Robert Coram has had a long career as a reporter, staff and freelance writer, and author. His writing has appeared in many publications, including the Atlanta Gazette, Atlanta Magazine, the New York Times, Sports Illustrated, and Esquire. As an author, he has published three nonfiction books and seven novels, as well as Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War. He lives in Atlanta. You can visit Robert Coram's website here.
tompeters.com asks ...
Robert, what is the significance of John Boyd? And what drew you to this writing project?
RC: Chuck Spinney, one of Boyd's closest friends, had been after me for years to write Boyd's biography. I had put it off; I didn't know enough about Boyd and I thought there was no story there. At Chuck's request, I went to see him. After about a week in Washington talking with Chuck and with some of the other Boyd acolytes, as I call them in the book, I realized that this was probably the best story I had ever run across. I wrote a 65-page proposal, sent it to my agent at William Morris who, to my surprise, read it over a weekend. On a Monday morning he sent out the copies. And I think he sold it by that afternoon to Little, Brown and Company.
What caught your attention about the story? What's compelling?
RC: It's a man who had an enormous impact not only on the military, but on American thought. And he was unknown to most people. The question I got most often from my friends, when I said "I'm writing a biography of John Boyd" was, "Who is John Boyd?" The man had an extraordinary breadth of knowledge and was a passionate reformer. He was one of those people who just put the bit in his teeth and did what he thought was right and devil take the hindmost. He's the sort of man that all of us admire, and I think many of us secretly aspire to be.
He had great morality, great integrity. He fought enormous odds. He usually prevailed. He died relatively unknown. What fame is coming to him unfortunately is coming after his death.
What exactly did he do that changed the art of warfare?
RC: He did a number of things. He was the first man to codify the arcane and hitherto unwritten rules of aerial warfare. He reduced it to a mathematical formula. Then, as a student at Georgia Tech, where he went to get his second degree, he discovered Energy-Maneuverability, which forever changed aviation. Those things alone would have made him worth writing about. But his greatest contributions came after he retired, when he went into seclusion for a year or 18 months and adopted this daunting course of self study. Out of that emerged a briefing called "Patterns of Conflict."
It made Boyd, in the eyes of many, the greatest military thinker since Sun Tzu. When I interviewed Vice President Dick Cheney, he told me that Boyd's ideas had a great impact on his thinking when he, as Secretary of Defense, was planning the First Gulf War. He summoned Boyd to secret meetings in the Pentagon. Because of Boyd, he overrode Schwarzkopf's strategy. It was Boyd's idea that led us to that swift, decisive victory in the First Gulf War.
He started off as a fighter pilot, and then he seemed to have this incredible ability to reinvent himself as he went along. Is that just an organic thing that happens with someone, this American idea of reinvention? I just watched the movie Ray. One of the great lessons is that Ray Charles continued to reinvent the kind of music he was going to do, often upsetting the music producers. But he seemed to have a sense of where to go next. I see a bit of that in the Boyd story as well. Do you?
RC: I'm not sure I would call it reinventing. To me he was building on his accomplishments, reaching higher and wider every step of the way. He was never static. He kept moving, kept developing and expanding. If you look back at his life, you can connect the dots in a way that you couldn't when he was going forward. You see that what he learned in Korea, reading the statistics on the aerial engagements between the F-86 Sabre Jet and the MiG-15, developed a couple of ideas that became the foundation for his time-based area of conflict.
It took years for it to come together and for him to articulate it. But that led to the writing at Nellis [Air Force Base], the Aerial Attack Study, then the Energy-Maneuverability Theory, and later to his theory of warfare. Rather than reinventing, I think that it was expanding on what he had already done.
Fair enough. He was a brusque guy, to put it mildly, and he was constantly at odds with his superiors. The other theme that runs through your book is how he constantly pisses off everyone around him, but then somebody comes along to save him. How did that happen? Was he just lucky, or was there something in his nature that made people want to save him?
RC: He had this Messianic Complex about doing the right thing. That was inculcated in him by his mother when he was a boy growing up in Erie, Pennsylvania. In fact, I think he was either oblivious or didn't care what his superiors thought of him. He had no respect for rank. This got him in trouble a number of times. He probably would not have been promoted beyond major if, at the most opportune times, general officers had not come in and saved him. And he did not like general officers. So it's particularly noteworthy that there were a few senior people in the Air Force who recognized his talent and saved him from himself.
But even today, there are still senior officers in the Air Force who just flinch at the mention of Boyd's name. They denigrate his work, his accomplishments, and say he was nothing more than a talented mathematician. So the antipathy there goes both ways.
