Fighting Smart

Col Mike Wyly*, USMC, ret., was one of the principle architects behind the Marine Corps’ doctrine of maneuver warfare. He and a group of advocates had written a number of articles in the Marine Corps Gazette and discussed and essentially sold the idea for a period of years between the end of the Vietnam War and the publication of the doctrine in FMFM-1, Warfighting, in 1989.

He recently recounted that one worry they all had was that once published and made official doctrine, it would stop evolving:

I alluded to it briefly in a response to a Gazette piece that was published, how I was in General Gray’s [Commandant of the Marine Corps] office along with John Boyd – just the three of us. General Gray had only days before signed FMFM-1. Boyd congratulated him but then got real serious and talked about how important it would be to keep the thinking – the “fighting smart” – alive and relevant. Were we ever to sit back and say “We did it”, we would lose it, Boyd warned. It would be our challenge to keep our minds open, too, in order that we stay relevant to the changing times.

The need to do so was always Boyd’s response when people asked him why he didn’t publish – even a book. Boyd worried that were he to ever do so, people would say “There it is! The answers are in the book!”, and stop thinking and lose relevance in the changing times.

In other words, “fighting smart” isn’t just becoming proficient in a better doctrine, because potential opponents will watch you and learn what you do. It is necessary to continually evolve your doctrine, a facility Boyd included in his concept of Behendigkeit (from the German for “agility”).

To accomplish this, you have to destroy the hold that your current mental models — including your doctrine — have over your thinking. As others before him had concluded, this may be obvious, but it is also very difficult. Boyd’s first paper “Destruction and Creation” (1976) devoted several pages to paradigm destruction, reaching  the novel conclusion that natural forces, particularly Gödel’s theorem, the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, and the second law of thermodynamics, can assist the process. He never arrived at a definitive answer and continued to ponder the question the rest of his life.

A few years before this meeting with General Gray, Boyd had discovered Miyamoto Musashi’s 1645 treatise, The Book of Five Rings, which became one of his favorites. This manual for aspiring samurai touches on many of the themes that will appear in Patterns of Conflict (1986)such as using timing to disorient opponents and create opportunities for exploitation. Cryptically, it concludes with a chapter simply called “Emptiness.”  Then not long after the meeting, the oriental scholar Thomas Clearly published a book that would also become one of Boyd’s favorites,  The Japanese Art of War. (1991) In it, Zen masters during the time of Musashi are constantly berating their samurai students to “Empty your minds!” to remove any attachments that would cause their minds to stick. Inability to destroy such attachments they considered to be a potentially fatal disease.

Boyd’s thinking was not changed by these concepts of emptiness because his major presentations on strategy, such as Patterns of Conflict and Strategic Game of ? and ? (1987) were complete (as much as any Boyd work can be said to be “complete”) by this time. But he was fortified by discovering that ancient Eastern thinkers (with no knowledge of Gödel or Heisenberg!)  had reached conclusions similar to his, and perhaps this led him to take a final cut at destruction and creation in Conceptual Spiral (1992).

To put it in Musashi’s language, Boyd was insisting that the Corps needed to empty its collective mind of its brilliant new doctrine — the task being made more difficult by its very brilliance — and stay alert.  This does not mean that the doctrine is wrong, only that attachment to the doctrine presents increasing danger as time goes by. As far as I know, Boyd never read Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by the modern Zen master, Shunryu Suzuki, although that book came out in 1970, but he could have been echoing that work:

If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.

Boyd always hated being called an expert.

*Col. Wyly’s paper, “Thinking like Marines” is available from the Articles page, as are all of the papers and presentation by Boyd.


4 thoughts on “Fighting Smart

    • Richard — thanks! Interesting article. I taught in an MBA program for family businesses for a few years. We tried to do things differently, including basing the strategy portion on Boyd’s principles (Certain to Win was the required text), and stressing that the family aspect was at least as important as the business side (and that the two didn’t have to conflict). Although I sympathize with Dr. Parker, it’s just a case of supply and demand.

  1. I met Boyd after the Spinney article … behind paywall, but mostly free at wayback machine,9171,953733,00.html
    and started to sponsor his briefings. Boyd’s first briefing was just “Patterns of Conflict” … however the 2nd briefing added the new “Organic Design For Command and Control” … where he observed that former military officers heavily steeped in rigid, top-down command and control, were starting to contaminate US corporate culture … however, this also was in the period when articles were starting to appear that MBAs were beginning to destroy US corporations with myopic attention to short term financial results and financial engineering.

    pg35/loc1169-73: In business school we teach students how to recognize, and create, barriers to competition — including barriers to entry — that help ensure that profits won’t be eroded. Indeed, as we shall shortly see, some of the most important innovations in business in the last three decades have centered not on making the economy more efficient but on how better to ensure monopoly power or how better to circumvent government regulations intended to align social returns and private rewards

    • Ihw0, thanks for sharing that link. Operational Strategies, tactics, and attitudes aside, Development and acquisition has always been a principle interest, and continues to be the the biggest area, of waist, and the degradation of effectiveness. Thanks also for all you do,
      and have done.

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