A New Conception of War

reviewed by Maj Skip CrawleY, USMC(Ret)

A New Conception of War A NEW CONCEPTION OF WAR: John Boyd, the U.S. Marines, and Maneuver Warfare. By Maj Ian T. Brown. Quantico, VA: Marine Corps University, 2018. ISBN: 9780997317497.357 pp.

After years of fighting a seemingly endless war, the new challenge is to refocus on fighting peer competitors again after over a decade of counterinsurgency operations. Having spent billions on fighting the endless war, our equipment is worn out and in need of modernization while peer adversaries used the time to modernize. Dollars for defense are tight. Finally, individuals outside the Marine Corps believe “that technological progress by future adversaries has made amphibious assaults too hazardous.”1 Is this the present day Marine Corps? No. This is the 1970s Marine Corps> post-Vietnam.

A New Conception of War: John Boyd, The U.S. Marines, and Maneuver Warfare by Maj Ian T. Brown is the story of how:

The Marine Corps, bereft of numbers and weapons and struggling with the consequences of misunderstanding its adversary in Vietnam, found itself drawn to Boyd’s ideas. In them, the Marines saw answers to the problem of what the Marine Corps was to do with itself [post-Vietnam] and how it was to do it… [t]hey took and injected Boyd’s ideas-or what they understood to be his ideas-into the larger debate of how maneuver might serve the future Corps better than simply buying a new tank or adopting a different NATO mission.

Maj Brown’s A New Conception of War is partially a biography of Col John R. Boyd, USAF(Ret), which tells the story of Col Boyd’s years of study and observation that led to his view of warfare ultimately culminating in his “Patterns of Conflict” presentation. The book also illustrates how Boyd’s ideas on warfare were instrumental in assisting the Marine Corps refigure itself in the post-Vietnam era by helping to answer the question: “Where do we go from here?” Lastly, this is the story of the ultimately successful struggle to adopt maneuver warfare as the official doctrine of the Marine Corps and the publication of FMFM 1, Warfighting in 1989.2

Fighter Pilot, Military Theoretician, Iconoclast

Boyd’s philosophy was “to be or to do.” He once told a young Air Force captain:

One day you will come to a fork in the road. And you’re going to have to make a decision about which direction you want to go. If you go that way[,] you can be somebody… you will be a member of the club and you will get promoted and you will get good assignments.

Boyd counseled that the other fork in the road was harder and lonelier, but if offered a chance for true accomplishment: “You can do something- something for your country and for your Air Force.”

Boyd’s entire Air Force career and post-Air Force career was driven by “the determination to produce” accomplishments that mattered. As an instructor in Fighter Weapons School in Nellis AFB, NV, Boyd “wrote the first manual on jet aerial combat”3 and became known as “40-second Boyd:” Accordingly, throughout Boyd’s career:

He made a standing bet that he would meet any pilot over a preselected patch of ground, get on his tail for a kill within 40 seconds of the engagement commencing, or pay the victor $40. No pilot ever collected on that bet ý

One of Boyd’s “accomplishments” was his development of the wellknown observation-orientation-decision-action (OODA) loop; an important tenet of maneuver warfare. Most Marines-including myself-thought Boyd’s OODA Loop “was a derivative of aerial dogfighting” based upon his experiences as an F-86 Sabre pilot in the Korean War. Instead, “Boyd was clear that the loop’s genesis came from work and anomalies associated with [the] evolution and flight tests of [the] YF 16/17.”

Acknowledging that this simplifies a complex issue, Boyd learned during the mid-1970s Lightweight Fighter Program fly-off between the YF-16 and the YF-17 (precursor to the F/A18) that the top speed of a fighter visa-vis its adversary is less important than its ability to “shed and regain energy far more quickly” against an adversary. Consequently:

Boyd labeled these traits fast transient maneuvers, and he found that they granted the YF-16 pilots’ quicker responsiveness and a faster operating tempo, repeatedly generating favorable mismatches against the less responsive YF-17- The notion of mismatches contributing to one’s success and survival-of using agility and tempo to overwhelm an adversary’s perceptions and reactions, thus causing his perceived reality to diverge from actually reality-stuck with Boyd.

Utilizing the OODA Loop and other concepts, Boyd developed his “Patterns of Conflict” presentation summing up everything he had learned about war-just in time for the Marine Corps to make use of it.

