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5.0 out of 5 stars Tempering Boyd with Chesterton, 1 July 2008
This review is from: Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War (Hardcover)
If you want to change the world for the better or just keep your little corner of it from getting worse, then you'll want to read this book. It's not just about "the art of war," as the subtitle claims. It's what Boyd discovered about how conflicts are fought and won. Sadly, although he flew in two wars, most of Boyd's clashes were fought within our own military rather than with some foreign foe. As a result, one of the best USAF fighter pilots who ever lived is better remembered by the Marine Corps, where he is a hero, than by his own branch.

I'm not going spend time praising Boyd. The fact that I finished this book with a list of books and articles to read is praise enough. Instead, I'm going to offer a useful corrective to Boyd the man, by introducing someone else you should read.

That someone is G. K. Chesterton, an Englishman with a maverick, warrior personality every bit as fierce and unyielding as Boyd's. On June 1, 1941, on one of the darkest days in World War II, when the island of Crete had fallen to the Germans, leaving 17,000 British soldiers as prisoners of war, the Times of London, defiantly put these lines from Chesterton's "The Ballad of the White Horse" on its front page:

I tell you naught for your comfort,
Yea naught for your desire,
Save that the sky grows darker yet
And the sea rises higher.

Like Boyd, Chesterton understood that how we fight determines if we win or lose. He shared Boyd's contempt for those who believe that bigger is better. In a 1909 at the height of England's fears about new German battleships, Chesterton wrote precisely what Boyd would later say about fighter aircraft.

"Common-sense tells a man that indefinite development in one direction must in practice over-reach itself... If you perceive your enemy plunging on blindly in a particular direction, the real thing to do, if you have any spirit and invention, is to calculate the weakness in his course and advance yourself in some other direction. You ought to take advantage of his infatuation, not to imitate it; you ought to surprise his plan of campaign, not copy it laboriously. If he is building very big ships, the best thing you could do would probably be to build small ones; ships lighter, quicker, and more capable of navigating rivers."

But Chesterton understood something that Boyd never learned, an aspect of warfare that's so often forgotten today that the very word for it seems quaint--chivalry. Perhaps his best explanation of chivalry came in a 1906 article explaining why the Europe of his day dominated the world. Again Chesterton described a concept dear to Boyd, the power that comes from an ability to think new thoughts and imagine new ways of acting.

"The elements that make Europe upon the whole the most humanitarian civilisation are precisely the elements that make it upon the whole the strongest. For the power which makes a man able to entertain a good impulse is the same as that which enables him to make a good gun; it is imagination."

Boyd thought like a fighter pilot. He would have us understand a man in order to destroy him, knowing that a foe who's blown out of the air will never trouble you again. As a writer, Chesterton had a different perspective. He believed that understanding leads to restraint, writing in that same article: "For if you do not understand a man you cannot crush him. And if you do understand him, very probably you will not."

Chesterton saw conflict in broad terms. When he clashed with H. G. Wells over the latter's infatuation with a World State or with Bernard Shaw over pacifism, he took the time to understand what each was saying. His criticisms of the dangers and weakness of international institutions are among the best ever written. His description of the pacifist personality is so accurate that it applies with near perfection to today's pacifists. But having gotten into the mind of his opponent, he recognized in him a fellow human being. With few exceptions, he retained the respect and even friendship of his foes. Only when one crossed a critical line, demonstrating that without great pain he was beyond redemption, would Chesterton seek to crush him to prevent the evil he intended. What was for Boyd the rule, destroying anyone who disagree with him, was for Chesterton the rare exception. Boyd needs to be tempered with Chesterton

In short, I'd suggest that, as you read what Boyd said about war and conflict, you also read what Chesterton wrote. You'll accomplish a lot more and suffer far less grief if you do. And as you might suspect, I wrote a book on that topic, a collection of Chesterton's best articles on war and peace paying particular attention to his warnings about Germany. And when the necessity arose, Chesterton could be as tough-minded as Boyd. Chesterton used all his powers as a writer to crush those ideas in the German mind that Nazism would later exploit.

--Michael W. Perry, editor of Chesterton on War and Peace: Battling the Ideas and Movements that Led to Nazism and World War II
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