"The Rules" are twenty-six ideas I've collected over the years that seemed relevant enough to life in general that I've written each down with a short story to reinforce each in particular. This is Rule Number Nine.
— James Albright
We often think of military personnel as automatons who blindly follow orders for the good of the country, not caring a whit about personal safety or other personal ideas. I suppose that might be true in some militaries and I can't speak for them. As United States Air Force officers, we were expected to evaluate every order against three standards: is the order legal, moral, and ethical?
Unfortunately, every armed service — even the USAF — is as much a political as military. We had our share of officers who would fail all three tests and it was up to us, as officers, to figure a way to make things work out. I often found that in an attempt to keep things legal, moral, and ethical, my loyalty was called into question. But when I found a superior officer who recognized that for what it is, I knew there was someone I could gladly follow.
I coined Rule Number Nine rather clumsily, but found it put more eloquently by a man I consider the finest officer in the history of the United States Air Force, Colonel John Boyd. He is the man who re-invented the fighter tactics with a concept he invented: energy-maneuverability theory. He then re-invented weapons system procurement rules while at the Pentagon by sabotaging the F-15 and B-1 while putting forward the F-16 and A-10. He then did for the Army and Marines what he had already done for the Air Force, he re-invented the very concept of war. As you can imagine, he had a lot of enemies. I've included a few of his works in the references below.
Here then are two stories of my own, to illustrate the two facets of this rule as Colonel Boyd coined it. (The events portrayed really happened but I've changed the names, sequence, and a few other details.) And then I'll follow that with a story Colonel Boyd was thought to have first told in 1973: "To Be or to Do." I think every military officer should have to memorize this story before accepting their first promotion.
"You owe me!"
There are two kinds of pilots in the United States Air Force, those that are going somewhere and those that aren't. We are speaking career paths here. A going somewhere pilot is identified early as one who can get things done for the chain of command, has some leadership potential, and is likely to be promoted. Notice that the ability to fly airplanes isn't mentioned. "They" will tell you that airmanship is assumed. But many think perhaps it is optional. The other kind of pilot, it stands to reason, is someone who isn't going somewhere, careerwise. You can never be sure who is going somewhere and who isn't. But you can be sure that a pilot selected for command of a flying squadron is going somewhere.
None of us had ever heard of Lieutenant Colonel Scott Wellstone. He was sent directly to the C-5 Galaxy after pilot training and became identified early as someone going somewhere. He upgraded to the left seat and then was sent on a series of staff jobs where he "done good." He did so well that he was given command of one of the most prestigious squadrons in the Air Force, the 99th Airlift Squadron, where he was given his choice of flying the Douglas C-9 or the Gulfstream III. Our C-9s flew a pretty tame mission, just about all of it domestically. The Gulfstreams spent most of their time overseas. He chose the Gulfstream. Our spies at his initial training were not impressed. "Weak stick," they said. Well, he wouldn't be the first weak pilot I had ever seen as a squadron commander.
"I heard you set some kind of speed record getting qualified," he said the first time we met. "I need to you to drop by every afternoon so we can get me ready to fly."
"I can do that, sir," I said. But every afternoon when I showed up, books in hand, he waved me off.
"Too busy today, James," he would say. "Make it tomorrow, for sure." The delay game continued and Lieutenant Colonel Wellstone flew his first training sortie without any help from me. It didn't go well.
"James, close the door," he said as I entered. "The instructors in this squadron are out of control! Just because they are lieutenant colonels doesn't give them the right to expect me to fly the airplane solo! It's a crew airplane after all!"
"Sir," I said, "that's the same treatment we all get in the Gulfstream. We have to operate autonomously all over the world so the pilots are expected to fly practically solo since the workload is so high. We are flying our nation's top leadership. You could have one pilot up to his eyeballs in diplomatic clearances, passenger demands, and who knows what else. The other pilot could very well be solo."
"I can't believe all our Gulfstream pilots are able to put up with this!"
"Sir, I think most are," I said. "In my time here those who couldn't perform at that level were either sent to the Pentagon in a staff job or to the other squadron to fly King Airs. If you can fly a C-5 all over the world, you should be able to come up to speed. You just need to study harder."
"Well, James, I am ready to learn. You need to teach!"
We sat for an hour and I tried to layout the basics of passing a copilot checkride in the Gulfstream but his phone rang and he waved me off again. "Tomorrow!" he said.