Boyd s Influence on the Marine Corps

Post-Vietnam, the Marine Corps had an enormous problem: how does a traditionally naval-oriented, medium-weight force remain viable in the new operational environment of massed Soviet and Warsaw Pact armored and mechanized armies? The Marine Corps was getting a lot of outside advice, including the infamous Brookings Institution’s, Where Does the Marine Corps Go from HereN But wise people, both inside and outside the išdarine Corps, felt that debating whether to mechanize or lighten the Marine Corps or assuming the NATO Northern Flank mission missed the point; what was needed was a new warfighting construct.

Boyd’s “Pattern of Conflict” provided “the conceptual framework” that eventually lead to the adoption of the maneuver warfare doctrine by the Marine Corps.

Maneuver Warfare-The Answer and the Struggle to Adopt It

I found the last chapter of Maj Brown’s book, tracing the debate about maneuver warfare from its inception to being adopted as official doctrine, the most interesting. As Brown explains, four individuals were responsible for the successful adoption of maneuver warfare as the official doctrine of the Marine Corps: William S. Lind, Col Michael D. Wyly, Gen Alfred M. Gray, and Capt John Schmitt.

Lind was “the promoter;” the “outsider” whose “widespread public access and sheer enthusiasm” and “ability to connect key people to each other, combined with the force of his enthusiasm for Boyd’s work, extended Boyd’s reach to new and wider audiences.” Though, as is well-known, Lind was also persona non grata to many in the Marine Corps.

Col Wyly was “the teacher.” A rifle company commander in Vietnam, he was “frustrated by stale tactics and doctrine,” and had a strong “desire to preserve the lives of his men by finding less wasteful ways of fighting.” Wyly spent much of his career as a field grade officer trying to update tactics instruction until he was chosen by Gen Gray to be the Vice President of the newly established Marine Corps University, an assignment for which he was “perfectly suited.”6

Gen Gray was “the doer.” As is well-known, Gen Gray adopted maneuver warfare in the 2d Marine Division and encouraged officers of all ranks to study and discuss maneuver warfare. Appointed Commandant in

1988, Gen Gray “used his authority to make the maneuver philosophy based on Boyd the cornerstone of Marine Corps combat doctrine.”

Capt Schmitt was “the writer.” As a junior officer, Schmitt “found maneuver warfare, with its emphasis on lower-level initiative, empowering” and “became one of maneuver warfare‘s true believers.” Gen Gray give Schmitt “free reign” as to what to write:

You have to satisfy me and nobody else. You don’t answer to anybody except me. If anybody tries to unduly influence what you’re saying or you’re writing, you tell me about it and I’ll take care of it.

Consequently, “Schmitt was free to talk with whomever he wanted and used the ideas of any theorist he desired … he consulted with Lind, Wyly, and others.” Five months later, Schmitt “presented his completed draft to Gen Gray for comment. Gray read it and, as a testament to how well he believed Schmitt had captured his intent, made only two changes in the whole document.”

With the publication of Warfighting, maneuver warfare was now the official doctrine of the Marine Corps.7


Just as “Patterns of Conflict” arrived at the right time to assist the Marine Corps in the process of adopting maneuver warfare, A New Conception of War comes at an auspicious time for the Marine Corps as it struggles with understanding where to best position itself in the current operating environment refocusing on peer warfare. While reading A New Conception of War, I came across five different articles from various media sources providing advice on how the Marine Corps should go forward. While some of the material in the articles is redundant, referencing and quoting each other, the articles collectively illustrate that the Marine Corps is currently facing an “identity crisis.”8 Sir, Who Am 1? An Open Letter to the Incoming Commandant of the Marine Corps by Maj Leo Spaeder, a MAGTF planner, poses the “existential question” of what is the identity of the Marine Corps and the necessity for a “big idea organizing principle.”9 Maj Mark Nostro, also a MAGTF planner, suggests that the Marine Corps “must look to the future to evolve into a force that is reflective of its naval purpose.”10 A Proceedings article, coauthored by highly regarded LtCol Frank G. Hoffman, USMCR(Ret), explains why “amphibious power projection remains viable” and that “[t]he tactical value of the Marine Corps’ forcible-entry capability has not expired.11 A Washington Post article with the self-explanatory title, “Marine Corps Suffers Identity Crisis in Age of Cyberwarfare, Artificial Intelligence”12 and Russell’s Century-Old Plea for the Marine Corps, Updated for 2019 by Maj Brian Kerg support these articles. Maj Kerg “[i]mplore[s] all the stakeholders in the future of the Marine Corps to do their due diligence in providing our senior leadership with meaningful recommendations on how the Marine Corps should determine its purpose, character, and mission.”13

