A Vision So Noble

Was John Boyd a new Sun Tzu?

A Vision So Noble
A Vision So Noble: John Boyd, the OODA Loop, and America's War on Terror (Daniel Ford)

Could we have gotten inside Osama bin Laden's OODA Loop? Here's the little book that came out of my graduate studies at King's College London, in which I rummaged through John Boyd's life and writings to find out whether and how his thinking could be applied to the War on Terror. Does it work? Better than you might think, though the 'takeaway' might strike you as disappointing: If it works, it's obsolete . Now available as a 74-page paperback under the title A Vision So Noble and also in a Kindle edition for reading on Amazon's e-book reader, Apple iPad or iPhone, or your Mac or Windows desktop. Read more about this monograph here.

Aerial Attack Study
Aerial Attack Study: Fighter vs Bomber, Fighter vs Fighter
(Captain John Boyd)

This is the monograph Boyd wrote in 1961--the first formulation of the Energy Maneuverability principle that became the basis of aerial combat doctrine in all western air forces. It's also one of the very few documents that Boyd committed to paper. A 156-page PDF file of the original mimeographed study, it's a $2.99 download from Lulu.com.

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

I hugely enjoyed this biography, though bothered by the fact that it's completely unsourced. (There's a bibliography, but no footnotes or endnotes to tell us which of this material was used where.) The biography, though a very good read, had the paradoxical effect of making me more skeptical about Boyd. Is Robert Coram perhaps a smoother Martin Caiden? For example: "What [Boyd] discovered late one night in the second-floor classroom of an old building [at Georgia Tech] is as fundamental and as significant to aviation as Newton was to physics" (p.127). Hmm. That, as one of my tutors rebuked me, might be described as "rather over-egging the pudding."

The Mind of War: John Boyd and American Security
(Grant Hammond)

This biography doesn't read as easily as Coram's, it's a bit short on Boyd's personal life, and Hammond too is a card-carrying member of the Boyd cult. But (as befits a Smithsonian Book) he's a whole lot clearer on the theory behind energy maneuverability, the OODA Loop, and the 13-hour briefing known as "A Discourse on Winning and Losing."

Science, Strategy and War: The Strategic Theory of John Boyd
(Frans Osinga)

And here's the text for the serious student. Osinga was a Dutch military pilot who wrote his doctoral dissertation on John Boyd. This book was the result. It's hard going, and rather circular (like the OODA Loop itself), but it's the closest thing we have to the book that John Boyd never wrote. The briefing slides are quoted verbatim and at length, so all you're missing is the Mad Major himself, standing on the balls of his fee and hectoring you for hours. Also available in a very expensive hardcover.

A Swift, Elusive Sword: What if Sun Tzu and John Boyd Did a National Defense Review?
(Chet Richards)

This is an interesting piece of work, by one of the tenders of the Boyd flame. Mr Richards used to run the Defense in the National Interest website, which was a blog-plus-library of stuff directly and indirectly related to John Boyd. Here he uses Sun-tzu's and Boyd's writings to figure out what kind of a US military they would build if they had a chance to start from scratch. (For openers: get rid of the Army combat units! The Marines can do it better.) A bit pricey, but what can you do?

The John Boyd Roundtable: Debating Science, Strategy,and War
(Mark Safranski, editor)

Also expensive ($25 is the price we pay for specializing in a field where not many dare tread!) is this large-format paperback from Nimble Books. It consists of essays originally posted online by a clutch of scholars, writers, and military men, and revised and expanded for publication. One of them is Frans Osinga, and several of the contributors have as much to say about the "colonel-doctor" as about Boyd himself. Well worth a browse.

When Sun-tzu met Clausewitz
When Sun-tzu met Clausewitz
(Daniel Ford)

This is my 'long essay' for Strategic Dimensions in Contemporary Warfare at King's College London, and a first cut at the dissertation that became A Vision So Noble above. (I really think you're better off buying that book, though this one gets a lot of traffic.) It's available for Amazon's Kindle and other digital readers. Click here for more.

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Posted January 2019. Websites ©1997-2019 Daniel Ford. All rights reserved.