Our new Gulfstream pilots were given a month of training at a civilian simulator where they were awarded a Gulfstream III type rating and the "right" to fly a Gulfstream III. Our squadron would spend a month, two months tops, bringing that pilot up to the standards set by the 89th Airlift Wing. But Lieutenant Colonel Wellstone was into his fifth month, still unqualified. When he heard I had degrees in engineering and economics, he started inviting me to his office for various assignments he had received from the group commander.
"Colonel Paulson is going to be very happy with these charts," Wellstone said looking at my spreadsheets covering squadron manning. "They are better than any other squadrons and that makes us look pretty good. Believe me, Eddie, this is going to give you a leg up for promotion!"
I had been thinking about promotion a lot lately. Our squadron was filled with majors looking to become lieutenant colonels and the competition was keen. Being a squadron commander's Excel and PowerPoint guru was hardly the way to become known, but it was better than nothing. "Yes, sir," I said.
I always came to his office with my Gulfstream flight manual and notes, hoping to push him towards paying more attention to his unfinished aircraft qualification. But something always came up. He had finally agreed to going over the emergency procedures section of the manual when the phone rang. Again. I sat quietly and eavesdropped to half the conversation. "Houston?" he asked. "The First Lady?" "Wrong airport?" "Colonel Paulson, I agree completely. I'll take care of it. Those pilots are fired!"
"You aren't going to believe this, Eddie!" Wellstone hit another button on his phone. "Who's on the First Lady trip?" he asked. "I don't care," he continued. "I want both pilots out of the squadron by close of business today. Their return trip is their last trip at the 89th! You got that?"
Wellstone explained that the C-9 crew flew the First Lady to Houston Intercontinental Airport, north of the city, her usual destination. But she was due to speak at a ribbon cutting ceremony at Houston Hobby, south of the city. The crew eventually got her to Houston Hobby, almost an hour late. "The boss is right," he said to me. "Paulson says we can't have such inept pilots flying for the 89th!"
I kept my mouth shut and made my way downstairs to the scheduler. Lieutenant Colonel Hank Richards looked defeated. "It wasn't their fault," he said as I sat in the seat opposite his. "They went back to the First Lady's staff three times to say the correct airport was Hobby! Her staff overruled them each time! What more could they have done?"
I doubled back to Wellstone's office and explained what had happened. "Doesn't matter," he said. "Paulson ordered me to fire them, so they are fired."
The next day Wellstone confirmed to Paulson that the pilots had been fired. Paulson called his boss, the wing commander, to do the same. After all that was done, the First Lady's chief of staff called the wing commander directly to say the pilots were blameless and that the First Lady wanted to fly only with them in the future to ensure the pilots were not subject to any kind of punishment. The pilots were unfired. Paulson and Wellstone looked weak and ineffective to their subordinates as well as their superiors. "They got what they deserved," I told the Lovely Mrs.
It soon became apparent that my economics degree was in high demand as the wing started to wrestle with the dollars and cents of carrying a very high level of experience in the pilot force. The group commander started asking for me to explain the charts without Wellstone. "That pinhead doesn't know a thing about manpower issues," Paulson said. "I need to hear this from someone who knows what's going on."
Of course Wellstone found out and asked for a full debrief after every session. He rarely had anything to say about the manpower issues but became obsessed with his own image in the squadron. "What are the boys saying?" he asked.
"What boys?" I asked.
"You know," he said, "the line pilots."
"Well, sir," I said, stalling to form my thoughts. "The boys and girls are wondering why you continue to take a training flight every week while still no closer to getting qualified. We all know you are very busy but we also know every previous squadron commander in recent memory managed to get qualified in average time.
"It's this damned Gulfstream!" he said. "I should have picked the DC-9!"
"That might have been easier," I admitted. "But it is water under the bridge."
"You have the group commander's ear," he said. "You tell him that it is imperative that I go to DC-9 school. I need to keep a closer eye on those crews! You know it's true."
"No sir," I said. "The DC-9 crews are pretty self sufficient and most of our squadron issues are with the Gulfstreams. We have larger crews, spend more time away from home, and seem to get into the most trouble. If anything, the squadron commander needs to keep plugged into the Gulfstream world."
"Can't you put in a good word for me, James? I am the one who got you the high visibility that's going to get you promoted! You owe me, James!"
"Are you asking me to lie?" I asked.
"I'm asking you to show some loyalty!" he said. "I've done nothing but support you from day one! Is it too much to ask for a little loyalty in return?"
