The “Grand Ideal”

By Maj Ian T Brown

Col John Boyd, USAF(Ret), is best known for his observation-orientation-decision-action (or “OODA”) loop. But as I mentioned in a previous article (“Opening the Loop,” MCG, June 2015, 52), there is more to Boyd’s theories on conflict than is generally appreciated. Today, as our Nation struggles to define strategies for countering global adversaries, our decision makers could benefit from the study of another underappreciated aspect of his work: his analysis of levels of conflict, especially at the highest national level. For him, the tactical successes of maneuver warfare were linked through the operational and strategic levels to a national vision that provided the moral impetus for everything below it. This “unifying vision,” “rooted in human nature so noble,” worked on an ideological scale to increase one’s own moral strength while undermining that of the adversary.1 There have been times in our country’s history when our leaders understood the power of this idea; today, they urgently need to rediscover it.

Boyd’s largest work—the “Patterns of Conflict” brief—contained observations on the full spectrum of conflict well beyond decision-making processes. For example, Boyd’s excellent analysis of insurgency and counterinsurgency has remained virtually unknown until reexamined in Daniel Ford’s A Vision So Noble.2 Boyd also discussed levels of conflict beyond the tactical. He noted that there were three kinds of conflict: the familiar attrition and maneuver and then “moral” conflict.3 The ideas that came to define Marine Corps maneuver warfare melded intangible and physical factors together, attacking an adversary’s mind (intangible) so that he could not effectively manipulate his forces (physical). Moral conflict operated almost entirely on the intangible plane, with the goal of attacking an adversary’s ability “to exist as an organic whole.”4 Moral conflict was comprised of several “negative factors” and their counterweights; Boyd’s description of its essence is worth quoting at length:

Negative Factors:

Menace – Impressions of danger to one’s well being [sic] and survival.

Uncertainty – Impressions, or atmosphere, generated by events that appear ambiguous, erratic, contradictory, unfamiliar, chaotic, etc.

Mistrust – Atmosphere of doubt and suspicion that loosens human bonds among members of an organic whole or between organic wholes.


Initiative – Internal drive to think and take action without being urged.

Adaptability – Power to adjust or change in order to cope with new or unforeseen circumstances.

Harmony – Interaction of apparently disconnected events or entities in a connected way.


Pump-up friction via negative factors to breed fear, anxiety, and alienation in order to generate many non-cooperative centers of gravity, as well as subvert those that adversary depends upon, thereby sever moral bonds that permit adversary to exist as an organic whole.


Build-up and play counterweights against negative factors to diminish internal friction, as well as surface courage, confidence, and esprit, thereby make possible the human interactions needed to create moral bonds that permit us, as an organic whole, to shape and adapt to change.5

Moral conflict raised the discussion beyond the interaction of units on a battlefield and into the realm of survival as a people or nation. Here, physical destruction mattered less than spiritual destruction. “Courage, confidence, and esprit” became the important counters, not infantry battalions and fighter wings.

At the grand strategic level, Boyd’s analysis emphasized a shift from a destructive to a constructive mental framework. Most of “Patterns of Conflict” focused on the adversary and what to do to him; thus, the goals of tactics, “grand tactics” (operations), and strategy sounded much the same:

Penetrate adversary’s moral-mental-physical being to dissolve his moral fiber, disorient his mental images, disrupt his operations, and overload his system, as well as subvert or seize those moral-mental-physical bastions, connections, or activities he depends upon, in order to destroy internal harmony, produce paralysis, and collapse adversary’s will to resist.6

In articulating one’s “strategic aim,” however, we begin to see the shift in focus from the enemy to one’s self: “diminish adversary’s capacity while improving our capacity to adapt as an organic whole, so that our adversary cannot cope, while we can cope, with events/efforts as they unfold.” Grand strategy focused on self even further:

… shape pursuit of national goal so that we not only amplify our spirit and strength (while undermining and isolating our adversaries) but also influence the uncommitted or potential adversaries so that they are drawn toward our philosophy and are empathetic toward our success.

