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on October 7, 2016
I liked this book about the man who gave us the F-15 and the F-16, two jets still flying strong 40 years past their inception dates. Boyd also gave us the modern formulas that are used to check out an aircraft dog fighting ability. It would be interesting to see how the F-35 stacks up on this.

This book starts with Boyd's hard scrabble life, his enlistment in the military, his eventual transfer to the officer program, flight school, and arriving in Korea a little too late to see hard combat. Then the book goes into Boyd's service during the 1950s, the golden years of the USAF fighter schools. I was a little taken aback by the constant attention given to his OERs. Also, Boyd seriously needed to attend a conference on "How to Win Friends and Influence People."

After being a hot shot pilot in the 1950s Boyd goes to college and gets and advanced degree in aviation studies. He is able to put his energy management theory into practice and quantify the theory. Every modern Jet goes through Boyd's EM theory. I was quite impressed.

Conversely, Boyd seems to be his own worst enemy. Friends come and go but enemies pile up for Boyd. He enjoys telling people off. He makes it a habit of telling off Generals. So, the F-15, F-16, F-17, and F-18 all bear his influence. Nothing else since then had any effect from Boyd. It's not that he's wrong. It's just his enemies will never admit he's right. Conversely, any nation that has to fight on a realistic budget would be foolish to Ignore Boyd's advice.

The book goes into detail on Boyd's personal life. I was not happy about the way he treated his family and five children. His job came first and his family came third. Most of Boyd's associates lost their careers and 1st wives. All it seemed burned out early in their careers.

Boyd was a prophet of the truth and had feet of clay. His career suffered under his bluntness. His family suffered because of his neglect.

BTW, I took a star off this book because there were some issues with accuracy, slamming on test pilots, and a few other issues.

Still, I liked the book. However, at the end you're left with the impression the book is a lot like Boyd himself, it's packed with information and makes no difference in the long run.
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on July 22, 2017
What an enlightening read! I went from not even knowing about Colonel Boyd to wanting to be one if his Acolytes! The fact that a self-admitted "dumb sh¡t fighter pilot" went on to both quantify and qualify the design of fighter aircraft and did so with the"elegance" of mathematics is startling to say the least. Much like Generalmajor Carl von Clausewitz, Boyd rose from the ranks to become an officer and like both Clausewitz and his other inspiration, Sun Tzu, he deduced everything, starting with the basics and moving into the elegance and, dare I say it, sophistication of mathematics. And he did it with pure, unvarnished, borderline fanaticism. The thoughts never left his mind and his brain was constantly obsessing, even while sleeping, no doubt, seeking a solution that everyone from the fighter pilots themselves to people with PhD's in mathematics, engineering, physics and aircraft design. Aside from the technical aspect of Col. Boyd's life, John Boyd, the man, is a first class representative of what dogged determination and persistence can accomplish.
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on March 7, 2015
As with other guerrilla leaders, intellectual or military, Boyd inspires adoration and acrimony. That more of his accomplishments are not widely celebrated, or at least acknowledged, is particularly unfortunate. Also similar to previous guerrillas, there are myths about the man that must occasionally be sifted through if one seeks to stay in reality. Nonetheless, one would do well to study and learn from the man, his life, and his ideas. Above all, this book presents a story of a man, really several men, who were willing to work and sacrifice for the ideas they stood behind. The choice to be somebody or to do something is applicable well beyond military service members.

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.
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on June 15, 2016
As background I read a lot of non-fiction, but typically shy away from biographies as I find them of limited value. After several recommendations from varied sources I decided to give this book a go and was not disappointed.

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.
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on February 23, 2016
A great book!!!! A must read if you are interested in how the military industrial complex works. It tells the truth about how corrupt the procurement process is and how the Generals are in the pocket of the big defense companies. If you never understood why the DOD has constant cost overruns on its projects this book will clear it up for you. Additionally, a little known fact, John Boyd developed the battle plan for the Gulf War using his OODA Loop strategy. Norman Schwarzkopf was however, happy to take the credit after such a successful campaign.

Read the book and find out how the F-16 and A-10 were born. Fascinating.
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VINE VOICEon August 4, 2015
I stumbled upon the Boyd cycle when researching maneuver strategy for a book I'm writing. At first it was hard to imagine that an Air Force pilot could have written concepts that later influenced the Marines and other branches of the service, but further investigation shows that John Boyd was some type of an idiot savant, practically unable to use any soft skills to convince others of his depth of knowledge or vision. His work has definitely influenced the US military and the armed forces of a number of our allies.

