SECDEF Gates honors John Boyd

 An unconventional era of warfare requires unconventional thinkers.

It’s a cliché that Boyd would never receive his due from The Establishment. So it is with great pleasure that I can report that the Secretary of Defense, Robert M. Gates, paid a stirring tribute to John today at Maxwell Air Force Base.

Here is the section where he refers to Boyd (the complete text is available from DefenseLink).

Let me illustrate using a historical exemplar, the late Air Force Colonel John Boyd. As a 30-year-old Captain, he rewrote the manual for air to air combat. Boyd and the reformers he inspired would later go on to design and advocate for the F-16 and the A-10.

After retiring, he would develop the principles of maneuver warfare that were credited by a former Marine Corps commandant and a secretary of Defense for the lightning victory in the first Gulf War.

Boyd’s contributions will resonate today. Many of you have studied the concept he developed called the OODA loop, and I understand there’s an OODA Loop Street here at Maxwell, near the B-52.

But in accomplishing all these things, Boyd, who was a brilliant, eccentric and stubborn character, had to overcome a large measure of bureaucratic resistance and institutional hostility.

He had some advice that he used to pass on to his colleagues and subordinates that is worth sharing with you. Boyd would say — and I quote — “One day you will take a fork in the road, and you’re going to have to make a decision about which direction you want to go. If you go one way, you can be somebody. You will have to make compromises, and you will have to turn your back on your friends. But you will be a member of the club, and you will get promoted and get good assignments. Or you can go the other way, and you can do something, something for your country and for your Air Force and for yourself. If you decide to do something, you may not get promoted, and you may not get good assignments, and you certainly will not be a favorite of your superiors, but you won’t have to compromise yourself. To be somebody or to do something. In life there is often a roll call. That’s when you have to make a decision: to be or to do.”

For the kinds of challenges America faces and will face, the armed forces will need principled, creative, reform-minded leaders, men and women who, as Boyd put it, want to do something, not be somebody.

An unconventional era of warfare requires unconventional thinkers. That is because this era’s range of security challenges, from global terrorism to ethnic conflicts, from rogue nations to rising powers, cannot be overcome by traditional military means alone. Conflict will be fundamentally political in nature and will require the integration of all elements of national power. Success, to a large extent, will depend less on imposing one’s will on the enemy or putting bombs on targets, though we must never lose our ability or our will to unsheathe the sword when necessary. Instead, ultimate success or failure will increasingly depend more on shaping the behavior of others, friends and adversaries, and most importantly, the people in between.

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Filed in Uncategorized | 12 responses so far

12 Responses to “SECDEF Gates honors John Boyd”

  1. Cheton 21 Apr 2008 at 6:26 pm 1

    From Why the Air Force Bugs Gates,” by Mark Thompson of Time:

    To the horror of some in the Air Force, Gates cited the late John Boyd, who attained the rank of Air Force colonel, as an example young officers should emulate. … Gates lionized Boyd for telling colleagues they could think in traditional Air Force ways that “will get you promoted and get good assignments,” or do the right thing “and do something for your country, and for your Air Force, and for yourself.”

  2. Cheton 22 Apr 2008 at 7:13 am 2

    From “Air Force Under Fire From Defense Secretary Robert Gates,” by Peter Spiegel in the LA Times:

    In a highly symbolic portion of his speech, Gates quoted late Air Force
    pilot and maverick reformer John Boyd, who for decades clashed with service
    brass over prized fighter programs that he deemed too complex and costly.
    Gates noted that Boyd championed some of the least expensive and most
    effective aircraft, including the F-16 fighter and the A-10 attack plane,
    over the objections of his superiors.

    Boyd remains a highly controversial figure within the Air Force, where his
    theories are still debated. Yet Gates praised him as “a brilliant, eccentric
    and stubborn character” who should be emulated. Gates’ reference to Boyd was
    seen as a rebuke to the Air Force leadership and its preference for the
    costly F-22.

