I was prompted by this paper to write a little bit about a topic that tends to polarize the small section of the defense blogosphere and wider community concerned with strategic theory: the interaction between John Boyd and Carl von Clausewitz. Both are widely misunderstood by their detractors. Both suffered when supporters with a lack of similar understanding twisted their ideas to support strategic doctrines that ended badly. The way that the "simple" understanding of the OODA Loop was distorted in the Transformation era to justify tech-centric ideas parallels how late 19th-century French and German strategic theorists twisted Clausewitzian ideas to favor the so-called "ideology of the offensive." Moreover, the misunderstanding of the multifaceted OODA Loop has parallels to the misunderstanding that many have of Clausewitz's Trinity.
One of the most pernicious issues, however, is the debate over which strategic theorist is "better," which is part of how the polarization emerged. The problem with this is that Boyd and Clausewitz, while overlapping, are focused on different areas of conflict.What follow is an obviously simplified analysis, but simplicity is necessary given that both figures involved are tremendously complex.
Clausewitz is mostly remembered not for his thinking about 19th century tactics and operations (which are obviously dated), but his thinking about the nature of war and strategy. Thus Clausewitz is more about strategic theory. This is not to say that he is not prescriptive--his book overflows with opinions as to what should be done, but that's not the focus of his work. He is focused very much on strategic theory rather than doctrine. Clausewitz is remembered as a person who set ontological parameters for what war is and how why it occurs, virtually creating the "modern" field of strategic studies.
Boyd focuses more narrowly on two areas: the nature of competition and strategic doctrine. The OODA Loop, his ideas about destruction and creation, and his readings of military history are how about men and organizations compete. The Loop is perhaps the exemplar of this--a marvelous and deceptively simple idea that is applicable in everything from the tactical dogfights it was drawn from to grand strategy. Boyd, although very strongly against "doctrine," also does espouse a coherent set of ideas of his own about what kinds of strategies are effective and how command and control should be organized, both explicitly and through his reading of military history. Thus Boyd is a theorist but more explicitly a proponent of strategic doctrine than Clausewitz.
There is a good deal of overlap between Boyd and Clausewitz. Clausewitz also writes about the mechanics of competition in ways that complement Boyd's interpretations. Boyd's ideas about strategy, in turn, are not incompatible with Clausewitz's. Both are very heavily reliant on the scientific ideas of their time to provide both a metaphorical and practical basis for their theories--Boyd with the emerging complexity and chaos sciences, and Clausewitz with the mechanics of his time as well as his own embryonic understanding of nonlinearity. Both are heavily dead-set against industrial "one-size-fits-all" solutions and skeptical about ideas that place a premium on some asymmetric advantage.
The problem is that Boyd misunderstood Clausewitz--much of the Patterns of Conflict that talk about Clausewitz refer to the bogeyman that Liddell-Hart set up of a "Mahdi of Mass" that led to the World War I killing fields. Moreover, it is a fair criticism that Boyd's ideas--like those of BHL--are too optimistic about the chances of avoiding direct and bloody confrontations. This is, perhaps, the crux of the disagreement between the two. Clausewitz does not think it is likely to undermine the enemy from within to the extent that Boyd does.
Still, it is not useful to rank strategic theorists like baseball players. Clausewitz outlined a General Theory of war that Boyd's more granular insights about human cognition, competition, and sources of power can fit into. It might also be useful to observe that Boyd fits into a modern "American school" of strategic thinkers that draw from science and social sciences to evaluate military history and come up with innovative thinking about the nature of competition--a school that would include J.C. Wylie, Andrew Marshall, Albert Wohlsetter, Robert Leonhard, and Thomas Schelling. Lastly, Boyd's strategic doctrine is still useful for practitioners and analysts.