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  • Writer's picturePaul

To Be or To Do


Video Length: 1:41 minutes

Many military scholars have called U.S. Air Force Colonel John R. Boyd the crossroads of Sun Tzu, Caesar, Machiavelli, Fredrick the Great, Clausewitz, Napoleon, Wellington, Washington, Lee, Grant, Liddell Hart, Rommel, Patton, and Mao; yet, few people have ever heard of him. Colonel Boyd was known as “40 second Boyd” for his ability to move his aircraft from a subordinate position to a position of dominance and attack in 40 seconds or less while teaching at the Air Force’s “Top Gun” school at Nellis AFB in Nevada. Colonel Boyd and his hand-selected team of pilots known as the “Fighter Mafia were key architects in the development and selection of the F-15 and F-16 fighter aircraft, based on Boyd’s "Energy Maneuverability Theory." He developed the concept of the "OODA Loop," (Observation, Orientation, Decision, Action) in his “Aerial Attack Study” which rewrote aircraft fighter combat. However, Colonel Boyd’s real claim to fame came as he began to research military strategy, after retiring in 1975. His "Patterns of Conflict" and "A Discourse on Winning and Losing," were the foundation of a new Marine Corps doctrine that evolved the Vietnam era of counterinsurgency to a form known as “Maneuver Warfare" or “Warfighting." Perhaps most importantly, Boyd was instrumental in explaining and disseminating the concept of "getting inside the adversary’s decision cycle and fouling it up" which figured so prominently in the Gulf War. His concepts apply to business as well. Boyd studied Toyota, Ericson, and others where he talked about their organizational focus and their concepts, many of which were taken directly out of strategic warfare theory.

Description & Discussion

On a cold and rainy day in late March 1997, the mortal remains of Colonel John Richard Boyd USAF were placed in the ground at Arlington National Cemetery just outside of Washington DC. Only two Air Force officers attended, a three-star general representing the Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force "who sat uncomfortably alone in the front row.", as a flight of F-15’s searched for an opening in the clouds, but due to the inclement weather, Colonel Boyd's funeral service would not see the customary honorary flyover.

A large contingent of U.S. Marines were also in attendance, dwarfing the Air Fore representation. At the graveside, a senior Marine Colonel placed the eagle-globe-and-anchor insignia next to the urn of ashes and called for the Marine detachment to offer a hand salute. This is the highest posthumous honor the Marine Corps can bestow to other military service members, to recognize that veteran as one of their own.

The concept of maneuver warfare is traditionally thought of as a maneuver to gain a positional advantage, i.e. take the high ground. The Marines concept of maneuver, however, is a "warfighting philosophy that seeks to shatter the enemy's cohesion through a variety of rapid, focused, and unexpected actions which create a turbulent and rapidly deteriorating situation with which the enemy cannot cope." That's John Boyd, he created the mechanics and explained its application in his "Patterns of Conflict." The mission of the Marine Corps is to locate, close with and destroy the enemy by fire and maneuver. As a fighter pilot, Boyd understood that mission statement and applied it to his theory of aerial dogfighting. He conceived of the destructibility concept by drilling down on the one key factor that every adversary shared. The human mind.

On Boyd’s death in 1997, the 31st Commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps wrote a letter to the Editor of the Marine Corps Gazetteand the Inside the Pentagonpublications:

“The Iraqi army was bludgeoned from the air around the clock for six weeks, paralyzed by the speed and ferocity of the attack. The Iraqi army collapsed morally and intellectually under the onslaught of American and Coalition forces. John Boyd was an architect of that victory as surely as if he’d commanded a fighter wing or a maneuver division in the desert. His thinking, his theories, his larger than life influence, were there with us in Desert Storm.”

Decision, Design & Discipline

I saw Colonel Boyd speak once in the late 1980’s at a closed site conference at Quantico Marine Corps Base in Virginia. I honestly admit that a lot of his presentation went right over my head at the time, I got the “OODA Loop” concept because I had already applied it in operations. However, one theme he spent less than five minutes on hit me like an epiphany, and it took Sun Tzu’s lesson of “know your enemy and know yourself” to a level of examination that had never occurred to me. We must understand the conflict, have situational awareness of that conflict and know that conflict’s environment if we ever expect to extract the true atmospherics of that conflict. We must properly define the strategic problems that we have and those of our enemy and as he said that day in Quantico “The real target is always your enemy’s perception.” Boyd then said something along the lines of “Equipment doesn’t fight wars. Terrain doesn’t fight wars. People fight wars! You must get into the minds of those people. That’s where the battles are won.” To target that accurately you must know the enemy people and their culture as well as their leadership and government. You must know and understand the enemy’s values and aspirations. Ultimately you must understand how the enemy society thinks, and what their scorecard is. They decide when they are defeated, not us. Hence, their perceptions are critical to winning. This kind of thinking is relevant in war, diplomacy, business, charity work or in any type of proselytizing.

Boyd never rested on his laurels, after proving one theory after another, he tackled the next thing that he saw as an issue or problem in the military, government, business or society. Boyd needed to contribute, to produce, to create, to be useful. One of Colonel Boyd’s often quoted sayings was “Judge people by what they do and not what they say they will do!”

In the biography shown above is a story about a U.S. Air Force Captain recently assigned to the Pentagon, who found himself reporting to Colonel Boyd and his "Fighter Mafia" team. According to Boyd's biographer, the Colonel welcomed the Captain with the following lecture:

"Tiger, one day you will come to a fork in the road. You’re going to have to decide which direction you want to go. If you go this way, you can be somebody. Mind you, there will be compromises, and you'll turn your back on a lot of your friends; but you will be a member of the club. That club will get you promoted and good assignments. Now that other road, well it's harder and lonelier, but it offers a chance for true accomplishment. You can do something for your country, for your Air Force and for yourself. If you decide you want to do something, you may not get promoted, you will get damned few good assignments, and you certainly will not be a favorite of your superiors. But you won’t have to compromise yourself. You will be true to your friends, to yourself and you will make a difference. To besomebody or to dosomething. In life, there is often a roll call. That’s when you will have to decide. To be or to do? Which way will you go?”

Colonel Boyd frequently gave the people he mentored his “to be or to do” speech. This singular phrase outlined what Boyd saw as the most crucial choice one could make in life. One could devote one’s energy to being well known or to being useful.

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