    “I was stunned,” said Thomas P. Christie, a former top weapons tester at the
    Pentagon who was close to Boyd. “To go into the den of thieves, so to speak,
    and to make that presentation, I mean that’s incredible.”

  3. maximilliangcon 22 Apr 2008 at 9:19 am 3

    “I was stunned,” said Thomas P. Christie,”

    All increadible, and so very exciting.

    It’s a great thing for Boyd to get some long overdue
    recognition, moreover the “reform movement”
    got honourable mention by Gates, and that means
    those who fought along side him,
    and many who carry on the fight in his memory.


    In the larger context, I’m not entirely sure what to make of it.

    As the US military conducts itself and continues
    in an entirely inane manner, one cannont be blamed
    for sceptisism. In as much as Boyd and the following
    gets more than its share of lip service, almost everywhere
    these days, and is parotted amoung a majority who
    evidently don’t grasp, much less beleive in the concepts.

    Start with General Patreaus, supposidly the
    great 4GW expert, and consider what William
    Lind ( Friend and close collaberator of Boyd’s )
    had to say most recently.

    A welcome surprise, uplifting, even shocking,
    and coming out of nowhere.

    It’s an important milestone, and my opinion of
    Mr. Gates has now shifted, but guardedly,
    as he still tows the line on the GWOT,
    and we have a long, long, way to go.


  4. loggie20on 22 Apr 2008 at 6:15 pm 4

    Then Gates ruined it by stating “it would be a shame to stop the new tanker”.

    The Airbus is fabricated in Toulouse, shipped to in huge chunks by ocean transport to Mobile for final assembly in a Northrop plant yet to be established.

    There are numerous more rational approaches to ‘power projection’.

  5. maximilliangcon 22 Apr 2008 at 7:10 pm 5

    loggie20on 22 Apr 2008 at 6:15 pm 4

    Then Gates ruined it by stating “it would be a shame to stop the new tanker”.

    That’s a most interesting case.
    As DOD aqusitions and programs are in our view all
    about Keyenisim, this machine is obstensively forgien

    The moral, for us sceptics, could be, so far gone, in its
    decent into insanity is USAF procurement policy,
    they can’t even get the theme of pure indigenous
    pork right anymore.


  6. Cheton 23 Apr 2008 at 3:58 pm 6

    Fred Kaplan has a piece on Slate today suggesting that the military’s senior leadership doesn’t have to pay any attention to Gates because they can just wait him out. He cites the cases of Boyd and Army LTC Paul Yingling.

    Here’s an excerpt from his section on Boyd:

    Gates went on: “For the kinds of challenges America faces and will face, the armed forces will need principled, creative, reform-minded leaders, men and women who, as Boyd put it, want to do something, not be somebody. An unconventional era of warfare requires unconventional thinkers.”

    This is a noble sentiment that also happens to be true. But Boyd was an unusual man. Tireless, fanatically principled, and always buoyant, he grew up in poverty, lived very modestly, and was genuinely indifferent to rank, external incentives, or material comfort. Most officers—most people—are not like that. This is not a criticism; it’s simply a fact. And as long as junior officers see (as Gates put it) “principled, creative, reform-minded leaders” like Paul Yingling assigned to lowly positions, the military will not nourish many more Yinglings or Boyds.

    The full article is “Gates Celebrates Dissent, The Generals Quash It.”

  7. loggie20on 23 Apr 2008 at 7:10 pm 7


    The Bush DoD pols are mostly summer help. But do not let them know or they will get you like they got Druyun.

  8. loggie20on 23 Apr 2008 at 7:14 pm 8


    Rolling on the floor.

    The phoney watch dog group: Citizens Against Government Waste just gave Reps Dicks and Tiahrt their ‘pork award’ for wanting to keep the Boeing corp in pork instead of Airbus and EADS.

    And the Post Intelligencer reporter did not bother to see their contributors are mostly large corporations, oddly Northrop is not on the published list.

