Maverick Colonel Used Principles to Advance Air Force

Arts & Entertainment
St Louis Post-Dispatch

Original review in the Post-Dispatch

Republished with permission of the author.

Somebody—Ward Just, I think—once wrote, "The best officers in any army can be found among the colonels who never made general." Whoever wrote it might have extended the thought to air forces, too, and to colonels like the late John Boyd.

Boyd was that rarest of birds, an intellectual fighter pilot. In the '60s and '70s, he hugely advanced military thinking in two ways:

After years of frustrated pondering, he quantified fighter tactics into a simple mathematical formula—a formula that shaped the design of the F-15 Eagle and the F-16 Falcon, still the world's best fighters.

After more years of frantic reading and thinking, he applied his breakthrough thinking to ground warfare—and devised the approach of waging warfare with such speed, agility and imagination that the attacker can "get inside the other guy's decision loop," there to sow chaos and havoc. It worked in Iraq in 1991.

Amazingly, Boyd accomplished all this as a military maverick. He was a loud, profane, rumpled and messy man who often strode to the edge of insubordination and more than once jabbed generals in the chest, spilling cigar ashes all over their uniforms.

Boyd died five years ago, at age 70. Outside military circles, his name rings few bells. But inside the armed forces, he's remembered as the patron saint of Pentagon reformers, those insiders who do battle against overdone and overpriced weaponry.

In the Korean War, Boyd had flown Sabre Jets, a clean and simple design that ran up a 10-1 kill ratio. But by Vietnam, heavier and less nimble U.S. jets were playing a tie game. Boyd used his math formula—he called it the Energy-Maneuverability Theory—to force the Air Force away from its plans for an even more elephantine fighter and toward the Eagle.

When the Air Force bulked up the Eagle, Boyd fought for the lethal little Falcon. Then the Air Force broke Boyd's heart by bulking the Falcon up, too. But that was the way of it with Boyd and the Air Force—a maverick charging uphill against an institution he loved.

In Boyd, author Robert Coram has painted Boyd as a hero, albeit a man who was easy to dislike. As one officer put it in a performance report, Boyd's "zealous and uncompromising nature sometimes causes him to force his viewpoint upon the unwilling." Coram himself writes that Boyd's "primary form of social intercourse was confrontation." Boyd cursed and waved his arms and loved to make fun of generals. Fortunately, a few generals shielded him from the rest. This book might have been both highly technical and way too arcane about military ways. But author Coram has a good writer's gift for both metaphor and simplicity. As a result, newcomers to both the physics of flight and the sociology of the armed forces can enjoy Boyd (although old-timers at Boeing might take offense at Boyd's view of their fighter planes).

Maybe this book might appeal most to ethicists. Boyd attracted disciples in uniform, and he warned them that they had a choice: They could either be something (a general), or they could do something (push for a better, stronger military establishment). But they almost certainly couldn't do both. It's a measure of Boyd's charisma that so many young officers decided to do something. Most retired as colonels.

Boyd loved to deliver throwaway quotes with a grin, usually as he wolfed down food with the table manners of a Mongolian warrior. I think this book is worth its price for just one such quote: "If your boss demands loyalty, give him integrity. But if he demands integrity, then give him loyalty."

Pretty good epitaph. Pretty good book.