Category Archives: Interviews

Commodore Dudley Wright Knox – Sailor, Writer, Sage

By Christopher Nelson

The U.S. Naval Institute’s popular and well-reviewed 21st Century Foundation series continues to grow. This past May, Dr. David Kohnen added to the list with his 21st Century Knox: Influence, Sea Power, and History for the Modern Era. 

Captain Dudley W. Knox as a member of the "Planning Section" of the "London Flagship" headquarters of the Commander, U.S. Naval Forces in Europe, Admiral William S. Sims. Having arrived in London for Christmas in 1917, Knox synthesized operations with intelligence by organizing future planning efforts within the headquarters. (U.S. Navy Photograph)
Captain Dudley W. Knox as a member of the “Planning Section” of the “London Flagship” headquarters of the Commander, U.S. Naval Forces in Europe, Admiral William S. Sims. Having arrived in London for Christmas in 1917, Knox synthesized operations with intelligence by organizing future planning efforts within the headquarters. (U.S. Navy Photograph)

In a review published on CIMSEC back in August, Captain Dale Rielage, USN, said that “Knox offers an example of how an officer with ideas and the willingness to challenge the status quo can have a profound influence on the U.S. Navy.” To learn more about Commodore Knox, and how he challenged naval thinking, I talked with Dr. Kohnen about his new book. 

Finally, I am excited to tell you that Dr. Kohnen has provided us with pictures of Commodore Knox and Admirals King and Sims that have never been published. They are published here for the first time.

Professor Kohnen, welcome. Thanks for taking the time to talk about your new book. So, to start, why did you want to write a book about Knox?  

Chris, thank you, I greatly appreciate this opportunity to discuss Commodore Dudley W. Knox. Indeed, I firmly believe that Knox stands among the most significant naval thinkers in American history. His ideas truly resonate, as the themes he addressed in his historical work during the first fifty years of the twentieth century informed the development of the U.S. Navy “second to none.” Through his close personal associations with President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King, Knox became one of the key architects in designing the foundations of U.S. Navy professional military education, in understanding American naval history and traditions, and in advancing the idea of employing the U.S. Navy as an international peacemaker. Knox remains one of the most important figures in understanding American concepts of “sea power” thorough two world wars and into the Cold War era.  From my own studies of his life and historical works, I firmly believe that Knox offered strategic observations on concepts of maritime strategy, which transcend into the twenty-first century. I also firmly believe that our Navy should revisit the ideas Knox offers in his writings in order to be better informed of the historical foundations, which have shaped contemporary discussions concerning the future of American sea power and the military policy of the United States.

(Previously Unpublished) U.S. Navy Captain Ernest J. King worked closely with Knox and the London Flagship staff to coordinate Atlantic Fleet operations with intelligence. After 1917, King temporarily served as Chief of Staff to the Commander, Atlantic Fleet, Admiral Henry T. Mayo. Drawing perspective from wartime experience, King collaborated with Knox to frame a U.S. Navy strategy for professional military education after the First World War.

Knox advised the strategic decision makers who created the U.S. Navy “second to none” and the post-imperial vision of replacing historical empires with multinational alliances under the United Nations. Given his close friendship with Roosevelt and King, I have come to view Knox as a figure perhaps comparable to a Thomas Cromwell, or the fictional consigliore from the Godfather movie, as depicted by the Hollywood actor Robert Duvall. By the way, Knox was also a mentor for Duvall’s father, Commodore William H. Duvall, who served in destroyers in both the Atlantic and Pacific during the Second World War.

I first became aware of Knox as I was working on my dissertation, which focused on Ernest J. King. In the process of writing, I started reconstructing the circle of personalities surrounding King in order to understand the bureaucratic culture and primary group dynamics, which characterized the social character of the U.S. Navy during the first fifty years of the twentieth century. As I am sure you know, the story of Ernest J. King begins during the reconstruction era after the Civil War. He eventually served as Chief of Staff of the Atlantic Fleet during the First World War. Among King’s best friends and closest shipmates was a guy named Dudley Wright Knox. Of course, Knox and King shared a deep interest in history. 

Knox had ties with historical figures in American military history. His father was a general officer in the Army, and he had relatives in the service going all the way back to the American Revolutionary period. So Knox is already one of these people who is inclined to think in historical terms.  

Then I started mapping out his associations. I’m an intelligence officer in the Navy. So in the same way you do that as an intelligence officer, I began doing that with these historical figures. When you look at the association between King and Knox you start to see other associations. You begin to then see the connection between King, Knox, Nimitz, and then Halsey, Spruance, and the whole gang.  So you have this close circle of naval officers who periodically bumped into each other during their careers in the naval service.  

Now, in this circle of naval officers, Dudley Knox looms large in the discussion. Knox was a little bit older than the rest of them and he was so sharp minded that people like Ernest King would look to him for advice, perspective, and just good conversation. 

Of course, those were the days before distractions like television and the internet. These guys, then, spent their time focusing on their profession – reading the professional literature that should be read for people who want to think about strategy, naval operations, and the maritime dimension. These are books that unfortunately have become obscured in the contemporary context. You think about some of the things that Knox and his contemporaries were reading, people like John Knox Laughton and Spencer Wilkinson. These guys were aware of Corbett long before anyone else was aware of Corbett. They are an interesting group of people. That’s why I started gravitating to Commodore Knox. 

Knox, however, was not my main focus in my PhD studies — my focus was Ernest King. But now I had all these “left-overs,” the cutting room types of material after I finished the dissertation on King. And all that extra material was there, so I wrote a paper that I gave at the Oceanic Society of History Conference. On the panel was Claude Berube and B.J. Armstrong. I gave this paper about Knox, and shortly after I finished B.J. slipped me a note. B.J. wrote, “You need to write the book on Knox.” I looked at him and was like, ‘OK, whatever.’ After the conference we went to the pub and B.J. told me about the 21st Century Series and its focus. He convinced me that what I had on Knox would work quite well within the context of the 21st Century Series. It came together relatively quickly because I already knew a lot of things about Knox that simply didn’t exist in the secondary literature — and still doesn’t exist. I’m pretty happy how this little piece came together. It was a great way of bringing Knox back to the 21st century professional naval audience. 

And we are not done with Knox. Once I get some other things done, it is my full intention to go back and do something more substantial about Knox. He certainly deserves a focused biography for all the work that he did and the influence that he had, which I highlight in the collection, specifically his associations with Ernest King and Franklin Roosevelt.

Retired Captain Dudley W. Knox presents President Franklin D. Roosevelt with the final volume of an edited collection official naval records relating to U.S. Navy strategy and operations during the undeclared War with France between 1798 and 1801. After four years work, Roosevelt and Knox worked together to complete these volumes by 1938. Roosevelt insisted upon referring to the "Quasi-War" with France, much to the chagrin of Knox. However, Roosevelt specifically chose this phrase for the title of the work, as the underlying point of the work centered upon how he intended to employ the U.S. Navy in support of American neutrality strategy before the Second World War. Together, Roosevelt and Knox used history to inform American naval strategy in both peace and war.
Retired Captain Dudley W. Knox presents President Franklin D. Roosevelt with the final volume of an edited collection official naval records relating to U.S. Navy strategy and operations during the undeclared War with France between 1798 and 1801. After four years work, Roosevelt and Knox worked together to complete these volumes by 1938. Roosevelt insisted upon referring to the “Quasi-War” with France, much to the chagrin of Knox. However, Roosevelt specifically chose this phrase for the title of the work, as the underlying point of the work centered upon how he intended to employ the U.S. Navy in support of American neutrality strategy before the Second World War. Together, Roosevelt and Knox used history to inform American naval strategy in both peace and war.

I assume it is difficult as an editor to decide what to include in a book and what not to include, particularly if a subject is a prolific writer. How did you go about making those decisions?

That’s an interesting question. So, Commander B.J. Armstrong is the editor of the series, and we’re also good friends. I’m prolific in terms of, well, I like to use a lot of words to say things. And I like to use footnotes and I like to explore every avenue in my analysis. That results in large manuscripts. B.J. was draconian as an editor in executing the sixty-thousand word limit. That really constrained me in terms of what I could do in terms of Knox. We actually cut two essays that I wanted to include just to make sure the pieces fit within the context of the 21st Century Series.  

