New Part Three - January 23:
James Fallows
Robert Coram
Donald Vandergriff

Part Two - January 15:
James Fallows
Robert Coram
Donald Vandergriff

Part One - January 8:
James Fallows
Robert Coram
Donald Vandergriff

Robert Coram is the author of three acclaimed nonfiction books and seven novels. Twice nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for his work in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, he has also been featured in The New Yorker and numerous other magazines. He is a commercial-rated pilot and one of the few civilians to have flown both the F-100 and the F-15.

Donald Vandergriff is an active duty army officer currently serving as deputy director of Army ROTC at Georgetown University. He was editor of Spirit, Blood, and Treasure: The American Cost of Battle in the 21st Century. He is the author of around twenty-five articles on military affairs.

James Fallows is The Atlantic's national correspondent and the author of Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy (1996) and of Free Flight: From Airline Hell to a New Age of Travel. To learn about his new book and look through an archive of his recent articles, visit

Previously in Fallows@large:

Inside Admissions (September 25, 2002)
A dialogue between James Fallows and Jacques Steinberg, the author of The Gatekeepers: Inside the Admissions Process of a Premier College.

The Price of Wealth (July 3, 2002)
A dialogue between James Fallows and Kevin Phillips, the author of Wealth and Democracy: A Political History of the American Rich.

Signals of Saturation (April 3, 2002)
James Fallows exchanges e-mail with Todd Gitlin, the author of Media Unlimited: How the Torrent of Images and Sounds Overwhelms Our Lives.

More by James Fallows

More on books

More on defense

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Atlantic Unbound | January 15, 2003
fallows@large | Dialogues with James Fallows
From: Robert Coram
To: James Fallows
Subject: Re: What's wrong with the military? - Part Two

Jim, I'll begin this round by saying that almost forty years ago my mentor as a young newspaperman was the legendary Ralph McGill of The Atlanta Constitution, a man who often told young reporters to "Put the fodder down where the mules can get it." In responding to your questions, which you relay from an Air Force officer, I begin by serving notice that my response will not take the detached cerebral tone Atlantic readers may expect. The questions caused such a visceral reaction that I intend to follow McGill's admonition—I am going to put the fodder down where the mules can get it.

As a framework for my answer and as something I hope your readers will keep in mind, first consider how the Marine Corps embraced Boyd and utilized his work. The Marine Corps goes back to the very birth of our country; it is a warrior culture. Marines always have been and always will be the sharp and hardened point of American military resolve. (By contrast, the Air Force is a relatively young branch of the military, a technocracy where—except in the fighter pilot community—few warriors are found.) Therefore, it was an almost unimaginable chasm the Marines had to leap in order to welcome Boyd's work. But welcome it they did, and the results were seen in Grenada and in Gulf War I. Marine Corps commandants, generals Al Gray and Charles Krulak, have publicly acknowledged Boyd's contributions to war fighting and to the Corps.

By contrast, senior officers in the Air Force, Boyd's own branch of the service, kicked him around in life and are kicking his bones around after he is dead.

The first question speaks to Boyd's significance, or, by implication, his lack of significance.

Two areas, aviation and military thought, were forever changed by Boyd. To summarize what are numerous chapters in my book, Boyd wrote the "Aerial Attack Study," the first time fighter tactics were systematically codified and a work that not only remains in use, but remains substantially unchanged since Boyd wrote it more than forty years ago. The study changed the way almost every air force in the world flies and fights.

His second contribution to aviation was the Energy-Maneuverability Theory. E-M changed aviation forever; it changed the way aircraft are fought in combat, it gave a way to quantify the performance of America's aircraft against those of the adversary, and it changed the way aircraft are designed. It was E-M that enabled Boyd to become the father of the F-15, F-16, and F-18.

So I'd say Boyd's contributions to aviation were significant.

Now a bit of an aside. You quote the jacket copy as saying Boyd was "the greatest fighter pilot ever." Actually it says "some remember Boyd as the greatest fighter pilot ever." And they do. But I admit that jacket copy can be overheated. The content of the book is more qualified in that it says Boyd was "one of the greatest fighter pilots ever."

There's more to being a fighter pilot than being a hot stick. And when you consider Boyd's unequaled skill in the cockpit along with the Aerial Attack Study, the E-M Theory, and the resulting aircraft, then a pretty solid case can be made that he was indeed one of the greatest. It is understandable that this statement drives AF pilots nuts. They work in a testosterone-fueled culture where almost everyone operates at the existing skill level; very few advance their profession. I would ask your doubters to come up with the name of another pilot whose contributions equaled those of Boyd.

Then your correspondent denigrates the "40-second Boyd" claim by saying Boyd defeated only students at the Fighter Weapons School. Your correspondent may want to reread parts of the book, as it states explicitly that Boyd also defeated cadre pilots, Marine Corps pilots, Navy pilots, and exchange pilots from various countries. Further, I'll single out a civilian named Vernon Spradling who was at Nellis for twenty-two years and who held a high position in the Fighter Weapons School. He says flatly that no one ever beat Boyd in simulated air to air combat.