A week later I was in Colonel Paulson's office, finishing the wing's new policy on pilot manpower issues. I knew my work would end up with his signature and that would end up on the wing commander's desk without so much a mention of my name. If I was lucky, the wing commander would wonder about the statistics and Paulson would fumble the answer. But I didn't expect to be lucky. Our business completed, I waited for Paulson to gesture me to the door and give me a lukewarm thank you. But that didn't happen.
"Wellstone wants to go to DC-9 school," he said. "Why can't he get checked out in the Gulfstream in six months?
"I think he is letting the administrative part of the job overwhelm his schedule," I said. "He isn't devoting the time to flying that he needs to."
Paulson sat back and stared at the ceiling. He was formulating another question, probably trying to predict my answer before he asked. It was a game I had witnessed many times. A game I refused to play.
"What do you think of him?" Paulson finally asked. "As an officer."
"Not much," I said. "He is lazy, he doesn't support his people, and he is unethical.
"You aren't very loyal," he said.
"You asked, sir," I said. Paulson stared daggers at me. He had never appeared to be a Wellstone advocate in the past, but perhaps the temerity of a mere major badmouthing his boss was a bridge too far.
"Thank you James," he said finally, getting up. "I think we are done."
The next week Lieutenant Colonel Wellstone announced he was requested by name to take a high priority assignment in an office in Crystal City, just south of the Pentagon. Two years later, when he failed to make his next promotion, he petitioned his Congressman to investigate the way he was sabotaged as a squadron commander. He included me as one of the evil doers. I had to answer one phone call from a civilian lawyer but never heard another word about Lieutenant Colonel Scott Wellstone.
"Just be honest"
Having a squadron commander fired is bad news for everyone involved. The squadron gets labeled as a problem. The outgoing commander has some explaining to do for the rest of his or her career and is taken off of the "going somewhere" list. The incoming commander doesn't get a formal "change of command" ceremony and merely "assumes" command. That was Lieutenant Colonel Cameron Benson's lot in life when he assumed command of the 99th Airlift Squadron after Wellstone's sudden departure.
Benson grew up in tankers, having progressed from copilot to aircraft commander, to instructor, and then to examiner. After two tours in tankers he was identified as one of those pilots "going somewhere" and sent off to school and then a staff assignment at the Pentagon. After Wellstone's implosion, Lieutenant Colonel Benson was hurried off to Gulfstream school and a month later he found himself in charge.
He did all the right things on the first day, making sure he was seen by everyone in the squadron, introducing himself without pontificating on anything he might not know about. The only thing he might have done wrong was the first thing he said to me that day. "Drop by my office about six," he said. I was going to miss dinner at home, again.
"I hear you are a straight shooter," he said as I took the seat he offered after I entered the familiar office. "You don't seem to fear giving bad news, so I think I need to hear from you often."
"I'm not sure what you are looking for," I said. "Maybe you can just ask me when something comes up, sir."
"I can do that," he said. "But feel free to bring anything up at any time you feel I need to know something."
Lieutenant Colonel Benson got checked out in only a month and never seemed to need my help about anything. As far as I could tell, he was as perfect a squadron commander as I had ever seen. My secret notebook about commanders was growing one of its rare chapters about how "to" and not how "not."
Even as our squadron commander, Lieutenant Colonel Benson flew the line as a copilot and did all the grunge work required of a copilot. He was seated opposite me in the mission planning room, working hotels and rental cars for his next trip, when the intercom announced he had a call on line one. He picked up the phone between us.
I instantly recognized Paulson's voice. "I want them fired!" I heard. "International incident!" And once more, "I want them fired!"
"I'll get to the bottom of it, sir," Benson said. "Give me an hour or so and I'll call you back with a report."
I tried to eavesdrop while appearing not to eavesdrop. Benson made a series of phone calls to the wing schedulers and to our Pentagon office who would be in contact with every Gulfstream on the road. He spent more time listening than talking, until he looked at me. "How do you fly from Taipei to Beijing without making the mainland Chinese upset that you've been visiting Taiwan?"
"We normally get diplomatic clearances from each government, no problem," I said. "If either country refuses, we can arrange a stop at a middle country or we can file due regard."
In the old days we would file a flight plan to an empty point in space and then the flight plan would end. From that point we would fly without air traffic control and do so with "a due regard for safety." And then we would magically appear on another flight plan with clearance to the next country.
"But these days we've been able to fly between both countries so long as the diplomatic clearances are kept separate," I said.