So the balance of putting together Knox’s biographical details, which are not out there in the secondary literature, there’s no real comprehensive biography of Knox available to us – so for the time being, at least, this book is a starting point for a detailed biography, which needs to be written. And if somebody else doesn’t do it I’m going to do it once I get King off my plate. When you think about editing and the choices that you have to make, what I did is I focused on the themes that the CNO is focusing on with his “Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority.” I also considered pieces in light of some of the discussions that are ongoing here at the U.S. Naval War College, contemporary questions of American maritime strategy, naval leadership, ethics (but Knox always talked about the “naval ethos” opposed to ethics), and I think those differences are worthy of discussion. Knox also strongly talked about the importance of understanding the foundations of history in order to frame contemporary discussions about the future. He wrote about these themes. The way he did it was so profoundly unique that Knox remains worthy of consideration in the contemporary context. So, when I assembled these essays I followed those points when selecting the essays in the book.

My favorite essay is actually the last one. It turns out in my mind as the most interesting within the contemporary context. He’s talking about the problem of unification among the services. He’s writing at the time of the revolt of the admirals, which was just erupting. And there all of these problems between the Army and the Navy. The Air Force was newly created; the armed forces security agency; the Central Intelligence Agency; all these new things that came after World War Two. Knox is reeling against the tide as the future was being mapped out. I think Knox was a little bit reluctant to embrace these new ideas because he was still looking at things from the perspective of the past. He understood the problems that came with the bureaucratic changes that happened after the Second World War, which, from Knox’s point of view really didn’t measure up in terms of American ways of war — the American tradition of having a clearly defined civilian command over the military. Knox was worried about a progressive military industrialization of American culture. He wrote about this.  

After that last essay, Knox sort of said ‘look, we need to rethink how we are talking about problems of war.’ And he did talk about the importance of how navies are different from armies, and that armies require naval support. Armies are there to conduct operations ashore to achieve an effect ashore. But armies and navies are different, they operate in different environments, and both need airpower to conduct those operations.

So when you follow Knox’s logic he is saying this separation of an air force is a really bad idea. It creates another bureaucracy. As a result you are going to create more flag billets and you are going to see more investment, not less investment, in the military. Knox is reeling against that. Then he does this nice comparison of “Hey if I build an aircraft carrier it is going to last 40 years, you can use it for multiple functions, and use it during peacetime. Rather than if you build a fleet of bombers where its only function is going to be useful if you need to drop a bomb.” Knox did not agree with that sort of approach.   

Are there other Knox writings that didn’t make it into the 21st Century Knox but should be read as well?

Dudley Knox was prolific. B.J. and I would go around and around about which essays should go in the book. So like I said earlier, the important part was zeroing in on themes that are immediate interest to the contemporary U.S. Naval professional. That sort of dictated how we were going to put together this little collection. When I compiled the essay that were selected, I focused on the questions of strategy, doctrine, leadership, and of course, the ethos of American naval service. The one thing that I would say that is important in the process of selecting the essays, is that Knox and his associates had this perspective that the naval service has multiple functions. It is not just war. I think Knox would have a problem with contemporary words like “warfighter” because it is too specific. Knox would have reminded us that the Navy is always operational rather if we are at peace or at war. So when you look at his essay titled “Naval Power as a Preserver of Neutrality and Peace,” it is an important essay because he is basically riffing off an essay Teddy Roosevelt published in 1914 titled “Our Navy, Peace Maker.” Now, these themes are important because it is a way of thinking about military service that is different than some of the conversations that we have here in the contemporary era. For example, when you look at their careers, Knox’s generation, coming out of the naval academy at the beginning of the 20th Century, they remained in the naval service for the remainder of their lives. Knox even served in retired status as director of naval history until his death.  

(Previously Unpublished) Dudley W. Knox requested transfer to the retired list of the U.S. Navy, seeking to broaden U.S. Navy efforts to engage the American public in understanding the influence of sea power upon history. During the 1920s and 1930s, Knox helped organize historical research and preservation efforts within the Navy Department. In this role, he also remained heavily involved with the Office of Naval Intelligence. Fusing historical research with efforts to meet contemporary challenges, Knox served as a trusted personal adviser to President Franklin. D. Roosevelt. The painting behind him is that of a destroyer escorting a convoy during the First World War. During the war, Knox was heavily involved in convoy operations.
(Previously Unpublished) Dudley W. Knox requested transfer to the retired list of the U.S. Navy, seeking to broaden U.S. Navy efforts to engage the American public in understanding the influence of sea power upon history. During the 1920s and 1930s, Knox helped organize historical research and preservation efforts within the Navy Department. In this role, he also remained heavily involved with the Office of Naval Intelligence. Fusing historical research with efforts to meet contemporary challenges, Knox served as a trusted personal adviser to President Franklin. D. Roosevelt. The painting behind him is that of a destroyer escorting a convoy during the First World War. During the war, Knox was heavily involved in convoy operations.

When you put together the chronology of some of these guys’ naval careers, and the numbers they spent fighting wars, it only adds up to about eight years. So what are they doing during this other time? So here you have people serving, this idea of service, the ethos of naval service, over a sixty odd year period, and their orientation is not to go find a war but to find ways to avoid a war through sea power. And of course this ties into the theories of Mahan and Luce at the end of the 19th century. Of course, their perspectives reflected an informed understanding of John Knox Laughton’s work, Spencer Wilkinson, Alfred Mahan, and others. 

Dudley Knox had some well-known mentors. Who were they and how did they influence him?  Knox, if I understood correctly, was concerned that there will be some challenges if you have a U.S. Air Force trying to support a naval surface force. He had some concerns about an independent air force. This was in a time when discussions of creating a U.S. Air Force sounded quite contentious. Was he concerned that air force aviators wouldn’t understand naval operations and vice versa?

The problem here centers on the question of who controls what. Knox observed post-World War I events, for example, the Washington Naval Treaty. Those events inspired Knox to write his first substantial book called “The Eclipse of American Sea Power.” He’s reeling against the fact that the average American policy maker is not educated enough to understand what they were doing when they were cutting the Fleet. After that fight in 1923, Billy Mitchell arrives and is fixated in creating an American equivalent to the British Royal Air Force, and Knox is reeling against this during his whole career because Knox is saying that the army needs airpower as much as the Navy needs airpower. But airpower for the sake of airpower is nothing. We don’t need a separate air force, he says. That’s Knox’s position for the remainder of his career.

Knox, I was interested to read, was quite the historian. In fact, one of your selections is his piece titled “Forgetting the Lessons of History.” And in my copy of your book, I underlined a section where he says he was quite frustrated with the lack of accessibility to naval archives — in particular, private collectors upset him. Why?

Knox recognized that private collectors are a major source of material that really doesn’t belong to them. They may have paid for it and they might have acquired these items for investment purposes, but from Knox’s point of view these items belonged to the nation. He became very frustrated with some of them because they liked to hang the painting on the wall or have the original commission of John Paul Jones just sitting there on the fire mantle, and Knox said that something like that does not belong on your mantle piece. It belongs to the Navy and to the nation. Through the good offices of FDR a lot of these pieces were acquired by the Navy at Navy expense for the purpose of preservation. And I must say, in the contemporary context, we have a lot of work to do in that front.

On Knox’s writings on naval leadership, he seems, at least to me, to have a reasonable position on naval ceremonies and etiquette. Why did he think that over-emphasizing naval etiquette was more dangerous than under-emphasizing it?  

