The OODA Loop, Ancient China Style

The theories of John Boyd are an interesting example of a general historical principle: medium changes message. The physical medium used to communicate information changes the way information is organized and understood. For example, historians often credit the short, clipped and rhyming phrases of texts like Sunzi’s Art of War, The Analects or the Dao De Jing to the fact that the texts were originally collections of oral proverbs compiled together on bamboo strips. Hans Moeller argues–convincingly, in my view–that these texts should not be understood as “books” at all. Noting that they did not have beginnings, ends, or proper organization at all until late in their creation, he advises that we think of these ancient Chinese texts as we would the hypertext of a webpage. In place of links–which lead readers from one page to another, though usually not in any pre-determined sequence–these texts would use a set of common phrases and allusions meant to guide the listener from one passage or set of meanings to another. Its an interesting thesis; once you have been exposed to the full evidence of Moeller’s argument it is hard to look at the ancient Chinese classics the same way as before. [1]

John Boyd did not etch his words into bamboo. To my knowledge nothing he said ever rhymed. This should not be a surprise: Boyd did not live in ancient China. Boyd was an American. In the decades since his death he has been hailed as the most important strategic theorist his country has yet produced. Few discussions of modern strategy feel complete without mention of the strategic principles he outlined, especially his famous “OODA Loop.” But Boyd’s theories take special effort to understand. The problem is that he never wrote them down in an organized manner. Boyd was a military man. In classic Potomac fashion, he shared his insights through long verbal briefs complete with dozens of slides and diagrams. Boyd’s thought must be carefully reconstructed through the remaining slides, the few audio recordings of his briefs and lectures, and his personal collection of notes.

John Boyd’s OODA Loop, diagram originally drawn by John Boyd, recreated by Patrick Moran (2008).
Image Source: Wikimedia

Students of strategic theory often wonder what kind of book Boyd might have produced has he sat down to write his thoughts into one coherent treatise. He never did so. But the dream remains: had Boyd been forced to share his ideas with pen and paper like Clausewitz and Jomini had, what would they have looked like?

To be honest, I rarely ask that question. What I wonder is what Boyd’s ideas would look like if he had to etch them into bamboo.

Understanding the history of the Chinese strategic tradition is the research program that drives my writing, including a lot of what appears on this blog. Attempting to discern how Chinese strategic theory differs from Western strategic theory (if it does at all) is an important part of this effort. This challenge can be difficult: the mediums ancient Chinese and modern Westerners used to communicate were very different, as are the styles thinkers in each culture used to present analysis and insight. To do proper comparisions I often find it useful to try and imagine how a Western strategist or political theorists would describe his ideas if he were writing in the 2nd century BC.

Occasionally, however, I come across a passage that does this for me. The ancients had never heard of Boyd’s OODA Loop. But if they had, I imagine they probably would have explained it something like this:

Thus the one skilled in arms, on seeing the deficiency of the enemy,

   takes advantage of it and does not rest,
   pursues it and does not let it go
   presses it and does not let it get away.

   strikes while the enemy is in doubt
   overturns him while he hesitates.

He is like
   swift thunder that does not give the enemy time to cover his ears
   fast lightning that leaves the enemy no leisure to cover his eyes

The one skilled in arms
   is like the sound to the echo
   is like the gong to the drum
   If a mote gets into the enemy’s eye, he does not allow him to wipe it away
   if the enemy exhales he does not allow him to inhale

At this time
   he does not look up to see Heaven
   he does not look down to view Earth
   his hand does not lift his spear
   his weapon is not fully drawn 

   He strikes the enemy like thunder
   he hits him like the wind
   he scorches him like fire;
   he overcomes him like a wave

The enemy
   does not know where to stay while at rest
   does not know what to do while in motion

Thus when the drums sound and the flags wave, none facing him do not give up or collapse. Who in the worlds dares to display might or maintain discipline when facing him? Therefore, one who anticipates others is victorious; one who awaits others is defeated; one who is led by others dies.

Huainanzi 15.11 [2]


[1] Hans-Georg Moeller, The Philosophy of the Daodejing (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006), 1-20.

For what it this small book ( less than 180 pages) is probably the best study of an ancient Chinese text I have ever read. Its greatness is found in its simplicity: it talks about ancient Chinese philosophy in refined, but normal language and never descends into long words that end with “itics” or “ological.” Moeller makes the fair point that the verbiage of modern philosophy was quite unknown to the ancient Chinese, and thus really isn’t necessary to discuss it. Clarity also comes from Moeller’s approach: he takes the text to mean exactly what it says it means. The Dao De Jing’s precepts are actually very simple if taken literally, and what metaphors are used do not need labored interpretation so much as they need clear and logical organization. This is what Moeller provides. 

[2]  Trans. John Major, Sarah Queen, Andrew Meyer, and Harold Roth, The Huainanzi: A Guide To the Theory and Practice of Government in Early Han China (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010),  595.

This section will also appear somewhere in the much more compact Andrew Seth Mayer, trans. The Dao of the Military: Liu An’s Art of War (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012).

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I think that something could be done comparing the ideas of thinkers like Boyd and Grossman with the 'popular science' (Aristotelian physics, humoral theory, natural science out of the bestiaries, geometry) in renaissance fencing manuals. Its tempting to quibble about the details or point out what they borrowed from more conventional researchers. But combining ideas from different disciplines into something which most people can learn to use quickly in pain and fear is an achievement in itself.

Let me think. The biggest collection of sources is Wiktenauer It is a volunteer project and needs to be read accordingly but there are photos and transcriptions of most of the sources.

Sydney Anglo "The Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe" is good on overview and context and easy to get by ILL but was written by a non-fencer.

For people who have pulled out scattered references and spelled out the way of thinking about space and time and motion which they reflect, Tom Leoni, Ken Mondschein, and Puck and Mary Curtis come to mind. Their more polished and academic things tend to cost money. The more explicit sources tend to be Iberian or Italian and after 1500 and that is not my strong point; there used to be some articles on geometry and Aristotelian physics as applied by the Spanish destreza tradition at