Finally, the national goal is entirely self-focused: “improve our fitness, as an organic whole, to shape and cope with an everchanging [sic] environment.” Thus, before an adversary ever entered the equation, a nation needed a powerful sense of what it was about, and what it sought for itself in the future. This went back to Sun Tzu, whose placement of “know yourself” before “know your enemy” in his famous dictum was no accident. A modern paraphrase of “know yourself” is “why we fight,” and Boyd observed that in the most difficult national struggles, a powerful “why” was crucial:

For success over the long haul and under the most difficult conditions, one needs some unifying vision that can be used to attract the uncommitted as well as pump-up friendly resolve and drive and drain-away or subvert adversary resolve and drive … what is needed is a vision rooted in human nature so noble, so attractive that it not only attracts the uncommitted and magnifies the spirit and strength of its adherents, but also undermines the dedication and determination of any competitors or adversaries … such a unifying notion should be so compelling that it acts as a catalyst or beacon around which to evolve those qualities that permit a collective entity or organic whole to improve its stature in the scheme of things … we are suggesting a need for a supra-orientation or center-of-gravity that permits leaders, and other authorities, to inspire their followers and members to enthusiastically take action toward confronting and conquering all obstacles that stand in the way.7

Boyd characterized this concept as a “theme for vitality and growth,” which fed the national goal by combining the “unifying vision” with key ingredients:

Unifying Vision:

A grand ideal, overarching theme, or noble philosophy that represents a coherent paradigm within which individuals as well as societies can shape and adapt to unfolding circumstances—yet offers a way to expose flaws of competing or adversary systems.

Ingredients Needed to Pursue Vision:

Insight – Ability to peer into and discern the inner nature or working of things.

Initiative – Internal drive to think and take action without being urged.

Adaptability – Power to adjust or change in order to cope with new or unforeseen circumstances.

Harmony – Power to perceive or create interaction of apparently disconnected events or entities in a connected way.8

This is heady stuff, linking the success of maneuver warfare tactics and overall strategy not to a nation’s industrial base or manpower pool, but its sense of why it exists in the first place and why it deserves to survive and win. Ideas alone did not win the struggles of nations—Boyd made this clear in connecting the intangibles of the national goal down through the maneuver tactics required to collapse an adversary’s physical forces in the field—but a combat force lacking a “noble vision” articulated from above also lacked the moral and spiritual motive required on the battlefield when things got hard.

Perhaps this seems beyond the purview of America’s national security. But there have been many a time when American leaders understood that a vision as described above could be a crucial factor in the success of the country’s security goals. America has always been a nation of ideals, appealing to principle—rather than ethnic, linguistic, or other traditional measures of nationality—to justify its use of armed force. One sees this, for example, in the Emancipation Proclamation and Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, both of which linked the military and political goals of the Civil War to the concept of justice for the enslaved.9 In the last 100 years, with its increasingly robust bureaucracy and penchant for formally codifying strategy on paper, the executive branch and defense establishment have done the same with documents detailing strategic guidance. When articulated well, I believe that the “unifying visions” within those documents had very concrete real-world impacts.

Arguably the best strategic vision of the modern era was laid out in the Report to the National Security Council or NSC 68 of 12 April 1950. It was an eloquent summation of why the United States believed confronting communist expansion was imperative. Its first 12 pages drew a stark and detailed contrast between the values and motives of the United States and Soviet Union and made American leadership and the ultimate collapse of communist totalitarianism a moral imperative.10 Drawing on America’s founding documents (as well as possibly the only reference to the Federalist Papers in any strategic paper), NSC 68 made clear the stakes at the dawn of the Cold War. Interestingly, it was not written as mass propaganda; classified Top Secret, NSC 68 was intended for a select inner circle of the executive branch. Thus, there is a purity in making the principles of freedom fundamental to security strategy. Its clarity arrived not a moment too soon, as a Soviet-backed North Korea invaded the South mere months after it was written.

Ronald Reagan’s National Security Strategies (NSS) of 1987 and 1988 also exemplified the “grand ideal.” Both were unapologetic in their belief in the goodness of American values, pulled no punches in outlining the oppressive nature of the Soviet state, and promised that the United States would not ignore the plight of those millions who lived under the communist yoke.11

After the fall of the Soviet Union and the brief vacation from history of the 1990s, America found herself confronted by another dark ideology in the form of radical Islam. NSS 2002 sought to confront Islamism head on, swearing to counter it with a uniquely American internationalism based on the values of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence.12 It failed to lay out the moral contrast between America and Islamism to the extent of NSC 68 or Reagan’s NSSs, but the NSS of 2006 corrected this shortfall. It then went beyond moral contrasts to specify how democracy could be used to counter terrorism’s supposed grievances and finally offered operational guidance linking this vision to the “clear, hold, and build” concept American forces were applying in Iraq. This concept meshed political, security, and economic goals together, thus making NSS 2006 perhaps the only modern American strategic document that attempted to connect the national goal, grand strategy, strategic aim, and operational methodology together in the fashion of Boyd’s exegesis on the moral level of war.13 It is worth reading in its entirety with Boyd’s ideas in mind.

I believe one can link the potency of the visions outlined in these documents with corresponding high points in the execution of American security strategy. NSC 68 was applied when America decided to hold the line in Korea against armed communist expansion. NSS 1987 and 1988 were the background for the competition in the 1980s that finally drove the Soviet Union into the grave. NSS 2006 laid the foundation for the remarkable turnaround in an Iraq torn asunder.

