This is a repost of an article I wrote several years ago dealing with the question of how to prosecute a war against an intractable enemy that refuses to fight by traditional means. The question then and now is: Is the best solution brute force, or something else?

For the student of military philosophy and its application in the present state of world affairs, it is perfectly valid to question the effectiveness of any philosophy being applied to current military problems. With the War on Terror taking such a prominent place on the world stage, the means we use to prosecute that war should be examined closely. Philosophies that brought huge successes in past wars under different circumstances can by no means be expected to work in every situation – therefore, a critical look at popular military philosophies through the lens of present military challenges becomes necessary.
Warfare, no matter how it is broken down or analyzed, is basically organized, large scale brutality. Many philosophers have tried to understand warfare in its various forms, or have tried to define it and quantify it in absolute terms, but its fluidity and changing nature make it difficult to pin down. Three philosophers from very different eras, Sun Tzu, Carl von Clausewitz and John Boyd, have differing approaches to the philosophy of war. Sun Tzu teaches a philosophy on war that is brutally simple. John Boyd’s approach is brutally analytical; and Carl von Clausewitz’s philosophy is just plain brutal.

The writings of Sun Tzu, in spite of their great age, are still widely applicable to modern warfare. In large part, the longevity of these writings is due to the simplicity and practicality advocated by their somewhat mysterious Chinese author. Sun Tzu does not allow himself to be drawn into over-thinking on any one aspect of combat; instead, he breaks it down into its simplest forms and gets to the very heart of the ingredients for military success.

Sun Tzu’s overriding concern is winning, but he does not advocate sacrificing one’s own strength and future national security in order to accomplish victory. His primary goal is to find a way to defeat the enemy without actually fighting him. According to Sun Tzu, this should be the first goal of any commander.1 It makes perfect sense from a purely economical point of view; if you have the option of attaining something at no cost, it is almost always better than paying a high price for it.

In war, if a commander can force his enemy to capitulate without paying a high price in blood (on either side), the resulting peace is likely not only to be arrived at more quickly, but will also be easier to manage. Bitterness and animosity built up over long periods of brutal fighting leave deep scars and foster grudges between erstwhile enemies. This problem is mitigated by a quicker and less costly war.
Sun Tzu promotes fluidity, flexibility, surprise, deception and intelligence over sheer military might. According to him, the proper application of these principles will allow the wise commander to win.2 Wise commanders who seek to keep their enemy guessing, off balance and reacting instead of acting are well on their way to victory.

Sun Tzu sees the use of force almost as a last resort in war,3 which on the surface seems to be the very antithesis of good military strategy. The beauty of these principles is that they focus on victory with the least damage and the swiftest resolution. This approach preserves lives, property and public support for the government or commanders who apply it wisely.

John Boyd, the 20th century U.S. Air Force fighter pilot, aviation engineer and philosopher, agrees wholeheartedly with Sun Tzu – but arrives at his position via a much different route. The difference between the two is that while Sun Tzu speaks about what works best in warfare, Boyd seeks to find out why it works best. Boyd does not delineate a particular philosophy per se; instead he seeks to understand the intricacies of what makes a philosophy effective. Boyd analyzes the psychological effects of military tactics, focusing on how aggressive actions can serve to confuse the enemy and get them off balance. Once the enemy is off balance and reacting to the aggressor, he is at an extreme disadvantage which only increases as he attempts to find a way to deal with the continually developing and changing situation.

Boyd describes the critical process of military thinking and decision making as the “OODA loop”. The acronym OODA stands for Observation, Orientation, Decision and Action. It is not strictly a circular relationship as the name implies, but a mutually dependent and interactive one.4 Each factor feeds all the others, and with practice the decision portion of the loop becomes almost instantaneous. Boyd himself realized the decision portion could not take up a great deal of time, as that would allow the enemy’s own decisions and actions to change the conditions of the fight, giving them the advantage – exactly the situation Boyd advocated against.

Boyd felt that the side which was able to get ahead of their enemy’s thought process, or get “inside” their OODA loop, would enjoy a distinct advantage.5 If one party is quicker at accomplishing the four parts of the loop relative to the goals on the battlefield, the other party is forced into a mode of increasing reaction, confusion and desperation. The quicker thinking and acting aggressor is able to dictate the action by his own moves, which the off-balance party is forced to try to answer. As they attempt to counter one move, the aggressor comes with another, requiring another reaction. The result is a rapidly deteriorating position for the party whose OODA loop has been penetrated.

Boyd gives examples of this in action. Drawing from his own experience as a fighter pilot during the Korean War, Boyd was curious why American pilots in that conflict enjoyed a 10:1 kill ratio over their Soviet counterparts, when the fighter aircraft used by the Soviets, the MiG-15, was widely thought to be better than the American F-86, especially at turning and climbing. The explanation for the disparity was long attributed to better training on the part of the Americans.6 Boyd did not disagree with this, but for him, it was an incomplete explanation.

After the war, Boyd looked at the different characteristics of the two aircraft. He found that although they were very similar in design and size, the F-86 had two distinct advantages that contributed to the American pilots’ ability to use the OODA loop better and faster than their Soviet opponents. First, the F-86 had a bubble canopy that gave the pilot much greater visibility. The MiG-15 canopy was streamlined to match the lines of the airframe, which forced its pilot to sit lower, thus restricting his visibility behind and to the sides.7

Second, the flight controls on the F-86 were all hydraulic. The MiG-15 had hydraulically assisted mechanical controls. The advantage here was in the effort required of the pilot to make the aircraft respond. While the American pilots exerted very little effort, the Soviets had to work harder to push the controls. The extra exertion led to quicker fatigue and slower responses.8

The American pilots were able to find their way inside the Soviet OODA loop because their visibility was better, giving them advantages in observation and orientation. This also allowed their decisions to come at a faster rate. Their aircraft required less exertion to manipulate, which caused less fatigue and made their actions faster as a result. Once they established a lead in their actions, subsequent observation, orientation and decisions pulled them further ahead of their opponents. In spite of some inferior performance aspects of their aircraft, American pilots were able to exploit critical design features to place them at an advantage and inflict lopsided damage on their enemies.

Carl von Clausewitz was a Prussian officer who lived in the late 18th and early 19th century. His approach to military philosophy was very different from Boyd and Sun Tzu. Clausewitz was largely preoccupied with the massive application of force and attempts to mitigate the limiting friction inherent in combat operations. The problem with his line of thinking is that he became a slave to mass and the concept of a single definable center of gravity.

Clausewitz did not see the importance of unconventional operations and how they could decrease the effectiveness of large opposing forces without the need for a decisive clash of massed strength.9 He also did not pay much attention to how friction could be used against the enemy. Instead, he focused on how to limit friction’s impact on one’s own forces. His concentration on the importance of destroying the enemy in combat using strength against strength goes against Sun Tzu’s more elegant concept of attacking the enemy’s strategy.10 It is also contrary to Boyd’s theory of overpowering the enemy by first outthinking, and finally outmaneuvering him.

The single-minded brutality of Clausewitz’s approach is best illustrated by the bloody attrition warfare of World War I in Europe. Repeated human wave assaults focused on the strongest points of enemy defenses, while attempting to smash the enemy into defeat. This mentality served only to bleed both sides at similar and alarming rates. It was the perfect example of an irresistible force pitted against an immovable object, and the result was hopeless carnage and little gains or advantage. The new automatic weapons of the day made human wave assaults little more than mass suicide, and the tanks and aircraft of that era were not yet fast or powerful enough to play a decisive role in gaining advantage through maneuverability.

Clausewitz stressed the importance of finding the center of gravity, or the critical point at the critical time, upon which the outcome of the conflict depended. According to Boyd, Clausewitz makes a mistake in not recognizing that combat often presents multiple smaller centers of gravity which can be individually exploited and isolated in the pursuit of overall advantage.11 By exploiting several centers of gravity simultaneously, the enemy can be quickly thrown off balance.

