time.

-- Wilbrod the Gnome ---