Coram does a good job bringing Boyd to life, and a strange life it was - a renown fighter pilot with only a few kills, a fighter instructor who was too late to Korea and almost never made it to Viet Nam, a "dumb" fighter pilot who influenced the design of fighter plans, a rough, irascible man who fostered "Acolytes" who sacrificed careers to follow his ideas. Boyd was complex, difficult in person, absolutely rigid when doing the right thing, seems to have been without empathy or the ability to see another person's viewpoint. He had influence because he had great ideas backed by hard data, and constantly proved the military (especially the procurement side) was overpaying for hardware and underestimating the human component of warfare.

My quibbles with the book have to do with Boyd's backstory. We really learn very little about Boyd's personal life. His wife and children seem to have been almost an afterthought to Boyd according to the book, but we never learn why or how his wife felt about Boyd's overwhelming career focus. The author constantly reminds us about Boyd's shortcomings and is often uses extravagant language when more simple descriptions would suffice. But if you don't know Boyd, this is a great book to pick up, both for the story about Boyd and his thinking, and as a means to uncover the procurement monster that lives in the Pentagon and that Eisenhower warned us about.
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on September 16, 2017
As a former Marine and current federal government employee of almost two decades the words "do you want to be someone or do something" has never been more relevant. The careerism at all levels is rampant with many choosing to do the easy thing as opposed to the right thing. Sadly, many do not even know what the right thing to do is. We need you Boyd now more than ever.
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on January 30, 2017
I came to this book with a completely open mind. For the past two decades I’ve lived and worked in Silicon Valley as a technology executive, but my educational background and early career experience was in national security and defense, including a stint at the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment, the defense department’s internal long-range planning shop. Yet, I was only vaguely familiar with John Boyd and his work. I decided to give this book, “Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War” by Robert Coram, a shot, even though the grandiose subtitle struck me as a serious red flag. However, the 4.5 star Amazon reviewer rating on over 400 reviews trumped my initial suspicions.

Few books have left me as conflicted as “Boyd.” On the one hand, I really liked it, particularly Boyd’s admonition that one must decide whether you want be someone (i.e. advance far and high in a competitive bureaucracy) or do something (i.e. affect real and lasting organizational change). Having worked at large technology companies and served in the US Navy reserve, I am more than familiar with the “get-along-to-get-ahead” mentality that most large organizations foster and I’m especially sympathetic to Boyd’s evident willingness to “break glass” in order to get meaningful things done. On the other hand, “Boyd” is perhaps the worst biography I’ve ever read. Never in my life have I experienced writing so tendentious and one-sided. To call it a hagiography would be an insult to the Church.

Therefore, I have divided this review into two parts: 1) insights on Boyd’s impact and its relative limitations; and 2) why this is a terrible biography.

Coram clearly sees Boyd as the fighter-pilot-turned-military-theorist liked to see himself: “the man of principle battling superiors devoid of principles; the idealist fighting those of higher rank who have shirked their responsibilities; the man who puts it all on the line and, after receiving threat of dire consequences, prevails.” In short, a maverick. And I certainly believe John Boyd was a maverick and deserves to be remembered.

He grew up poor and fatherless in Erie, Pennsylvannia, attended the University of Iowa on a swimming scholarship, and then joined the US Air Force. By his early thirties he was one of the most gifted jet fighter pilots in the country and a lead instructor at the elite Fighter Weapons School at Nellis Air Base in southern Nevada. Coram swoons over Boyd’s legendary skill as an aerial dogfighter (he was nicknamed “40 second Boyd” because he could supposedly win any air-to-air engagement in less than 40 seconds). Never mind that Boyd served in the Air Force for a quarter century during three major conflicts (WWII, Korea, Vietnam), yet only served in air combat, and briefly at that, in Korea. What his thousands of hours in the air in simulated dogfights taught him was that maneuverability was far more important than other variables, such as speed, range or altitude. While studying for a second degree in engineering at Georgia Tech, he was inspired by Newton’s second law of thermodynamics and the concept of entropy, which he used to develop a radically new approach to measure the ability of an aircraft's performance. Energy-Maneuverability Theory (E-M Theory), as he called it, assessed an aircraft design’s total kinetic and potential energies, allowing for the quantitative measurement and comparison of competing aircrafts – such as US fighters versus Soviet MiGs – across a range of performance envelopes. Boyd was able to mathematically demonstrate that American jets were, from a pure design perspective, vastly inferior to their Soviet counterparts, a finding that was demonstrated during Vietnam as the North Vietnamese Air Force produced 16 aces while the vaunted US Air Force claimed just one.

