Formlessness in space and time

In chapter six of the Sun Tzu text, we read:

Therefore, when you induce others to construct a formation while you yourself are formless, then you are concentrated while the opponent is divided. (Cleary trans., p. 106)

Boyd loved this concept. He called it the principle of dispersion, parodying the Army’s emphasis on concentration. The idea is that the opponent has to be on guard everywhere, while you know what you’re doing. Boyd took it even further: You can disperse not only in space, but combine it with dispersion in time, so that the opponent cannot recover from the first attack before the second is upon him. And the third. And the fourth. Think of how you reacted the last time things started happening faster than you could cope. Against a linear formation, you don’t need every attack to succeed. Often one will be enough, if it can penetrate and cause the opponent’s formation to begin to collapse. The next group of forces streaming in can complete the job. Boyd called this “operating inside the OODA loop.”

Where else do we see formations? How about football? What would Boyd’s principle of dispersion / operating inside the OODA loop look like there? For a great example, check out “Ditka vs. Ryan: The Feud That Fueled the ’85 Chicago Bears” (in the print edition as “Hate, Jealousy, and Da Bears,” p. D10) by Rich Cohen in Friday’s Wall St. J. (paywall). This should give you the idea:

“As organized and experienced as that group of players were from the Chargers, they’d seen nothing like it,” [Chicago safety Doug] Plank said. “Mad dogs. Wild men. Coming from every side. A jail break. By the end, Dan Fouts did not know where to look: Should he try to find the open man downfield, or should he simply brace for impact?”

It was this confusion, planted in the mind of the quarterback, that made the 46 [the Bears’ code name for this type of defense] hum.

When briefing the section of Patterns of Conflict that deals with Clausewitz and Jomini, Boyd would critique these guys for their emphasis on order. He usually told the story of how despite this obsession, Jomini almost discovered the idea of operating inside the OODA loop. Jomini had written of a cavalry attack, where the usual tight formation broke down, and in the resulting confusion, the attackers broke through and won. Jomini concluded that the attack had succeeded in spite of the breakdown in the formation. Boyd said, “No! It succeeded because of it.” The Union attack on Missionary Ridge, November 25, 1863, is another example. In each of these cases (and many others) there was confusion, and one side could exploit it before the other could figure out what was happening.

So it isn’t that there is a balance or trade-off between structure / form and agility / formlessness. Formlessness, as the Sun Tzu text insists, creates its own form, and as Boyd noted, this often happens in time as well as in space.

Incidentally, the idea that only one attack has to succeed also carries over into football. Here’s Plank again:

“Football is chess,” Plank said. “You can capture all my pawns, but if I tip over that king [the opposing quarterback], I win.”

[By this way, perhaps this will answer the question of why Ender’s Game is so popular among the maneuver warfare crowd.]

2 thoughts on “Formlessness in space and time

  1. So much depends on the correct interpretation of a scenario, the “observation” and “orientation” phase of the decision cycle.

    Base the subsequent decision and actions on a flawed perception, most commonly skewed by an agenda, or some variation of wishfull thinking, and without repeating the cycle and rapidly correcting the mistake, and you are doomed to failure.

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