Monday, March 12, 2007

Book Club: Boyd

The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War
Robert Coram, 2002
Little, Brown and Company, New York, New York

Like Collapse, this is another book that I didn't quite finish before starting on the next. However, the pause here was only for a few days, and the reason had nothing to do with getting bogged down in a suggested readings discussion and everything to do with a complete change of subject. The appendix of Boyd, a book that is a straight-forward biography of a single individual, of the same name as the book, was written by the subject himself. It's an essay, not about this book or the man's own life, but rather about a subject that was dear to him and occupied at least the second half of his career and much of what happened after he retired - an attempt to understand and formalize his own thought processes.

Most of Boyd reads like any other biography of a not-particularly-famous-but-highly-influential person - the life of John Boyd is laid out chronologically, from birth to death, with occassional bits of mild foreshadowing, of the 'this would become important later' type. My interest in the book stems entirely from the subject matter, the story of an interesting person. The author seems competent, but uninteresting, based on the sample of just this book - perhaps Mr. Coram, in the other two nonfiction books and seven novels the 'about the author' describes in a single sentence (not each - in total) displays some higher talent and skill in storytelling and authorship. Mr. Coram seems quite the fan of his subject, and his frequent references to the overarching importance of Mr. Boyd's work and contributions sometime become irritating - but they're not that frequent, and rarely distract too badly from the story.

John Boyd's life is actually very interesting. His career as a pilot in the US Air Force, from the Korean War to his retirement in the mid-1970's, was much more about politics within the US military that it was about being a pilot, per se. Perhaps because Mr. Boyd was so frequently the target of apparently petty beaurocratic attacks and maneuvering, the Pentagon is described in almost entirely negative terms. I was left wondering why, if it's such a terrible, grinding, soul-destroying place full of contemptible liars, cheats, and minor tyrants, the Pentagon is allowed to exist in a country that every decade or so forcibly reminds the top generals that civilians control the military.

The great personal ambition and drive of Mr. Boyd comes through as he overcomes or obliterates every obstacle in his path. Unfortunately, this seems to have taken a terrible toll on his family and personal life - no friends outside of his immediate work are described after his childhood, and his (now middle-aged) children are repeatedly referred to as harbouring a great anger towards their father. Mr. Coram, perhaps wishing to paint an entirely positive picture of his subject, seems to have glossed over Mr. Boyd's personal life - the names of his five children are mentioned so rarely that I forgot who was who when they were described as adults near the end of the book, and Mrs. Boyd is not mentioned for chapter after chapter in the middle of the book. Major events in the life of a parent, such as the high-school or university graduation of children, or important family vacations, are not described or are discussed only in passing as Mr. Coram focusses on the minutiae of Mr. Boyd's professional and academic pursuits.

The appendix at the end of the book is a short paper, about eight pages long, titled "Destruction and Creation". I'm very pleased that Mr. Coram and the publisher decided to include what constitutes one of the only things Mr. Boyd ever wrote in his life. It describes a kind of method for interacting with reality, a framework to think about thinking about thinking. There are ideas in there I expect to find myself considering at odd moments for a long time.

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