I think over-emphasizing on anything can be dangerous. Knox is trying to say we should be proud of our naval service and celebrate our traditions. We have to live up to the image that we want to paint for ourselves as naval professionals — that’s what he is trying to say. Etiquette for Knox does not equate to naval proficiency. For instance, you could still wear white gloves and wear a sharp naval uniform but be a terrible naval officer. That’s what he is saying. You look at some of the things we emphasize in the contemporary context: can you do enough push-ups, can you run a mile and half in the right amount of time? Knox would have said ‘that’s ridiculous – who cares?’ Knox would have said if the guy can do the job and do it well, and if they are willing to serve, and as long as they are medically fit to be under-way, I don’t care if he has a beer-belly. If he is a good sailor then he is a good sailor – and he is a shipmate. So what are we doing throwing people out that are good sailors. That’s what Knox would have said. I’m channeling his ghost as I speak. There are these superfluous bureaucratic things that Knox and his generation would be reeling against – general training, that sort of stuff. You can follow the manual all day, but you are still not going to get it, in terms of being a naval professional.

When he is talking leadership, what he is saying is ‘look, if you are getting into the weeds, the details of some poor enlisted man’s job, you are not being a leader, you are trying to be an enlisted man. Let the enlisted people do the jobs that they’ve been assigned and develop a sense of teamwork.’ He would have said you have to develop that sense of cohesion and common vision.

As a historian yourself, I want to talk a bit about your writing and research process. Where did you end up going to do most of your research on Knox? 

As an analyst, I looked at his associations, and from there I looked at repositories where papers might be that make references that refer to Knox. The U.S. Naval Academy, The Nimitz Library has some great material, the Library of Congress has a gold mine of material. There’ papers in the National Archives from his official work that are hard to find, but they’re there. And of course, at the U.S. Naval War College, we have a substantial collection of interesting papers that relate to Knox and his associates. Specifically, the post-war efforts to develop professional military education standards under the Knox-King-Pye board. It was Dudley Knox and his associate Tracey Barrett Kitridge who helped Sims expand the library collection at the U.S. Naval War College from roughly 1,000 books to over 45,000 books within about a three year period – breaking all the rules and regulations required to get the job done.

(Previously Unpublished) Commander, U.S. Naval Forces in Europe, Admiral William S. Sims, salutes with the Commander, Atlantic Fleet, Admiral Henry T. Mayo, with their chiefs of staffs on board the flagship of the Atlantic Fleet, USS Pennsylvania (BB-38). After the armistice in November of 1918, Sims and Mayo assumed four star rank. Their close collaboration during the First World War provided the template for headquarters ashore to support future U.S. Navy operations at sea. Together, the staffs serving under Sims and Mayo pioneered contemporary concepts of joint and combined naval command.
(Previously Unpublished) Commander, U.S. Naval Forces in Europe, Admiral William S. Sims, salutes with the Commander, Atlantic Fleet, Admiral Henry T. Mayo, with their chiefs of staffs on board the flagship of the Atlantic Fleet, USS Pennsylvania (BB-38). After the armistice in November of 1918, Sims and Mayo assumed four star rank. Their close collaboration during the First World War provided the template for headquarters ashore to support future U.S. Navy operations at sea. Together, the staffs serving under Sims and Mayo pioneered contemporary concepts of joint and combined naval command.

The Knox-King-Pye board was another piece that I was unable to fit in this collection. I make some references to it other areas. One of the big things the board highlighted, and the reason it caused so much controversy, is that the board concluded that your average U.S. Navy flag officer was only educated to the lowest commissioned grade. If you think about that, in 1919 they are making the assertion that the average American naval professional went to the naval academy, graduated, became ensigns, and that’s the last time they had any education besides the life at sea. What Knox, King, and Pye concluded was one of the problems in the navy was the poor education of high ranking admirals. One of the people they had in mind when they wrote this was Hugh Rodman, who commanded a battleship division in the First World War. Rodman celebrated the fact that he didn’t read Clausewitz and Jomini – he thought he was just a darn good sailor. King and Knox thought he was a dullard. So in essence what Knox, King, and Pye are trying to do is say, ‘hey, flag officer, you might have the rank, but we are smarter than you.’

Also, as a writer and historian, how did you decide to organize this book? How do you organize your notes and thoughts when you are writing?   

I studied with Carl Boyd and the late Craig Cameron at Old Dominion University a long time ago – and both of them had different writing methods. First and foremost as a methodological point, I was conditioned by people like Carl and Craig to study the works of great historians like Michael Howard and Peter Paret. I have been so fortunate in my past studies, as Carl personally made it possible for me to interact with Peter Paret, John Keegan, and Admiral Bobby Inman. Because of Carl, I also had the opportunity to work with and develop close friendships with historians like the late Jürgen Rohwer and Edward L. “Ned” Beach.

Since my studies at Old Dominion all those years ago, I have subsequently had the unique privilege of studying under the immediate supervision of John Hattendorf at the Naval War College and Andrew Lambert at the University of London, King’s College. Hattendorf and Lambert loom very large as inspirations for the type of historian I would like to be. Michael Howard also inspires me to focus on the human dimension, as I consider the strange phenomenon of war. If anything, my studies of past wars have convinced me that contemporary strategic thinkers ought to take the approach that, unlike armies or air forces, Knox argued that navies provided unique means, “not to make war but to preserve peace, not to be predatory, but to shield the free development of commerce, not to unsettle the world, but to stabilize it through the promotion of law and order.”

From my education as a historian, I strive to employ the method that is more closely associated with Leopold von Ranke. Through primary archival research and documentary history, I try to replicate the conditions of the time in order to understand why people acted in the way that they did at the time. I strive not to superimpose 21st century concepts upon personalities like Knox or King. I’m trying to understand why they did things in 1919 within the context of 1919. I do take sort of a broadly humanistic approach in examining historical questions.

Now, it does cause some problems for me, because I was not actually there in 1919 and I will never actually get to meet people like Knox or King. By reading their papers and by placing them into their proper historical context, however, I must say that one can get a visceral sense of what made them tick (so to speak). Since they were able to navigate the unforeseeable cybernetic challenges of technology and the collapse of empires during the unprecedented upheaval of two world wars, I must say that Knox and King would certainly have something to say about the contemporary challenges we face in the twenty-first century.

When I’m talking to contemporary strategic thinkers at the Naval War College, I also have to help them understand why the past is still important within the contemporary context. Obviously, I want people to read my writing. So, one of the challenges is to make it such that these people that are no longer with us – people like Knox and King – that they resonate with contemporary readers. I look for things that provide connections to the contemporary reader, which of course helps us discussions about the future. 

I begin with that methodology. I pick people to focus on and then I look for their papers. Of course, I try to read everything I can possibly get my hands on about these people. There’s not much on Knox, unfortunately. Soon you realize that you are dealing with these complicated personalities — and you are dealing with myths in the historiography, all the while trying to figure out what made these people tick. The more you know the more complicated it gets. You have to be disciplined to focus on the themes that are the most important to understanding the person you are dealing with, but also how that person continues to be important to the contemporary reader.

Once I have all my information together I’ll rough out an outline of the themes that I want to hit on. Those then become your chapter headings, and then each chapter has its own focus. Next, you do your best to try to tie all the chapters together into a comprehensive narrative with a strong opening argument in the beginning and a strong conclusion in the end, telling the reader what it means.

My last questions have to do with Knox’s legacy. What do you think, if anything, he anticipated as future challenges for the U.S. Navy? And second, what is the single most important thing you want readers to takeaway from Knox’s work?

Knox is part of that generation of naval officers who followed the vision of the “navy second to none.” He did it through two world wars and he did it during peacetime in efforts to avoid wars in the first place. Arguably, the navy you have today is the navy that Knox and his associates built. If we don’t recognize that then we run the risk of losing what they built. I would argue that Knox is with us everyday when a U.S. Navy warship gets underway. If anything, I would hope that contemporary U.S. Naval professionals just take some time to think about the rich history and traditions of our service. In some respects I am channeling the ghosts of Knox and King in stating that I firmly believe that we must recognize our responsibility of being the curators and caretakers of our U.S. Navy for the future interests of American seapower and in framing an informed approach to the future military policy of the United States. As an aside, I was pleased the other day that they got rid of the blue navy working uniforms. It was a uniform that Knox would have taken time to write about in a negative way. It would be great to see us get back into proper naval uniforms.

 Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz congratulating Commodore Dudley W. Knox with a Legion of Merit in 1946. During the Second World War, Knox returned to active status with assignment to the staff of the Chief of Naval Operations and Commander in Chief, U.S. Navy (CominCh). In this capacity, Knox served at large as a strategic adviser to President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King. Through their good offices, Knox established the Office of Naval History as a coequal branch of the Office of Naval Intelligence on the Operations Navy (OpNav) staff. For this service, King nominated Knox for promotion to commodore in 1945. The following year, the postwar Chief of Naval Operations, Nimitz, recognized Knox with the Legion of Merit Medal to mark his return to retired status. Nevertheless, Knox continued working within the Office of Naval History until his death in 1960.

Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz congratulating Commodore Dudley W. Knox with a Legion of Merit in 1946. During the Second World War, Knox returned to active status with assignment to the staff of the Chief of Naval Operations and Commander in Chief, U.S. Navy (CominCh). In this capacity, Knox served at large as a strategic adviser to President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King. Through their good offices, Knox established the Office of Naval History as a coequal branch of the Office of Naval Intelligence on the Operations Navy (OpNav) staff. For this service, King nominated Knox for promotion to commodore in 1945. The following year, the postwar Chief of Naval Operations, Nimitz, recognized Knox with the Legion of Merit Medal to mark his return to retired status. Nevertheless, Knox continued working within the Office of Naval History until his death in 1960. 

I am chagrined that some bureaucrat, probably sitting in a cubicle in the Pentagon, decided to abandon centuries of naval tradition by abandoning our enlisted rating system in favor of the air force and army models of focusing on rank. The rating system was really emphasized by Rear Admiral Stephen B. Luce who thought that military rank was ancillary to the mastery of a more focused professional trade, such as the quartermaster masters of navigation, the boatswain masters of seamanship, and the medical master corpsmen. If it is the last thing I do, our navy will someday return to its historical roots and develop a better understanding of why our U.S. Navy became what it now is within the contemporary context.  

Nobody knows what the future holds, but historical understanding provides means to anticipate and adapt to the unforeseeable future. Historians frequently face challenges in dealing with people who are more interested in bureaucratic routines, or mathematically framed engineering processes, or empirically clear solutions. Historians are unable to do this, because they do not tend to offer clear answers in black and white terms. All they can really do is offer contemporary strategic decision makers an informed perspective or a recommendation for a given course of action. Historians can only stand upon the foundations provided by historical understanding, but are not very good at articulating their ideas within the contemporary context as the engineers, lawyers, politicians, and policy-types tend to dominate the contemporary discussions of future strategy.  

Basically, I think it is important for us as naval professionals to consistently seek an informed understanding of the past in order to know in clear terms the influence of history upon seapower and in shaping the future military policy of the United States.

Dr. Kohnen, thanks so much for taking the time to chat. All the best to you.

Thank You, Chris. I enjoyed it.

David Kohnen earned a PhD with the Laughton Professor of Naval History at the University of London (Kings College London). As a maritime historian, he concentrates on naval strategy, organizations, and organizational group dynamics. Focusing on these general themes, he edited the works of Commodore Dudley W. Knox to examine historical foundations in contemporary maritime affairs in, 21st Century Knox: Influence, Sea Power, and History for the Modern Era (Naval Institute Press, 2016). In his previous book, Kohnen focused on the transatlantic alliance between the British Empire and United States in, Commanders Winn and Knowles: Winning the U-Boat War with Intelligence (Enigma Press, 1999).

Outside of his scholarly work, Kohnen’s naval service in the active and reserve ranks include two deployments afloat in Middle Eastern waters, two ashore in Iraq, and one supporting landlocked operations in Afghanistan. Balancing work as a Naval War College civil service instructor, Kohnen also serves in the U.S. Naval Reserve with the Executive Programs faculty at  the National Intelligence University in Washington, D.C. The comments and opinions in this interview are his own and do not represent the opinions of the U.S Navy or the U.S. Department of Defense.

Christopher Nelson is a U.S. Naval Intelligence Officer currently stationed in the Pacific. The questions and comments above are his personal opinions and do not reflect the opinions of the U.S. Navy or the U.S. Department of Defense.

Talking Strategy with Richard Bailey Jr., James Forsyth Jr., and Mark Yeisley

By LCDR Christopher D. Nelson, USN

U.S. Air War College Professors Richard Bailey Jr., James Forsyth Jr., and Mark Yeisley recently published an eclectic book of essays on strategy. The book, Strategy: Context and Adaption from Archidamus to Airpowercontains eleven essays that span strategic topics–from cyber warfare to irregular warfare. This book, then, has a little bit of everything packed into 320 pages. The editors, interviewed over email, took the time to talk about their new book and the nature of strategic thinking. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Strategy: Context and Adaptation from Archidamus to Airpower, edited by, Richard J. Bailey Jr., James W. Forsyth Jr., & Mark D. Yeisley. (U.S. Naval Institute Press)

Gentlemen, welcome. Thank you for joining us to talk about your new book. I want to start off with a question for all of you. Of the eleven essays in the book–and all by different contributors–which one was your favorite? And why? 

Bailey: I have to give an unsatisfying answer to this, unfortunately, and not because I am trying to spare anyone’s feelings. After two years of working on this book, I freely admit that I love each chapter in different ways and for different reasons. I do think that Professor Dolman’s opening chapter is foundational for the chapters that follow it.

Forsyth: That’s a good question. I am a theory guy so I am naturally drawn to theoretical pieces–Dolman’s stands out as particularly interesting. However, I thoroughly enjoyed Rich Muller’s piece, which orbits around the importance of history and the teaching of strategy. I feel a bit of pressure here as I generally enjoyed them all. The book has a certain uneven quality, as collections often do, but I think that gives it a certain charm–there is something here for everyone.       

Yeisley: I would definitely say that the Bailey essay on thinking strategically on cyberspace and cyber power was my favorite, because of the framing he used to describe the tensions that exist within this realm. Balancing classical ideals of liberty versus order, the dichotomy that exists between cooperation and isolationism, and the question of choice between transparency and privacy are all social tensions that will remain so well into the near future. 

Professor Bailey, as you are probably well aware, and as one of the contributors mentions early on in the book, there are literally thousands of books on strategy. Where does your book fit in this discussion? Or maybe a better question is, does your book cover areas of strategy that are under appreciated in other works? 

Bailey: Most contemporary literature on strategy focuses on applications for business, and many suggest that a blueprint exists for strategic thinking and implementation. At worst, we may tend to seek out a cookie-cutter model and use that for all strategic problems.  In our opinion, we have to fight the human tendency to find a one-size-fits-all panacea for strategic challenges. Thus, we insist that strategic thinking requires a widening of one’s own intellectual aperture to consider different perspectives and assumptions. This helps us to improve our understanding of the strategic environment, and to become more cognitively flexible in the face of uncertainty. In my opinion, this is our most important contribution to the existing literature on strategy.

Professor Bailey, in your essay titled “Four Dimensions to the Digital Debate: How Should We Think Strategically About Cyberspace and Cyberpower?” you raise some important topics. There is one topic I’d like to focus on. You ask the question: “Are our existing military and governmental structures sufficient for both optimizing its possible strengths and defending against malicious attacks?” So, if you had the authority and the money to reorganize or create cyber organizations, what would they look like in the future? Do you envision a Cyber Combatant Command? Is it something else? 

Bailey: That is a great question. I do consider cyberspace to be a ‘domain’ where the military is concerned, but recognize that there are many more stakeholders outside the military. As opposed to operations in the physical domains (land, sea, air and space), cyberspace operations require a different set of assumptions, particularly regarding our previous focus on elements such as time and distance. As our military forces become more dependent on access to cyberspace for efficiency and effectiveness, I think there will be a strong argument for making CYBERCOM a functional Combatant Command, much like we did with Special Operations Command. I also think discussions of a separate cyber service will continue, particularly as the desire for independently minded cyber professionals gets stronger. 

Professor Forsyth, you wrote an essay titled “The Realist As Strategist: A Critique.” This is a broad question, but I believe it is an important one. What do you think makes a “good” strategist? While you offer a critique of realism in your piece, I am curious if you believe there is a way in which one sees the world that tends to make for skilled strategist. To be clear, when I use words like a “good” or a “skilled” strategist, let us say for the sake of discussion that these people are able to formulate a strategy that achieves a successful end state.  