Conversely, we don’t tend to do as well when our strategic guidance is unmoored from a driving vision. The incoherence of Lyndon Johnson’s strategy in Vietnam can be traced to his first memorandum on the subject, National Security Action Memorandum No. 273. It argued that it was in America’s interest to fight in Vietnam but never said why, while seeking plausible deniability for any American activity.14 President Richard M. Nixon was the first to explicitly walk back the notion of American leadership laid out in NSC 68.15 In Presidential Directive 18, the Carter administration could no longer bring itself to call the Soviet Union an adversary or explain why its expansion should be countered.16 Several of the NSSs of the first Bush and Clinton administrations gave lip service to American values but foreswore their active promotion or defense in other countries.17 Parts of the NSSs from the current administration are more critical of previous administrations and domestic political opponents than those nations and organizations seeking to undermine or attack the United States.18 All told, these documents lack the type of compelling ideas and contrasts that Boyd argued were as crucial to national success as the strength of one’s armies. The strategic drift of the 1960s, 70s, 90s, and today reflect the cost of a vacillating America, unsure of herself and her guiding values.

John Boyd believed that a “unifying vision” acted as a force multiplier at the highest level of war. Many times, our national leaders—consciously or unconsciously—understood this concept and made it the foundation of their security strategies. I think our Nation has done better abroad when this is the case, with the historical record bearing out the power of clear, compelling, and unapologetic ideals. We urgently need to rediscover this truth today, when our leaders and commanders have publicly admitted lacking a strategy for dealing with a world full of adversaries. As this country faces threats from Islamists in ISIS, apocalyptic theocrats in Iran, an aggressive regional hegemon in China, resurgent imperialism in Russia, and a host of other adversaries, renewing our clarity of vision is increasingly critical. While our Nation’s response to each crisis may vary, national leaders owe their strategists well-articulated principles when framing the problem. Failing to do so has never prevented future conflict; it only makes that conflict, when it comes, longer, harder, and bloodier than necessary.


1. John R. Boyd, “Patterns of Conflict,” A Discourse on Winning and Losing (unpublished manuscript, 1987), 143–144.

2. Daniel Ford, A Vision So Noble: John Boyd, the OODA Loop, and America’s War on Terror, (Durham, NH: Warbird Books, 2010).

3. Boyd, “Patterns of Conflict,” 111.

4. Ibid., 125.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid., 141.

7. Ibid., 143.

8. Ibid., 144.

9. Abraham Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address, The Avalon Project, (4 March 1865), accessed 27 August 2015 at Abraham Lincoln, Transcript of the Emancipation Proclamation, National Archives and Records Administration, (1 January 1863), accessed 27 August 2015 at

10. A Report to the National Security Council–NSC 68, President’s Secretary’s File, Truman Papers, Truman Presidential Library, (12 April 1950), 1–12, accessed 28 July 2015 at

11. Ronald Reagan, National Security Strategy of the United States, National Security Strategy Archive, (January 1987), 1–10, 41, accessed 28 July 2015, Ronald Reagan, National Security Strategy of the United States, National Security Strategy Archive, (January 1988), 3–4, 7, 10 accessed 28 July 2015 at

12. George W. Bush, The National Security Strategy of the United States of America, The White House, (September 2002), iv–vi, 1–3, accessed 28 July 2015 at

13. George W. Bush, The National Security Strategy of the United States of America, The White House, (March 2006), 1–5, 10–13, accessed 28 July 2015 at

14. Lyndon B. Johnson, National Security Action Memorandum No. 273, Johnson Presidential Library, (26 November 1963), 1–3, accessed 28 July 2015 at

15. Richard Nixon, First Annual Report to the Congress on United States Foreign Policy for the 1970s, The American Presidency Project, UC Santa Barbara, (18 February 1970), 1–2, accessed 28 July 2015 at

16. Jimmy E. Carter, Presidential Directive/NSC-18, Carter Presidential Library, (24 August 1977), 1–2, accessed 28 July 2015 at

17. George H.W. Bush, National Security Strategy of the United States, National Security Strategy Archive, (August 1991), v, 2, accessed 28 July 2015, William Jefferson Clinton, A National Security Strategy of Engagement and Enlargement, National Security Strategy Archive, (February 1996), i, iii–iv, 2, accessed 28 July 2015 at

18. Barack Obama, National Security Strategy, The White House, (May 2010), 2, 5, 10, 36, accessed 28 July 2015, Barack Obama, National Security Strategy, The White House, (February 2015), ii, 3, 19, accessed 28 July 2015 at