in: Advice, Character, Featured

• Last updated: July 2, 2023

John Boyd’s Roll Call: Do You Want to Be Someone or Do Something?

John Boyd fighter pilot air force strategist.

According to his biographer, Robert Coram, John Boyd made “more contributions to fighter tactics, aircraft design, and the theory of air combat than any man in Air Force history.”

As a fighter pilot, he was undefeated and earned the nickname “40-Second Boyd” for his ability to win any dogfight in under a minute.

Unmatched in the cockpit, his mind was also without rival. He was not simply a warrior of combat, but a warrior-engineer and warrior-philosopher.

When he was 33, he wrote “Aerial Attack Study,” which codified the best dogfighting tactics for the first time, became the “bible of air combat,” and revolutionized the methods of every air force in the world.

His Energy-Maneuverability (E-M) Theory helped give birth to the legendary F-15, F-16, and A-10 aircraft.

A briefing he developed, “Patterns of Conflict,” changed combat strategy for both airmen and ground troops, introduced the oft-cited, and typically misunderstood OODA loop, and “made him the most influential military thinker since Sun Tzu wrote The Art of War 2,400 years ago.”

All in all, John Boyd served in the United States Air Force for twenty-four years and through three wars.

But he was never promoted above colonel.

All because Boyd stubbornly refused to compromise his principles and ideals for advancement.

A Fork in the Road

Even though Boyd joined the military at a young age – dropping out of high school as a junior to join the Army Air Corps during World War II – he was never a good fit for America’s fighting forces.

It’s not that he didn’t have a head for combat strategy and methods. Quite the opposite. When he earned his wings, his fellow pilots considered him such a “good stick” they constantly went to him for tips and ideas on how they could improve. So he started writing informal briefs, drawing up diagrams on handling skills and air-to-air combat techniques, and holding ad hoc classes for the interested. This led to a gig as instructor and then Director of Academics at the highly elite Fighter Weapons School at Nellis Air Force base just outside Las Vegas. There he set about completely overhauling the tactics curriculum. Aerial tactics had previously been a kind of art passed down from pilot to pilot; Boyd set out to develop and codify the very best techniques — to turn dogfighting into a science.

Boyd, however, didn’t quite fit at the institution. He wasn’t the classic soldier who would follow orders to a tee simply because they were orders. A military officer is expected to be well-disciplined, deferential to superiors, and a defender of the status quo. Boyd was none of these things. Aerial tactics hadn’t changed much since WWI, but not everyone was happy to see them challenged – they liked doing things they way they had always been done. But Boyd would not back down when he knew he was right.

The intensity of his convictions and his confrontational style earned him the nicknames “The Mad Major” and “Genghis John.” Boyd constantly flirted with the very edge of outright insubordination, and he knew it. He was fond of saying, “You gotta challenge all assumptions. If you don’t, what is doctrine on day one becomes dogma forever after.”

Boyd’s mix of brilliance and brashness made him a truly polarizing figure within the ranks. In his performance reviews, some of his superiors criticized his manners and lack of deference, while others called him the most talented and dedicated officer they had ever known. The former tried to sabotage his career, while the latter worked to keep him in the ranks, and Boyd at first felt sure his supporters would win the day.

So when he was passed over for a promotion that was instead given to some inconsequential but compliant paper-pushers, Coram writes that Boyd was “deeply affected” by the blow:

“This was a pivotal event in his career, as well as a personal epiphany. Often, when a man is young and idealistic, he believes that if he works hard and does the right thing, success will follow. This was what Boyd’s mother and childhood mentors had told him. But hard work and success do not always go together in the military, where success is defined by rank, and reaching higher rank requires conforming to the military’s value system. Those who do not conform will one day realize that the path of doing the right thing has diverged from the path of success, and then they must decide which path they will follow through life. Almost certainly, he realized that if he was not promoted early to lieutenant colonel after all that he had done, he would never achieve high rank.”

Many officers quit when they realize they won’t be able to reach the top of the hierarchy. But Boyd hadn’t joined the military to accumulate insignia on his uniform; he was driven by the desire to “change people’s fundamental understanding of aviation” and sincerely wanted to make a significant, lasting contribution to warfare and the world. The Air Force was a highly imperfect channel to do so, but the best possible one. He understood that the best way to change an institution is oftentimes not to drop out and rail against it from the outside, but to stay in and work to transform it from the inside. And his work was far from finished.

To Be or Do

After Nellis, Boyd was assigned to the Pentagon, an atmosphere even less suited to his temperament. As Coram notes, it is a place for careerists – blue suiters as they’re called. Getting ahead inside “The Building” involves equal doses of butt-kissing and back-stabbing and success if often measured in winning the maximum amount of dollars for one’s own branch of service. One false move can torpedo your career.

Boyd wasn’t about to sell his soul, though. And he wasn’t intimidated by the fact that as a 39-year-old major, everyone else in the building was higher in rank and longer in the tooth.

He worked tirelessly to improve the military’s aircraft, and especially hated the blank check attitudes of his superiors that often came with lackadaisical mindsets towards the design and efficiency of the planes. Because Boyd sincerely believed that he worked for the American taxpayer, he not only enjoyed putting the kibosh on bloated budgets, but positively relished it. He took so much delight in picking apart deceptive data and “hosing” generals, that friends would buy him garden hoses as a gag gift on his birthday. He once burned a hole in one general’s tie, after he cornered him and started poking him with his lit cigar while arguing for one of his ideas. He made another general literally foam at the mouth and fall out of his chair while talking to him on the phone.

