A warrior's soul

When the average student of history is asked to name the greatest military strategists of all time, the list is usually a pretty predictable one.

The usual suspects show up on such a list. Sun Tzu, author of the classic treatise on strategy, deception, and tactical finesse, The Art of War. Alexander the Great, of course, for his incredible exploits and his consummate skill at managing his armies. Hannibal Barca, the brilliant Carthaginian general who very nearly fought Rome to total defeat. Scipio Africanus, the even more brilliant Roman general who in turn defeated Hannibal, and, like Alexander, was never defeated in battle. Publius Flavius Vegetius Renatus, better known simply as Vegetius, from the 4th Century AD, author of De re militari. Miyamoto Musashi, perhaps the greatest swordsman who ever lived, and author of The Book of Five Rings. Napoleon Bonaparte, conqueror of so much of Europe and one of history's greatest ever generals.

And, of course, von Clausewitz, author of Vom Kriege. You and I know it better as On War, probably the single most influential (and misunderstood) guide to military tactics and strategy since Sun Tzu's work.

A few other names might pop up here and there- William S. Lind's name, for instance, for those who are familiar with some amount of 4th Generation Warfare theory. Maybe Heinz Guderian, the German general who did so much to develop and advance the theory and practice of blitzkrieg. Probably George S. "Blood-n-Guts" Patton, whose campaigns were bloody and brilliant in equal measure. You can extend the list quite a long way, actually; everyone has his favourite strategist and military theorist from various different eras in history.

Yet almost none of those lists will include one name: USAF Col. John Richard Boyd.

Born in 1927. Died in 1997. And during his long, eccentric, brilliant career, did more to change the US military and the way it thinks about war, and the way it fights in war, than any other man in history.

And the really sad thing is that almost nobody knows it.

Fortunately, thanks to Robert Coram's truly outstanding book, Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War, published in 2002, that egregious oversight can be corrected. And his book is not the only one of its kind- it is probably the best and most readable biography written about the "Mad Major", as he was once known, out of the bunch, but there are a great many books that have since been written about John Boyd and the truly staggering impact that he had.

The story of John Boyd is a strange one indeed. Born to a lower-middle-class family in Erie, PA, his father died when he was very young and he grew up under a domineering, strong-willed mother. His father figures included the local swimming coach in his school. He went to the University of Iowa and graduated with a degree in economics- which he later bitterly regretted, calling it a colossal waste of time. (I can sympathise.) By most measures, John Boyd's life should have been pretty ordinary and quite unremarkable in most respects.

It was only when John Boyd entered the US Army Air Corps in 1944 that his remarkable talents began to manifest themselves. While he never flew in WWII itself, he did stay in the Air Corps, which eventually became the US Air Force. And then he arrived in Korea to fly the F-86 Sabre against the Chinese and North Koreans.

And it was there that, suddenly, people began to realise that this wasn't just another jumped-up overeager kid from the Midwest.

John Boyd was fearless in the skies. Most pilots knew the limits of their aircraft and stayed away from them; John Boyd simply didn't care about the limits. He wanted to see just how far he could push his aircraft, and in the process he learned more about dogfighting than any other ten pilots put together.

When John Boyd was invited back to Fighter Weapons School as an instructor, after he graduated at the top of his class, nobody knew how profoundly he would change the world. But change it he did.

Before Boyd, the art of dogfighting was considered just that- an art. It was considered impossible to codify the principles by which pilots would manoeuvre in the sky, seeking advantage over each other- but Boyd figured out the mathematical principles behind energy states, manouevrability, and airspeed, and put it all together into what he called his "Energy-Manouevrability Theory" and codified in what has since come to be known as his "Aerial Attack Study".

It was John Boyd who turned dogfighting from a mysterious and unknowable "art", dictated by talent and bravado, into a science, dictated by physics and thermodynamics. It was his insight that allowed already brave and skilled men to become far better masters of their craft.

It was his mind and will and brilliance that took an arcane, strange concept and turned it into a clearly understandable, easily articulated set of equations that could tell you quickly and easily exactly where, when, and how your aircraft could prevail against another in the skies.

And he was so good at applying his own ideas that he made a bet with his students at FWS: he bet them that if they started in a perfect kill position on his six, he would have the tables turned on them in 40 seconds or less, and he would then pay them $40, and maybe even buy them a steak dinner.

John Boyd never, ever lost that bet. Dozens, maybe hundreds of pilots tried. Every single one of them failed. Most pilots never even lasted twenty seconds against him. The only pilot who came anywhere even close to beating him was a Marine- and Col. Boyd's memory is held most dear not by the US Air Force, where the higher-ups generally wish like hell that they could forget about him (yet the pilots themselves revere him), but by the Marine Corps. It is the Marines- the rivet-heads, the leathernecks, the mud-feet- who have a beautiful tribute to Col. Boyd at the Marine Corps Research Centre at Quantico. It is they who understand, most fully, precisely what an impact this one man had upon their entire approach to war.

Col. John Boyd was, quite simply, the greatest American fighter pilot in history. This, despite not having a single kill to his name.

This one man changed the realities of aerial warfare, forever. Today there is not one air force in the world that does not owe a debt to Col. Boyd's intellectual legacy.

