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The John Boyd Primer By Major Ian Brown, USMC

John Boyd, United States Air Force

Colonel John Boyd, United States Air Force, had a life and legacy that crossed many of the twentieth century’s most tumultuous periods--the Great Depression, World War II, and the entirety of the Cold War. Boyd was no spectator, serving on active duty during World War II, the Korean War, and Vietnam; moreover, his inquisitive mind absorbed the tumult going on around him and sought to offer solutions to the many challenges faced by the United States during much of his life. His contributions were both theoretical--in the case of the Energy-Maneuverability Theory and his mental framework for conflict and competition--and concrete, with his influence deeply impacting the design and programmatic execution of the Air Force’s F-15 and F-16 fighter aircraft, as well as fighter tactics more broadly.

Yet he was known as much for his personality as his contributions to national defense. He pursued his passions with puritanical zeal, which served to bind his circle of friends closely to him while alienating superior officers and others whom he felt were insufficiently open to his ideas. Boyd wanted to ensure his own independence of thought and action by not obligating himself to larger institutions that might seek to curtail that freedom with their own biases; unfortunately, that independence also put his family in financial straits for much of his civilian life. All told, he was a complicated man whose legacy was further complicated by maelstroms of both hagiography and emotionally-charged criticism that have overshadowed what he actually did and said.

This selection of recommended readings aims to cut through the tangles of legend and get the reader to what Boyd did and said, and not what others have said about him. It is intended as a living document, as Boyd’s ideas still generate discussion today, and so I suspect the last book on him has yet to be written. I have also included some sources to be read with a cautiously critical eye—these sources offer some historical value in either covering material not found elsewhere, or by dint of the author’s undisputed personal connection with Boyd; however, they also contain hagiographic elements, which make it fairly clear that the author’s assessment of Boyd cannot be considered unbiased.

Finally, full disclosure on my behalf: I have done my own research and writing on Boyd but almost entirely from my perspective as a United States Marine officer. Partly this is because Boyd had both a disproportionately large impact on Marine Corps thinking and was embraced with disproportionate enthusiasm in the Marine Corps when compared with his own service branch of the Air Force, and so from my perspective there is simply a much larger volume of writings on him from the Marine perspective than from other services. But I freely confess my own focus may have caused me to overlook some sources, so I would be grateful for any further recommendations that delve more deeply into Boyd from an Air Force, or other service, perspective.

Primary Sources

A Discourse on Winning and Losing, John R. Boyd, edited by Grant Hammond

Published by Air University Press, this book is a compilation of ‘clean’ versions of the slides Boyd developed for his many briefings: Patterns of Conflict, Organic Design for Command and Control, The Strategic Game of ? and ?, Conceptual Spiral, Revelation, and his essay Destruction and Creation. Scanned versions of Boyd’s original slides are available in a number of places on the Internet, but this compilation brings them all together in one place. It also cleans up some of the typos on the original slides and comes with an introduction by Boyd biographer Grant Hammond that features QR codes for easy access to supplemental readings. Note, however: The slides are only half the story when it comes to Boyd primary sources. I’ll elaborate on this below. Read by itself, this compilation is NOT the ‘full’ Boyd.

Conceptual Spiral brief (audio/video recording), John R. Boyd

I have not yet tracked down the full provenance of this video collection, but it features one of the few recorded instances of Boyd presenting one of his briefs: in this case, The Conceptual Spiral. The audio quality is surprisingly good given the recording equipment available at the time. The video series also includes several Q&A videos on a variety of topics following the main presentation.

Patterns of Conflict brief (video recording), John R. Boyd

This video collection not only features another of the few recordings of Boyd giving a brief, but also offers additional value in two ways. First, the viewer really gets a sense of Boyd’s personal physical dynamism as he talks, goes through his slides, and interacts with the audience. Second, former Marine officer Dan Grazier has done a tremendous service by editing in digital copies of the slides Boyd uses throughout, as they are not visible on the video recording. Thus, this series is about as close as one can get to being in the room with Boyd that remains available today. Note: Based on sign in the background, this version of the brief dates to early-mid 1980s, when Rep. Jim Lightfoot would have been in office.

