Notes from Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War

Another long overdue post with notes from the biography of Colonel John Boyd. This is partially so long overdue because extracting quotes from Readmill is somewhat annoying and the excellent API integration Box of Quotes no longer works1.

He quoted Sophocles: “One must wait until the evening to see how splendid the day has been.”

He reacted the only way he knew how: by attacking. The rank or position of his enemy, the size or significance of the institution, none of it mattered. He attacked. And when Boyd attacked, he gave no quarter.

He was a pure man at a time when pure men were needed but so few answered the call.

She hammered into John that as long as he held on to his sense of what was right, and as long as his integrity was inviolate, he was superior to those who had only rank or money.

what is found deep in the bone marrow of a fighter pilot—exaggeration and the belief that a good story is more important than sticking with the bare facts.

Thus, aerial combat favors the bold, those who are not afraid to use the airplane for its true purpose: a gun platform. There is nothing sophisticated about sneaking up on someone and killing him.

The saying of the time was “The more you bleed in peace time, the less you bleed in war.”

He told how to use various tactical combat maneuvers such as the scissors, the high-speed yo-yo, the low-speed yo-yo, the high-G barrel roll, and the vertical rolling scissors to gain the advantage on an opponent.

But what they do has nothing to do with combat flying. It’s all about appearance and not about flying an airplane. I wouldn’t have anything to do with that crowd. All they do is work the cocktail and pussy circuit.”

Heat waves danced on the runway like dervishes.

“The world is divided into hosers and hosees. Your job as fighter pilots is to be a hoser.” A feral grin split his face. He leaned toward the class and added, “I, of course, am the ultimate hoser.”

who talked as if he learned the English language in a New Orleans whore-house.

But he needed Boyd, the maverick: the obstreperous and independent officer who cared more for his work than for his career. Only such a man could save the F-X from being cancelled and prevent the Air Force from being outmaneuvered by the Navy. Only such a man could save the Air Force from itself.

Then Boyd began showing his briefings to Sprey and asking for an opinion. Sprey often ripped the briefs to shreds. And he did it in such a calm and irrefutable manner, reason stacked atop reason, logic atop logic, that it was impossible to disagree. Boyd referred to a Sprey critique as the “Pierre Sprey buzz saw.” But he knew Sprey was making his work stronger and more focused and virtually impervious to attack. “We’ve got to do our homework, Tiger,” Boyd often said to Sprey. “One mistake and they will leverage the hell out of it.”

Very few men were ever invited by Boyd to join forces with him. None ever refused. Each sensed intuitively that he was being offered a rare gift. Each was to pay a terrible price for his friendship with Boyd. Each would have paid more.

It was new and different. And anything new and different is feared by a bureaucracy.

Then he made changes to the paper. It was always fluid.

Burton had a new rule: judge people by what they do and not what they say they will do.

The greatest superpower on earth used almost every arrow in its quiver, everything from multimillion-dollar airplanes to laser-guided bombs to electronic sensors to special-operations forces, and still was defeated by little men in black pajamas using rifles and bicycles.

And when managers lead an army it is their nature to cast blame rather than to accept responsibility.

But some had never heard of Sun Tzu and could not spell “von Clausewitz.” They might have known the names of Douhet or Jomini or von Schlieffen or Fuller or Guderian or Lawrence or Balck, but few knew the theories espoused by these men.

But when he walked out of the Building, he walked into a world of ideas.

Boyd thought analysis could lead to understanding but not to creativity.

He talked of “paralysis by analysis” and said Washington was a city of ten thousand analysts and no synthesizers. “They know more and more about less and less until eventually they know everything about nothing”

To make sure the new reality is both viable and relevant, Boyd said it must be continually refined by verifying its internal consistency and by making sure it matches up with reality. But the very process of making sure the reality is relevant causes mismatches between the new observation and the description of that observation.

The advantage gained from the fast transient suggests that to win in battle a pilot needs to operate at a faster tempo than his enemy. It suggests that he must stay one or two steps ahead of his adversary; he must operate inside his adversary’s time scale.

Generating a rapidly changing environment—that is, engaging in activity that is so quick it is disorienting and appears uncertain or ambiguous to the enemy—inhibits the adversary’s ability to adapt and causes confusion and disorder that, in turn, causes an adversary to overreact or underreact.

They remained ambiguous because Boyd still believed ambiguity created opportunities for unexpected richness.

“Sun Tzu tried to drive his adversary bananas while Clausewitz tried to keep himself from being driven bananas.”

They moved so fast the enemy simply could not understand what was happening and became unglued.

The intent is to shatter cohesion, produce paralysis, and bring about collapse of the adversary by generating confusion, disorder, panic, and chaos. Boyd said war is organic and compared his technique to clipping the nerves, muscles, and tendons of an enemy, thus reducing him to jelly.

But few of those who speak so glibly about the OODA Loop have a true understanding of what it means and what it can do.

Boyd, like Sun Tzu and Napoléon, believed in attacking with “moral conflict”—that is, using actions that increase menace, uncertainty, and mistrust in the enemy while increasing initiative, adaptability, and harmony within friendly forces.

He remembered what Boyd often said: “There are only so many ulcers in the world and it is your job to see that other people get them.”

But those groups often are single-issue groups whose members have no more than a surface knowledge of the military or of defense matters. Because their concerns are frivolous or tangential, they are easily dismissed.

He went in and wrote on the blackboard, “Duty Honor Country.” Then he crossed out the words and under them wrote, “Pride Power Greed.”

Marines are considered both primitive and elitist—primitive because all Marines are basically infantrymen, and elitist because they are so few in number and so good at what they do.

War is ever changing and men are ever fallible. Rigid rules simply won’t work. Teach men to think.”

“So you got your reward; you got kicked in the teeth. That means you were doing good work.

They think the real business of the Pentagon has something to do with defending America. But it does not. The real business of the Pentagon is buying weapons.

And whistle blowers get no respect; they get others to help them do something that they can’t do themselves.

The Army said, “Well, they do exist. But we can’t model them on the computer so we ignore them.”

He was inside their minds and knew how they thought and how they reacted. He could walk into a room of civilian and Army officials and know when the game was afoot. He knew intuitively when and how the adversary would move. Burton had the Fingerspitzengefuhl to move rapidly through the OODA Loop and stay ahead of his adversary, and he found the experience exhilarating.

Each one began with his saying, “I want you to know there is nothing personal in what I am about to do.” And then total devastation.

To make these timely decisions implies that we must be able to form mental concepts of observed reality, as we perceive it, and be able to change these concepts as reality itself appears to change.

Without this unstructuring the creation of a new structure cannot proceed—since the bits and pieces are still tied together as meaning within unchallenged domains or concepts.

The result is a changing and expanding universe of mental concepts matched to a changing and expanding universe of observed reality

  1. Building things on top of APIs looks to be a thing of the past for anything serious or meant to run longer than one week.

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