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Tom Ricks on Writing, Reading, and Military Innovation

By Christopher Nelson

Tom Ricks is no stranger.  If you follow the US military, then you’ve probably stopped by his blog “The Best Defense” over at Foreign Policy magazine on more than one occasion.  

Sometimes provocative, always interesting, Ricks has provided a voice for civilians, officers, and enlisted, to raise issues, debate defense policies, or often recommend a good book.  In fact, Ricks’ comments on books and reading lists have fed my intellectual curiosity these past few years.  

Tom Ricks joined me to talk about everything from the craft of writing, the size of his library, to one of his favorite books at the moment, a book on military innovation.  

What got you started in journalism and why cover the military?  

What got me started in journalism was I was living in Hong Kong and teaching English and English literature.  I always expected to be a teacher. And I saw, when I was about twenty-two years old in Hong Kong, the people that were enjoying themselves were journalists  the young American, British, and Chinese journalists.  I couldn’t believe that some adult would give them a credit card and just allow them to go around and ask people questions. It seemed like a good gig to me. Also, once I began in journalism, I found that the military really interested me. It was a interesting institution in of itself.  You could write about everything from politics to international relations to technology the basic human stories.  And then I found in about 1995 when I was working on what became Making the Corps, it was also a very good way of looking at America; and looking at where our country is by talking to young recruits and so on. So I found out that I really enjoyed covering the military as well.

What were your favorite books of 2015?  Your top three?  And why?

It’s funny, I don’t really read books as they come out.  I read books as they happen to provoke my interest. I think my favorite nonfiction book that I read last year was about the Comanches. It’s called The Comanche Empire, by Pekka Hämäläinen.  In fiction, I really like Elizabeth Strout. I’d read her book Olive Kitteridge, so recently I went back and read an earlier novel of hers called Abide With Me. I read it in particular because it is about winter in Maine, which is six months long, and which I am living through, so her bringing a novelist’s eye to it really intrigued me. So those are sort of the two books that really struck me lately.  

One other: I also finally got around to reading The Liar’s Club by Mary Karr.  It’s just a wonderfully written memoir about growing up in Southeast Texas near Port Arthur, near Houston in the 1960s. Her style reminds me of Mark Twain, one of my favorite authors.

Professionally, oddly enough, the book that has struck me is one that I read twenty years ago and I picked it up again recently. I liked it then—and re-reading it, I loved it. I wrote about it in the blog, it is by Stephen Peter Rosen, and its called Winning the Next War. It’s about military innovation, what works and what doesn’t. A lot of it is counter intuitive. Money is not important to innovation, in fact it may hurt it; technology is not that important to innovation; what is really important to innovation is organizational change during peacetime. It really is a very different take, and I find it intriguing because I think it is a crucial issue.  

I worry that we have a big late Industrial Age military, which is a problem because we are on the cusp of Information Age. We confuse the ability to throw firepower with the ability to subdue an enemy. In that way today’s US military reminds me of the Royal Navy of 1939. The Royal Navy then was the biggest in the world, it had the most battleships and the ability to throw more firepower, but was almost entirely irrelevant in World War II. They neglected changes; they didn’t understand the submarine; they didn’t understand how to use the aircraft carrier; and they didn’t have enough destroyers.  They won the Battle of the Atlantic but that was with us giving them a lot of destroyers and other help, like providing submarine support.  

Is there a book that is coming out that you are looking forward to? 

The new book that struck me most recently was a graphic novel and I am not a big fan of those. It is by the guy who does Terminal Lance.  It’s called The White Donkey.  It is a graphic novel about his time in Iraq.  It was self-published but now it is coming out by Little Brown, the big publisher, in April. I am looking forward to see how well it does when it comes out.

Terminal Lance: The White Donkey by Maximilian Uriarte/Amazon
Terminal Lance: The White Donkey by Maximilian Uriarte/Amazon

What is your daily routine?  As a writer, do you block off time each day to write? 

I’m definitely a morning writer. I like to get up, make a cup of coffee, and sit down and start writing.  I get the blog out pretty quickly, and then I turn to whatever book I am writing at the time. I usually try to do about four hours a day, stopping around lunchtime.  I’ll have lunch with my wife, and then in the afternoon do some errands, maybe take a walk, and then sit down to read or do some research.  I find that when I am too tired to write I like turn to research.  And for me, the lesson in book writing is to stop when you start feeling tired.  It really takes your full energy and full attention the way research doesn’t.  