Patterns of Conflict transcript, John R. Boyd, transcribed by Ian T. Brown

I developed this transcript from a later audio-only recording of Patterns of Conflict held by the Marine Corps Archives. As I learned from my book project, while it’s great that both the audio and video recordings of this brief exist, the quality of them leaves something to be desired for researchers looking for an easily-searchable reference. I transcribed a 1989 version of Patterns of Conflict as a partial remedy to this. In this version, Boyd is briefing Marine Corps students at the Marine Command and Staff College in Quantico, VA. Interestingly, another member of the movement that brought maneuver warfare to the Corps—Colonel Michael D. Wyly—is in this audience and contributes to the conversation. I included time stamps and slide references in the transcript to aid researchers in seeing exactly what Boyd said (or in some cases, didn’t say) in relation to each slide as he presented his brief.

Note: Except for the Air University Press collection, the video recordings and transcript are, in my opinion, how the reader or researcher gets the ‘full’ Boyd. In the process of transcribing Patterns of Conflict, it quickly became apparent to me that Boyd did not ‘weigh’ each slide equally—some he glossed over, some he spent extensive amounts of time on, and some were jumping off points for fascinating discussions only tangentially related to the original slide. This is not at all evident if one is simply reading through the slides by themselves. The slides are, at best, only half the story—it takes extra work to get the full story but, as seen with the videos and transcript available, the resources to do that extra work are available. If one is serious about exploring Boyd’s thought, you must get beyond the slides.

Top Tier of Secondary Works

The Mind of War: John Boyd and American Security, Grant Hammond

This is a solid basic biography of Boyd by a writer who had a chance to interview him before his death in 1997. It largely focuses on Boyd’s professional life: his Air Force career, influence on the Marine Corps, and involvement with the broader Military Reform Movement of the late 20th century. Though it lacks the personal details and more sensational writing style of Robert Coram’s Boyd (discussed further below), Hammond’s biography to my mind is a more reliable work because everything Hammond presents is well-documented, allowing the reader to easily conduct deeper research on their own if they so desire. For those with little or no previous knowledge of Boyd’s life and work, this is the place to start.

Science, Strategy and War: The Strategic Theory of John Boyd, Frans P. B. Osinga

Once you’re ready to jump from Boyd’s biography to his intellectual contributions, Osinga’s book is essential. It stands as the only detailed analysis of Boyd from a purely conceptual perspective, reconstructing the zeitgeist in which Boyd developed his various briefs, as well as the specific intellectual threads that fed into each brief itself. Osinga’s book is deductive, using the references Boyd included at the end of his briefs for his reconstruction. I had the chance to correspond with Osinga while I wrote my own book, and he said that he did not have access to the recordings of Boyd’s briefs I used, but upon reviewing them, they did not change any of his conclusions. The writing style can be challenging at times, as English is not Osinga’s primary language, but this book occupies a unique place in Boyd historiography and is vital for getting beyond a cursory understanding of how Boyd developed his own ideas.

Airpower Reborn: The Strategic Concepts of John Warden and John Boyd, edited by John Andreas Olsen

As the title indicates, this book is not exclusively focused on Boyd’s ideas, but it is still a worthwhile collection of essays that seek to apply his ideas in the context of modern airpower theory. This approach is interesting in itself, because Boyd did not focus his ideas specifically on the air domain despite his background as an Air Force fighter pilot. Frans Osinga contributes a chapter, as does the late Colin Gray. While I would not recommend this as a standalone volume to anyone lacking previous familiarity with Boyd’s ideas, it is a relatively recent assessment of Boyd (such assessments are not exactly published at a rapid rate), and is an engaging experiment in applied theory, especially considering the outsized importance airpower assumed in America’s recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A New Conception of War: John Boyd, the U.S. Marines, and Maneuver Warfare, Ian T. Brown

As mentioned above, my book focuses on how Boyd’s conflict ideas influenced the post-Vietnam Marine Corps, and ultimately fed into the maneuver warfare doctrine that the Corps still espouses today. While pieces of this story have been told elsewhere, my book collects the narrative in one place; and, more importantly in my opinion, includes several primary sources not utilized or published elsewhere to flesh out the narrative. This includes, first and foremost, my transcript of Patterns of Conflict, unpublished oral histories of several of the Marines involved in the maneuver warfare debates of the 1970s and 1980s, and other archival holdings from the Boyd Collection in the Marine Corps Archives.

