29 July 2015

The OODA Loop, Ancient China Style

The theories of John Boyd are an interesting example of a general historical principle: medium changes message. The physical medium used to communicate information changes the way information is organized and understood. For example, historians often credit the short, clipped and rhyming phrases of texts like Sunzi's Art of War, The Analects or the Dao De Jing to the fact that the texts were originally collections of oral proverbs compiled together on bamboo strips. Hans Moeller argues--convincingly, in my view--that these texts should not be understood as "books" at all. Noting that they did not have beginnings, ends, or proper organization at all until late in their creation, he advises that we think of these ancient Chinese texts as we would the hypertext of a webpage. In place of links--which lead readers from one page to another, though usually not in any pre-determined sequence--these texts would use a set of common phrases and allusions meant to guide the listener from one passage or set of meanings to another. Its an interesting thesis; once you have been exposed to the full evidence of Moeller's argument it is hard to look at the ancient Chinese classics the same way as before. [1] 
John Boyd did not etch his words into bamboo. To my knowledge nothing he said ever rhymed. This should not be a surprise: Boyd did not live in ancient China. Boyd was an American. In the decades since his death he has been hailed as the most important strategic theorist his country has yet produced. Few discussions of modern strategy feel complete without mention of the strategic principles he outlined, especially his famous "OODA Loop." But Boyd's theories take special effort to understand. The problem is that he never wrote them down in an organized manner. Boyd was a military man. In classic Potomac fashion, he shared his insights through long verbal briefs complete with dozens of slides and diagrams. Boyd's thought must be carefully reconstructed through the remaining slides, the few audio recordings of his briefs and lectures, and his personal collection of notes.

John Boyd's OODA Loop, diagram originally drawn by John Boyd, recreated by Patrick Moran (2008). 
Image Source: Wikimedia

Students of strategic theory often wonder what kind of book Boyd might have produced has he sat down to write his thoughts into one coherent treatise. He never did so. But the dream remains: had Boyd been forced to share his ideas with pen and paper like Clausewitz and Jomini had, what would they have looked like?

To be honest, I rarely ask that question. What I wonder is what Boyd's ideas would look like if he had to etch them into bamboo.

Understanding the history of the Chinese strategic tradition is the research program that drives my writing, including a lot of what appears on this blog. Attempting to discern how Chinese strategic theory differs from Western strategic theory (if it does at all) is an important part of this effort. This challenge can be difficult: the mediums ancient Chinese and modern Westerners used to communicate were very different, as are the styles thinkers in each culture used to present analysis and insight. To do proper comparisions I often find it useful to try and imagine how a Western strategist or political theorists would describe his ideas if he were writing in the 2nd century BC.

Occasionally, however, I come across a passage that does this for me. The ancients had never heard of Boyd's OODA Loop. But if they had, I imagine they probably would have explained it something like this:

Thus the one skilled in arms, on seeing the deficiency of the enemy,
takes advantage of it and does not rest,
pursues it and does not let it go
presses it and does not let it get away.

strikes while the enemy is in doubt
overturns him while he hesitates.

He is like
swift thunder that does not give the enemy time to cover his ears
fast lightning that leaves the enemy no leisure to cover his eyes

The one skilled in arms
is like the sound to the echo
is like the gong to the drum
If a mote gets into the enemy's eye, he does not allow him to wipe it away
if the enemy exhales he does not allow him to inhale
At this time
he does not look up to see Heaven
he does not look down to view Earth
his hand does not lift his spear
his weapon is not fully drawn 
He strikes the enemy like thunder
he hits him like the wind
he scorches him like fire;
he overcomes him like a wave

The enemy
does not know where to stay while at rest
does not know what to do while in motion

Thus when the drums sound and the flags wave, none facing him do not give up or collapse. Who in the worlds dares to display might or maintain discipline when facing him? Therefore, one who anticipates others is victorious; one who awaits others is defeated; one who is led by others dies.
---Huainanzi 15.11 [2]

No comments: