A New Conception of War

(Photo by Marine Corps University Press)

Disclaimer: Marine Corps University Press was so kind as to provide me with a review copy of A New Conception of War. You can read a digital version of A New Conception of War here.

The Marine Corps is known for innovation when it comes to tactics and a stern focus on the infantry fight. They are a highly conservative institution concerning traditions, but Marines don‘t shy away to innovate and try new concepts when it comes to tactics. The USMC‘s philosophy of war and warfare is written down in MCDP-1 Warfighting (first published as FMFM-1). Warfighting, anchored in the tenets of maneuver warfare, explains how Marines think of war and how they want to conduct war. Warfighting was published in 1989. In A New Conception of War, USMC officer Ian T. Brown explores the history of ideas that were to lead to the publication of Warfighting.

A New Conception of War is a book on the ideas of John Boyd, a USAF fighter pilot, the USMC after the Vietnam War, and how the ideas of Boyd came to influence and profoundly shape the way the USMC thought of war. It starts out with a short biography of Boyd and how he became someone who kept looking at the deeper meaning behind tactics to find the universal truths at the base of war. The book then takes a look at the USMC right after Vietnam. Vietnam was a dark chapter in US military history and understanding how it influenced the Corps is important in understanding the subsequent soul-searching that followed. This included ideas to pivot the USMC to another mission (turning the USMC into a heavily armored force, turning it into something similar to an airborne unit, etc.) or completely disbanding the USMC as many saw no value in amphibious capabilities anymore, the sword of Damocles that hung over the Corps’ head since its inception.

Brown goes on to describe the struggle and soul-searching that went on within the Marine Corps and the prominent role the Marine Corps Gazette, a medium of professional correspondence in the Corps, played during that period. This struggle eventually lead to the Marines adapting maneuver warfare, a concept of war that John Boyd pioneered. This is followed by a description of John Boyd’s later theories on the nature of war itself, which he himself publicized as a series of presentations called Patterns of Conflict. These ideas were later given the name maneuver warfare. In summary, Boyd proposed that war ultimately was a collective fight of wills and that it would not be machines that won wars but men. The goal of war, in the end, was to convince the enemy to stop fighting and this was seldomly done by killing more and more of his people. These ideas were diametrically opposed to the US military thinking in Vietnam, where “body count”, number of killed enemies, was the be all end all of American thinking.

The book concludes with a discussion of some of the criticism that was aimed towards Boyd and an editorial history of Warfighting. Three appendices follow. The first is a transcript of certain passages of Boyd‘s Patterns of Conflict, which were delivered as a presentation and never published. The second appendix is a collection of important Marine Corps Gazette articles on maneuver warfare. The third appendix is a summary of the answer that Boyd wrote to an article critical of his ideas. All three appendices are insightful and help in understanding Boyd‘s theories.

Conclusion – A Criticism of Boyd

Overall, I think that A New Conception of War is a great introduction to John Boyd‘s ideas and how they influenced the Marine Corps. However, I have the feeling that the author is too partial to Boyd and tries hard to rebut his critics. The problem is that Boyd never really made an effort to share his ideas beyond slide deck presentations and conversations with likeminded people. He never went through the trouble of systematizing his ideas, writing them down and publishing them in order to give a greater audience access to his thinking. The slide decks he used for his Patterns of Conflict presentation contained only a fraction of what he said during the presentation. There is a video recording of Patterns of Conflict, however the audio quality is so low that it is not understandable. That’s why, though many military and defense professionals have heard of him, nobody really read, understood, or thought about his ideas. He is, sadly, not part of modern thinking and discussion on the very nature of war and how armed forces should look at it, and the fault for this lies squarely at the feet of John Boyd himself. Personally, I think Mr. Brown could have done a better job at exploring why Boyd wasn’t concerned with disseminating his ideas, instead of finding excuses for Boyd. Nonetheless, A New Conception of War is a very good book and I can recommend it to anyone who is interested in John Boyd, maneuver warfare, and the Marine Corps.

What do you think of A New Conception of War and John Boyd? Share your thoughts in the comments!

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