John Boyd on Clausewitz: Don’t Fall in Love with Your Mental Model

Carl von Clausewitz and John Boyd are familiar to The Strategy Bridge crowd. Serious students of strategy know that both men left their marks on military policy, theory, and discussions on the nature and character of war itself. Yet outside the sparsely populated halls of professional strategy, one finds an imbalance. Whether in the pages of joint doctrine, American war colleges where “the answer is always Clausewitz,” or even a Google search of pundits applying classical  wisdom to modern crises, Clausewitz reigns supreme. As a mental framework for analyzing warfare, at least among Western thinkers, Clausewitz has outlasted all others as the enduring gold standard.

Thus it was with some fascination that, in a separate project, this author discovered extensive comments which John Boyd proffered about the Prussian theorist. While enterprising individuals have edited and uploaded a video version of Boyd presenting his seminal “Patterns of Conflict” briefing to a civilian audience, the Archives Branch of the Marine Corps History Division holds another version which is not publicly available. In this lecture, dated a few years after the YouTube edition, Boyd addressed a Marine Corps Command and Staff College audience, and spent much more time exploring military theory than he did with civilians.[1] Of all the theorists Boyd examined in “Patterns of Conflict,” Clausewitz received the most commentary—more so even than Sun Tzu, whose ideas Boyd generally gravitated toward. The extent of Boyd’s critique struck this author as a measure of how seriously Boyd took Clausewitz’s work. Any theorist who made it into “Patterns of Conflict” was someone whom Boyd found useful as a whetstone for sharpening his own ideas.

The goal of the following article is twofold. First, this author believes that illuminating obscure historical material is worthwhile in itself. Second, and perhaps more importantly, is to offer it as whetstone to help hone the “Clausewitz says X” approach to contemporary conflict. Overlaying a Clausewitzian framework on the adversary du jour can be problematic, as said adversaries do not always share that strategic perspective.[2] Dealing with diverse threats means understanding the frameworks through which adversaries view themselves and the world. This in turn requires that the strategist possess a rich repertoire of theories—and an understanding of their weaknesses—from which to draw. As will be seen below, it seems clear that expanding his audience’s repertoire, along with refining his own ideas, was Boyd’s goal in critiquing Clausewitz.

John Boyd delivering a lecture on "Patterns of Conflict" (YouTube)

In opening “Patterns of Conflict,” Boyd stated that he analyzed military history “from Sun Tzu to the present” to see “what kinds of things still hold together.”[3] History held many valuable lessons for the military thinker, but he warned against the uncritical use of ancient strategists as modern templates. Be it Sun Tzu, Jomini, or Clausewitz, if one thought that “we’re just going to use Clausewitz as the lens filter to look at the problem, you’re going to make a horrible mistake…because all you’ve told me is your thinking hasn’t proceeded beyond 1832, and a lot of things have happened since 1832.”[4]

After surveying ancient and medieval military history, Boyd came to the Napoleonic era and Clausewitz. Here he began exploring internal contradictions he found within On War. One such contradiction was Clausewitz’s position on concentration and speed: “[Clausewitz] didn’t understand it himself. He says act with the utmost concentration, and later on he says it’s the highest possible principle…but then when he goes into the discussion, he shows four exceptions on the idea of concentration. Four exceptions!”[5] This raised the question, “If it’s the highest principle, then why do you have an exception?”[6] Beyond that, Boyd observed when Clausewitz “talks about speed, there’s no exceptions…but concentration’s the highest principle. And then when you read between the lines of concentration, if you can operate fast you don’t require to be concentrated [sic].”[7] Clausewitz, then, despite his own assertions, believed “the premier idea’s speed, not concentration.”[8]

Boyd noted another contradiction in Clausewitz’s comparison between the strength of the offense and defense. First, Clausewitz “gets in the mountains, which is rough terrain. Then he says offense is the stronger form.”[9] The discussion then moved to forested terrain; here, Boyd said, “he’s a little bit more clever…he’s sort of saying the offense is the stronger form, but he couldn’t say it.”[10] And later on, Clausewitz comments on morale, arguing that “if you got more morale and the other guy’s got less, it also may be the offense may be stronger.”[11] From these apparent contradictions, Boyd determined that what Clausewitz was “really saying then, the offense or defense, whether one’s stronger than the other depends upon the situation, whether it be terrain or people and that.”[12] Boyd certainly agreed with this implication; his problem with Clausewitz was that “he had to have an absolute notion.”[13] While the many exceptions to his own rules suggest Clausewitz himself realized an inherent problem with such rigidity, he did not express that realization in his book. Hence, flexibility came across as contradiction.