That sounds like pretty good advice to anyone who wants to write.

My advice is to establish a routine—that is, do not wait for inspiration. Writing is a lot more like carpentry than it is like poetry. It’s a craft.  You have to get up and saw and sand and screw things together, and then stand back and look at it. Sometimes you’ll say, “OK, that didn’t quite work, let me rework it.” Sometimes it does work.  But the people who tell me, “I’m writing a book on the weekends”—when they say that, well,  I think to myself, no, you’re enjoying yourself and pretending to write a book on the weekends. The only way a book gets written if you really work on it every day. Every morning, for me. 

Do you read with a pencil in hand? Is a notebook close by? Do you do a lot of marginalia when reading?

Totally.  To me that is intellectual capital the marginalia in any book. I remember a professor of mine in college who said, “If you are not reading with a pen in your hand then you are not reading.” I find that is especially true for nonfiction. I’m constantly taking notes. In fact, one measure for me is that how much I’ve learned from a book is the number of pages I’ve marked up. In Winning the Next War by Peter Rosen, which I just re-read, I probably took ten pages of notes the second time I read it even more notes than I did the first time.  Filling up the front and the back of the book with notes and thoughts and connections. And for me that will often become the grist for a blog item or even for something that I’m writing about in a book.

If you had the chance to invite three authors over to your house for dinner living or dead who is coming to your house, and why?  

My favorite historian is David Hackett Fisher. I think I’ve read all his books. I love Washington’s Crossing. I read his Albion’s Seed twice, and Paul Revere’s Ride, also by him, which is just lovely. I’ve never met him. I would enjoy meeting him and asking him what he thinks about books. I would love to see him write about the Civil War.  He’s written about almost every other aspect of American History. I think he is my favorite American historian, and it seems to me that the Civil War is the essential event of our history. I would love to see him tackle that.  

Another favorite writer of mine is actually a friend of mine, Eliot Cohen, who has written several terrific books. My favorite book by him is called Supreme Command.  It’s how really good civilian leaders lead their militaries.  One of the themes of this book is that they are not hands off, and they are not looking for consensus. Instead, they are constantly probing and asking questions, pushing their military leaders. They are especially looking to surface differences. To say, “now you guys disagreed on this, now tell me about this disagreement.” You see this in leaders like Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt, and actually Dwight Eisenhower as well.  

For a third one, let’s see, I’ve read almost all the novels by Jonathan Franzen. I think he is a lovely writer. But I also think he is a crank and curmudgeon. I’m not sure I would enjoy dinner with him, but it would sure be interesting to have dinner with him.

How many books do you have in your library?

It’s funny you should ask, because where we live in Maine, we finally have a really good basement, big and dry. So for the first time in my life I have been able to get all of my books in one spot, and I really like that. They’re on long boards and cinderblocks. 

I measure it by the foot. I actually wrote about this in the blog once. The biggest section is World War II, which I think is thirty-two feet. And there probably are seven and a bit shelves of Iraq, which going by the boards I used makes about 31 feet. And then there is 27 feet of Vietnam, 9  of the Korean War. Unfortunately the basement is filling up fast. 

So you’ve been covering the US military for over twenty years.  I’m curious about your readers.  You’ve been blogging over at Foreign Policy for some time. Yet you don’t talk about your readers much.  I’m curious about how many people stop by “Best Defense”?  What types of readers are reading ‘Best Defense’?

I don’t know on the numbers, partly because Foreign Policy’s editors keep the numbers close hold. When I ask them about the numbers I get gobbledygook about unique hits, and you know, “push only visitors” and “unique visitors,” and all that stuff.  It doesn’t tell me anything.  

A few years ago, I believe I was told I was getting 30,000 to 40,000 readers a month. But that could be wildly wrong. I never really pushed the issue with my editors. Maybe they are afraid that if they tell me how many visitors I have, that I’ll ask for a raise.