By the mid-1960s, Boyd had left the ego-driven world of fighter pilots behind and waded into the political minefield and bureaucratic morass that is the Pentagon weapons design and acquisition process. He quickly established himself as an officer willing to go against the grain, challenge conventional wisdom, and speak truth to power, usually without any of the usual decorum and deference expected of mid-level military officers. People like John Boyd – combining intelligence, pertinacity, and selflessness – are rare and, quite frankly, critically important to the long-term health of any large organization. The story of John Boyd – along with that of his improbable collection of mentees, who Coram calls the Acolytes – demonstrates that individuals can, with hard work and courage, take on institutions seemingly impervious to change, and eventually make a difference, albeit not without personal career consequences. Boyd’s EM Theory and his relentless pursuit of nimbleness and maneuverability over the Air Force’s never ending desire for “Bigger-Higher-Faster-Further” produced both the F-16 and F-18 fighters.

The “whistle-blower”-like performance of his Acolytes, such as Franklin “Chuck” Spinney’s work on irresponsible defense spending, James Burton’s efforts to ensure the proper testing of the Army Bradley fighting vehicle, Pierre Sprey’s development of the aircraft nobody wanted (the close-air-support A-10 fighter), and Mike Wyly’s pursuit of enshrining maneuver warfare into Marine doctrine, are all noteworthy as well. Boyd and his Acolytes, came to view the Pentagon as driven more by “Pride Power Greed” than “Duty Honor Country.” It’s a sad, but important story.

The story of Coram’s skills as a writer and biographer are sadder still. I have four specific gripes, some more damning than others. First, and of least consequence I suppose, is his purple and often juvenile prose. For instance, when explaining what it meant to be called a “Tiger” by a fellow fighter pilot, Corman says it meant “you had stainless-steel testicles that dragged the ground and struck sparks when you walked.” Personally, I have no problem with locker room language, I just feel like it degrades the legitimacy of the overall effort.

Second, the book is filled with essentially fabricated dialogue. At every turn, Coram is recreating some contentious event from Boyd’s past by quoting dialogue that is at best directionally accurate and at worst outright fabrications. Here’s one example from Boyd’s early days at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida:

“Goddammit, Christie, they f-cked up over there in the computer shop,” he yelled. “I’m going over there and kick that civilian’s ass.”

“Now, John,” said Christie in his soft, conciliatory voice. “Let me handle it.”

It’s as if Coram is turning the story of John Boyd and his fight against the military industrial complex into some sort of roman a clef novel. You can’t do that in a work of non-fiction and expect to be taken seriously. Again, for me, it just detracted from the book’s legitimacy.

Third, Coram’s descriptions of Boyd, his work, and his impact are so over-the-top it really beggar’s belief. With the one notable exception of his performance as a father and husband, Boyd, in Corman’s view, was a god amongst mortals. Think I’m overstating the point? Let’s review some direct quotes from “Boyd” and you decide...

When Boyd was as instructor at the Fighter Weapons School at Nellis Air Base the “pure and elegant beauty of [his tactical flying maneuvers] sank into [his students’] consciousness and they understood and sighed in awe.” And when he turned his formidable talents to creating a new Energy-Maneuverability (EM) Theory of aircraft performance and design he achieved what “is today as fundamental and as significant to aviation as Newton was to physics.” It’s “not only elegant, but it is simple, beautiful, and revolutionary.” And when it came time to present his findings to the Pentagon brass, “Boyd’s briefing charts were things of beauty, pieces of art, clean and elegant and simple; they had enough data to inform but not enough to overwhelm, and were creative in appearance but not so creative as to detract from the information being presented.”

