What hath Boyd wrought?

Or “wrote.” Written.

Boyd is sometime criticized for not having sat down and written Patterns and his other briefings into nice books. They claim that his ideas are hard to fathom just from his briefings.

But Boyd’s framework, although deep and complex, is not esoteric. In addition to “Destruction and Creation,” Boyd produced a continuous stream of writings from August 1976 until January of the year before his death:

Item Date Pages Words W/P
D&C 9/1976 3,900
PoC  12/1986  185  21,000  113.5
OD  5/1987  37  3,400  92
SG  6/1987  59  4,700  80
CS  8/1992  38  2,900  76
EOWL  1/1996  4  350  87.5
TOTAL (x. D&C)  323  32,350  100
TOTAL  36,250

“Destruction and Creation” is a special case. Set in 12 pt. Arial and double-spaced, it runs about 15 pages or slightly over 250 words/page. Applying that ratio to the body of Boyd’s post-retirement work equates to a book of some 145 pages.  Which is not long, but not insubstantial, either, about the same length as Cleary’s The Japanese Art of War or the Griffith edition of Sun Tzu, both including the commentaries but without appendices. By comparison, the Sun Tzu text itself typically runs 8,000 – 10,000 words depending on the translator.

Given how long it takes to write a manuscript, not to mention finding a publisher who will promote it, it’s hard to see where Boyd would have found the time. Publishers typically want manuscripts of 80-100,000 words, which produces a 400 page book that can be priced in the $25-30 range (today’s prices). Check out Tom Barnett’s books, for example. Obviously, established authors can get different deals, but Boyd would have been a risk. And it would have been a big risk for Boyd because only a tiny fraction of manuscripts by unknown authors ever get published.

In any case, it was his choice, and the format he chose — bullet points — is what people are used to inside the Beltway.  It’s basically the same format as Sun Tzu, and like The Art of War, Boyd’s works are best read not as logical treatises but as compendiums of concepts to ponder over, test against your own experience, improve upon, and perhaps even reject.

The criticism has also been made that Boyd’s colleagues could have helped with the drafting.  At the time of his death, Boyd was working with two authors who were completing books based on his briefings.  Within less than 10 years of his death, two more had been completed, and in the case of Coram’s book, carefully vetted by most of the surviving acolytes. Hammond knew Boyd and interviewed him extensively, but I don’t believe that he had any of Boyd’s other colleagues review his manuscripts. Osinga did not meet Boyd, but Grant Hammond was on his dissertation committee.

So this gives us:

Author Date Length
Hammond 2001 211
Coram 2002 449
Richards 2004 171
Osinga 2006 331
TOTAL  1,162

Anybody who is interested in what Boyd wrote should have no trouble finding out. Could Boyd have reached more people had he written a traditional book? Impossible to say. I seem to recall that the average business book sells about 2,500 copies, and I’d be astonished if strategy tomes sold any more. Now, 2,500 may seem like a lot, but it’s a fraction of the people Boyd reached with his briefings. And at least he didn’t run across Patterns of Conflict in the remainder bins at the Delray Beach Barnes & Noble.

11 thoughts on “What hath Boyd wrought?

  1. Thank you, Chet; an especial thanks for these stats, which I was trying to collate before last weekend.

    I was trying to make a similar point last Saturday:

    * guys with letters after their name (having written hundreds of thousands of words);
    * some with letters before their name (Lord this, The Honorable that):
    * service marking their products/services (with symbols above their name); and
    * expensive marketing straplines below their name,

    none of whom have managed to achieve JRB’s reach, a reach he managed with just a fraction of their output and no publishing back-up worth talking about…

    In fact, when people suddenly realise whom I am discussing, when I talk about JRB, their response is: “Ah! THE John Boyd!” THE John Boyd! Imagine! The only one we address in that fashion in the UK, is THE Queen!

    • TM — thanks. When you consider how many editions of Patterns he went through, he wrote quite a lot. His output was especially impressive because, like any other poet, he would agonize over every word. Often on the phone. At 10 pm.

  2. This constitutes a dilemma because Boyd’s thinking by its nature seems to resonate with only about (guessing) 5% of the overall population, being those who think outside the proverbial box, to use a contemporary euphemism.

