A very American hero
May 30th, 2005
Eight years ago, on March 20,1997, American hero John R. Boyd was laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery. He was 70.
John Boyd was an Air Force fighter jock who learned physics and thermodynamics so he could translate his hunch about fighter combat into a theory. Then he fought the Pentagon to translate his theory into reality. Reality was called F-15 and also F-16.
Boyd was a foul-mouthed man who argued in the face of generals and who called people up in the middle of the night to talk for hours about his latest idea. He neglected his wife and his children, but accumulated a devoted group of loyal acolytes.
After retiring from the U.S. Air Force as a full colonel Boyd took up the field of military strategy from where the Germans had left it in 1945. The U.S. Marines were really impressed. That is why they came to his funeral and honored the grave of an Air Force officer by placing the Marine Corps insignia on it. You can hear Boyd talking whenever you listen to an officer in Iraq or read a mil-blog.
John R. Boyd was born in 1927 in Erie, Pennsylvania. His father died just before his third birthday and he was raised by his mother, Elsie, in fierce yet genteel poverty. He saw the end of World War II as an enlisted man and the end of the Korean War as an F-86 pilot. Then he went to Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada and became the ace dog-fighter “Forty Second” Boyd flying the F-100. Here’s what Forty Second meant. Boyd would place his adversary in an F-100 on his tail, his “Six,” and guarantee to get his own ship maneuvered onto the adversary’s “Six” within 40 seconds. He wrote down his ideas on aerial combat in a paper, “Aerial Attack Study,” that became the Air Force’s fighter tactics manual.
To find out how to design a good jet fighter Boyd went to Georgia Tech and got an engineering degree. It was while studying thermodynamics there that he realized that the key to fighter operations was energy, trading off potential and kinetic energy. Assisted by Tom Christie and $1 million of purloined computer time, he developed Energy-Maneuverability (E-M) Theory. It allowed him to draw performance curves for every airplane that flew and predict which fighter plane would win in a matchup. In the late 1960s he headed up an ad hoc guerrilla group in the Pentagon, the “Fighter Mafia,” that designed the best fighter aircraft in the world, the F-16.
Just as the F-16 entered service in 1975, Boyd retired from the Air Force and his real life’s work began. John Boyd, the cocky fighter jock, began reading.Boyd mastered the German canon from Kant to Heisenberg and produced a paper in 1976 entitled “Destruction and Creation,” available here, that reformulated Hegel’s dialectics in terms of Gödel and Heisenberg. The way of evolution was through successive cycles of destruction and creation, in “a changing and expanding universe of mental concepts matched to a changing and expanding universe of observed reality.” Then Boyd started on his monumental “Patterns of Conflict.” It was not a book. It was a presentation, a stack of slides, available here in pdf.
Knowledge starts with a problem, and Boyd’s problem was the Vietnam War, the humiliation of the United States by a third-world adversary, North Vietnam. Boyd went back to the beginning, tracing the evolution of military strategy from Sun Tzu, who wrote The Art of War in 400 BC. He studied all the great generals in history. He studied the Germans from Clausewitz’s On War to Guderian’s Achtung-Panzer!
In his “Patterns of Conflict” Boyd symbolized his findings in the OODA Loop. The core of the loop is the formula: Observe, Orient, Decide, Act (see here). But the secret to success in conflict is not a formula. It is to get within the mind and the decision cycle of the adversary and drive him to moral collapse in a whirl of confusion and uncertainty.
John Boyd was everything that our sensitive postmodernists abhor, an ugly American warrior who adored conflict and competition. Yet he was a better postmodernist than any of them. Just like them, he used the German tradition to tear down the status quo in a spiraling dialectic of deconstruction. But Boyd was a man of action. He wanted to restructure the world after tearing it apart; he wanted to rebuild the armed forces of the United States of America. That is why his remains lie in Arlington National Cemetery and his spirit inspires the young men and women who defend our nation in Iraq and around the world.You can read about John Boyd’s life and ideas in two biographies: Robert Coram’s Boyd and Grant T. Hammond’s The Mind of War.
Christopher Chantrill (mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org) blogs at www.roadtothemiddleclass.com. Take the RMC test at www.roadtothemiddleclass.com/taketherest.php.
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