Forsyth: Another very important question and one with no easy answer. As is made plain in the book, the SAASS faculty have many ideas regarding the meaning of strategy. So many in fact that some time ago I decided to forgo a definition and focused instead on what strategists do. So, let me ask you: what do strategists do? In its simplest sense, strategists attempt to solve puzzles and place bets. The key word there is ‘attempt.’ As we know, some puzzles cannot be solved and, therefore, ought to be avoided. Deciphering which puzzles can be solved and gauging the costs of attempting to solve them are key elements of any good strategist. Now, how do we develop that sort of a mind? For one thing, one must read deeply and widely. Strategy is an interdisciplinary enterprise and one field alone does not hold the key. Second, one must develop the ability to build bridges across a wide body of what might look like unconnected knowledge. One must see the relationships that exist between history, theory, science, economics, etc, in order to ascertain what is to be done. In doing so one develops a bone deep sense of humility, something in short supply these days.

As to a way of thinking that serves strategy best–realism is a tradition worth defending. It has a rich history and its descriptions about the nature of international politics is a good place to start one’s education. However, it should not stop there, as I mentioned.  

Professor Forsyth, a short follow up. Do you believe that modern wars, namely those from the 19th century to today, start with moral considerations in mind, yet because we are human and emotional beings, that the realist inevitably comes to the forefront as leader and strategist? Does realism often consume moralism in strategic development and planning? If so, why? 

Forsyth: The tension between justice and necessity is as old as politics itself, and it will never go away. What I have become convinced of is this: even when the demands of justice and the demands of necessity conflict, as they so often do, one need not eschew all calls for justice. The relentless pursuit of interest can lead to a bad end, as I try to make clear in my short chapter in the book. What ‘consumes’ the Athenians is the growing realism of their policies, not the other way around. There is a lesson there: a strategy based solely on the pursuit of interest can be as dangerous as one based solely on moral concerns–the two hang together or should, as best they can.

Another question for the group. In your opinion, today, who is writing about strategy, whether on historical case studies or contemporary strategic thought, that is worth reading?  

Bailey: In my opinion, some of the most useful works on strategy today are those that explore how and why we think the way we do. Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow is a good example. We cannot think about crafting, implementing, or evaluating strategies unless we first gain a respect for our own cognitive habits.  Some of those habits provide intellectual opportunities, while others present challenges and pitfalls to strategic thinking. Let me also say that there are some classics reflecting many of those same teachings. Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War contains concepts that, even 2,500 years later, are useful for today’s strategists.    

“Seeing Like A State,” by James C. Scott. (Google Books)

Forsyth: I just finished reading James Scott’s Seeing Like a StateI commend it to anyone interested in strategy and understanding the limits of what states can and cannot do. I also have Stephan Jay Gould’s magnum opus The Structure of Evolutionary Theory on my desk as summer reading–as my colleagues will tell you, it has been sitting there for a long time. I’ve always been intrigued by his ideas regarding change and the natural world and I am trying to ascertain the usefulness of his ideas and political change.

"Strategy," by Lawrence Freedman/Image: Google Books
“Strategy,” by Lawrence Freedman. (Google Books)

Yeisley: I just finished Lawrence Freedman’s Strategy: A History, and found it an excellent piece for both the professional strategist and anyone casually interested in a comprehensive history of strategic thought. It begins with the earliest origins of strategy among primates, then moves through Biblical times, into ancient Greek and Chinese thoughts on the subject, and in theory and from practical experience. The book travels through time at breakneck speed and finishes off with a view of strategy from the business world, which is a fairly modern concept in terms of books on the subject. One of its primary questions is also one of the most basic: is it truly possible to manipulate one’s environment to maximum advantage, or do we all remain vulnerable to the vagaries of our adversaries and surroundings? 

You each get to have one historical strategist over for dinner. Who’s coming?  And what would want to ask them? 

Bailey: I would invite Andy Marshall. Marshall served as the head of the Office of Net Assessment at the Pentagon from 1973 to 2015, and is credited with much of the long-term strategic thinking that advantaged the U.S. during the Cold War. I’d pick his brain about his intellectual habits, and about how he mentored those around him to serve in strategic roles.

“Admiral Bull Halsey: A Naval Life,” by Thomas Hughes. (Google Books)

Forsyth: Well, that is an interesting question. Another book I’ve just finished reading is Thomas Hughes’ Biography of Admiral Bill Halsey, Admiral Bill Halsey: A Naval Life. Another one I easily commend to all. Halsey was making Naval strategy at a time when the modern Navy was coming of age. His exploits in the Pacific theater seem particularly germane today and I’d like to ask him, ‘what do you think?’

Yeisley: I would resurrect a strategist whose life came to an end all too soon–I would invite Thomas Edward Lawrence (aka Lawrence of Arabia) for a candid discussion of the basic concepts of irregular warfare from the Arab point of view. Lawrence was a fan of the indirect approach, and led his Arab forces in skirmishing attacks on thinly distributed Turkish forces along a major rail line. His words would have great worth in a time when the U.S. has spent billions fighting the same types of forces in Iraq and Afghanistan today. 

Professor Yeisley, in your essay, “Staying Regular? The Importance of Irregular Warfare to the Modern Strategist,” you state that some of the classical strategic thinkers and writers–like Sun Tzu and Clausewitz, for example, have something useful to say about irregular warfare.  How so? Is there one historical strategist you would recommend we read above all others when we are thinking about irregular warfare? 

Yeisley: If I had to choose one among the many classics on this subject, I would choose the writings of Mao Tse Tung as the one to read above all others. Mao created and then led an effort against the Chinese nationalists prior to WWII, adapted his tactics to fight against Japanese oppression, then adapted once again to ultimately win against his adversary and secure his place in Chinese history. While his ideology was anathema to the Western mind, his ability to train both his troops and the supporting civilian population to secure victories against armies far greater than his provides valuable lessons for strategists today.

Professor Yeisley, last question goes to you. In your essay you warn the reader that we need to be prepared for the “reality of future irregular warfare.” What advice would you give to those who must prepare for such a future?  

Yeisley: I would begin by acknowledging that the irregular warfare moniker may be somewhat of an anachronism these days. “Regular” warfare, whether it be interstate conflict or not, is becoming increasingly rare – whether that has to do with the rapid pace of global interconnectedness, or due to some other factors. The fact is that “irregular” warfare is becoming the norm.  That said, there seems to be little argument that this type of warfare will likely be the most prevalent in the next several decades at least. Yet the U.S. continues to prepare for conflict with a near-peer competitor, and sees China as the most likely to fit that bill. 

After over a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and spending billions on efforts in each of these states, we are still facing an uncertain future. More effort needs to be spent on identifying and addressing the causes of such conflict, and that will involve an effort that spans the gamut of U.S. instruments of power. Economic aid will be necessary to decrease poverty and improve the institutions necessary for future generations. Information campaigns will need to be improved to show the populations of these states our true intentions, and diplomacy must complement both these and military efforts to combat those diehards who insist on violence. But the stark reality is that such efforts will be costly and take a long time–and that will be the reality that is hardest to face for a nation whose public wants to win quick and go home.

Gentlemen, thank you so much for your time.

Richard J. Bailey Jr. is an associate professor of strategy and security studies, USAF School of Advanced Air and Space Studies, Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama. He holds a PhD from the Department of Government at Georgetown University. Rick is an active-duty U.S. Air Force colonel, with over 3,500 flight hours in various Air Force aircraft. His research interests include military strategy, cyber power, and civil-military relations. Rick will retire this fall and has been announced as the next president of Northern New Mexico College.

James W. Forsyth Jr. is the dean of the Air Command and Staff College at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama. He received his PhD in international studies from the Joseph Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver. While there he studied international and comparative politics, as well as security studies. His research interests are wide ranging, and he has written on great power conflict and war.

