So, I read Robert Coram’s Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War. This is a classic high-style American biography. It may help to read bits of it aloud in the voice of Ken Burns. On the downside, John Boyd’s high school swim team is apparently hella important. This may be annoying. On the upside, it gets across tone, style, and flavour very well.
It’s also deeply one-eyed. First of all, it’s essentially a propagandist document of the cult of Boyd. Coram does not waste much time on the possibility that his subject might ever have been wrong. John Boyd was a man with a lot of opinions, which he held to very strongly. This implies he spent a substantial amount of time fighting like a tiger when he was wrong, against people who were right.
Was the F-16 aircraft really a brilliant conception ruined and marred by giving it an air-ground capability and a succession of increasingly excellent avionics upgrades? To this day only one has ever been lost in air combat, a Turkish jet destroyed in a skirmish with Greek Mirage-2000s in 1996. It doesn’t sound like failure, to put it mildly. He thought the F-15 was his own brilliant idea ruined by everyone else, too, but its record is just as fearsome. Were all variable-geometry aircraft a waste of time by definition? His point was the F-111, but it turned out to be a very useful bomber, and the European (and Saudi) air forces who bought into the Tornado got decades of yeoman service from them. Were most avionics systems completely worthless weight? The record of Western air forces recovering from their early 70s crisis makes that look like the words of a crank, a macho sky-god in denial that the computers and, worse, the backseaters had something to tell him.
Worse still, it might mean that the navy had something to tell him. This is another way in which Coram, and I really don’t doubt for a moment that it was true of Boyd, is one-eyed. One of the best features of the book is its acerbic and subtle discussion of the Pentagon’s internal politics, between the services, between the personal followings of the generals and admirals, between the institutions, and between the uniforms, the civil servants, and the contractors. It could not be made clearer that it was deeply cynical, fairly corrupt, and utterly ridiculous. Coram has the advantage as a biographer that his man was a ferocious critic of the system, not so much someone willing to commit career-suicide as someone determined to become a career-suicide bomber.
But he can’t help taking sides in the game. The great institutional threat Boyd wielded against the USAF bureaucracy was that if the next aircraft was a dud, they might be forced to buy the same jet as the navy. Why this would be so terrible is not that obvious.
The USN, and the Marines, loved their F-4s with good reason; the RN, the RAF, the Germans, the Israelis, and God knows how many other friendly air forces did. If Boyd didn’t like it, Eric “Winkle” Brown tested it for the RN and recommended it beyond doubt. Although it was a big, complex, two-seat, two-engine machine laden with electronics, the USN and Marines also had an exquisitely Boydian jet in the A-4 Skyhawk. Clearly they weren’t blind to his concerns. They were also so keen on the Harrier, which was also his sort of aircraft, that not only did they buy them, they paid to develop them further, and then they bought the whole remaining fleet when the British parked them. But then, the book has a one-eyed American point of view and so did Boyd.
Perhaps it wasn’t so much that he didn’t think anything the Navy wanted would be a decent fighter, but that it was a Navy job from McDonnell-Douglas or Grumman, and Boyd wasn’t as pure in Pentagon politics as he made out.
That said, Coram gets at the brilliance and the weirdness of Boyd, and gives a gripping account of the year he spent in Laos during the Vietnam War.
For someone considered a great thinker on warfare, Boyd missed a lot of it; during the Second World War he never got to the fighting, he didn’t reach Korea until the very end (although he flew a lot), and he got to Vietnam late in the day. I didn’t know that he was put in charge of, essentially, a huge secret data centre on an equally secret CIA airfield in the middle of nowhere, specifically to evaluate whether the project to line the borders with sensors and train a machine-learning model to predict NVA infiltration was going to work and shut it down if it wasn’t. Or that he was picked because the job represented a ridiculous percentage of the IBM Federal Systems division’s revenue, and only he could be trusted to turn the tap off before their lobbyists could respond.
In an important way, the book gives us a potted intellectual history of the Iraq War. One of Boyd’s most cherished ideas was “destructive deduction”, when you are forced by circumstances to abandon your mental model of reality and reconstruct it from the pieces. Another, the most famous, is the observation-orientation-decision-action loop, his model of the decision-making process. Putting them together, you can see an embodied argument – the only kind, he would have said – that the response to a really grave crisis is to shake things up, shocking the system into a change of operating regime, act while others are still trying to get orientated, and re-invent the circumstances themselves. And iterate.
You might be able to see where Dick Cheney, a massive and devoted consumer of Boyd’s ideas and conversation, was coming from. When we act, we create our own reality; it’s a more profound remark than you might think. Boyd, however, would have disagreed as violently as he disagreed with everything. His idea of the OODA process is predicated on continuous reference to reality, the “unfolding interaction with the environment”, a dance with changing circumstances, and even more on the implicit guidance and control, the intuition of the expert and the mutual rapport of the team, which he saw as something better than reason.
The neo-cons lacked the one, and rejected the other. As a result, the OODA process span out of control into the progressively increasing disorientation and incoherence Boyd identified as the state you want to force on your enemies. You can see Boyd either as the best conceptual guide for our times – everything is in permanent flux, the uncannily familiar and constant in surreal juxtaposition with the transitory and the weird, who moved my snowmobile? – or else as the dark prophet whose ideas hurled us into them. He helped to fix the 1970s crisis of western airpower and win the cold war; not everyone in the world agrees that was a good thing.
That said, the movie wants doing. Bad. Right from the high-G dramatics of Nellis in the 50s, through the corridors of power and the Bondesque jungle datacentre lair, to the tragic Boyd of the 80s looking for his citations in bookshops, to his summoning to the Pentagon in 1991 to redraft the Gulf War plans. It’s pure Hollywood, although the only person who could pitch it would be Boyd himself, probably the first and greatest of the PowerPoint divas and, we learn, pathologically terrified of writing.