But John Boyd wasn't content with merely revolutionising the way pilots fought. When he was assigned to the Puzzle Palace- the Pentagon- he was instrumental in designing the F-15 after the disastrous and colossally expensive boondoggle that was the F-111. He and his Acolyte, Pierre Sprey, worked with the Air Force to design a truly superior fighter, and that bird eventually became the F-15 Eagle, probably the single most fearsome and dangerous air superiority fighter in the world today.

Simply working on the legendary Eagle would have been enough to guarantee John Boyd a place in history. Yet that wasn't enough. He and Pierre Sprey hated the interference that the Air Force Pentaloons kept throwing his way, as they insisted that the Eagle be outfitted with the latest whiz-bang gadgets and pointless fripperies. So finally he, Col. Riccioni, and Sprey got fed up and started an underground, top-secret development program for an all-new, streamlined, lightweight rapier of a fighter that would be, quite simply, the ultimate dogfighting machine.

That machine became the F-16 Fighting Falcon, a gigantic success in aviation history and still, more than 40 years after its inception, probably the best modern dogfighter around. Which is highly ironic given that, originally, the airheads in charge of the USAF wanted absolutely nothing to do with it and would gladly have seen the program strangled at birth.

And John Boyd is indirectly responsible for the creation and development, against truly ferocious Pentaloon resistance, of the magnificently ugly yet terrifyingly effective A-10 Warthog, the deadliest close-support aircraft around.

Not satisfied with revolutionising aerial combat and designing fighter planes, Col. Boyd then turned his attentions to a broader understanding of war. And it is here that his greatest contributions were made.

Many have heard of his famous "OODA Loop". Very few people, though, understand what it really means. The OODA Loop is not merely a buzzword; it defines how and why wars are won or lost. The key behind the theory is that the party that orients itself most quickly in the face of new information, and then chooses the least expected course of action, is going to prevail in the battlefield over slower, less outwardly-focused, less mobile organisations that simply cannot process and use information as quickly.

It is the OODA Loop that helped John Boyd develop his theories of manoeuvre warfare- a set of ideas that are so revolutionary compared to the way that most militaries fight, that they might as well have come from a different planet.

In order to understand why, you have to understand that the US military's way of fighting is still basically identical to what the French did a hundred years ago in the trenches of WWI. The instruments of war have changed, but the tactics remain essentially the same. The entire philosophy effectively comes down to attrition: you bump into the enemy, you call in massive artillery strikes and fire support, you slog it out and trade body blows and the guy who wins is the one who kills the most of the other guy's troops. There is no subtlety, no finesse, no charm to such a method. It is brutal, gritty, blood-and-guts fighting.

Manouevre warfare, used by the truly great generals of history, such as Belisarius and Guderian, basically gives the French method of warfare the bird and focuses instead on probing for enemy weak points. When one is found, everything is committed to the effort of penetrating it, then swinging around and "rolling the enemy up from the rear".

The two styles of warfare are completely different. The first is top-down, hierarchical, slow, ponderously ceremonial in many cases, and absolutely brutal. The second is bottom-up, fast, lean, outwardly oriented, results-based, and extraordinarily nimble.

And as the Germans demonstrated in WWII, when manoeuvre warfare meets attrition warfare, attrition loses. Horribly.

All of these insights seem obvious today. But they were not, until John Boyd came along and discovered them.

Looking at the history of warfare through Col. Boyd's work, suddenly so much about war, strategy, and tactics makes perfect sense. No other American officer in history has had that kind of impact on such a wide range of fields.

And few other officers who have done so much for their country and their people, have been so shamefully treated and forgotten.

A large part of Col. Boyd's shabby treatment at the hands of the military is his own fault, to be sure. The man actively bragged about never meeting a general that he couldn't offend. He was all about doing the right thing; professionally (though not necessarily personally), he was a man of rigid and unimpeachable integrity. He demanded the best from himself and others, and anyone who couldn't meet his exacting standards was simply discarded. Those few that he considered worthy, though, became extraordinary men in their own right.

It is remarkable, then, that John Boyd is remembered not by the Air Force, but by the Marine Corps. The airhead was adopted by the jarheads as one of their own- because he, alone among all men, taught the devil dogs about manouevre warfare, and showed them just how lethally effective it could be.

John Boyd has lessons to teach us today, as well. In the war for our culture, the old, top-down methods simply will not work anymore. Faster, nimbler, individualistic efforts are needed to combat the cancer that has seeped into our culture, through our most beloved institutions. And it is John Boyd's work on military theory that will lead us to victory.

When Col. Boyd died, he left behind him precious little written work by which to judge his legacy. Yet it is clear that, if anything, his incredible achievements were understated by those who followed. He never published a tactical manual like Vegetius, or a book on strategy like Sun Tzu; he never had any memoirs produced like most modern generals would. His legacy remains in his legendary briefings, "Patterns of Conflict" and "Aerial Attack Study", and in the students of war that he inspired to take up his mantle.

Honour, then, a prophet almost without honour in his own country- with the sterling and notable exception of the Marines. Honour a true warrior, a man who understood better than anyone else the art of war, and sought above all to help others to understand it as well as he did.


  1. Thanks, I've gotten the book - am thinking it will be an excellent study.

    1. Yes, it's a terrific read- reveals the man behind the ideas, without diminishing in any way the scale and scope of Col. Boyd's brilliance.

  2. Just for enlightenment's sake: http://www.baen.com/DecisionCycles.asp


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