A New Conception of War

reviewed by LtCol Frank G. Hoffman, USMCR(Ret)

A NEW CONCEPTION OF WAR: By John Boyd, The U.S. Marines, and Maneuver Warfare. By Ian T. Brown. Quantico, VA: Marine Corps University Press, 2018. ISBN: 978-0997317497,354 pp.

This İs an exceptional effort blending biographical, military theory, and institutional history into a cohesive narrative. The author, a serving major in the U.S. Marine Corps, has produced a crisp and spectacularly researched history of the development of maneuver warfare theory that culminated in 1989 with the publication of FMFM 1, Warfighting.

A New Conception of War builds upon and significantly extends the excellent work done by Robert Co rum’s Boyd: The Fight Pilot Who Changed the Art of War, Grant Hammond’s A Mind at War, and Frans Osİnga’s Science, Strategy, and War. These were more biographical İn nature rather than focusing on Boyd’s influence on the Marines in the post-Vietnam era. Osİnga’s effort was a deep dive into the multi-disciplinary foundation of Boyd’s theories. Maj Brown puts Boyd’s ideas and the debates surrounding the introduction of maneuver warfare into their context as the Marines sought to learn from their decade in Southeast Asia. The result İs a rich insight into the Marine Corps culture and its efforts to adopt an understanding of warfare that reached a highpoint İn 1989 but continues today.

In addition to detailing the role or major contributors such as Commandant Gen Alfred M. Gray and his amanuensis Capt John Schmitt, Brown weaves İn the observances of Col Mike Wyly, William Lind, and then Majs G.I. Wilson and Tony Wood. Having worked at HQMC at this time, working for Gen Gray, the history of the period, and the brief biographical sketches of the major contributors resonates throughout the book. Without a doubt many others were involved.

Utilizing interviews from the key contributors and newly available material, Maj Brown captures the many aspects of maneuver theory and elaborates on how Boyd’s major ideas, including deception, fast transitions, and the famous “OODA loop,” were initially interpreted. Brown devotes considerable effort on the cognitive or “moral conflict” elements of the theory which are key to its defeat mechanisms. The moral elements, properly developed in peacetime, built upon trust, cohesion, and bold initiative that allowed units act under conditions of ambiguity and friction. This İs a form of warfare that seeks to increase the uncertainty and friction of the opponent or, in Maj Brown’s words, “sought to deliberately fray or sever those bonds in a way that reduced an opponent to a chaotic assortment of frightened, mistrustful, and isolated individuals.” This requires careful knowledge of one’s opponent.

A key aspect of Brown’s analysis is the identification of the role of individuals and the intellectual debate among professionals. This was key to the development of both the Small Wars Manual and amphibious warfare in the 1930s, and it continued to be critical İn the development of the maneuver warfare philosophy İn the late 1970s and early ’80s. Maj Brown demonstrates how the Marine Corps Gazette served as the venue for intellectual debate and acknowledges the role that the editor, the late Col John E. Greenwood, played in maintaining the vigorous and balanced discussion.

This book comes at a timely point in the history of our Corps. The former Commanding General of the 2d Marine Division and Marine Corps Combat Development Command, retired LtGen Paul K. Van Riper, observes in the foreword that:

It is a superb piece of scholarship that U.S. Marine Officers must read and digest if they are to truly understand the roots of maneuver warfare, and more important, advance the profession of arms with their own intellectual efforts.

That Foreword underscores the immense value of this book, a timeless call for action by one of our Corps’ great intellectuals, from someone who helped revolutionize our thinking and the educational system that sustains it. Gen Van Rip er s comment reminds us how to proceed today to sustain our institution and its aggregate value in the coming age. The essence of maneuver warfare is not simply reacting to change but adapting faster than your opponents and targeting the enemy’s gaps in order to generate dilemmas faster than the adversaries may cope. Boyd did not limit that famous cycle to merely examples of aerial combat or even campaigns. His theory is for both the institutional and operational level, calling for what Maj Brown describes as a “mind-set that could recognize when circumstances changed, process the new in formation, and make those decisions necessary to adapt and triumph.”

The Marine Corps is once again in an era of transition, as the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria appear to be winding down. The institution is grappling with the realities that our Nation must adapt, including facing fiscal limits. Additionally, similar to the conclusion of the Vietnam War, there are debates about the utility of amphibious warfare given the proliferation of precision weapons, which make the DOD’s penchant for expensive and “exquisite” acquisition programs appear problematic. Do these programs expand the competitive space or impose costs on ourselves? What are the roles and missions the Marine Corps should focus on? How well have we truly embraced maneuver warfare and does it apply in this coming age? What new operational and organizational concepts need to be tested and implemented?

As the Corps transitions, it has begun the process of introspection and inquiry essential to adapting to the ever-evolving character of conflict. Additionally, it has begun to ask critical questions about the role of geography and history as it applies to maritime power, cyber threats, and non-direct but coercive forms of influence. The Marine Corps is also examining the introduction of key but disruptive technologies like nano-tech, artificial intelligence, and advances in materials and manufacturing which do not favor complacent assumptions of competitive advantage in future scenarios. Amidst this ongoing transition, the value of Brown’s history is that it emphasizes Col John Boyd’s ideas and framework for thinking through the implications. New options for influencing the moral and human dimension of conflict are available and it behooves all security institutions to recalibrate their competencies if they are to anticipate and adapt to modern conflict under these conditions.

This is a wonderfully impressive intellectual history, and it most certainly belongs on the Commandant’s reading list and in every Marine’s library.