He was ignored by the Air Force until after my book and several other books came out about him in the past two or three years. But now he's being taught in the Air Force.
I'm writing another military biography. While traveling around the country to Air Force bases for research, I often talk to young majors, lieutenants, and colonels. When they find out that I'm the author of the Boyd book, that's all they want to talk about. They tell me that they are aware of how the senior leadership in the Air Force frowns on Boyd and his work, and that once they, the young officers, become senior leadership, they're going to change that. They're going to see that in the Air Force, Boyd is given the recognition he deserves, the institutional recognition.
Yet one of your points is that as these people progress through the hierarchy of the Air Force, rather than bring their ideas to the hierarchy, the hierarchy imposes on them a kind of corporate silence.
RC: You're absolutely right. I don't think people are promoted beyond colonel if the generals think they're not going to be a member of the brotherhood, if they're not going to be like the other generals. It's almost impossible today to look in the ranks of the general officers and find someone who just kicks things over and moves ahead. They're institutional people. They have to have a lobotomy somewhere along the way before they can be promoted to general. Something does happen to them.
So whether or not these young officers do what they say they will, I don't know. We'll have to wait and see for another 10-15 years. But they have great passion right now. They are great admirers of Boyd, and they're tremendously proud that someone in their branch of the military did these things and made such an impact.
You should record these statements from them, and then play them back to them in 10 years.
RC: If they saw a tape recorder when they talked about Boyd, they would flee unto the hills!
It's interesting, here's a guy who died in 1997. Is that right?
RC: I think you're right. I honestly don't recall.
When did he leave the Air Force? Back in the early '70s?
RC: Mid-'70s I believe he retired, yes.
He was such a threat to this organization, the Air Force, or the Armed Services in general, that he is still seen as some kind of bad kid.
RC: What you have to remember is the senior officers in today's Air Force, including the Chief of Staff, owe their rank and promotion to someone who, in Boyd's time, was a four star general and who loathed Boyd. All of these people who have become the senior leadership in the ensuing years owe their rank and their position to a fellow who disliked Boyd intensely. They are loyal to the guy who promoted them and they follow his beliefs, one of which was that Boyd was a royal pain in the ass. He was nothing but a talented mathematician.
On the one hand, he had this ability to tick off everyone around him, particularly his superiors. But he also seemed to have this ability to burnish his own legend as he went along. On the one hand, you said maybe he was oblivious to how he was ticking people off because he was so possessed and so driven. Like you said, he had a mission in life that was bigger than himself, it was bigger than the Air Force.
You start off the book with a story about being stationed in Japan and sleeping out in tents. There are these wooden hangars that they supposedly burned down to keep other flyers warm. You suggest that that story may or may not be true, but that Boyd was very good at telling that story.
RC: That story, along with several others that share a common theme: Boyd against the institutional Air Force, Boyd against great odds, Boyd, the man of morality and integrity who ultimately prevails. I think it's almost irrelevant whether or not the stories were true. What's important is how Boyd cast himself, and how he saw himself in that light. As you said, a man on a mission.
There's no way to tell if those stories were true. Even the people who were there have some doubts about it.
Maybe he did have a sense that he wasn't going to deal well with superiors, and maybe this has something to do with not having a relationship with his father, who died when Boyd was very young. I'm not sure how Freudian you want to get with that. But he seemed to be very conscious of wanting to create this legend among younger people. He could be in a bar, tell these stories, and he comes out as the hero against the greater odds, against the upper level officers. He seemed to have a sense that it would somehow help him, being able to do that.
RC: Like you, I don't want to get Freudian, but on the other hand I'm convinced that none of us ever really escapes our childhood. Boyd grew up in extreme poverty, wore hand-me-down clothes, and was criticized and ridiculed by his teachers. His mother told him that if he always did the right thing, was a man of ethics, integrity, and morality, that he would rise over those of higher station.
I think young people, in this case, young officers, listened to his stories. In them, Boyd found a receptive audience. He was such an extraordinary fighter pilot that they would've listened to him read the phone book. This was a guy who had an unbelievable record in the cockpit of an airplane. So whatever he said was perceived as coming down from the mountain.
I'm not sure he was seeking self-aggrandizement in the long term, so much as he was just telling stories to fighter pilots. Those storytelling days are before his great intellectual achievements. I'm not sure I'm making sense here.
It makes sense. You're just shooting down all of my theories, Robert, that's all. [Laughter]
No, no, that's good, I like this. He's a very compelling character. I'm fascinated by the story.