Boyd had left a long line of enemies in his wake, and it was thus no great surprise that he was ultimately passed over for promotion to general. Having offended so many of them, they refused to allow him to join their rarefied ranks. Boyd was deeply disappointed. But he was proud of the course he had chosen. When he had gotten to the crossroad where institutional success and doing the right thing diverge, he chose to do what was right. It was a philosophy he would espouse to his Acolytes (a group of his mentees) as they weighed whether to work for him and help do something important, but have their careers retarded for the association, or to keep their nose down and work their way up the ranks. “Tiger,” he would say, “one day you will come to a fork in the road:”

“And you’re going to have to make a decision about which direction you want to go.” He raised his hand and pointed. “If you go that 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 you will get good assignments.” Then Boyd raised his other hand and pointed another direction. “Or you can go that way and you can do something — something for your country and for your Air Force and for yourself. If you decide you want to do something, you may not get promoted and you may not get the good assignments and you certainly will not be a favorite of your superiors. But you won’t have to compromise yourself. You will be true to your friends and to yourself. And your work might make a difference. To be somebody or to do something. In life there is often a roll call. That’s when you will have to make a decision. To be or to do? Which way will you go?”

Which Way Will You Go?

There comes a point in every man’s life where he must decide if he will strive to be somebody important, or if he will work to do something important. Sometimes these pursuits go hand-in-hand; often they do not.

Research has shown time and time again that kids of our modern age aspire for what’s perceived as a more glamorous life than one of service and lasting legacy. In fact, the top three career aspirations of today’s 5- to 11-year-olds are sports star, music star, and actor. Just 25 years ago, that same survey turned up teacher, doctor, and banker. Young people want to be recognized, to be famous, and very early on pick up the fact that the path to celebrity (not to mention government service) largely involves telling people what they want to hear — packaging up what’s already popular and selling it back. For it’s not just the military that prizes the status quo; while society is supposedly more tolerant than ever, any nail that pops up from the mainstream very quickly gets hammered down. In our digital age, the righteous online mob can quickly mobilize and silence any opinion considered aberrant. The result is a chilling effect where people have to watch every word they say lest it be publicly trounced upon.

Even the field of science is not immune to this trend. Getting one’s studies not only published in academic journals, but picked up in popular media publications can lead to lucrative book deals and speaking engagements, while working on research with even a hint of controversy can lead to a firestorm of criticism. When it was revealed that a prominent social psychologist had completely fabricated studies that purported to show things like littered environments increase racist tendencies, he admitted that he would try to come up with experiments and results that seemed original and exciting, and yet also flattered people’s preconceived expectations. In explaining his ethical lapses, he pointed to the fact that modern scientists, in competing for funding and admiration, have been forced to become both researchers and marketers – “traveling salesman” skilled in the art of persuasion. This has set up a situation where recognition is sometimes sought at the expense of truth.

Challenging the status quo is never easy. You may not be worried about winning fame, but simply holding onto your job. College students, schooled in the importance of cultivating their “personal brand” are understandably fearful of doing or saying anything that may make them less desirable to employers in a slow economy. This is why the ability to speak truth to power has always necessarily been tied to an indifference to material security. As Coram writes, Boyd understood this, and said that “if a man can reduce his needs to zero, he is truly free: there is nothing that can be taken from him and nothing anyone can do to hurt him.” His extreme frugality earned him the nickname “The Ghetto Colonel,” and throughout his life he lived in a tiny apartment and ran his clunker cars into the ground. This Spartan lifestyle was tough on Boyd’s family; when it comes to risking one’s career in order to rock the boat, fathers admittedly have a tougher line to walk. Yet plenty of the children of history’s greatest firebrands are, despite the sacrifices their dads’ stances involved, extremely proud of the legacy and name they left them.

As you ponder what you would do when faced with the decision of choosing to pursue the right and meaningful or the popular, we’ll leave you with this stirring message former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates gave during a commencement speech at the Air Force Academy. It applies as well to the cadets sitting in the audience that day as it does to all men reading it now:

“Here at the Air Force Academy, as with every university and company in America, there’s a focus on teamwork, consensus-building, and collaboration. Yet make no mistake, the time will come for each of you when you must stand alone in making a difficult, unpopular decision; when you must challenge the opinion of superiors or tell them that you can’t get the job done with the time and resources available; or when you will know that what superiors are telling the press or the Congress or the American people is inaccurate. There will be moments when your entire career is at risk – where you will face Boyd’s proverbial fork in the road. To be or to do.

To be ready for that moment, you must have the discipline to cultivate integrity and moral courage from here at the Academy, and then from your earliest days as a commissioned officer. Those qualities do not suddenly emerge fully developed overnight or as a revelation after you have assumed important responsibilities. These qualities have their roots in the small decisions you will make here and early in your career and must be strengthened all along the way to allow you to resist the temptation of self before service. And you must always ensure that your moral courage serves the greater good: that it serves what is best for the nation and our highest values – not a particular program nor pride nor parochialism.”

Listen to my podcast with Boyd biographer Robert Coram:



Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War by Robert Coram

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