Mark O. Yeisley is a former USAF colonel and associate professor at the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies. He holds a PhD in international relations from Duke University. While on active duty he served in various operational and staff assignments, and he currently teaches for the Air Command and Staff College. His research interests include contemporary irregular war, ethnic and religious violence, and political geography.

LCDR Christopher Nelson, USN, is a naval intelligence officer and regular contributor to CIMSEC.  He is a graduate of the U.S. Naval War College and the Maritime Advanced Warfighting School (MAWS) in Newport, Rhode Island. The comments and questions above are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the US Department of Defense or the US Navy.

Featured Image: Chessboard (

A Conversation with Wargaming Grandmaster Dr. Phil Sabin

By LCDR Christopher Nelson, USN

If chess titles were appropriate, then Dr. Philip Sabin would certainly fall somewhere in the upper pantheon of wargamers. A Professor of Strategic Studies in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, Dr. Sabin is a gamer, a game designer, and a teacher with over thirty years of experience showing others how wargaming has practical use for military planning.

His new book, Simulating War, has a lot going for it. In his book, he talks about the history of wargaming, how to develop wargames, what works and what doesn’t, why wargames are an important part of military planning, and much more.

We had the chance to talk in detail about his book, wargaming, and what got him started many years ago. 

Prof. Sabin, welcome. Thanks for taking the time to talk with us about wargaming and your new book, Simulating War. What got you started in wargames?

When I was a child, like many children of that era, I collected toy soldiers and invented games with them. And then, I think I was about twelve years old, and at school a friend of mine had this book called Battle! Practical Wargaming by Charles Grant. This book was a revelation — the idea that you could have rules and do more than simply knock the soldiers down. I remember borrowing the book and copying all the rules overnight. That was the initial thing that got me started.

Simulating War: Studying Conflict Through Simulation Games, by Dr. Phil Sabin/Google Books
Simulating War: Studying Conflict Through Simulation Games, by Dr. Phil Sabin. (Google Books)

What do you think wargames can teach us about war?

Let me go back to my childhood experiences. Having started with this game about World War II tactical battles, I soon discovered there were other sets of rules out there for that period and other periods. In particular, there was a group of rules writers in Britain in the 60s and 70s called the Wargames Research Group. This group was made up of army veterans – they knew what war was about.  There was one particular game I played with their rules, a competition game, so it actually counted for something. My opposing player had set out his line, and I decided I was going to go for a clever tactic. So I had half my force opposing his main line, while the other half went around a neighboring wood. I was going to try to encircle him. I thought I was the greatest general in history. 

Unfortunately, that was when I discovered Clausewitzian friction. You see, going around the wood took a long time. And then I got bogged down in skirmishing when trying to encircle the enemy.  In short, my wonderful, clever plan fell apart because my holding force was overwhelmed before my turning force got there. So I realized it is not as simple as having a really clever plan. You have to think about “keep it simple stupid.”  Think about the time factor rather than just arrows on a map. Those sorts of lessons really showed me the potential of wargaming.

What advice would you give military planners when wargaming? 

Funnily enough I was talking to one of my research students last night about this very issue. He is doing his research on how armies use wargaming. Wargaming is often just done by going for the simplest, most accessible approach. The idea that you would use rules or dice is seen as silly. And in effect, it becomes “let’s just talk about the plan.” I think the key thing is to move beyond simple discussion of a plan to the explicit articulation of an active opponent. Now, already there is the concept of red teaming.  And basically that is ‘what if the enemy does this? Well then, OK, we’ll use our reserves to counter, and so on.’ That is certainly better than congratulating yourself as I was doing when I had my forces going around the wood. 

The problem with red teaming is that it is disconnected.  In reality, the enemy faces the same planning challenges your own force does. They need to come up with a coherent plan. They have to think about the dilemmas they face. One of the most important differences between wargaming and red teaming is that in wargaming you have someone playing the opposing side and trying to win. This is crucial. They are not just the loyal opposition going through the motions. They are really trying to beat you. And they’ve faced the dilemma that they have the same force, space, and time constraints as you do, but within that they have the freedom to operate. The opposing side will be really pleased if they win, but in fact it’s good if they win because it’s a wargame — it’s not reality. It’s very important that if you are going to have something go badly wrong, it is better for that to happen before you do the real thing and people are dying. That’s the most important component: to have enemies who are trying to win and who are thinking separately from your own side.

Let me give you one illustration how this really became clear to me. This is from a project I worked on with the British Army. It was a two sided game. Two forces were playing against one another, and one of them was using British forces and set up a textbook ambush.  They had the killing zone laid out, they had their holding forces ready, they had some tanks hidden in the wood ready to come in on the flank, and they were just waiting for the enemy to come into the killing zone where the decisive blow would be struck. And so they waited.  Then they asked “Where is he?” and “Why is he not coming?”  And then they realized, “Oh no! He is on the flank!” That really brought out that the enemy has a very important vote. That is where wargaming comes in. 

There are all sorts of mechanical issues that arise — whether to use dice, and so on. But frankly those are second order issues compared to having a team playing the opponent and trying to win. Red needs to be constrained, they can’t suddenly use forces in places that they don’t have them. But it is through wargaming a situation several times that you get a sense of the variety. A wargame is not an exercise. When you take troops out and you want to make sure they all get the training value, there needs to be a scripted element to it. But a wargame mustn’t be scripted, because that destroys the whole point of it. And you mustn’t use your magical powers to restore things. For example, when the Japanese were wargaming the Battle of Midway, some of their carriers got sunk, and they said that would never happen, so they revived them. But of course, when they lost them for real, they couldn’t magically revive them — they weren’t Gods anymore.

What do you think makes a really good wargame? Is it the number of players for example? Or is it the simplicity of the game?  Something else?

I don’t think it is defined by parameters such as the number of players or the playing time, important as those are. I think the basis of a good board game or wargame is that it involves the players and gets them deciding things. It faces them with dilemmas. If players can clearly see what they need to do, well then they are just going through the motions. Wargames come to life when there are real choices, and the best strategies are far from obvious.

The balance between skill and luck, and the involvement of the players, are crucial. With multiplayer games, it is very much about diplomatic skills and trying to make sure that you don’t appear to be the winner until you eventually appear as such. With two players, though, you can can get at some other important elements of the contest, because war is often a bilateral contest. How do you overcome an opponent in what is essentially a zero sum game? There are plenty of contests in which that is the dynamic, the interaction between two dynamic opponents. So two players is just as good as three, it’s just a different experience.

It is important to point out that you don’t even need two players. For a wargame as opposed to an abstract board game, one of the most interesting things is to model and capture the dynamics of an operation. In fact, single players can get a lot of fulfillment out of a wargame, by playing each side in turn. There is little point in playing a game like chess against yourself, since it is just an abstract symmetrical game. But with an asymmetric, realistic wargame, just studying and understanding the dynamics of military operations that are facing both sides can be enormously instructive. So, it does really help if the game can be played with one person. And many wargames are played solo as a matter of course — people may still learn a great deal from them.

What are the advantages of playing a wargame on a board or a map and on a table rather than, let’s say, playing a game on a computer?

There was a perception until recently that board games in general had died out. Everything, people believed, was going the way of video games, computer games, that sort of thing. But that of course is not true — board games are very much coming back in all these different areas.  I think there are a number of reasons for this. 

One of them is that, although the computer has incredible graphics, the appearance and the feel of a manual game can be superior. For example, you can glance at a map and you can see the whole thing. You can also focus in where you choose and see the details. On a computer screen you tend to have one or the other: you can zoom in or you can see the whole picture, but you can’t have the best of both worlds. With a board game it feels better, it’s tactile, players are talking to one another and looking at one another. They aren’t looking at a computer screen all the time. It’s much more social than playing a computer game. 

Next, board games are independent of technology. You don’t have the problem of getting lots of computers to run them or finding the game no longer runs because you don’t have the right Windows operating system. You can pick up board games that were made fifty years ago, and they will play just as well as they did when they were new. You can’t do that with computer games that are even ten years old.