Karl von Clausewitz by Karl Wilhelm Wach (Wikimedia)

Boyd found that Clausewitz transferred his absolutist tendency to the concepts of friction and centers of gravity. In general, Boyd agreed with how Clausewitz characterized friction. Clausewitz labeled war as a “duel or act of human interaction directed against an animate object that reacts.”[14] One could not predict precisely how an opponent would react, and this led to a larger discussion of the many physical, mental, and moral forces present in war, the interactions of which—on both the friendly and enemy sides—were also unpredictable. Clausewitz rolled these interactions into the concept of friction, which “tends to…impede activity.”[15] Boyd reminded his audience of Clausewitz’s statement on friction:  “Friction is the only concept…that more or less corresponds with those factors that distinguish real war from war on paper.”[16] On this, Boyd agreed:  “If you haven’t accounted for friction, you’re not talking about real war. And he’s quite right, if you think about it.”[17]

The problem of absolutes came into play when Clausewitz discussed reducing friction on the friendly side. To do this, Clausewitz tried to make things as simple as possible. One had to: out those centers of gravity upon which all power and movement depend and if possible trace them back to a single one… then [Clausewitz] squeezed it one more time. He said in that effort, compress all effort against those centers into the fewest possible actions. Still not satisfied, he gives it another squeeze. He says, subordinate all minor and secondary actions as much as possible in all this activity…and move with the utmost speed.[18]

All this simplification and compression emphasized “method and routine at the tactical level” to mitigate internal friction.[19] Boyd took issue with this intense focus on reducing friendly friction to the lowest absolute level. As he saw it, this inward look “failed to address if you want to try to magnify [your] adversary’s friction and uncertainty.”[20] Moreover, internal simplification could actually make an adversary’s job easier, since “if you have routine in your own services and become predictable, you’ve also lowered your adversary’s friction relative to you.”[21] Additionally, Clausewitz’s goal of moving with utmost speed was meaningless absent some purpose besides speed for its own sake: “Why do you want to move with the utmost speed?... Just to get there first? He should’ve said he wanted to move faster than the adversary. What’s utmost? The other guy’s moving with utmost, he might be faster than you.”[22] As he did with friction, Boyd viewed speed as a relative, or relational, factor, rather than an absolute.

In his time, Clausewitz was not alone in foisting scientific rules onto non-scientific domains; but Boyd wanted to highlight the danger of doing so, since an erroneous understanding of centers of gravity clouded their subsequent application.

Boyd also deconstructed Clausewitz’s view of the center of gravity (COG). As some strategists have noted, critiques of the COG often stem from poor translations of On War. However, other critics have successfully worked past translation issues and analyzed the center of gravity’s overly mechanistic nature, and Boyd fell in this category. As Clausewitz saw it, the center of gravity “is always found where the mass is concentrated most densely.”[23] Yet Boyd observed, “that’s not always true. In a donut, the center of gravity [is where] there is no mass. In a hollow steel ball, it’s where the steel isn’t. In a dumbbell, it’s in the connection between the mass.”[24] Boyd argued in a different unpublished critique that Clausewitz’s mistake here was using “center of gravity in a scientific sense—then said it applied to war as an analogy.”[25] In his time, Clausewitz was not alone in foisting scientific rules onto non-scientific domains; but Boyd wanted to highlight the danger of doing so, since an erroneous understanding of centers of gravityclouded their subsequent application.

The problem with Clausewitz’s characterization of the center of gravity linked back to his desire to simplify things internally. Clausewitz wanted to identify a single center of gravity and then maximize one’s own efforts directly against it. “If you accept that,” warned Boyd, “that [the center of gravity is] where mass concentrates most densely, then you go after that, then you’ve got strength against strength.”[26] Though Clausewitz noted that the center of gravity could be something besides an enemy’s army—such as a national capital, a rebellion’s leadership, or the community of interest in an alliance—his examples were generally physical objects valuable enough to an enemy that they would be well-protected. Add in Clausewitz’s admonition that “the defeat of the enemy consists in overcoming the resistance concentrated in his center of gravity,” and one begins to see how overmatching an adversary’s mass with one’s own risked a high  volume of destruction and blood-letting.[27]

Boyd replaced Clausewitz’s materialistic definition of the center of gravity with his own: “those things that permit an organic whole to stay together, whatever they are, moral, mental, physical.”[28] Rather than seeking the densest concentration of physical mass, Boyd wanted to “find that thing that allows [the organic whole] to retain [its] connectivity;” and once identified, “break down those connections and get everything flying off in different directions, [and] now you’ve got many what I call non-cooperatives. Each one’s a little center of gravity not connected up with the other one…then you scarf them up.”[29] By broadening the characterization of the center of gravity, Boyd offered the friendly force a larger target set, and expanded its options beyond throwing physical strength against physical strength. Boyd elaborated on this broader conception of war in the latter part of “Patterns of Conflict;” but that story is outside the scope of this discussion.

