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Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War Paperback – May 10, 2004
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John Boyd may be the most remarkable unsung hero in all of American military history. Some remember him as the greatest U.S. fighter pilot ever -- the man who, in simulated air-to-air combat, defeated every challenger in less than forty seconds. Some recall him as the father of our country's most legendary fighter aircraft -- the F-15 and F-16. Still others think of Boyd as the most influential military theorist since Sun Tzu. They know only half the story. Boyd, more than any other person, saved fighter aviation from the predations of the Strategic Air Command. His manual of fighter tactics changed the way every air force in the world flies and fights. He discovered a physical theory that forever altered the way fighter planes were designed. Later in life, he developed a theory of military strategy that has been adopted throughout the world and even applied to business models for maximizing efficiency. And in one of the most startling and unknown stories of modern military history, the Air Force fighter pilot taught the U.S. Marine Corps how to fight war on the ground. His ideas led to America's swift and decisive victory in the Gulf War and foretold the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. On a personal level, Boyd rarely met a general he couldn't offend. He was loud, abrasive, and profane. A man of daring, ferocious passion and intractable stubbornness, he was that most American of heroes -- a rebel who cared not for his reputation or fortune but for his country. He was a true patriot, a man who made a career of challenging the shortsighted and self-serving Pentagon bureaucracy. America owes Boyd and his disciples -- the six men known as the "Acolytes" -- a great debt. Robert Coram finally brings to light the remarkable story of a man who polarized all who knew him, but who left a legacy that will influence the military -- and all of America -- for decades to come. ..
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In the first half of the book Mr. Coram does an excellent job discussing Col Boyd's contributions to air-to-air tactics and fighter design during the Cold War. The portions of the book detailing Boyd and The Reformers efforts in the Pentagon are fascinating, but the machinations of that institution are so complex that I imagine it difficult to give the whole story, even in a volume such as Boyd. Nonetheless, Mr. Coram colorfully highlights the petty inter-service and internecine squabbles that occurred inside the great pentagonal palace. While Coram holds Boyd up high he does not gloss over all his faults. He does not dwell on the man's short comings, but they are a present undercurrent throughout the the book.
But beyond the very positive narrative are instances of poor scholarship and subpar research. When Boyd gets to Washington in 1966 the author claims that the WWII generals who led the USAF were being replaced by Air Force Academy grads. Seeing that the first class graduated in 1959 it's absurd to say they were replacing the generals just 7 years after commissioning. There is also an utter failure to mention the six weeks of heavy aerial bombing that preceded the Left Hook and 100 hour ground campaign during Desert Storm. This is not to diminish the brilliant success of the guys on the ground, but air power dealt a critical blow to Saddam's forces and shaped the outcome of the war. Finally, there was a technically puzzling statement that the B-1 had trouble clearing high terrain when fully loaded. Operations in Afghanistan have put any such claims to rest.
Admittedly, the David versus Goliath theme of the book paints the senior military leadership, and especially that of the Air Force, in a shameful light. As an Air Force officer and pilot, perhaps I should take more umbrage at Coram's apparent slandering. However, considering the AH-56 vs A-10 fight, the recent C-27J debacle, the multiple attempts to retire the A-10, and the long-standing institutional attitude toward close air support, it is impossible to dismiss his critiques as baseless or implausible. But, this book will not improve anyone's opinion of the USAF or greater military-industrial complex.
Overall, this is an excellent read and the impact of Boyd's work has clearly spread well beyond the battlefield, much like Sun Tzu. (Whether the two men are truly equals is a debate for another forum.) Without a doubt, reading about the bombastic guerrilla fighter pilot and his work/theories would be well worth anyone's time.
Coram goes through and dissects Boyd's career, without skimping on the negative aspects of his life and gruff approach. Many of the tactics and strategies Boyd reasearchs and applies in his life are uncovered and explained at a high enough level to give insight without interrupting flow. From there you can either jump right in and start applying his methods to your own life or look into the topics in more depth.
Since reading this book I see many parallels to Boyd's work in both business and technology. Anecdotally I find many of the lessons Coram brings to the fore contain large amounts of truth. Sometimes these truths force you to make uncomfortable moral decisions Its not often a book gives intellectual pursuit, actionable tactics and a dose of ethics all together in the one package, but this biography has achieved it. Highly recommended.
Read the book and find out how the F-16 and A-10 were born. Fascinating.