When I assembled a syllabus for this semester’s Airpower seminar, I noted that there appeared to be a pair of biographies of John Boyd; Grant Hammond’s Mind of War, and Robert Coram’s Boyd. Brief reading of reviews and cursory investigation didn’t reveal much in terms of how the differed, so I sought the last refuge of the scoundrel: twitter. My twitter people told me that both volumes were solid enough, with Coram concentrating more on Boyd the airman and Hammond on Boyd the man. Given that this was an Airpower seminar, there were obvious reasons for choosing Coram. However, I thought that after a long semester of delving through the dry texts of airpower theory, my students might have preferred a more personal approach.
Mind of War isn’t an awful book. There are compelling elements to it, and it certainly paints an interesting picture of John Boyd Polymath. It describes elements of his thought in great detail, and ably presents his contribution to a number of important projects. But it’s also obvious that the biographer was, in this case, far too close to his subject. I hasten to add that this was an assessment that my students shared; they still joke about how Boyd was kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being etc. etc.
John Boyd surely did some phenomenal things in his career. He was a remarkable fighter pilot, both in tacit and explicit senses. He was able to draw sufficiently robust lessons from air combat to integrate them with physics and engineering know how, thus producing the foundations for two of the most impressive fighter aircraft of the 20th century. The OODA loop remains a genuinely fascinating and productive theoretical device; for my own part, it helps me understand the effectiveness of the Oregon Ducks offense under Chip Kelly. For the most part, Hammond doesn’t bother apologizing for the fact that Boyd was apparently a colossal asshole; I’ve read few biographies (short of the obvious, Mussolini et al) where I had less interest in meeting the subject in person.
Hammond goes into a great deal of depth about Boyd’s ideas regarding warfare, competition, conflict, and systems integration. There’s a lot to be learned, unfortunately Hammond often seemed more interested in telling the reader how edgy and insightful Boyd was than in showing it. To be sure, he did a lot of the latter, but there’s so much of former that it sometimes feels as if we’re getting an argument from authority regarding the genius of John Boyd. Another way to put it is that Hammond doesn’t seem to trust that the reader will be smart enough to understand just how smart John Boyd was, and therefore he needs to reaffirm the genius of his subject at every turn. Again, there’s something to this; the reader probably won’t ever produce work as insightful as Boyd’s, but there needs to be a limit to the commitment of a biographer to the subject’s legacy. It doesn’t help when Hammond carefully concludes, in the final chapter, that Boyd met all of Clausewitz’ criteria for “military genius.”
Here’s a question. I’m sure that some would disagree with the suggestion that John Boyd and John Warden are the two pre-eminent American airpower theorists of the post-war age, but there’s at least a compelling case to be made for the prominence of each. Part of the point of creating an independent air force was to give aviators and enthusiasts the freedom to develop platform, doctrine, and strategic insight regarding the utility of airpower. Only by freeing the air force from its support role for the Army, the logic went, could the true potential of airpower be reached. I have to wonder, then, why both Boyd and Warden had such rocky Air Force careers. Neither made flag rank, and Hammond argues that Boyd was persona non-grata with the Air Force until very near his death. Comparatively, the most important theorists of the USAAC and USAAF period seem to have done very well; Billy Mitchell was court marshaled (after reaching flag rank), but Hap Arnold and many of the others associated with the Air Corps Tactical School continued to play very important roles into the Second World War. Off the top of my head the only really important USAAC officer to resign/get chased out was Claire Chennault, and his fight was more against the bomber mafia than the ground army. I’d be curious to see whether people think a) I’m misreading the history, b) a maverick career always comes with a cost, service independence notwithstanding, c) there’s a genuine problem with how the USAF approaches innovation, or d) some of the above.
Hammond hedges a bit on Boyd’s legacy. He certainly wants to argue that Boyd had a critical impact on a wide variety of affairs, from corporate governance to military doctrine to aircraft design. However, the lines are often sketchier than Hammond appears to draw. the story Hammond tells about Boyd’s impact on the Army and the Marine Corps is far too simple; Boyd surely supplied some of the ancillary logic for the return to maneuver warfare after Active Defense, but then the latter was never popular in the Army, and in both the 1980s and 1990s there were many sources of innovation. By Hammond’s own account the military reform movement failed to bring about much reform. If we are to believe the rest of the Fighter Mafia, Boyd would have loathed both the F-22 and the F-35. Moreover, it’s interesting that the primary utility of F-15 and F-16 now appears to be in their multirole capability; they surely remain excellent air superiority platforms, but they now act mostly as fighter-bombers (and even light strategic bombers in the service of the IDF).
Mind of War is perhaps the only biography I’ve ever read that has made me really, really want to read another biography of the same subject. It’s not a bad book, exactly, but it works best as a useful supplement for those already deeply steeped in the history of late Cold War airpower, and the fighter mafia in particular. If I had it to do over again, I’d assign the Coram book in a heartbeat.