Your correspondent says Boyd "was wrong sometimes," was stubborn, and refused to give anyone credit for the ability to improve. He is absolutely right. But how is that relevant to whether or not Boyd's work was significant? Your correspondent says Boyd was "insufferable" and again he is right. But Boyd had no monopoly on the quality of insufferability. This is an attribute I have found far and wide, even—and this may come as a surprise—inside the Beltway.

I hope your readers note what Boyd's detractors focus on and what they ignore. Nowhere does your correspondent deny Boyd's aviation accomplishments, althought he does damn the E-M Theory with faint praise by describing it as an "arena of nuts and bolts," a laughable explanation to anyone with even a nodding acquaintance of energy maneuverability.

His argument continues by saying Boyd was "wrong about the F-15" and "wrong about the F-16." How do I respond to such a generalized accusation? Wrong about what?

It is obvious by now that your correspondent has wandered off the reservation. But, in keeping with your directions to respond fully to questions about Boyd's significance, I will tag along.

Your correspondent then generates some indignation when he talks of how an F-16 pilot would react to the idea of taking the AMRAAM missile off the F-16, the implication being this is something Boyd favored. But the AMRAAM did not exist when Boyd pushed the F-16 into development. As far as I know, Boyd had no arguments for or against the AMRAAM.

Finally he wonders how Boyd has become lionized when there "...were a lot of guys as good as him—intellectually as well as physically." I don't think Boyd is lionized by anyone, especially by his closest associates. They laughed at him and ridiculed him about many things.

I can't speak to the point of the AF having numerous officers who were Boyd's intellectual equals, so your correspondent may be right. But he provides no example of who or why or how. Which brings me back to several basic questions: what other AF officer of the time was recognized for as many intellectual accomplishments as Boyd? What other AF officer won every major scientific award offered by the Air Force?

I would also submit that beyond Boyd's intellect were two other important qualities: an iron-bound morality and an unswerving concern for the American fighting man.

Now to Boyd's second major contribution, which his associates consider the most important—that of military theory. And this answers directly your question about how Boyd changed the art of war. I'll summarize the half-dozen or so chapters in the book that speak to this point by saying Boyd's briefing "Patterns of Conflict" was the first to identify, isolate, and develop a comprehensive time-based theory of conflict.

I contend that Boyd was the greatest military theoretician since Sun Tzu. Academics may disagree, primarily because Boyd wrote nothing for them to ponder and evaluate. Academics say, "But what about Clausewitz?" And they say this because of On War, perhaps shuffling aside the fact the book was never finished, that shortly before his death Clausewitz wrote a note saying he was unhappy with the manuscript, or the fact that its dialectic arguments make the book so murky it is difficult to understand. But, then, academics often equate obscurity with profundity, which may explain their affection for Clausewitz.

Boyd demolished Clausewitz's arguments on two crucial points of war fighting: Clausewitz argues for a big "decisive battle," which means that even if he wins there will be a horrific blood bath, while Boyd favored Sun Tzu's goal of winning without fighting. Second, Clausewitz took a defensive posture against minimizing the fog of war among his own troops while Boyd, again following Sun Tzu, wanted to maximize the fog of war for his adversary.

It is important to note here that many AF officers knew Boyd only as a pilot and as the man who developed the E-M Theory. Very few of them have ever heard of "Patterns of Conflict," which came after his retirement in 1975. The Marines recognized "Patterns," used it as the basis of their war fighting doctrine developed under Commandant Al Gray, and proved its efficacy in combat. Commandant Charles Krulak acknowledged Boyd's war fighting contributions in his moving eulogy to Boyd and when he says on the dust jacket of my book that Boyd's contributions to the art of war "rival those of the greatest military minds."

I submit that General Krulak is qualified to speak on this point.

To emphasize this point I'd like to make public an e-mail General Krulak sent me last week about my book (I hope he won't mind). "Congratulations," he said. "You wrote a superb book and tribute to a great warrior."

Now, let me throw this out as a general question to your readers: If you were an old man who had toiled in relative anonymity for years and then given birth to a work that gained the approbation of a Marine warrior such as General Krulak, just how much attention would you pay to the squeaks of AF dung beetles?

Boyd's contribution to military theory is referenced in some 300 magazines, journals, and books; is taught in various universities, has been the foundation of two biographies, has been acknowledged by Vice President Dick Cheney, and been proven in combat by the U.S. Marines.

Your question about the lasting effect of these contributions is a bit more perplexing. It may be too early to put Boyd's work in a such a context. I am only an aging reporter who considers himself fortunate to have written Boyd's biography so I'll leave history to the historians.

Now to your question of Boyd's framework for a grand strategy and how we are violating Boyd's ideas as we gather our weapons for war with Iraq. You ask what grand strategy would Boyd recommend.

I can't answer that. Anything I say would be conjecture. If by some divine inspiration I did know, I still would not answer. But the essence of Boyd's ideas about strategy is to take the action that is least expected, not the action that some "analyst" predicts will be the most effective. In Vice President Cheney we have a man who, as he proved in Gulf War I, knows more about strategy than do most generals. He learned much of what he knows about warfare from John Boyd. If the vice president has anything to do with war planning for Gulf War II, you can bet that whatever action we take will be the least expected.

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