The July issue of Armed Forces Journal has published an important and provocative commentary by retired Marine Corps Colonel Michael Wyly. The piece draws upon Secretary Of Defense Robert Gates' recent reference to American strategist and military reformer Col. John R. Boyd. Gates pointed out that the contemporary US Air Force should learn from Boyd to make itself more concerned about the nation than about narrow bureaucratic agendas, and Wyly makes it clear that all of us, especially the military services, have much to learn from John Boyd and his career if we are to survive effectively in the 21st century.
Find this Armed Forces Journal commentary at http://www.afji.com/2008/07/3521282 and below:
Armed Forces Journal
In Praise of Mavericks
A true professional will strive to do something, not be someone
BY COL. MICHAEL D. WYLY (RET.)
Civilians who serve as defense secretary rarely inspire the military men who
serve in uniform. It is the profession of arms itself that has the job of
exhorting, leading and studying the art of war. From time to time, however, it
becomes the job of the civilian overseer to deter the military from stagnating
and to prompt it to keep up with the times to serve the needs of modern war. We
live in one of those times.
Robert Gates felt called upon to prompt uniformed officers accordingly when he
addressed Air War College students at Maxwell-Gunter Air Force Base in April.
His speech was more than a prompt; it was an inspiration. "The Armed Forces will
need principled, creative, reform-minded leaders" who "want to do something, not
be somebody," Gates said.
The secretary continued by quoting Air Force Col. John Boyd: "If you decide to
do something, you may not get promoted, and you may not get good assignments,
and you certainly will not be a favorite of your superiors. But you won't have
to compromise yourself."
For a defense secretary to quote a maverick colonel who left the Air Force as a
pariah was a bold and risky step. But like the fighter pilot he quoted, he
turned into the fight by describing Boyd as "brilliant" in his abilities "to
overcome bureaucratic resistance and institutional hostility." The secretary
referred to Boyd as "a historical exemplar," tracing his impact on our military
from 30-year-old captain through to his continued intellectual contributions
after retiring in 1975. And he praised Boyd for more than his intellect. He
championed his character, quoting the colonel, who said, "One day you will take
a fork in the road. ... If you go [one] way, you can be somebody. You will have
to make compromises and you will have to turn your back on your friends. But you
will be a member of the club and you will get promoted and get good assignments.
Or you can go [the other] way and you can do something - something for your
country and for your Air Force and for yourself."
After they graduate and leave Maxwell, Gates warned the students: "You, too,
will eventually face Boyd's proverbial fork in the road. You will have to
choose: to be someone or to do something."
I knew Boyd as a colleague, a mentor and the most loyal personal friend. His
contributions to the strength of our country ranged from airplane design through
tactics and strategy air and ground, and the ethics of leadership.
THE PROFESSIONAL CLASS
We can consolidate all of the secretary's descriptions into a single word:
professional. That's what Boyd was. And he was one because of what he did.
"Professional" is a word we bandy about carelessly, so much so, we lose track of
its meaning. Boyd exemplified its meaning.
It was during the European Renaissance that the professional class emerged and
defined itself. It was during the Renaissance that the birthright nobility began
to give way to a society led by persons respected for their merits - for what
they did instead of who they were. Each profession had standards for entry, they
professed something, and their study of it was daily, continual and life-long.
They served their society. Medicine, law, the clergy and military leadership
became during the 15th and 16th centuries - and still stand as - the classically
defined professions. When we speak of a professional ball player or a
professional musician, we are corrupting the term, for it means far more than
getting a paycheck for what you do. A profession must be applied for and joined
after being accepted, and its moral standards are as important as its
The product of years of schooling, examinations, moral discipline and tests of
character, the essential elements that define a profession was, and continues to
be, trust. A physician, let's say a surgeon, works on his own. Certified by his
profession, he does not need a boss looking over his shoulder or a textbook in
one hand as he works. He knows his profession and we trust him with our lives.
The lawyer in a courtroom thinks on his feet, able to counter arguments with the
knowledge he has stored over years of study. We trust our clergy to have
studied, more than we have, the tenets of our faith, and to listen to our cares
and laments. "Reposing special trust and confidence in the abilities of
[officer's name]" are the words read aloud when a Marine officer is commissioned
- "co-missioned" with his country and entrusted to make life-and-death decisions
without supervision, continents away.
Professionals have to listen, too; the physician to his patient, the lawyer to
his client, the clergyman to his parishioners, the officer to his men.
Boyd embodied these traits and held to them uncompromisingly. I learned from
him, and I never offered an idea that he did not hear out in detail. The many,
many ideas he injected or tried to inject into the military intellect he had
invariably studied, thought out, footnoted and referenced. He did his homework -
as a professional.
We can think of examples from every profession where its members have strayed
from its principles. But integral to the profession's definition is the ability
to expurgate, disbar, revoke license or de-commission. This can happen when a
member fails to keep up intellectually, or if he fails on moral grounds.
Professionals are idealists by definition, and the Boyd I knew personified
One more adjective Gates used to describe Boyd was "maverick," and those of us
who knew Boyd understand why. Yet it is unfortunate that we have to think of him
as a maverick. He should have been the norm: an independent thinker who did his
own research on a daily basis and espoused his views regardless of convention
because he had the courage to do so. Courage is a virtue. In the military
profession, courage tops the list of virtues required and demanded. My
experiences in combat demonstrated that you can't have the physical kind of
courage without the moral kind. Officers with Boyd's degree of moral courage
need to be the norm, not the mavericks. Another way of putting it is that we all
need to have the courage to be mavericks when institutional thought stagnates.
But we have a responsibility not to let it stagnate. And that is Gates' stern
message to our officer corps.
When I taught in our Marine Corps Professional Schools in Quantico, Va., I often
alluded to the old military class of medieval times, the warriors - the knights.
We called them nobility. A favorite question I asked my students to ponder was,
"Have we, the U.S. officer corps in the 20th and 21st centuries, descended
beneath noblesse, or ascended above it?"
The answer lies in whether or not we rise to the responsibility we incur when we
dare to accept our commissions and call ourselves professionals. Gates has set
the standard through his courage of conviction and the daring to articulate it.
In so doing, he evoked the name of one who challenged us all to ascend beyond
who we think we are, by doing the work a profession demands, in the purest sense
of the term "profession."