Clausewitz was not the only theorist Boyd critiqued, and Boyd by no means dismissed Clausewitz’s ideas wholesale. Boyd’s point was that picking one particular framework as the definitive model was dangerously self-limiting—especially if that framework had observable weaknesses—and potentially self-destructive if one’s adversary did not place himself under similar restrictions. He compared this to using two different types of radios:

If you have a narrowband radio, you can’t examine the other bands, can you? If [the enemy]’s got a wideband, he can examine yours, plus he can operate the other stuff and be hosing you and you don’t even know it…you want the wideband filter. And if you’re only using Clausewitz, you got [sic] a narrowband filter through which you’re looking at the world of conflict.[30]

Boyd made this point myriad ways, with the goal of pushing his audience to develop a deep repertoire of knowledge from which to draw in times of crisis. Widening the aperture to look beyond any single theory or theorist was a critical first step in achieving that goal.

Boyd sought not so much to circumvent Clausewitz as to use the Prussian’s concepts as fuel in his own mental refinery.

The author hopes this short discourse on one strategic mind assessing another has met the two goals laid out above. To be clear on the second goal: Boyd sought not so much to circumvent Clausewitz as to use the Prussian’s concepts as fuel in his own mental refinery. And Boyd’s message to his audience was that the process of mental refinement could not stop, nor be confined to the ideas of any one individual, no matter how insightful they might be.[31] What might Clausewitz have made of such a critique? Judging by his own words, he would likely have been of the same mind:  “Any…discipline…must always be capable of growth, of constant accretion. In any event it is not all that easy to set limits to the human intellect.”[32] As a tragic witness to the Prussian collapse at Jena-Auerstedt, Clausewitz saw first-hand the failure of self-limiting mental models. Whatever their other differences in character and experience, he would probably agree with Boyd on the importance of making make one’s lens filter as wide as possible.

Ian T. Brown is a U.S. Marine Corps officer. His forthcoming book from the Marine Corps University Press, A New Conception of War (summer 2018), is a reexamination of the development of maneuver warfare doctrine in the Marine Corps. The opinions expressed here are the author’s alone and do not reflect those of the U.S. Marine Corps, the Department of the Navy, the Department of Defense, or any part of the U.S. Government.

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Header Image: John Boyd and Karl von Clausewitz


[1] The audio recording itself is held in the Boyd collection by the Marine Corps History Division (see John R. Boyd, “Discourse on Winning and Losing,” lecture to USMC Command and Staff College, 25 April 1989, [8 audio cassette tapes/8 compact discs], Archives Branch, Marine Corps History Division, Quantico, VA). In the course of the project for which I was researching the Boyd papers, I developed a full verbatim transcript of the audio recording to aid my own work and that of future researchers. All the citations which follow will use the page numbering that came in the natural course of transcribing the audio, but I also include the tape and side numbers for anyone interested in listening to the audio itself. The transcript is available from the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation, which provided a generous grant to complete the transcription project; the Marine Corps History Division, Archives Branch; or separate correspondence with the author.

[2] For example, the Chinese military has studied Clausewitz, but its thinking is also steeped in the Daoist philosophy of Sun Tzu; see Yu Tiejun, “The Western Master and Bible of War: Clausewitz and his ‘On War’ in China,” in Clausewitz Goes Global: Carl von Clausewitz in the 21st Century (Berlin: Miles Verlag, 2014), 42–59, and Phillip S. Meilinger, “China and Clausewitz,” Defense Analysis 17, no. 3 (December 2001), 325–326. Russia’s strategic outlook remains grounded in Soviet theory. Furthermore, Russian Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov’s description of so-called new generation warfare—though it does not explicitly mention Clausewitz—rejects a recognizably Clausewitzian conflict framework in favor of one far more expansive. ISIS’ plans for building a new caliphate and expanding its reach drew on the military campaigns of Mohammed, bypassing Western theory completely.

[3] Boyd, “Discourse on Winning and Losing, tape 1, side 1, 3.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., tape 1, side 2, 27–28.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., tape 4, side 1, 114–115.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid., tape 2, side 1, 40–43.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Roger Spiller, “Critique of John Boyd’s ‘Patterns of Conflict,’” 12, undated, folder 9, box 5, Col John R. Boyd Papers.

[26] Boyd, “Discourse on Winning and Losing, tape 2, side 2, 67–68.

[27] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, eds. and trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976), 596.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid., tape 1, side 2, 19–20.

[31] Boyd noted the dangers of this divergence—self-satisfaction with one’s mental model of the world, leading to stagnation as the realities of a changing world move farther away from one’s perception of it—in his essay “Destruction and Creation,” and explored it further in his development of the observation-orientation-decision-action (OODA) loop.

[32] Cited in Peter Paret, “The Genesis of On War,” in Clausewitz, On War,  11.