Now, the types of readers I have, I’m better on. Start with a big military audience.  I’d have to say concentrated on middle NCO’s and junior and middle officers with a smattering of younger enlisted and a smattering of O6 and above. That’s in the military. 

The second big group is academics. And military history is a pretty lonely field, so academics seem to like a place that welcomes military historians.  

The third group is defense journalists, think tank people, guys at corporations in northern Virginia, things like that. It kind of amuses my wife—she says that within three miles of the Pentagon, I’m a minor celebrity. Beyond that I’m totally anonymous and very happy with that.

You’ve probably been to more than a few archives.  What is the most interesting thing you’ve read or discovered?

There are a lot of exciting things in the archives. It just amazes me that you can sit there and if you ask for the right files and explain what you are looking for, and the people in the archives that work there tend to be very helpful, you can sit and hold maps that guys held on the beaches on D-Day. The original maps that have their markings on them, the markings they are making in pencil as they figure out where a German machine gun nest is, or where the lines of communications are.  

But I gotta say, the single most moving thing I ever found were some letters by a general, Terry de la Mesa Allen, who was commander of the 1st Infantry Division in Sicily in August, 1943; a very good division commander, a very tough fighter. Terry Allen was relived of division command by Omar Bradley. It was very public and he didn’t know why. He had just won the key battle of the campaign in central Sicily and then he got fired, along with his assistant division commander, who was Teddy Roosevelt, Jr., the son of the President. He writes back to his wife a series of letters in pencil on blue lined school notebook paper.  And one day he writes to his wife, “Patton dropped by, Patton thinks I’m being promoted to something.” Which is totally BS.  And I think Patton knew it.  Eventually Allen gets sent back to America without a job. George Marshall, the Army chief, admired Allen even though Allen was a very heavy drinker. When Marshall found out that Allen had been fired by Bradley, I found in the archives a note Marshall wrote to an aide that said: “Give Allen another division that is going overseas. Give him the 82nd if that is next to go over.”  And when Marshall was told the 82nd was not the next, Marshall said: “Give him the next division that comes up.” So a year later Marshall has Terry Allen back in Europe commanding the 104th Infantry Division. 

To hold that series of letters where Allen is trying to figure out what is going on, in the midst of just having played a central role in the first American campaign against the Germans on European soil, is just amazing to me. That really was a heart stopping thing for me when doing research.  

Still, I have to mention that one of the hazards I didn’t know about when doing research, is that I’ll be sitting there in the Army archives, reading these things in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and frequently I’ll go back to my hotel room and at night I’d begin hacking, and I’d realize that I’d ingested a lot of dust looking at files that people that hadn’t looked at for years and years. If I go again I think I will wear a mask next time.

What books would you recommend to the next US President?  The next Secretary of Defense?  The next Joint Chiefs of Staff?

I would recommend to all of them Cohen’s Supreme Command. For my money it is the best book about how the civilian leadership should run his military, and how military leaders should deal with their civilian overseers.  It’s also about strategy. Strategy is not easy. If you are not crying than you are not making strategy. If you are not asking hard questions you are not making strategy. If you are not prioritizing between the important and the essential, you are not making strategy. Eliot Cohen’s book brings those points home and does it very well by examining a series of leaders and their decisions. 

You are very good about not pushing your favorite articles on your blog.  And at the end of the year you often run a top 20 most read articles.  But I’m curious what are some of your favorite articles from guest authors?

You’re right, I try not push things, because I often run things I disagree with. Frequently an article will come out and I will make a comment, and then somebody reads it and writes me and says: “Sir, I am a big fan of your blog, but let me tell you why you are dead wrong.”And frequently I will write back and say, “that sounds interesting, why don’t you write it up into an article.” So a lot of articles come out of disagreements with me, or perhaps email exchanges.  

As to favorite, I have two types. There is a special place in my heart for the pieces by the enlisted military personnel. I think officers have too large a voice in policy formulation, and that the enlisted have too small a voice, especially given their numbers.  We have a very well educated, professional enlisted military these days.  I don’t think we take sufficient notice of that or make sufficient use of it. So one of the things I try to do in the blog is I have this group called the “Council of Former Enlisted.” These are people who have been in the military but are now out, so they can speak freely. They are thinking about their experience.  Many of them are in college, some of them are in grad school.  And that council of the former enlisted I have really enjoyed. One of them in particular, Sebastian Bae, a former Marine sergeant has written a bunch of really good articles that I like.  