With a few more phone calls, Benson located the crew in their hotel rooms in Beijing. Benson spoke slowly over the static of the international connection. "First of all," he said, "this isn't one of those phone calls. Everyone here is okay and I trust everyone there is okay too." There was a reply. "Nobody is in any trouble, I just need to find out what happened." Another reply, this one a bit longer. "That makes a lot of sense," he said. Another reply. "No, I just want you to be honest. If anyone asks, you just tell them what you told me." Another response. "Don't worry about it. You and the rest of the crew enjoy your days off. Nobody is going to be in any trouble. You guys did good, just like I knew you would."
Benson toggled the phone's cradle and dialed another number. "Colonel Paulson, it's Lieutenant Colonel Benson." A quick reply. "Well sir," he said, "if anyone needs to be fired its someone in the Beijing embassy. Yes, sir. Well, they had the diplomatic clearance that we sent, but when they transcribed it they mixed up the Zulu date with the local date. So they thought the crew was a day early when in fact they were on time. Yes, sir. Everything is calm now, both embassies are happy. Yes, sir. Me too, sir. Goodbye, sir."
A few months later, I had made promotion to lieutenant colonel and had taken over as the wing's chief of safety. My focus moved from our almost brand new Gulfstreams to the wing's thirty-year old Boeing 707s. I discovered we had been loading the older 707-100's with too much fuel and made enough noise to get them to stop. The Boeing 707 squadron commander was furious.
"I hear the big birds aren't showing you much love, James," Benson said while joining me for a lunch of diet coke and Hostess deep fried cherry pies. "Their squadron commander was spitting fire this morning at the wing staff meeting. You want some advice, James?"
"Make sure you check under the hood before you start your truck and be sure to vary your routes to and from the office. You can never be too careful."
I laughed. "Sound advice, sir. Thanks. An inspector from Air Force Headquarters is going to interview me tomorrow. I have a lot of damning evidence. What should I say?"
"Just be honest," he said. "Let the chips fall where they may. Those bozos would have killed someone flying like that. You are doing God's work, James."
Two years later I was at the Pentagon where the list of those pilots who were going somewhere seemed to circulate among those making the decisions about who was going, and where. I ended up on the list of those lieutenant colonels going to squadron commander assignments but never heard about the lists for those going even higher. At least not officially.
"I see from your resume that you once worked for Cameron Benson," my new boss said. He was a general officer and would have a role in building the next list of group commanders.
"Not directly sir," I said. "But I worked with him for about a year."
"What do you think about him as a commander?" he asked.
"He's the best," I said.
"He only spent a year at Andrews as a squadron commander," he said next. "His boss, a Colonel Paulson, doesn't recommend him as strongly as he could."
"Paulson is an unprincipled politician," I said. "Benson is a commander with the highest integrity."
"You seem pretty loyal to him," he said.
"I am," I said.
"To be or do"
Colonel John Boyd spent most of his career at the Pentagon trying to fix a broken procurement system to ensure Air Force war planes were designed well with the war fighter in mind, not the companies getting rich selling them or the careers of those buying them. His "To Be or Do" speech became famous among those who knew him. It was thought that he first gave it to Captain Raymond Leopold, a young officer assigned to work with him in 1973.
"Tiger, one day you will come to a fork in the road," he said. "And you're going to have to make a decision about which direction you want to go." He raised his hand and pointed. 'If you go that 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 be promoted and you will get good assignments." Then Boyd raise his other hand and pointed another direction. "Or you can go that way and you can do something — something for your country and for your Air Force and for yourself. If you decide you want to do something, you may not get promoted and you may not get the good assignments and you certainly will not be a favorite of your superiors. But you won't have to compromise yourself. You will be true to your friends and to yourself. And your work might make a difference." He paused and stared into Leopold's eyes and heart. "To be somebody or to do something. In life there is often a role call. That's when you will have to make a decision. To be or to do? Which way will you go?"
Source: Coram, pp. 283-285
Boyd, John R., A Discourse on Winning and Losing, August 1992
Boyd, John R., Capt, USAF, Aerial Attack Study, Revised 4 January 2016
Boyd, John R., Destruction and Creation, 3 September 1976
Boyd, John R., New Conception for Air-to-Air Combat, 4 Aug 1976
Boyd, John R., Organic design for Command and Control, May 1987
Boyd, John R., The Strategic Game of ? and ?, June 1987
Coram, Robert, Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War, Back Bay Books, New York, NY, 2002