This biography by Robert Coram chronicles a little-appreciated facet of military history, at the center of which is a character so unlikely as to be nearly unbelievable. John Boyd was a scrappy, contentious pilot of lamentable personal habits and single-minded tenacity that carried him through 45 years of military associations from enlisted man to fighter pilot-cum-mathematician, re-maker of fighter pilot tactics, aircraft design and testing, and finally, author of the most original thinking in warfare in the century.
For all this, one might imagine this iconoclast to be widely
acclaimed and lauded by his brothers in arms, but in fact John Boyd made so
many enemies that he and his ‘Acolytes’ were cast out as
His pugnacity might best be summed up in an admonition against the careerism he felt poisoned military decision making…”You can be somebody or do something, but not both.” His unflinching dedication to service of country would not permit him to back away from unpleasant or inconvenient truth, and he relished the battles with generals as much as flying against the MIGs of his combat days. His ideas and ideals attracted an unlikely coterie of loyal supporters and allies who became known as the Reformers in the Pentagon.
Unhappily, the successes were precious few against trillions
of dollars in wasteful spending on weapon systems that underperformed, or
failed to perform at all, while overrunning budgets, the size of which is the
sole measure of success in the military industrial complex. Donald Rumsfeld’s offensive
blundering about ‘going to war with the army you have rather than the one you
Boyd and his acolytes paid for their dedication in the currency of foundered advancement, constant contention, and bitter, never-ending battles with those who should have embraced their cause. The costs to his family were similarly severe, unhappy tolls of neglect and estrangement over many years of obsession.
Still, there is much to inspire, amuse, and astonish in these pages, as well as great back-story on events that many will recall from decades of news about Pentagon procurement debacles and weapon system scandals. Be forewarned… it is worse and more shameful than sensible people can imagine.
His ideas survive (ap
I’m grateful to my son, Mathias, for bringing this book to my attention.
The Gershwin Tunnel connecting the B and C concourses at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago. It seems to be from a more whimsical era of air travel, but still makes me smile (August, 2007)