Earlier, I stated A New Conception of War is partly the story of how the Marine Corps adopted maneuver warfare as its doctrine. As important as that narrative is, the greatest benefit of reading A New Conception of War is the story of how the Marine Corps, facing a post-Vietnam operational environment with seemingly insurmountable problems, successfully overcame them. A New Conception of War provides confidence to present day Marines that we can successfully meet the challenges of the present operating environment, just as Marines in the past have done.

After reading A New Conception of War, I read both Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War by Robert Coram,14 and The Mind of War: John Boyd and American Security by Grant T. Hammond.^ Boyd was previously on the Commandant’s Professional Reading List (CPRL) until replaced in 2017 by The Mind of War. I agree that a book about Boyd’s development of his warfighting theories and their impact on the Marine Corps is worthy of inclusion on the CPRL, but highly recommend Maj Brown’s A New Conception of War be that book. Maj Brown provides a coherent overview of Boyd’s career (as do the other books), while also dictating a broader narrative concerning Boyd’s influence on the Marine Corps’ maneuver warfare debate, and the story of how maneuver warfare was adopted as the official doctrine of the Marine Corps via the efforts of some key individuals.

A New Conception of War is strongly recommended for anyone desiring an in-depth understanding of how maneuver warfare was adopted by the Marine Corps, and for those Marines currently struggling with ascertaining the best path forward for the Marine Corps today.


1. Frank G. Hoffman and. George P. Garrett, “Amphibious Assault Will Remain a ‘Core’ Competency,” Proceedings, (Annapolis, MD: U.S. Naval Institute, March 2019).

2. Renamed MCDP 1 in 1997.

3. Grant Hammond, The Mind of War: John Boyd and American Security, (New York, NY: Smithsonian Institution, 2012).

4. For all the times I have read Boyd described as a “former Air Force fighter pilot,” he “only accumulated 29 missions and44 combat flight hours before the signing of the [Korean] Armistice.” Boyd did not fly combat in Vietnam, possibly because by that time, “his career to this point was largely defined by solving scientific problems.”

5. This study suggested several ideas including mechanizing the Marine Corps to fight on NATO’s Central Front or go the opposite direction and change the Marine Corps to a light infantry force, transferring Army airborne, air assault and special operations units to the Marine Corps.

6. Boyd.

7. In a 1993 Gazette article, Wyly explicitly stated: “Had there been no … Lind or John Boyd, we would have continued our fight for a new style of fighting anyway.” Boyd’s contributions were instrumental, but he was not the central figure in the process of getting maneuver warfare adopted as doctrine.

8. Carlo Munoz, “Marine Corps Suffers Identity Crisis in Age of Cyber warfare, Artificial Intelligence,” The Washington Times, (Washington, DC: April 2019).

9. Leo Spaeder, “Sir, Who Am I? An Open Letter to the Incoming Commandant of the Marine Corps,” War on the Rocks, (Online: March 2019).

10. Mark Nostro, “Discarding the Ptolemaic Model of the Marine Corps,” War on the Rocks, (Online: April2019)11.

“Amphibious Assault Will Remain a ‘Core’ Competency.”

12. “Marine Corps Suffers Identity Crisis in Age of Cyberwarfare, Artificial Intelligence.”

13. Brian Kerg, “Russell’s Century-Old Plea for the Marine Corps,” War on the Rocks, (Online: April 2019).

14.1 found Coram’s Boyd to be an informative, yet fawning, narrative of Boyd’s life and career that does little, if anything, to explain Boyd’s part in adopting maneuver warfare as the Marine Corps’ official doctrine that Brown’s book fails to cover any better.

15. The Mind of War. I agree with Maj Brown’s assessment that “The Mind of War has … [a] better focus on Boyd’s professional career, but … it only briefly assess Boyd’s impact on the Marine Corps.” “Briefly” is an understatement.