Second Tier—Recommended with Caveats

Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War, Robert Coram

Part of me wishes there was sufficient Boyd material out there to avoid recommending Coram at all. However, I can’t deny that when it comes strictly to the record of Boyd’s personal life, Coram is really the only source available. To my knowledge, no one else has accessed Boyd’s old records or interviewed the immediate family members in the way Coram did for this biography. For that—and that only—I keep Coram on this list. For the preponderance of Boyd’s professional life, I would strongly recommend reading Hammond, Osinga, or other secondary sources to gain a balanced picture. When I began my own research on Boyd, not knowing where else to start, I started with Coram, and it seemed to make sense since Coram weaves personal and professional threads together. However, the more I got past secondary material into primary and archival sources, the more it became evident to me that Coram—defaulting to his initial writing style as a journalist, not a historian—was more interested in telling an engaging story than the full truth of the matter. The primary sources showed me several instances where Coram either puts a spin on a particular episode that other participants themselves did not agree with, or in some cases, simply omitted important people from parts of the narrative when it did not suit Coram’s portrait of Boyd as the one and only hero of the story. Moreover, from the perspective of a historian or researcher, Coram makes it very hard to check his math because he does not provide standard citations that let the reader follow lines of inquiry more deeply on their own. The occasions where I found Coram verifiably wrong only came from my own review of primary and archival resources that were not necessarily generated from Coram’s sources. So: Read Coram for where Boyd lived and how he interacted with his family; for anything else, I would substitute items from the “top tier” above, as Coram is simply not a reliable voice on Boyd’s professional life or conceptual ideas.

The Pentagon Wars: Reformers Challenge the Old Guard, James G. Burton

While Boyd is not the main character of this work, he makes several appearances as he mentored Burton at various times during Burton’s own tours—and bureaucratic clashes inside—the Pentagon. As a personal associate of Boyd, I think Burton’s book has value in shedding a little more light on Boyd the person, Boyd the friend, and Boyd the military reformist gadfly. However, as with Coram, I found Burton treading the line of hagiographer a little too closely, and there are a few anecdotes Burton relays—like the Army essentially stealing Boyd’s intellectual framework on maneuver warfare for their own doctrine—that I simply could not find corroborating evidence for, and for which Burton offers no evidence beyond his own assertions. Thus, as with Coram’s book, for anything beyond insights of a strictly personal nature, I would look at other sources for more robust and balanced analyses of Boyd’s ideas on conflict.

Not Recommended

The Blind Strategist: John Boyd and the American Art of War, Stephen Robinson

[I'm not including a link because if you’re going to waste money, maybe the time it takes you to find the book will make you think again.]

I want to comment on this book here because as it stands, there are not yet any detailed, formal critical reviews available that describe this book for what it is, so this may be your only warning. This book is clickbait with footnotes, written, as best I can tell, to capitalize on the notoriety of offering a sensationalist view rather than true scholarship. When I first learned that a new Boyd book was in the works, I was honestly excited; and then I read it and read it again because I couldn’t quite believe what I’d read the first time. Robinson packages together several older, and oft-times demonstrably false, well-worn characterizations of the origins and supposed flaws of Boyd’s ideas. Which isn’t to say that Boyd’s ideas have no flaws—no military theorist is without strengths and weaknesses of thought, and it’s fair to point those out. What stunned me was that Robinson made his allegations without any evident usage of the archival materials even once. For me, this was sufficient on its own to dismiss the book as a serious historical work, because Historiography 101 demands that primary sources be the starting point. But this omission goes beyond mere ignorant oversight—when archival sources are brought into play, they fatally undermine most of the book’s key arguments. Case in point: Robinson holds as one of Boyd’s two main blind spots that Boyd unquestioningly bought into historically suspect claims about military history and theory made by B. H. Liddell-Hart. One problem: In a recording of Patterns of Conflict, Boyd specifically dismisses Hart’s arguments, as made in Hart’s book Strategy, as “garbage.” In future versions of Patterns, Hart receives only a few cursory mentions and not favorably, making it clear that Boyd included Hart only as a foil against which to compare other military thinkers whom he held in higher regard. An historian engaged in normal tradecraft would have discovered these items undermining their thesis in their necessary survey of the historiography and primary sources. Robinson did not engage in that tradecraft, and his book is thus rendered largely without value because of this failure. All told, far from being a useful if contrarian assessment of Boyd, The Blind Strategist is in fact a significant step backwards in Boyd historiography, lazily combining recycled half-truths with demonstrably false characterizations of Boyd’s thought process and intentions. Readers can avoid it and miss nothing of value.

Major Ian Brown, USMC, is a CH-53 helicopter pilot, the operations officer for Marine Corps University's Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Future Warfare, and the author of the acclaimed A New Conception of War: John Boyd, the U.S. Marines, and Maneuver Warfare.

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