Clausewitz also focused intently on destruction of the enemy’s army and occupation of his territory as the overriding goals of warfare.12 Sun Tzu and Boyd tend to lean more toward a goal of victory regardless of method. Their focus seems to be more directed at forcing the enemy to do your will and sue for peace as a result; destruction of enemy forces is not necessarily a prerequisite. While Clausewitz places great emphasis on the importance of superiority in numbers,13 Boyd places more value on the ability of a commander to interact with and adapt to the conditions around him in order to dictate the favorable results of a battle.

Clausewitz’s concentration of mass is certainly a critical factor in warfare; it is obvious that the relation of forces can have important effects on the outcome of any given battle. Boyd, however, stresses that no person can operate in a total vacuum. In other words, people and the wars they fight are always influenced by their surrounding environment. This influence causes differences from conflict to conflict, and makes the importance of superior numbers less likely to always hold true. Using the example of the comparison between the MiG-15 and the F-86 and applying that difference in design to a problem of numerical disadvantage, it is easy to see that a smaller force could quite easily exploit some small advantage, such as superior maneuverability, which would allow it to subdue a much larger force.

If, for example, a small force of highly trained troops were sent behind enemy lines to execute some specific goal such as an assassination or a hostage grab, their very size would give them an advantage in mobility and concealment over a larger force. Getting in undetected would depend on their ability to know and adapt to the surrounding environment. Using stealth, speed and concentrated power when needed would allow them to quickly overwhelm a larger defending force and get away before the enemy could react.

The critical factor here is that the smaller assault force, by striking unexpectedly, suddenly and with shocking initial force, would immediately place themselves inside the enemy’s OODA loop. They, by their actions, would be dictating the sequence of events, and forcing the enemy off balance. The resulting confusion would add to their advantage and increase the difficulty for the defenders to regain control of the situation; this condition would continue until it was too late to recover and the goal was achieved. Such successes can be demoralizing to a large force and can help to bring about a quick surrender without the need for pitched battle.

When comparing the writings of Sun Tzu and Clausewitz, one finds two bodies of work that are polar opposites in both content and size. Clausewitz’s On War is a mammoth work that is difficult to follow, redundant in places and contradictory in others. Clausewitz churned out almost 600 pages of difficult to follow material which always seems to lead back to his concept of mass and center of gravity. Sun Tzu’s work is less than 100 pages, but much deeper in substance and much easier to understand and apply. Clausewitz says that strategy is a simple thing,14 but unfortunately his discourse is anything but simple. For such a work to be relevant, it needs to apply to the real world; it also must be relatively simple and understandable to the reader.

Boyd also has a tendency to be confusing in his style, but this confusion results from his roundabout approach to making a point through examination of widely different disciplines and the use of analogy. Once the reader sees where Boyd is going with his material, it becomes much easier to make the connection. His main concern seems to be the implicit manner in which human beings interact with their surroundings. When they are allowed to work together and use their own experience, knowledge and insight to help make decisions, they are much more effective.15

However, when humans are forced to adhere to strict standards of performance or rules of engagement, especially under rapidly changing conditions such as combat, they become less able to freely adapt to their surroundings and much more likely to succumb to confusion and despair. This condition leads to the breakdown of their OODA loop and the eventual loss of initiative to the enemy.

Rigidity in thought and action seems to be the main target of Boyd’s theories.16 An example that comes to mind is the methods used by the British Army during the American Revolution. Faced with guerrilla tactics from the American forces, the British found it difficult to break away from their rigid traditions of predictable infantry tactics. They formed up into large, visible targets and marched into the fight, providing easy opportunities for the colonists to inflict damage on them from cover.

The British unwillingness to change in the face of obviously changing circumstances was a major factor in determining the outcome of the war. Their strict adherence to explicit direction without allowing for the application of implicit adaptation forced them into an untenable position. The Americans, though out gunned and under trained, had penetrated the English OODA loop. Like the F-86 in the Korean War, they were faster and able to force their opponent to react to their movements.

