The Mind of War:
John Boyd and American Security
by Grant Tedrick Hammond
Reviewd by: Lt Col Eric Ash, USAF   Maxwell AFB, Alabama

Review document created: 13 August 01
Published in Aerospace Power Journal - Fall  2001
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[Copied here September 2008 ]

One of the most important books on airpower theory, strategy, technology, organization, and history to come out this year is Grant Hammond’s biography of Col John Boyd, USAF. Appropriately, it is larger than life—Boyd’s life—for the United States Air Force of today reflects the impact of many of Boyd’s ideas. Boyd is not that well known outside either the circle of people with whom he worked or students of his art of thinking—most notably exemplified by his concept of the "OODA loop" (observe, orient, decide, and act). Such relative anonymity is about to change. Hammond’s biographical study, which also addresses numerous important facets of airpower and the Air Force, will definitely attract wide attention.

One of the great challenges of biography is to understand and portray the true person and not the superhero. Certainly, some readers might accuse Hammond of overselling his champion. Yet, had Boyd never lived, what would have been the historical difference? Counterfactual speculation is ahistorical and antischolarly, but one is forced to conclude that Boyd truly made a difference to the Air Force as well as to its sister services. In most positions, including those in high-level leadership, others likely would have filled the gap and produced a similar result. In Boyd’s case, however, his contribution was genius that rarely comes along. That, combined with his selfless ambition to improve the nation’s war-fighting capability, allowed Boyd to have the kind of fundamental impact that made him truly profound.

As pointed out in this solid biography, Boyd’s fingerprints were everywhere—evidence of a true Renaissance man whose interests ranged from aerodynamics to economics to cosmology. Hence, this biographical study covers a wide range of topics not only interesting to a variety of readers, but also invaluable to the general story of military aeronautical progress during the past 40 years. Boyd’s most significant contributions were in the areas of aerial tactics and combat aircraft. He authored the first and only real tactics manual of his time, the "Aerial Attack Study," which trained a cadre of air-to-air experts and had a substantial impact on generations of Air Force pilots. He invented an "energy maneuverability theory" that utilized modern comparative analysis to ascertain the optimal aircraft and maneuvers needed to achieve air superiority. Furthermore, his massive 327-slide briefing "A Discourse on Winning and Losing" has influenced military and industry audiences far and wide. In many respects, Boyd might be considered the father of modern aerial combat, both as fighter-pilot practitioner and theorist. At the least, he exerted the single most important influence on the design of two critical combat platforms—the F-15 and F-16 air superiority fighters. 

But how Boyd went about all this both led to his success and became his tragic flaw. He was the quintessential intellectual maverick—a man who thrived on bending the rules and violating the regulations. Whether stealing computer time, jumping the chain of command, or risking his reputation and career, he did what he thought was necessary, regardless of who or what got in the way. Such proclivities made Boyd both famous and infamous. He was loved or hated, revered as a genius or despised as a loose cannon. In a way, he lacked common sense but at the same time had uncommon sense—which made him the ideal subject for Hammond, who has a passion for challenging orthodoxy. True to form, Hammond uses this biography to upbraid the Air Force for not granting Boyd the recognition he deserved and to criticize the service’s systemic detractors who reward company people over critical thinkers. Very likely, this biography would have pleased Boyd.

In his assessment of Boyd’s thinking process, Hammond engages in extensive psychoanalysis—perhaps to excess. But Boyd was a very deep thinker, and his cognitive process affected people just as profoundly as did the product of his mind. Certainly, the OODA loop is just such an example. Hammond’s study, therefore, is more a biographical case study of how someone thought than it is a chronology of a person’s life.

After reading this gripping biography—so well researched, crafted, and effective in bringing the reader into Boyd’s life—I can only regret never having met Boyd and having missed the opportunity to publish his writing in Aerospace Power Journal. As Hammond points out, however, Boyd most likely would have rejected that opportunity. He didn’t write much, and what he did write wasn’t for publication. Boyd preferred briefings, which he constantly revised. Fortunately for the public, he had a dedicated biographer who understands the importance of publications. Now the name John Boyd will become much more widely recognized in Air Force and Department of Defense circles—as well it should be.

Lt Col Eric Ash, USAF
Maxwell AFB, Alabama


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University. 

The book information for  The Mind of War: John Boyd and American Security
by Grant Tedrick Hammond,. Smithsonian Institution Press (, 470 L’Enfant Plaza, Suite 7100, Washington, D.C. 20560, 2001, 288 pages, $29.95.