Board games are also cheap — certainly when you consider all the infrastructure that is required for computer gaming. Computer games tend to be built on a mass market principle. There are enormously successful computer games, like “Call of Duty” for example, but they are built for the millions because otherwise they couldn’t make their money back. Therefore they have to be first and foremost entertainment products. And if entertainment collides with realism, then entertainment wins, just as it does in Hollywood for the same reasons. However, in board games you can get them printed in the hundreds and still just about break even. This means you can have more realistic games, because you can design for a niche audience that is interested in realism rather than an audience that is interested in blasting pixels representing Germans or aliens or whatever it might be.

You’ve also got the openness of the board game system.  A computer game is like a black box. You might be able to play it easily, but you can’t see what’s making it tick — you can’t see what rules are working behind the scenes. Now, a board game is all there openly for you. You have to engage with it, you have to learn the rules, and as you learn the rules you can see if you agree with them or not. Board games also don’t have the same luxury as computer games that you can cram in everything. Computer games will revel in every round tracked, every single meal a soldier eats, etc., because a computer can. However, that does not necessarily mean it is realistic. Board game designers, because they need to keep things simple enough to be played, need to focus to determine what really matters. They ask: What can we abstract out? This is significant, because when humans analyze the world we need to abstract in order to prioritize. Board game designers can’t just throw everything in and hope the product is going to be realistic.

Finally and decisively, I think, is adaptability. You can look at a board game and see if you agree with it or not.  If it is going wrong, you can see where it is going wrong.  Students in my MA course are not just playing games that others have designed – they are designing their own games. As soon as you play a game, very often you’ll find something wrong with the game. If so, you can write your own section of the rules and tweak it and play it. Once you have done that a few times, you are moving towards designing your own game. So it’s adaptable, far, far more than a computer game.

What are the top five board games you would recommend to any military planner and why?

This is a difficult question for several reasons. First of all, I want to lay out why it is a hard question, even though there are literally tens of thousands of boardgames out there. It’s hard to make recommendations of this kind. Let me just run through some of the problems. One is accessibility. Unless planners are already wargamers, they will find the ones that have already been published completely inaccessible because they will be too complex for them. That’s one issue. 

The second reason it is difficult to answer is that military planners tend to be focused on the most recent past and the future. Most of the board games that have been published — especially the good ones — are not about the most recent conflicts. The same, of course, goes for the great majority of books about war – they cover conflicts which are receding inexorably into the past. 

The third issue is interest. It depends who the military planners are and what service they are in and what they are most thinking about. That of course will shape what games are most useful to them. Now, I do have a few suggestions, but please take into account the caveats I have outlined. 

I think planners need to start with something simple.  And it’s precisely for this reason that I wrote my book Simulating War. In the book there are games that can be played easily, particularly for people that have never played a wargame. So I would suggest that people start simple. It can be a game that takes fifteen minutes. Some of the things I talk about in Simulating War capture nicely the key elements of wargames. For instance, do you reinforce success or do you try and rescue failure? Those sort of classic military dilemmas are encapsulated even in simple games.

Now moving on from that, I’ll mention some recent games that focus on asymmetric contests, to show that wargames are not necessarily about big generic fights against matched symmetric opponents. One is “Beirut ’82” by Tom Kane. It was published in the late 1980s. It beautifully captures the problem for the Israelis: that they can overwhelm the PLO, but doing so by using massive fire power in the city would mean a political defeat. It is one of the early games that show the balance of military force against political constraints. 

Board game Beirut ’82 by Tom Kane. (BoardGameGeek)

Joe Miranda has produced quite a number of games on recent conflicts. There are hits and misses. One of them that is quite interesting is called “Drive on Baghdad.” It’s about the 2003 invasion of Iraq. In that game you are having to balance political and military concerns as well.  For example, what sort of resources are you going to use when they are not unlimited? How far are you going to focus on special forces? Or how far are you going to use conventional ground power? And how do these forces interact together against an outmatched opponent — but nevertheless one that is capable of unpredictable reactions? 

Brian Train is a good designer who has designed a number of games on recent conflicts. One that I think would be interesting for people to look at is his game on “Kandahar.” It focuses on the challenge of fighting in a counterinsurgency environment in which there are multiple interests. It’s a two player game, but interestingly, the coalition forces are forces that are to be brought in and manipulated, rather than being under direct player control. 

The final thing I recommend is that people have a look at some multiplayer games. The principle of multiplayer games is more important than the game you choose. If you want a multiplayer game that’s relevant to contemporary conflict, then you might want to look at “A Distant Plain.” It’s one of a series on counterinsurgency.  It’s a little bit complex and abstract, but the interaction between the four factions is at the heart of the game, and there are artificial intelligence rules to allow fewer live players if desired.

A Distant Plain by Volko Ruhnke and Brian Train. (Juha Kettunen via BoardGameGeek)
A Distant Plain by Volko Ruhnke and Brian Train. (Juha Kettunen via BoardGameGeek)

What are your favorite top five games you enjoy playing?

Again, this is a surprisingly difficult question to answer.  You might think, ‘Hey, I’m a wargaming professor, so I spend my time playing games.’ But in fact I don’t. I have limited time, so I don’t get to play much. And when I have the time, I tend to be designing rather than playing. Also, when I do play games, I have a tendency to be overly critical. So when I play I tend to be put off easily if I find problems in the gameplay or the research. There are, however, a couple of games that are well worth returning to. One is a game that came out recently from a Finnish game company. It’s called W1815. It literally allows two players to refight the Battle of Waterloo in fifteen minutes. It does it by some extremely clever abstractions, like not moving forces on the map, but still having the historical options to reinforce here or to attack there based upon some clever use of cards. I really like that game as a case study in breaking away from the idea that wargames have to be complex.

There’s a game designed by John Butterfield which I’ve played a lot. It’s called “RAF.” It’s a solitaire game about the Battle of Britain. You are the Royal Air Force, deploying your forces to counter an overwhelming but ill-informed Luftwaffe attack. It is in those sorts of situations that solitaire games work quite well, because when you have a two player game on the Battle of Britain, the Germans tend to know too much because of hindsight. Any variant of Butterfield’s game is a good one, but my own favorite is his “Hardest Days” version which focuses on individual days of the Battle.

Philip Sabin's "Hells Gate."/Pic: Amazon
Philip Sabin’s “Hells Gate.” (BoardGameGeek)

It may sound terribly immodest, but since I find so many published games to be inaccurate, over-complex or both, I tend to spend at least as much time playing my own designs such as “Hell’s Gate,” which try to overcome both of these deficiencies. My “Lost Battles” game includes scenarios for three dozen different ancient battles, and I have probably played this game more often over the years than all other wargames put together. 

Over at War on the Rocks, Dr. James Lacey wrote a piece on how he uses wargaming in the classroom. A few others, to include the U.S. Secretary of Defense, have been vocal proponents of wargaming. In your opinion, do you think there is a resurgence in wargaming?

Wargaming has always been a cyclical thing. Peter Perla has written very eloquently about this. Sometimes there are good times and sometimes there are bad times. It tends to go in cycles of a decade or two. This is just the latest upsurge. We are hoping we can make hay while the sun shines. Why should it be happening at this particular moment? I think there are a number of reasons. One is the pervasiveness of gaming within modern society. So much of our leisure time is spent playing games. It may be something like Angry Birds or a first-person shooter, or indeed board games that are being used in education. Wargaming is benefiting from the upsurge in “gamification” in society and it is no longer being seen as a childish thing. The idea that one plays games is no longer enough to damn one, because so many people are doing it.

Another reason is strategic uncertainty. We are now in a post-Iraq and Afghanistan position where it is not clear what the next crisis or the next war will involve. We need to be prepared for a wider range of contingencies. Wargaming — including historical wargaming — hence comes back into its own. Because if you don’t know what the future holds, then you need to learn about warfare generically, and that includes historical war, because it gives you a sense of the overall phenomenon. This will help to prepare you for the unknown future. 

