I’ve been thinking about , Robert Coram’s biography of John Boyd, one of the creators of the F-15 and F-16, after finishing the book last week. The book is amazing, first and foremost because Coram is a phenomenal storyteller, but also because Boyd’s life makes for an exceptional and compelling story. Boyd was an admirable man in many ways and accomplished more than most people ever will (or would ever want to), pioneering a physical theory that revolutionized fighter jet design, then fighting tooth and nail against the shortsighted and self-serving members of the Pentagon who tried to corrupt his F-15 and F-16 designs for their personal gain. In his youth, Boyd was one of the most skilled fighter pilots in American history, and in his later years produced a second revolutionary military theory, which reintroduced maneuver warfare to the American military after the strategic disaster that was Vietnam.
Yet for all his accomplishments Boyd was in many ways a tragic hero. Despite being intimately aware of the shortcomings within the military, he seemed painfully naïve about his shortcomings as a husband, father, and friend. Boyd seemed to fancy himself as a romantic embodiment of the lone crusader, standing up to the impossible might of the American military with only a small team of close knit supporters at his back. Yet within his courage and self-sacrifice was a powerful selfishness. He all but ignored his wife and children so he could focus the entirety of his attention on his work. On Boyd’s deathbed, one of his grown children hears him murmuring the names of his close work associates and waits for Boyd to start saying the names of his children. He never does.
His “my way or the highway” attitude alienated his co-workers, many of whom could have become potential allies, and ultimately hurt his cause. He unnecessarily infuriated and insulted top military brass with his irreverence and impulsiveness, ultimately hurting his ability to influence the system from the inside.
Although he was loved by his close team of supporters (several of whom thought of him as a father), Boyd’s self-absorption jarred and alienation even them. At one point in the book, Boyd and a couple of his coworkers are watching a dog fighting movie to unwind from work. Boyd starts muttering to the on –screen jet to shoot its target down, which initially strikes his coworkers as quirky and charming, “Boyd being Boyd.” But as the movie progresses, his mutterings increase to a yell and he shouts “hose him!” so loudly the entire theater can hear. In moments like that, the charm of Boyd’s quirkiness evaporate, revealing a deep-seated selfishness underneath.
The chapter “they think I’m a kook” is one of the book’s saddest. An aging Boyd is thrown a birthday party by his friends and family, where they present him with their typical inside-joke gag gifts – a hose, to signify Boyd’s skill in “hosing down” rivals, and a B-1 bomber with a rock attached to it via string, to signify Boyd’s incessant criticism of the B-1. It’s clear that these gifts are intended with only warm intentions, and Boyd had met such gifts with glee in the past. But that night he becomes visibly upset. When his wife tries to comfort him in private he declares they “they think I’m a kook!”
Boyd, it seems, wanted to have things both ways. He wanted to be admired as a maverick and allowed to indulge in his impulsive eccentricity, yet at the same time wanted to be respected as a man of dignity. But he made a choice to be the former instead of the later, and suffered because of it. Perhaps he was aware of the decision he made, perhaps not, but his family, his friends, and his legacy still bear the consequences.
What lessons can be learned from Boyd’s life? Most important is the role of self-awareness and humility in one’s professional and personal life. Boyd seemed genuinely oblivious to the contradictions and hypocrisy within his own character and lost much because of it. There’s a certain pride that comes from doing and saying whatever we want, but we often lose much because of it. Boyd’s numerous accomplishments are in many ways overshadowed by his reputation for abrasiveness. Boyd made a choice. He chose to be brilliant, obsessive, and tenacious, but also to be obstinate, intractable, and disdainful. We make choices of similar consequence every day, differing in degree but not in kind. It’s up to us to decide which qualities we chose value, and what the our priorities in life truly are. Boyd was a hero, but he was a tragic one, destroyed by the same qualities that led him to greatness in the first place.