    • Most true, Max. But that would still be 15 million people in the US alone. OK — just limiting it to adults might knock it down to 5 million. That’s somewhat more than Certain to Win has sold to date.

  3. I think there’s a simple way of bringing the 5% and the 95% together: let the majority lose their fears when trying to paint that canvas.

    It’s for this reason that, last Saturday, I deliberately used a simple red dot (against a blank background) to convey the process of first creation. No one (repeat, no one) is satisfied with their first mark. But, once tried, this first mark speaks back to us and pulls at us to push out what we already know, begging us to tell more (as we KNOW more than we can TELL). Time for us to encourage the rest to also try, oh try …to be the best.

    What else is there to lose, after all, …but a publishing contract?

  4. One of Boyd’s acolytes has taken me to task for failing to mention Boyd’s energy-maneuverability report, co-authored with Tom Christie, for which Boyd won several prestigious awards including the Harold Brown award, the “highest scientific award granted by the Air Force.” (Coram, p. 310) His “Aerial Attack Study” became the international bible of air-air combat. Both of these were classified for many years, but they do show Boyd’s ability to write persuasively about complex technical topics.

  5. Boyd like to needle a little about besting an IBM Research Nobel price-winning physicist about something in energy-maneuverability (at a president science advisory meeting). He would also mention being contacted that Aerial Attack Study being the air-air combat manual for our enemies … a translated version was supposedly word-for-word except ft/miles converted to metric.

    • I’d heard that, too. At least we knew what their tactics were going to be.

      In actual fact, though, Soviet doctrine (e.g., tight ground control) made it difficult for them to use the AAS.

  6. From GI Wilson, who worked closely with Boyd during the campaign to instill maneuver warfare into the Marine Corps:

    My experience with Boyd, from knowing him for about 20 years, taught me that writing in and of itself is just one means of communication. I thought Boyd was an excellent writer who spent a lot of time choosing the right, concise, and exacting words for his burst transmissions, though some of those “burst transmission” would be 3-4 hour phone conversation from late at night to early in the morning.

    I do know he used implicit communication very effectively, grounded in mission orders, trust, cross-referencing, and on-going-orientation/re-orientation, whereby, he constantly adjusted his first decision/s with his next decision/s and so on.

    This at times included such things as informal information-feedback loops, leaving copies in the Pentagon heads that self-distributed, leading/doing by example, and face to face communications. Boyd was a very visual, multi-dimension thinker/communicator who understood trade-offs and fast transienting from one TTP/TTPs/thought/thoughts to another or one maneuver/s to another or others. [TTP – tactics, techniques & procedures]

    This transienting is relational to the foe, involving pumping energy in, pumping it out, dumping it, or at times doing nothing (or a combination thereof) as the situation dictated. From my perspective the importance of Boyd’s visual short-hand and implicit communication/trust methods/style cannot be overlooked. I am not sure that could have been taught us with lengthy treatises. And, those like me who have Irish genes and ADHD would have not read the lengthy prose in between Guinness breaks.

    My take is that writing things out in long hand would have slowed Boyd’s modus operandi in rapidly, unexpectedly, and unfolding environments. In other words, to paraphrase an old song, implicitly knowing how to kill a man who out draws you.

    [Col GI Wilson, USMC, Ret., is among other things, a member of the American College of Forensic Examiners International and a member of the Board of Directors of Team Rubicon (http://www.teamrubiconusa.org). He is also a veteran of Desert Storm and two tours in Iraq.]

  7. I recall reading something, perhaps in Coram, that Boyd didn’t publish because he felt his publisher would “own him” and limit what he could publish–they certainly wouldn’t accept the way that he was constantly changing and adapting his ideas. I’m fascinated with the way that free/low-cost e-books with the ability to constantly revise ideas will change the way the next generation of great thinkers will express themselves.

  8. In 1956, Boyd published a six page “Fighter versus Fighter” article in the Fighter Weapons School newsletter and now available at http://oplaunch.com/resources/a-proposed-plan-for-fighter-versus-fighter-training.pdf

    In June 1957, he published a 27 page “Air Combat Maneuvering” article in the Fighter Weapons School newsletter. I am finalizing a re-creation of that recently released publication.

    Others have mentioned the publication of the 150 page Aerial Attack Study.

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