But, wait! There’s more! After retiring from the Air Force, Boyd began to think deeply about military strategy and drafted a briefing he called “Patterns of Conflict,” a piece of work, while never actually written down (more on that later), that Corman believes makes Boyd “the greatest military theoretician since Sun Tzu.” (Seriously, I’m not making this up.) He even earned the respect and admiration of the Marines Corps, an organization not known for their love of Air Force pukes. But once “Boyd stood up and his eyes locked on the Marines and he took charge. His deep voice boomed out. The Plum began to weave his magic…[the students knew] they were witnessing the beginning of something new and powerful and wonderful.” Indeed, according to Corman, “Boyd changed the world.”

Finally, for some reason, Coram doesn’t provide for any real opposing viewpoints. Boyd had enemies and detractors – and evidently lots of them. But we don’t hear from them, at least not directly and certainly not with any specificity. The author confesses that Boyd had a tendency to “embroider reality,” but he doesn’t dig very deep trying to uncover just how elaborate and widespread that embroidery may have been. In the Epilogue, Corman writes that “[detractors] say Boyd was unprofessional, unreliable, and an embarrassment to the Air Force – a man who happened to have a flair for math, and that’s all.” Who said that, exactly? Why would they say that? What were their examples? General Bob Mathis, the Air Force vice chief of staff (and one of the very few Boyd detractors Corman calls out by name), supposedly referred to Boyd and his Acolytes as “dark and satanic forces.” Really? Wow! I would have loved to hear more about that. In many ways, “Boyd” reminds me of “Three Cups of Tea” and “Charlie Wilson’s War,” all ostensibly accurate and objective biographically-based stories that are, in fact, propaganda pieces where the lead actor is an inestimable hero, all of his supporters pure and true (which in Boyd’s case includes none other than Dick Cheney), and every detractor an incompetent, careerist, mendacious jerk. In my opinion, Corman does Boyd and his legacy a disservice by ignoring the perspectives and opinions of those who don’t see his subject through the same rose-colored glasses.

At the end of his life Corman claims that Boyd feared that “…people thought he was crazy and that his work was insignificant.” Well, the man the author describes, who regularly poked people in the chest with his finger, showered their ties with cigar ashes, and sprayed their face with spittle while delivering a profanity-laced lecture – certainly does sound nutty. And it’s hard to fully judge a man’s intellectual contributions when he essentially refused to write things down. His supposedly legendary “Patterns of Conflict” thesis (“an updating and affirmation of Sun Tzu and a repudiation of Clausewitz” according to Corman) was only available in a six-hour oral briefing (Boyd categorically refused to redact the content, no matter how important the potential recipient was) with supporting slides, which could only really be interpreted by Boyd himself. The guy literally had twenty years to collect and sharpen his thoughts, and then leave a lasting legacy in print the way Sun Tzu and Clausewitz did. If Boyd’s ideas are never fully grasped or implemented or are eventually forgotten entirely, he has no one to blame but himself. Frankly, after reading "Boyd" I think I know why he never committed his thesis to writing. He was afraid. So long as his theory was confined to personal, six-hour briefs, it couldn't be challenged. Once he published a book or extensive white paper, it would become open to peer review and withering critiques. The kind of guy that Coram describes in "Boyd" -- the loudmouth, know-it-all at the bar -- rarely handles public criticism well.

In closing, “Boyd” is one of the most frustrating books I’ve read in a long time, but I’m glad I read it nevertheless.
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on May 20, 2015
Why I didn't know of Colonel Boyd before now is a mystery. He was an intellectual giant and extraordinary fighter pilot with skills no one else possessed. He revolutionized the way warfare was carried out and for the better. He fought Pentagon procurement boondoggles with no regard to his promotions so unusual in the career advancement tract. He formed a coterie of intellectual giants who were "disciples" of his revolutionary theories on energy, mass, thrust and design. After retirement his ideas became incorporated in the business world and embraced by powerful forces like Dick Cheney prior to the Gulf War. He is portrayed as the greatest military theorist since Sun Tzu. A fascinating study into a genius whose most obvious flaw was his personal life and parenting failures which occurred because of his 24/7 dedication to his calling.
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VINE VOICEon December 28, 2015
A fascinating look at the amazing accomplishments of a brilliant, passionate, driven, and socially difficult man (kind of like Steve Jobs) who transformed - nay, dragged - military thought into the new age. Depressing for its insight into the institutional dysfunction and dangerous, outdated inertia of the military in his time (hopefully a thing of the past...?). Not a whitewash of Boyd by any means; his story is told, warts and all, including the heavy price paid by his family, who came a far second to his vision.
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