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Chaos theory

Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War, Robert Coram, Little, Brown: 486 pp., $27.95

March 16, 2003|Andrew Cockburn | Andrew Cockburn is the co-author of "Out of the Ashes: The Resurrection of Saddam Hussein."

As the shelves of any bookstore attest, war is a major preoccupation of our culture, even in those rare interludes when we are not actually at war or preparing for it. This being the case, it is not surprising that our leaders consider it seemly to profess familiarity with the leading theoreticians of warfare. As Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has said in reference to his philosophic influences: "You can't be in this business and not be attentive to people like Sun Tzu and Clausewitz."

Whether or not Secretary Rumsfeld has truly absorbed Sun Tzu's subtle maxims may be open to question, but Robert Coram's engrossing biography, "Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War," should definitely be on the bedside tables of all our current military leadership. Boyd was an Air Force fighter pilot who was never promoted beyond colonel, who wrote next to nothing, imparting his ideas by means of oral briefings, but who is nevertheless considered by many to be the greatest strategic thinker this country has ever produced, "the American Sun Tzu."

Even before he died in 1997, Boyd was a legendary figure among those who had been exposed to his ideas and influence. Although this is no hagiography -- Boyd's treatment of his family stands as a disturbing indictment -- Coram does an exemplary job in explaining why this man inspired, and deserved, such respect among his peers.

Emerging from a hardscrabble upbringing in Erie, Pa., Boyd first confronted the military system he would both serve and challenge as a draftee in the occupation force in Japan immediately after World War II. Forced by uncaring authority to sleep outside in subzero temperatures, he led his fellow draftees in tearing down an Army building for firewood, then maneuvered his superiors, who wanted to court-martial him, into providing decent accommodation instead.

After training as a combat pilot, he flew an F-86 Sabre fighter jet in the closing stages of the Korean War. Peace broke out too soon for him to rack up "kills," but his subsequent assignment as an instructor at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada spawned the legend of "Forty-Second" Boyd. Considered the greatest fighter pilot of his day, he had a standing bet that he could beat anyone in a mock dogfight in 40 seconds or less. He never lost, partly because he developed entirely novel tactics. His experience led him to analyze how and why certain tactics worked in air combat, leading to his authorship of what became the standard U.S. manuals on fighter tactics.

Impressive though these contributions are, Boyd's most consequential victories were won on the battlefields of the Pentagon, where the strategic objectives are the authorization and control of multibillion-dollar weapon programs. Gathering a group of like-minded allies, Boyd fought and won remarkable bureaucratic campaigns that forced a reluctant Air Force high command -- to which he was theoretically subordinate -- to buy fighters, most notably the F-16, incorporating the revolutionary design concepts he championed.

Though no actual blood was spilled, these bitter conflicts could and did exact a high price in terms of careers sacrificed for principle, a price that anyone who wanted Boyd's trust and respect had to be prepared to pay.

After he retired, Boyd began distilling his reflections on the lessons of air combat, supplemented and vastly amplified by omnivorous research in military history, into what ultimately became "A Discourse on Winning and Losing," a briefing with slides that, in its final form, took 14 hours to deliver.

The key conceptual breakthrough at the heart of this tour de force was what he christened the "OODA Loop," the process (which he originally divined in the behavior of fighter pilots in dogfights) by which we observe what the enemy is doing, orient ourselves to this action, decide on what to do and act. Our action of course changes the reality -- as radically and unpredictably as possible -- of the situation as perceived by the other party, who must then try to take action to adjust. If we repeat the process and continue to take unpredictable actions faster than the other side can reorient themselves, an exercise that Boyd called "getting inside their decision cycle," they lose any coherent grasp of the situation and succumb to something approaching mental paralysis. Their minds, in Boyd's expressive phrase, "fold back on themselves."

Apparently simple, Boyd's formulation of the OODA loop is actually, as Coram points out, a complex and subtle concept, in which the orientation phase is key. A practitioner with an "intuitive [my emphasis] understanding of [his] relationship to the rapidly changing environment" can move from initial observation to action almost immediately.

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