Sunday, 16 May 2010

Boyd according to Coram

It's been a little while since I got a chance to do a book review, as I've been focussing on other things. However I finally got a chance to read one which has been sitting at the top of my book pile for quite a while, Boyd by Robert Coram.

I've been fascinated by Boyd since I was first introduced to his ideas about a year ago, and reading Certain to Win by Chet Richards only reinforced this fascination.

Boyd's life is a reflection of his evolving ideas. Starting off as a fighter pilot he was renowned as '40 second Boyd', the man who could defeat any opponent in simulated combat in 40 seconds or less. He did this by using a manuver which most other pilots would have blanched at.

He became fascinated by quantifying fighter combat, establishing the mathematical explanation for why some planes were better than others, specifically the
Russian MiG-15 and US F86-Sabre. To do this he attended university, becoming qualified as an engineer, and over time created his grant theory of fighter combat. To me this is where Boyd really began, he read voraciously, consuming information on a wider and wider array of subjects.

Coram charts the rise of the 'fighter mafia', Boyd's group of acolytes who ran an insurgent campaign within the Pentagon to create a real fighter plan. This was at a time when the only interest the top brass had was in multi purpose aircraft, heavy planes, designed primarily to deliver nuclear weapons.

Boyd advised his acolytes repeatedly that they could either "be someone, or do something" and all of them dedicated themselves to this. Rarely rising to high office, but achieving more than those who rose above them.

The final section is the most poiniant and interesting. Boyd's mind, clearly having moved on from a level at which practical problems could satiate him moved into a more conceptual realm. It seems to me that what he was attempting was to find the essence of strategy, the fundamental mechanisms which allowed victory to occur. He found his answers in ancient history, philosophy, physics and myriad other sources. I've talked elsewhere about some of the results of this, including the OODA loop.

Boyd would go on to work with the US Marine Corp, developing their concepts of combat and how victory could be achieved. In the post Vientnam world the USMC were keen to form new ideas and Boyd's relentlessly inquiring mind was up to the task.

Coram perfectly captures the raw drive of a man whose impact on the world is largely unrecognised. A man whose mind could not be contained and was always looking for the next challenge. Who never backed down from a challange, even those he couldnt win, because he knew on a fundamental level that there was no unwinnable situation.

I recently wrote a book list for some colleagues who wanted to know what I thought were the best books avaliable on strategy and campaigning. I thought hard about where I felt Boyd fit within that structure and in the end I put this book towards the end, next to Sun Tzu, The Art of War.

Coram's claim that Boyd changed the art of war, I agree. But as more people are exposed to his ideas, and try to embrace them, he may also change the way we do business and for those who try and understand his ideas, the way we think about the world.

It's tough going, and I'll have to read it again, but Coram merges both analysis and biography seamlessly into an eminantly readable whole. An excellent book and one I highly recommend.

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