Military reform, now and then: Boyd and the ACW

In his military history briefings, the late Col. John Boyd had little to say directly about the Civil War. In fact, in an excellent 2002 biography of Boyd, there is only one Civil War reference in the index and that merely takes note of Boyd's hometown celebrity Strong Vincent.

Anywhere you model historical development as a progression through phases or stages, as Boyd did, your readers face the temptation of looking for forerunners of the next stage operating in an earlier context. So despite Boyd's lack of interest in the ACW, Civil War buffs who also study Boyd cannot help but notice "Third Generation" elements at work 1861-1865.

Grant (at his best): Quick tempos, forcing reactions, cycling through decisions more quickly than foes, developing and taking opportunities. (Boyd theme: getting inside the enemy's decision cycle).

Lee: Delegating, trusting, communicating general intentions instead of detailed orders; rewarded by active subordinates intelligently developing and taking opportunities; Lee then exploits opportunities created by subordinates. (Boyd theme: harmony from disparate activity by broadly licensed subordinates.)

Mosby: Attacking weak, underdefended but important targets; creating uncertainty, confusion; organizing military resistance in territory formally occupied by enemy. (Boyd theme: attack morale of enemy.)

As much fun as this kind of analysis may be, it does not lift our Civil War officers above and outside the defining boundaries of Second Generation military art: centralized decision making, rigid hierarchies of communication and execution, linear formations (with an emphasis on preserving linearity at all costs), synchronized operations, and the consequent inflexibility that denies winners the ability to exploit victories.

Recently, a friend and student of Boyd, William S. Lind, said that he was not convinced that the conventional war phase of the current Iraq conflict represented Third Generation maneuver. His comments have as much to do with Civil War combat as with Iraqi operations:

But a Second Generation force can also move quickly, if and when it has planned to do so. What it generally cannot do is move quickly in response to unexpected threats and opportunities. It does not have the cultural characteristics required to do so, qualities John Boyd stressed such as decentralization, initiative (and the tolerance for mistakes that must accompany initiative), trust up and down the chain of command and reliance on self-discipline rather than imposed discipline. Those characteristics are mighty hard to find in today's United State's Army.

And in yesterday's.

You can read Boyd's briefings by clicking the links on these pages. Start with "Patterns of Conflict."