  9. maximilliangcon 23 Apr 2008 at 7:50 pm 9

    Chet mentions;

    “suggesting that the military’s senior leadership doesn’t have to pay any attention to Gates because they can just wait him out.”

    Sadly, He makes a good point Chet.

    It’s been done before, to a degree, with Les Aspin, Rummy, and even Richard Cheney.

    Although as an aside, the latter constitutes an daunting enigma.

    All three asked questions, or had plans of one kind or another, and at one time or another, that didn’t particularly bode
    well with established and vested interests amoung the upper echelon ranks.

    On the larger issue. The reason the American Mil. Ind. Con. Tnk Tank & Services Complex, is so increadibly tough to change, is because of it’s natural process of self perpetuating reward for the status quo.

    It feeds on , and perpeuates itself naturally.

    Then it’s wrapped in the flag, packaged and sold to the public
    in the guise of essential patriotic concience, backed up with a healthy dose of paranioa.

    Take the most recent example of General Patreus, being promoted, that is rewarded for towing the line, and mediocracy while supporting his superiors.

    It really takes a unique individual while working within the system, to take a position that is essentially contrary.

    To bite the hand that feeds you so to speak, to take a different path,
    and forsake the path of careerisim and least resistance.

    This is not typical, and contrary to most human behaviour.

    But the Mil. Complex, is established, predicated, and feeds on what IS expeident, comfortable, stable, secure and normal, for perhaps 95% of the pepole involved, and 95% of the time.

    And all that adds up from the broader perspective as a tragidy of epic proportions.


  10. loggie20on 24 Apr 2008 at 6:25 pm 10

    See the Melian dialog from Thucydides.

    Moral argument can only exist between equals.

    For others there is a choice: the path of self interest and safety versus the path of honor and justice.

    Sad to say that “paying the schilling” and “breaking starch” are where the US military has descended.

    Unfortunately, most US generals know Thucydides and don’t remember nor understand the lessons.

  11. Cheton 25 Apr 2008 at 7:03 am 11

    James Fallows on the Boyd story:

    The surprise was Gates’s invocation of the late Air Force colonel John Boyd as an example of the qualities he wanted to see more of in the professional military.

    Boyd — whom I met in 1979 and spoke with frequently** until his death 18 years later — is usually invoked by military careerists as exemplifying what they wanted to see less of. He was fearless, impolitic, impolite, self-taught, bullying, and tremendously creative and insightful. (For details, see Robert Coram’s wonderful biography, Boyd.) Eons ago, Richard Cheney, in his incarnations as Congressman and Defense Secretary, went out of his way to listen to Boyd. If he had remembered anything about Boyd and his emphasis on the “moral” elements of combat before going into Iraq, America’s strategic situation would look different today. But many military careerists absolutely despised Boyd — perhaps responding to his view of them.

    ** “Talking with” Boyd often meant holding the phone for hours on end while he revealed his latest insights into human nature, the elements of conflict, the Second Punic War, etc. My wife, like the spouses of John Boyd’s other friends, learned to start reading a long novel or watching Gone With the Wind when she heard me say, “Oh, hi, John, what’s up….”

  12. Maxon 17 May 2008 at 7:51 am 12

    The final word ?

    Excellent article, beutifully written,
    Ivan Eland echos many sentiments and frustrations
    expressed throughout our forum.


    “May 17, 2008
    Gates’s Hope to Reform the Pentagon Is Barking at the Moon.”

    “despite the embarrassing bungling in counterinsurgency that occurred in Afghanistan and Iraq as the U.S. military”


    “To put it bluntly, relatively low-tech counterinsurgency warfare is not as profitable as designing and building glitzy high-tech weaponry.” …

    ” Most Americans think that the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) should be…well…defending the United States. Yet despite all the flag waving, the DoD works like any other government agency in redistributing the taxpayer’s dollars to special interests.” …

    “So the military keeps building the F-22 fighter, which was designed to fight the Soviet Union, the Future Combat System, designed for ground combat against a conventional foe, and expensive ships and submarines that have little to do with fighting guerrillas on land.”