Additionally, I think a very powerful reason, which you can see working twenty or thirty years ago as well, is that wargaming tends to flourish most when we have suffered a bloody nose. It’s interesting that the great flowering of American wargaming was in the 1970s. That was in the aftermath of Vietnam. When you realize that “Hey, we are not that good, we are not that clever, we don’t seem to be able to win,” you start to see how you might be able to do better in the future. A lot of future success, then, comes out of wargaming as a direct response to the frustrations of Vietnam. I think you are seeing some similar responses now. We have had great frustrations with some of our recent conflicts. People are saying “We are clearly not getting it right.” It is interesting to note that the Germans, as the losers in World War One, put much more effort into wargaming in the inter-war years, which paid off for them in the early years of World War Two.

What websites or magazines are good tools for someone who wants to explore wargaming or determine what games might be suited for their purposes?

I would start, in terms of websites, with a website called That website has a whole range of articles and links and reviews and so on, which will allow people — really starting from nothing — to get a flavor for this whole area. Then of course, there is BoardGameGeek is incredibly comprehensive. If I want to find out a particular wargame, I simply type in the name of the wargame and “bgg.” It will immediately bring up the wargame with reviews and pictures and more. It is much more comprehensive than ConsimWorld. But as I said, I would start with ConsimWorld.  Another place I would check out is This site serves as an introductory resource, similar to ConsimWorld. For computer wargames I would check out

In terms of magazines, the best option, despite its small circulation, is called “Battles Magazine.” It is published in France, but in English.  There is a game in each issue. It comes out every six months or so. It is a very good compilation of reviews and theoretical discussion about board wargaming, and is the best publication even though it is largely unknown. There is also a number of American magazines. Most of them contain more or less superficial discussions on military topics, accompanied by a wargame. However, “Against the Odds” is a magazine that is worth looking into.  If you want to know about games published over the last forty or fifty years, there was a review magazine called “Fire & Movement” which is no longer being published, but which contains good coverage of past wargames within its 150 issue run.  Hopefully they will digitize this collection for people to go back and have a look. 

You published your own commercial wargame, a game called “Hells Gate.” Can you tell us about the process of creating and publishing a wargame?

As in a number of the games I’ve created, the process started with me playing other peoples’ games on this battle (the Korsun pocket on the eastern front in early 1944), and finding them deficient in various ways and ripe for tweaking and amendment. There are  actually some good books on this battle by scholars like Glantz and Zetterling, so as my research developed I eventually got to the point where I thought I could design my own game from scratch rather than just tweaking other people’s designs. So that was the genesis of the game.

Now originally I didn’t design “Hells Gate” to be a part of my courses. I designed it because I was interested in this battle. The design process itself, on and off, took about three months. But it was very much on and off.  The way that wargame design tends to work is that you keep notes and you tend to jot down notes whenever ideas occur. Then it is a matter of lots of iterative playtesting interspersed with further rules tweaks until finally a playable and historically sound game emerges.

Once the game was ready, I realized that it was just about simple and accessible enough to use in class to illustrate the dynamics of maneuver and encirclement which I discuss in earlier lectures. Hence, I created some large scale components, and gradually built up to the current situation where I have six simultaneous games being run by teaching assistants for four or five students each. I also included Hell’s Gate as one of the several games in my Simulating War book. The final step in the process was when Victory Point Games suggested publication of a free-standing edition with professional graphics and components, which has proved very successful with the wider hobbyist community.      

Because CIMSEC is a maritime focused organization, what games would you recommend to our readers that are interested in historical maritime battles at sea?

It depends on whether people are interested in the tactical or the strategic. One game I would recommend is Ben Knight’s old magazine game “Victory at Midway.” It is a double blind game, in which neither side knows where the enemy is. It is a contest of blind man’s bluff, like the original Kriegsspiel. It also nicely shows the logistics and the challenges with launching and recovering carrier airstrikes and handling that in the face of limited information. It is a good one to start out with. 

If you are interested in the big strategic picture — especially the greatest naval war that has ever been, the Pacific War — you can do a lot worse than a game by Avalon Hill called “Victory in the Pacific.”  There you will be fighting effectively the entire naval war in the Pacific: a huge naval war with large amounts of attrition. 

Victory in the Pacific (Pablo B via BoardGameGeek)
Victory in the Pacific (Pablo B via BoardGameGeek)

There was an interesting game of contemporary naval combat called “Seastrike,” first published back in the 1970s by the Wargames Research Group.  Here you are focused on the creation of small naval task forces. There is a very telling element of constrained resources. You can put together almost any type of task group you want — you can even design your own vessels. But of course everything has a price tag attached. ‘Ok, you want to have a better anti-missile defense system?’ That’s fine, you can. But here’s the bill: It means you won’t get as much air support or whatever.’ It is a very nice planning game in terms of showing us the tradeoffs in a constrained resource environment.

Moving gradually towards the present, there is a series by Victory Games called the “Fleet Series.”  It was published in the 1980s, so it is focused very much on a U.S. v. Soviet context. It is very interesting in terms of accessibly handling the complex interaction of air and naval and subsurface forces.  There have been more recent games, but they tend to go over the top in terms of complexity.  So for an operational perspective, I would recommend one of the “Fleet Series” games. 

Top half of Soviet SAC card from 7th Fleet in Fleet Series of boardgames. (Martin via BoardGameGeek)
Top half of Soviet SAC card from 7th Fleet in Fleet Series of boardgames. (Martin via BoardGameGeek)

Finally, there is now a computer game which is in essence the successor to the famous “Harpoon” series of board and computer games. It is called “Command Modern Naval and Air Operations.” Rather than  recommending just board games, I would suggest you have a look at that, published a year or two ago. You won’t be able to modify it the same way you can a board game, but the computer can handle some of the details that would be a bit overpowering in a board game.

Prof. Phil Sabin, thank you for stopping by to chat, I thoroughly enjoyed it. 

Thank you.

Philip Sabin is Professor of Strategic Studies in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. He has worked closely with the UK military for many years, especially through the University of London Military Education Committee, the Chief of the Air Staff’s Air Power Workshop, and KCL’s academic links with the Defence Academy and the Royal College of Defence Studies. Professor Sabin’s current research and teaching involves strategic and tactical analysis of conflict dynamics from ancient to modern times. He makes extensive use of conflict simulation techniques to model the dynamics of various conflicts, and for thirteen years he has taught a highly innovative MA option module in which students design their own simulations of past conflicts. He has written or edited 15 books and monographs and several dozen chapters and articles on a wide variety of military topics, including nuclear strategy, British defence policy and air power. His recent books Lost Battles (2007) and Simulating War (2012) both make major contributions to the scholarly application of conflict simulation techniques.  He has just completed a contract for the British Army’s Centre for Historical Analysis and Conflict Research to design a Camberley Kriegsspiel with which officers may practise battlegroup tactics.  Professor Sabin undertakes many other activities in the conflict simulation field, including co-organising the annual ‘Connections UK’ conference at KCL for over a hundred wargames professionals.  He has appeared frequently on radio and television, and has given many dozens of lectures and conference addresses around the world.

LCDR Christopher Nelson, USN, is a regular contributor to CIMSEC. On most days you’ll find him with a book in his hands. The comments above are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the US Department of Defense or the US Navy.

Featured Image: The author H. G. Wells playing a wargame with W. Britain toy soldiers according to the rules of Little Wars. Wells is using a piece of string cut to a set length of the distance his soldiers can move. An umpire sits in a chair with his stopwatch timing Wells. Wells’ opponent waits for his turn to move and fire his cannon at Wells’ soldiers. (HG Wells)

Sea Control 121- An American Foreign Fighter in Kurdistan

Louis Park on Facebook.

By Matt Hipple

We interview Louis, the Marine Veteran of “PokemonGO in Kurdistan Meme” fame, and an independent foreign fighter with the Kurds in Iraq. We discuss his motivations for heading out to the fight, about his process of joining, integrating, and operating with the Kurdish forces in the field. We also discuss how he and his fellow western fighters coordinate their operations and regulate themselves, as well as the day-to-day realities of life in the Kurdish war zone.

Louis hopes that the popularity of his meme draws public interest to the on-the- ground realities of the fight against ISIS. He also hopes it can bring attention to those carrying on that fight. That is what we have endeavored to do with this interview.

DOWNLOAD: American Foreign Fighters in Kurdistan