RC: I have received literally hundreds of emails, and I continue to receive them about Boyd. The readers—I'd say 99+ percent are men—have a common thread in their emails. They're very passionate about what they've read. Most of them read the book in one or two sittings. Almost all of them bought copies to give to other people.
Most of them pick up on Boyd's "To be or to do" speech. That's sort of the essence of what every man faces at some point in his career. Boyd crystallized all this, and he did the right thing.
I don't think I would have liked the man. I might want to sit down with him one time, but he's not somebody I would want to be friends with. He did, however, make an enormous contribution to American thought.
He did seem to have a lot of fairly disgusting personal habits. I have this image of this guy chewing on the calluses of his hand and spitting the skin out in an office that he's sharing with other people. Very unattractive.
RC: He must have eaten as fast as a Shop Vac and apparently sprayed food everywhere when he talked. He invaded people's personal space, came within an inch of them, and pounded his finger into their chests. He was one of a kind.
A couple of different times he ended up burning holes in people's ties. One of these guys was a general, right?
RC: That one was an accident. The first time with a civilian was deliberate. With the general it was an accident, or he just got so enamored of his own rhetoric that he forgot where he was. He had a habit of punching people in the chest; he forgot he had a cigar in his hand. He leaned on the general and set his tie on fire.
Tom Peters, at one point, had a slide about the OODA Loop, which seems to be one of the main tenets of Boyd's thinking. Can you talk a little bit about that? It seems to me that in some ways, that concept gets overly simplified.
RC: You're absolutely right, and that's a great insight on your part. Most people who talk about the OODA Loop do not understand it, and do not know how to implement it. The implicit part of the OODA Loop is the most important.
You can't do a computer model with it, which is what the military tries to do, and what some corporations try to do, because it leaves out the implicit part of the feedback process. The OODA Loop is not a linear thing. Again, the implied or implicit part is more important than the explicit.
I'm sorry, we should step back a moment for our readers. OODA stands for "Observe, Orient, Decide, Act," is that right?
RC: Correct. The orientation part, the second part of it, is by far the most important part. So many intangible elements go into that, which again can't be computer modeled. For instance, your background, your family upbringing, your childhood, your education, your socio-economic status, all these things can't be put in a model. And yet, they contribute to what you see, your orientation when you look at a particular situation.
You and I could both look at the same thing, write a paper on it, and the papers would be entirely different. We're two different people, and our orientation is different. The trick is to change the situation faster than the other side's orientation can catch up. Boyd called this "operating inside the opponent's OODA Loop."
You can't computer model this, which is what a lot of people try to do, and the importance of the orientation, or the implicit phase of it, is generally not understood or misunderstood.
But did he use this as a fighting tactic? Not for an individual or air-to-air combat, but for an army at war?
RC: It can be used in any form of conflict, whether it's marital relations, a tennis match, or business. War, of course, is the ultimate application. The year he was in seclusion, he studied many of the great battles in history, particularly those in which very small forces defeated vastly numerically superior numbers, and found some common elements in all of those. He synthesized his learnings into the OODA Loop.
Is that a term that's still used in the military these days?
RC: You bet. I was reading a book by Bing West, a Marine, called The March Up about the second Iraqi war. And there's an extraordinary scene, in I think the first chapter, where these young enlisted Marines are sitting around talking about the OODA Loop. The New Yorker did a profile of General Tommy Franks a couple of years ago. On the first page they talk about the importance of Boyd's thought and the OODA Loop on Tommy Franks.
It's had a pervasive influence, most particularly on the Marine Corps, and to a lesser degree on the Army. It's filtering down in the ranks in all the other branches of the military.
That's pretty fascinating. For you personally, how were you influenced by all the research? Has your life changed at all from having written this biography?
RC: It has, professionally and personally. Professionally, I had written ten books, all of which but one were renowned only for having the shelf life of yogurt. The Boyd book came along, and I had never experienced anything like that. It's sold 50,000 plus copies and still climbing. I get passionate emails from all over the world, so I see the impact the book has had. It just astonishes me.
The book did so well that Little, Brown gave me a contract to do two more biographies. The stipulation was that they be military biographies. So yes, it had an inordinate impact on my life.
On a personal level, the people I met, Boyd's acolytes, were some of the smartest people I've ever met in my life. Having their friendship is one of the great honors of my life. I'm in touch with every one of them today. They're just an extraordinary group of patriots.
Did you ever serve in the military?
