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John Boyd and Sun Tzu’s The Art of War

Renowned US military strategist John Boyd is famous for his signature OODA (Observe-Orientation-Decision-Action) loop, which significantly affected the way that the West approached combat operations and has since been appropriated for use in the business world and even in sports. Boyd wrote to convince people that the Western military doctrine and practice of his day was fundamentally flawed. With this goal in mind, he naturally turned to the East to seek an alternative.

Sun Tzu: The Art of War happened to be the only theoretical book on war that Boyd did not find imperfect; it became his Rosetta stone. Boyd eventually owned seven translations of The Art of War, each with long passages underlined and with copious marginalia. He was at the same time familiar with Taoism (Lao Tzu mainly) and Miyamoto Musashi (a famous Japanese swordsman who practiced Samurai Zen). With this extensive knowledge of Eastern thought, Boyd aimed for an almost full adoption of Sun Tzu’s theory into the Western strategic framework. The theory of Sun Tzu was foreign to his audience’s way of thinking, so in order to convince them of its value he repackaged, rationalized, and modernized Eastern theories using various scientific theories from the West.

Why couldn’t such an adoption take place using existing translations of The Art of War? Boyd understood that he could get nowhere close to the heart of Chinese strategy without first understanding the cognitive and philosophical foundations behind Chinese strategic thought. These foundations are usually lost in translation, causing an impasse in understanding the Chinese strategy that remains today. Hence Boyd made use of new sciences to illuminate what the West had been unable to illuminate before.

For instance, Boyd recreated the naturalistic worldview of Chinese strategy in the Western framework. From this perspective, the OODA loop encompasses much more than a four-phase decision-making model: its real significance is that it reconstructs mental operations based on intuitive thinking and judgment. This kind of intuition is pivotal to strategy and strategic thinking, but was lost as the West embraced a more rational scientific mindset. It is an open secret that the speed and success of the OODA loop comes from a deep intuitive understanding of one’s relationship to the rapidly changing environment. This understanding of one’s environment comes directly from Chinese strategic thought.

Chinese warrior. CC0 via Pixabay.
Chinese warrior. CC0 via Pixabay.

Another aspect of Chinese strategic thought that Boyd insisted on capturing and incorporating into the Western strategic framework is yin-yang (yin and yang). Yin-yang has been commonly misunderstood as the Chinese equivalent of “contradictions” in the West. Yin-yang, however, is not considered contradictory or paradoxical by the Chinese, but is actively used to resolve real-life contradictions and paradoxes—the key is to see yin-yang (such as win-lose, enemy-friend, strong-weak) as one concept or continuum, not two opposites. It is this Chinese philosophical and logical concept that forms the strategic chain linking Sun Tzu, Lao Tzu, and Mao Zedong.

Once this “oneness” of things is realized, a strategist will then be able to tap into the valuable strategic information it carries, including the dynamics of situations and relationships between things, resulting in a more complete grasp of a situation, particularly in complex and multifaceted phenomena like war. In short, yin-yang provides an intuitive means for understanding the essence of reality, opening a new door to strategic insights and forecasts that were once inaccessible by using Western methods.

Boyd’s thesis is not a general theory of war but, as one of his biographers noted, a general theory of the strategic behavior of complex adaptive systems in adversarial conditions. It is ironic that the scientific terminology used illustrates the systemic thinking behind Chinese strategic thought applied by Sun Tzu 2,500 years ago, as the terminology of complex adaptive systems and non-linearity did not exist then.

Boyd opened a crucial window of opportunity for Western thought by repackaging and rationalizing Eastern thought. His attempt to adopt Sun Tzu into the Western strategic framework was far from being successful, and many of his proposals have gone unnoticed, but nonetheless Boyd made very significant progress in “synchronizing” Chinese and Western strategy. Once the West grasps the significance behind this unprecedented opportunity to directly absorb and adopt elements of Chinese strategy, it will open many new avenues for the development and self-rectification of Western strategic thought and practices.

Recent Comments

  1. Recently decided to include The Art of War on my website about life-changing books – I was wondering, since you mention the difficutlys of translation, do you have any opinion on which translation (to English) is the best one?

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