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On his blog, John Robb has linked to a presentation of John Boyd’s.  There was a lot that struck me in the course of watching the video, but one passage stood out above all the others.  In it, Boyd lays out the process that developed the F-15.  Rather than starting with how engineers could assemble components in such a way to produce a set of capabilities, he begins with challenging of even the most basic assumptions behind the whole system.  These are epistemological assumptions, not simply what we can do but what—and how—can we know.  In the case of the F-15, Boyd starts with Newton’s Second Law.  The discussion leads Boyd to the question of doctrine.  After all, what’s doctrine but a set of epistemological assumptions?  Boyd lays it all out:

You gotta challenge all assumption.  We have doctrine.  Air Force’s got a doctrine; Army’s got a doctrine; Navy’s got a doctrine; everybody’s got a doctrine!  You read my work, “doctrine” doesn’t appear in there even once.  You can’t find it.  You know why I don’t have it in there?  Because it’s doctrine on day one; every day after, it becomes dogma, that’s why.  So what I tell people is “I understand you gonna have to write doctrine and you have to do it; that’s alright.  Even after you write it, assume that it’s not right, and then not only that, look at a whole bunch of other doctrine—German doctrine, other kind of doctrines, and that—and learn those, too.  Then, you got a bunch of doctrines in there.  The reason you want to learn them all then you’re not captured by any one.  Not only that, you can lift stuff outta here, stuff outta there, stuff outta there; you can play the snowmobile game, and you can do better than anyone else, because if you have one doctrine, you’re a dinosaur.  Period.

I kept the colloquialisms, because I love Boyd’s manner of speaking.  Rarely can very complex issues be spoken so plainly.  He is a master rhetorician.  In fact, this fact got me thinking about a very specific phrasing:  his repeated use of the singular indefinite article in his reference to “a doctrine.”

Does the Army, for example, have “a doctrine” as Boyd says?  My initial—and incorrect—response was ‘no.’  There’s FM3-24; there’s FM5-0; there’s countless other documents.  This is obvious, so why would Boyd choose to refer to all those interconnected documents as “a doctrine?”  They are a monolith—a “dogma,” as he says.  What is “dogma?”  A cannon to produce orthodoxy.

Boyd understands that guidelines must be written; yet, he has nothing but disdain for this orthodoxy.  To him, there is no one general theory that can be assembled into “a doctrine.”  Instead, you must look at “doctrines” (plural).  This is not simply a collection of texts within the DoD doctrinal ecosystem but a diversity of perspectives from outside of it.  That is the “snowmobile game” Boyd references:  assembling a machine from a collection of disparate inspirations to an original application.

Certainly, good leader do this already.  No one should take one document—take FM3-24, for example—as the lone way to know counterinsurgency. However, Boyd’s point got me to wondering whether or not there was a way to build this plurality—this goal of “doctrines”—into the institutional process of writing doctrine.  Can one write a singular piece of doctrine as “doctrines”—a plurality of views that still serves the purposes of laying out the theory and practice of something like counterinsurgency?

Maybe, this is obvious; maybe, this is a bit of postmodern double-talk.  However, I thought I’d start by asking the “dumb question” as Boyd himself advocates.

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