The Book of the Week is “Boyd, The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War” by Robert Coram, published in 2002.
Born in January 1927 in Erie, Pennsylvania, John Boyd was the fourth of five children. His father died just before his third birthday. Boyd became a fighter pilot, but was too young to fight in WWII and Korea– though he was stationed there for a time.
By 1954, he was a highly competent flying instructor at Nellis, a U.S. Air Force base near Las Vegas. There, promiscuous men broke military codes of conduct and deserted in large numbers. But a few of Boyd’s students– standouts– completed successful missions in Vietnam.
Boyd was a pathological liar and a crude, insubordinate potty-mouth, but throughout his career, his friends in high places kept him from being drummed out of the service altogether. The way the author described Boyd’s lifelong mannerisms and practices, however, suggested that he had undiagnosed bipolar disorder.
Boyd acquired years and years of formal education and training in aeronautics, avionics and physics. Beginning in the 1960’s, his “Energy-Maneuverability Theory” allowed him to tell his colleagues (ad nauseum in 3am phone calls) the best design for fighter-aircraft. Unfortunately, the nature of warfare that existed during WWII was going out of style.
Also, Boyd rubbed superiors the wrong way, and he was a square peg in a round hole, given the culture of the Air Force. In fact, the culture of the U.S. military in the second half of the twentieth century was one of fierce inter-service rivalry. It was one that: a) wasted inconceivably large amounts of taxpayer dollars that went into the pockets of military contractors, while b) continuing to promote mostly waaaay overrated servicemen (who waaaay overrated their proposed weaponry) who c) simply kissed up to their bosses, rather than rocked the boat. These were power-hungry alpha males who simply got lofty titles with little to show for them.
Boyd was principled and truly committed to helping his country improve its military might and national security. He and a few of his colleagues were willing to pay the price of a stalled career for fighting “City Hall” in pushing their agenda for teaching pilots psychologically advantageous combat techniques, while making military aircraft the safest and the most war-winning it could be, at minimal cost.
The servicemen who met Boyd either loved him or hated him. In the late 1960’s, his passion for doing the right thing led him to complain to the head of Systems Command about the proposed design of a new fighter jet then called the F-X. Boyd’s input in the disputes between or among the Navy, Army and Air Force on that project and others led to Congressional hearings.
Read the book to learn the details on all Boyd-related matters, including:
- the emotional trouble in his dysfunctional personal life;
- his theories (hint: the reason his suggestions for how to go about waging war were superior in actual practice because they minimized the time it took planes as manipulated by pilots [reminiscent of ninjas] to switch from one activity to another, throwing the enemy off-guard);
- the shenanigans with the B-1 bomber and the Bradley;
- how he shook things up at the Pentagon with the help of the media (Time magazine in particular in March 1983) and Congress; and much more.