Boyd believed that a group of individuals allowed to use their own intuitive strengths to arrive at a common goal would be much more effective than a group serving under a rigid, directive leader. If the leader makes clear the goals and encourages the subordinates to work together to arrive at them, the subordinates will add their own knowledge and experience to the effort. If the leader is directive and controlling in nature, the subordinates have little of their own intelligence invested in the solution of the problem. The result is a reduction in the effective speed of the overall problem solving, an increase in friction, and the breakdown of the entire OODA loop.

Both Sun Tzu and Boyd stress the importance of out-thinking the enemy, while Clausewitz focuses on destroying his army and occupying his lands. Sun Tzu and Boyd focus on the end, while Clausewitz stresses only one means to that end. Destruction and occupation are simply methods to achieve victory through force. While not discouraging the use of force, Sun Tzu and Boyd openly examine other methods for achieving victory which require more flexibility, creativity and foresight than brute force alone.

So the remaining question is this: If we were forced to choose between the three philosophers above as a means to solve our military situation in the War on Terror, which should we choose? The answer is that we should not adhere slavishly to any single philosophy, but should be willing to draw the best points from all of them to accomplish our objectives. While Clausewitz has the least to offer as far as modern, unconventional warfare is concerned, his emphasis on overwhelming force can still be applied effectively to many tactical situations today. However, on a strategic level, listening to the siren song of “more troops, more troops” being chanted out from many levels of government and the media would be a critical mistake. Higher troop numbers in Iraq and Afghanistan will not automatically guarantee victory – especially against an enemy whose troop strength, locations and formations defy concrete identification and decisive engagement.

The more effective choice in philosophy would be to be flexible in our tactics and well informed through our intelligence gathering, as Sun Tzu suggests; while understanding the effects of our actions on the ground and how they can be applied to keep our enemies off balance and always reacting, as Boyd believed. When force is necessary, enough force should always be applied to achieve surprise and keep the enemy off balance, but force alone should not be the only card in our hand.

If we limit ourselves to reacting to an enemy who refuses to play by our rules, we have already lost. Large troop formations and armored spearheads may scatter insurgents in the short term, but they do little in the long run to keep them scattered. If, however, we seek out ways to force the enemy to react and adapt to us through the use of a combination of superior tactics, technology, intelligence and strength, we will have taken back control of our own OODA loop, taken the initiative away from our opponent, and achieved victory through the application of ancient, but still effective, principles of war.


Boyd, John. The OODA Loop. Belisarius. 3 May 2004.
Boyd, John. Patterns of Conflict. Defense and the National Interest. Dec 1986. 16 May
2004. <>
Clausewitz, Carl von. On War. ed. and trans. Michael Howard & Peter Paret. Princeton,
NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976.
Hammond, Grant T. The Essential Boyd. Belisarius. 1 Jun 2004.
Richards, Chet. Interview. Sun Tzu The Art of War and Strategy Site. 26 May 2004. 31
May 2004. <>
Spinney, Franklin. Genghis John. Defense and the National Interest. 9 Oct 1998. 17
May 2004. <>
Tzu, Sun. The Art of War. trans. Samuel B. Griffith. London: Oxford University Press,


1. Tzu, Sun. The Art of War. trans. Samuel B. Griffith. (London: Oxford
University Press, 1963), 77.
2. Ibid, 100.
3. Ibid, 78.
4. Boyd, John. The OODA Loop. Belisarius. 3 May 2004.
5. Spinney, Franklin. Genghis John. Defense and the National Interest. 9 Oct
1998. 17 May 2004. <>
6. Ibid.
7. Ibid.
8. Ibid.
9. Boyd, John. Patterns of Conflict. Defense and the National Interest. Dec 1986.
16 May 2004. <>, 43.
10. Tzu, 77.
11. Boyd. Patterns of Conflict, 43.
12. Clausewitz, Carl von. On War. ed. and trans. Michael Howard & Peter Paret.
(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976), 236.
13. Ibid, 194.
14. Ibid, 178.
15. Richards, Chet. Interview. Sun Tzu The Art of War and Strategy Site. 26 May
2004. 31 May 2004. <>
16. Hammond, Grant T. The Essential Boyd. Belisarius. 1 Jun 2004.