#Reviewing A New Conception of War

A New Conception of War: John Boyd, the U.S. Marines, and Maneuver Warfare. Ian T. Brown. Quantico, Virginia: Marine Corps University Press, 2018.

On the otherwise quiet Monday morning of March 6, 1989, a revolution occurred in the private office at the Commandant of the Marine Corps’ home when General Al Gray affixed his signature to a document. Until that moment, the Marine Corps thought about warfare in terms of the firepower and attrition doctrine that had characterized its operations in World War II, Korea, and the worst parts of Vietnam. With the stroke of a pen, General Gray made maneuver warfare the official doctrine of the Marine Corps. The document in question was no mere memo or Marine Corps Order, but the draft of Fleet Marine Force Manual-1 Warfighting, the Marine Corps’ capstone doctrinal publication. This momentous event took place without ceremony and was witnessed only by Captain John Schmitt, the document’s principal author, and the Commandant’s numerous Labrador Retrievers.

As is always the case with revolutionary documents, the story neither began nor ended with the signature. This one was based on the idea that victory is achieved not through merely physically destroying the enemy in a tit-for-tat exchange, but by defeating him first in the mental and moral dimensions of war.

The person who largely sparked this doctrinal shift wasn’t even a Marine, but a retired Air Force fighter pilot named John Boyd. In the years following the frustration of Vietnam, he and several like-minded and energetic Marines and civilians worked to change the way the Marine Corps thought about and fought wars.

Marine Major Ian Brown, who like all Marine officers of the past three decades heard stories of John Boyd and the reforms he sparked while at The Basic School, undoubtedly from instructors with little more than a cursory familiarity with the subject matter. Boyd’s contributions piqued Brown’s interest and encouraged him to dig deeper into the story. Brown’s book, A New Conception of War: John Boyd, the U.S. Marines, and Maneuver Warfare, tells the story of how Boyd went from developing innovative aerial tactics at the U.S. Air Force Fighter Weapons School, to creating an entirely new method of measuring aircraft performance, and then finally to teaching the Marine Corps a better way of fighting wars. Elements of this story have been told elsewhere, as in Robert Coram’s biography, Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War. But Brown fills an important gap in the Boyd scholarship by drilling down specifically on his connection with the Marine Corps and the ways he interacted with the key players involved in the maneuver warfare transformation. Rather than simply producing a biography of an important military thinker, Brown has written a thorough history of the fundamental intellectual shift from the industrial-age thinking that had shaped the Marine Corps for a century to an emphasis on a force capable of shattering an enemy’s cohesiveness to steal quick victories.

Brown expanded on the previous literature by making use of materials either not available to earlier scholars or simply overlooked, including an Air Force oral history with Boyd. More importantly, Brown created a full transcript of one of Boyd’s “Patterns of Conflict” briefings. It was mainly through these briefings that Boyd propagated his ideas. He became notorious within the national security community by insisting that everyone, whether a second lieutenant or Senator, sit through the brief in its entirety or not receive it at all. The transcript allows scholars to read Boyd’s elaborations on his ideas, as well as his interactions with the audience. These were the ideas that shaped and connected the various strands of a larger reform movement then taking place within the Marine Corps.

In setting the stage for the work Boyd did with the Marine Corps, Brown provides a lengthy description of its doctrinal evolution in the twentieth century. This includes a section dedicated to the continued relevance of amphibious operations. The point of this part of the discussion is to show how adaptable and open to change the Marine Corps has been throughout the years and why Boyd found a receptive audience within its ranks. The entire chapter feels somewhat tangential, however. The point of it could have been made concisely in a few paragraphs and would have given the narrative a better flow. A discussion about the continued relevance of amphibious operations, to be sure a touchy subject for many Marines as it speaks directly to the continued existence of their service, seems particularly out of place.

John Boyd During the Korean War (Wikimedia)

Despite the book’s central focus on Boyd, Brown makes clear that many people worked to change Marine Corps doctrine in the 1970s and 80s. (In full disclosure, this reviewer has been personally mentored by several of the key players involved in the narrative.) He introduces readers to a diverse cast of characters, without whom the Marine Corps’ doctrinal shift would not have occurred. These include Colonel Mike Wyly, who began teaching these ideas to junior officers after changing the curriculum of a key Marine Corps course; Captain Schmitt, the junior doctrine writer assigned directly by General Gray to write the new manual; and William Lind, an historian and Senator Gary Hart’s national security advisor, who introduced Boyd to the Marine Corps and tirelessly advocated for the change.

He also writes about junior officers like Captain Stephen Miller, who started writing articles for the Marine Corps Gazette in the mid-1970s about the importance of gaining a psychological advantage over the enemy through the use of battlefield deception to give Marines a qualitative edge relative to the enemy. When Boyd first began working with the Marine Corps a few years later, he helped to give officers like Miller and others circling around similar concepts a common vocabulary. In telling this story, Brown paints the picture of a movement that began from the bottom and gradually expanded outwards before finally ascending to the top. That is the true value of this work. Brown delved deep into the contemporaneous literature, mainly in the pages of the Marine Corps Gazette, to trace the evolution of maneuver warfare thinking within the Marine Corps. He shows how junior and mid-career officers developed these ideas and provided the energy and impetus to move them forward.

In discussing Boyd, Brown maintains a focus on his ideas, providing just enough biographical details to reveal how his experiences shaped his thoughts on warfare. Thus, this is the Boyd book for people who think they don’t like John Boyd or for those whose believe his contributions are limited to the OODA (Observe-Orient-Decide-Act) loop. Brown also makes clear this effort was about more than simply creating a new document; it was also intended to change the way Marines are educated and trained and how decisions are made about equipment. While the full vision of Boyd and the others have yet to be realized, Warfighting endures as the Marine Corps’ premier doctrinal publication. Debate about its meaning, and about maneuver warfare, has continued for forty years. Brown traces the inevitable backlash from those who believed that the status quo had served the Marine Corps well and that the self-termed maneuverists threatened the discipline and centralized control they believed to be necessary for mission accomplishment. He also highlights the current discussions about how well the Marine Corps has institutionalized maneuver warfare by detailing the various arguments others have made criticizing the Marine Corps for what they perceive as its failure to achieve the level of maneuver warfare purity they desire. Brown provides this important rebuttal to that criticism:

But perhaps this standard of universality is unfair. Indeed, it is challenging to think of any large organization—from churches and businesses to legislatures and sports teams—in which every member measures up to the lofty goals held by the organization.[1]

Overall, Brown places the entire saga in its proper context and succeeds in his intended purpose of reminding his target audience of his fellow Marines why a slim manual of just over 100 pages dictates every facet of their working lives. He does miss an opportunity to expand that audience by showing that the intellectual changes that had taken place within the Marine Corps were part of a larger military-reform effort of that era that spanned the services and the entire national-security space. There is some debate about whether the maneuver warfare revolution would have occurred at all had it not been for the outside pressure exerted by lawmakers who, having received Boyd’s briefings, engaged with service leaders about actual warfare and combat rather than just budget and acquisition details that so often dominate discussions today. Still, this book shows how just relatively few junior military officers wielding innovative ideas can combine forces, perhaps with an outsider or two, to completely revamp the way their service thinks about warfare.

Dan Grazier is a retired Marine Corps officer, military historian, and the Jack Shanahan Military Fellow at the D.C.-based Center for Defense Information at the Project On Government Oversight.

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Header Image: Marines clear buildings at Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms. (Marine Corps Photo)


[1] Ian T. Brown, A New Conception of War: John Boyd, the U.S. Marines, and Maneuver Warfare (Quantico: Marine Corps University Press). Pg. 187.