RC: I did. I was enlisted in the Air Force back in the '50s.
So you have a little personal involvement in the whole thing.
RC: I attribute it more to the fact that my father was a top sergeant and spent 33 years in the Army. I tell people that I never had a childhood; I had a rather extended boot camp. The things he tried to tell me I rejected for most of my life. And now that I'm getting to be an old geezer I can appreciate the circularity of all this. In writing Boyd, and more specifically the book that I'm working on now, for the first time in my life I came to realize the things about the military that make them better than the rest of us.
They have a higher sense of honor, a code, standards, and patriotism. They have a contract that goes up to and including the loss of life, and service to their country. We, as civilians, don't have that kind of contract. My dad tried to teach me all of that and I rejected it. But now I see that I rejected the greatest gift a father can give to his son. I've come to embrace all the things that for most of my life I rejected.
I guess that's the story of life, isn't it? We have to reject our parents.
RC: What's that line about going through your life and you come back to where you were the first time, and it's new? I'm going to write a memoir about growing up in South Georgia during the '50s. The title will be Me and the Sarge. The subtitle is The Making of a Writer. I've only realized this in the past few months of working on this book, that the things he taught me about the military, about the flag, about patriotism, and about how man conducts himself, brought me to where I am today.
I want to know when that book comes out.
RC: This one, the one I'm finishing now, is about Colonel Bud Day, who was a POW, Medal of Honor recipient, and Air Force Cross recipient. He is the most decorated living American officer with 70 medals, 50 of which are combat medals. He was very much involved as a Republican in the effort against John Kerry in '04. It's extraordinary, and it's another story that's never been told. So look for that one in about a year.
Earlier you mentioned the acolytes. They're a big part of John Boyd's story. Could you talk briefly about the role that these acolytes played for Boyd?
RC: In his life he was close to six or seven men, actually there's another one I should have included among them, and that's Chet Richards, who wrote a book about Boyd a year or so ago. [Certain to Win: The Strategy of John Boyd, Applied to Business] He is doing extensive writing about Boyd now.
Those men had their lives irrevocably changed by Boyd, some would say ruined, because he imbued in them the passion that he felt. As a result, their careers in every instance were destroyed. When you ask them about it, though, they get terribly offended if you say that because they think it was the white hot period of their lives. It was a high point. They learned more from Boyd than anybody else. Everything after Boyd was anticlimactic.
They're all men of probity and rectitude. They're all brilliant. They've all made an enormous contribution. If you measure a man by his friends and you look at those men, it's an incredible tribute to Boyd.
They helped further his work and sometimes helped him skirt around the bureaucracy that he was regularly alienating. Is that right?
RC: Yes. They had different roles. Tom Christie was a math wizard and had access to computers. He enabled Boyd to sort of back door the Air Force, by quantifying and improving the Energy-Maneuverability Theory. They all performed vital roles in his ever-increasing growth and development.
Jim Burton, who's in politics in Virginia today, was one of the graduates of the first class of the Air Force Academy. He was destined to become a general. He became one of Boyd's acolytes at the Pentagon and made his work discovering the faults in the Army's Bradley Fighting Vehicle. He was ultimately run out of the Air Force because of that. However, he saved the lives of thousands of young Americans because of his work. All of the acolytes suffered to some degree the same thing in their careers. But not one of them has a regret.
That's the peculiar thing. Here are all these guys who find serious, major flaws in fighting machines. Really they're just trying to save lives. Yet the whole machine of the Armed Services roars up against them.
RC: The most unbelievable response to the book, and one that's fairly consistent in the emails I get, is that a number of people have said it reveals the Pentagon culture more than anything they've ever read. Specifically, the military industrial Congressional complex, that evil nexus where the civilian defense contractors come together with the military and with Congress. Because it's against a practical background, you can understand it.
Absolutely. They're right, that is the most frightening aspect of your book.
RC: They're virtually omnipotent; it's a juggernaut. If that nexus has turned on somebody, few people can stand against it.
Although I guess Colonel Boyd did. As you say, his recognition is late in coming, but it is coming with help from you.
RC: He's uniquely American in many respects. The opposition to authority, the individuality about him, having a mission and staying on it, no matter the odds. It's the story of a man of great morality and principle against un-principled people. Again, he's the kind of man that many of us in our heart of hearts aspire to be. He did it and he prevailed. We all get a vicarious kick out of reading about men like that.
That's actually a great summary, Robert. It's a great book. Well written and very impressive.
RC: I appreciate that.
Thank you for your time.