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

Join the conversation in Post & Riposte.

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


Thank you for your extensive replies in the first round. This time I have several questions for each of you, based on the arguments in your books and from your previous responses.

For Robert Coram: I have questions about John Boyd's influence, as you describe it in your book, and about the implications of his idea of "grand strategy" with which you ended your first posting.

First, can you explain to readers why, exactly, they should consider John Boyd a significant figure? You obviously consider him so, having spent several years of your own life researching and writing about his. And anyone who reads the book—which The Washington Post, in its new review by Jason Vest, says "should be required reading for every American citizen"—will encounter your argument about Boyd's effect on air-combat tactics, on aircraft design, on large concepts of warfare, and on other fields. But as a preview for those who haven't seen the book, and as a way of having you engage possible criticisms of the book, I'd like to push you on this point.

The jacket copy of your book says that Boyd was "the greatest fighter pilot ever." This claim, as I'm sure you know, drives many Air Force pilots absolutely nuts. Here's a sample message I received recently from one such person—a man who, like Boyd, was a skillful enough combat veteran to be an instructor at the Air Force's elite Fighter Weapon School, or FWS, at Nellis Air Force Base. He begins by referring to the "40-second Boyd" claim—the idea that John Boyd could outmaneuver any opponent within 40 seconds:
Boyd earned his spurs and he was a helluva fighter pilot with very high principles and an acute intellect. But he was wrong sometimes, and the biggest chink in his armor was his stubbornness and his subsequent refusal to give anybody credit for the ability to improve. As for the 40-second thing. He gained this reputation while an instructor at Nellis fighter weapons school. Having had that job twice in my flying days I am quite confident that most if not all the IPs [instructor pilots] in that squadron could, if they had chosen to, beat any of the incoming students just as efficiently. I could and so could my fellow IPs. In fact, if they couldn't they sure as hell had no business being IPs in the FWS.... The students are the best the AF has to offer, but they are not in the same league with the IPs (something "Top Gun" almost got right). Now, when we talk about Boyd's energy maneuverability studies, there was a real accomplishment—innovative, easy for English majors to understand, maybe even visionary. And it was in this arena of nuts and bolts that few could match wits with John.

On the other hand, when John was wrong he was insufferable. And he was wrong about the F-15, and he could not get over it. (A kill ratio of over 100 to 0 looks pretty good in my book.) And he was wrong about the F-16. Tell any F-16 pilot today he has to give up his AMRAAM (radar missile) and he'll look at you like you're crazy. Somehow we've lionized John over the years. Not sure how that happened because there were a lot of guys as good as him—intellectually as well as physically.
Over the years I've heard variants of this critique from the Air Force. In your book, you point out that Boyd's greatest adherents came not from his own service, the Air Force, but from the Marine Corps. But I invite you to address the specific critique that my correspondent presents—and more generally to summarize your case that Boyd was, as your subtitle puts it, "The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War." Given his quixotic nature, and the power of the system that opposed him, what was his lasting effect?

Second, I'd like to ask you about grand strategy. Like many other students of combat, Boyd was highly admiring of the operational skill of German commanders in World War II. But this was obviously not the same as rooting for the Nazis. Indeed, Boyd used the contrast between the martial skill of the Wehrmacht and the deep evil of Hitler's leadership to show that holding the moral high ground was the foundation of long-term successful strategy.

You say that we're violating that rule now in our approach to Iraq. What grand strategy do you think John Boyd would recommend there?

For Donald Vandergriff: I have some questions about the operational impact of your argument, and about grand strategy as well. Here goes:

  • Your initial posting refers to "generations" of warfare—second, third, and fourth. (I always wonder, what happened to "first"?) I suspect that many readers have seen these terms cropping up in discussions of the modern military, without a clear sense of what they mean and why they matter. Could you briefly recap the distinctions among the "generations" of warfare—and what difference the concepts make?

  • A related question about terminology: Since the mid-1990s, no article on the modern military has been complete without a reference to "Transformation" or "RMA," the so-called Revolution in Military Affairs. I was intrigued to see that neither of these terms appears in the index to your book. What, if anything, do these terms mean? How should readers interpret them and their significance when they see them in newspaper and magazine articles?

  • Your book is not simply an academic or theoretical event. It is no secret that you have been involved in deliberations, negotiations, and struggles within the military to change the personnel system that your book indicts. What can you tell us about the nature of these struggles and the outcome you foresee? Does the "transformation" concept help or hurt your chances? How has the prospect of war in Iraq affected the debate you've launched?

  • It's also no secret that in your "day job" you're a ROTC instructor at a major private university—Georgetown. Your students have been entering the program at a time of conflicting signals about the military as a calling. On the one hand, there was the undoubted surge in patriotic feeling and willingness to serve that followed the September 11, 2001 attacks—and the subsequent admiring reports of Special Forces' feats in Afghanistan. On the other hand, critiques of careerism and even corruption in the military—not least from you and Robert Coram—have received increasing attention. How do your students react to these critiques? Are they starry-eyed about the prospects of a military career? How do they respond when their own instructor tells them that the culture they will soon enter is deeply flawed?

  • Finally, if you have any leftover energy, could you try the "grand strategy" question too? Based on what you know about this "generation" of warfare, this moment in American military history, and this set of circumstances in world affairs, what is your hope for a grand strategy for approaching the general problem of terrorism and the specific challenges in Iraq and North Korea?

    Looking forward to your answers, and with thanks for your participation.

    Jim Fallows

    Previous Page | Robert Coram - January 15

    Donald Vandergriff - January 15

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