I also want to mention another guy, Ryan Blum, who wrote a good article about living in Paris the past year.  He said he went to Paris to get away from the war, but he found out with the terror attacks there in November that it followed him there.  

Another article that is a favorite of mine is one that was published recently. It’s by a ninety-one-year-old Marine veteran of World War II. He writes about the country he knew as a child, the country he fought for during World War II. He ends up with a very gloomy conclusion.  He says because of the income inequalities in this country these days, he thinks this country is not living up to the sacrifices he and his buddies made in World War II.  We were fighting for a country of fairness and sharing, relative equality and income, he says, and now we don’t have that. The rich are much too rich in this country nowadays. A lot of people are struggling to get by, even with two incomes. He said that’s not the country I knew, that’s not the country I fought for. By having that country now, he concludes, we are not honoring the sacrifice of people who fought in World War II.

I understand you are working on a book on Orwell and Churchill?  Can you tell us about your next project?  What fascinates you about Orwell and Churchill?

Orwell and Churchill came to me oddly. The commonality is that in their youth they were both war correspondents. And so I came to them as a war correspondent myself. I actually did a staff ride in Spain with Eliot Cohen which I played the character of George Orwell.  

And I’ve always enjoyed reading Churchill. So the interesting thing about these two are that they are so different, but they played such a key role in our understanding of totalitarianism, of fascism, of Communism — through Churchill’s speeches and Orwell’s essays and novels. It’s kind of parallel appreciation of the two. They never met each other, they admired each other, in fact, the hero in Orwell’s novel 1984 is named “Winston.”

At times you’ve been critical about military periodicals, and at other times you’ve praised some of the pieces in these periodicals.  What would you do if you were the editor to make some of these periodicals better?

I look back to certain periodicals have good spells times they should emulate. They shouldn’t do what Tom Ricks says, they should just do their best to be at their best. For example, Army Magazine I think is going through a very good spell and has for the last couple of years, and that’s changed—I mean, it used to be the dullest of military periodicals.  Marine Corps Gazette in the 1980s and early 1990s was very powerful it stood head and shoulders above the other military publications.  And then I think it has been whipped around by the Commandants too much and kind of lost a lot of its bite that it used to have; it used to have really serious intellectual discussions you just don’t really see that so much anymore. Likewise, Proceedings used to be very strong but really seems to me to be too focused on what’s going through Admirals’ minds these days.  It’s run some absolutely fatuous pieces by admirals that just do not do it credit.  So I think Proceedings has fallen down in recent years. And the Air Force, well, I see very little good writing coming out of it. 

Decision time. Would you rather have Orwell’s Why I Write or Zinsser’s On Writing Well on your desk?

Here are the two things I recommend to anybody trying to write: One is Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language.” It’s one of the best things written about the writing and about thinking.  

The other is E.B. White’s book The Elements of Style. I actually tried to propose a rule policy at think tanks that I have worked at, which is that every intern must read this book and take a quiz on it before they start working here. I spent a lot of time working at think tanks, editing interns and translating their writing into English.  And it’s not just interns, it’s also a lot of officers.  Everybody who is trying to write for other people should read E.B. White’s Elements of Style.  It’s short enough that you can read it in one night.  

Tom Ricks, thank you so much for you joining us.  All the best to you.

You are welcome. I enjoyed it. 

Thomas Ricks is senior advisor for national security at the New America Foundation. He also is a contributing editor of Foreign Policy magazine, for which he writes the blog “The Best Defense,” which was named the best blog of the year by the American Society of Magazine Editors in 2010, as well as the best military blog by Military Reporters & Editors. He is currently writing a study of the roles Winston Churchill and George Orwell played in shaping politics and culture of the 20th century.     

Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008. Until the end of 1999 he had the same beat at the Wall Street Journal, where he was a reporter for 17 years. He reported on U.S. military activities in Somalia, Haiti, Korea, Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Kuwait, Turkey, Afghanistan and Iraq. He was part of a Wall Street Journal  team that won the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting in 2000 for a series of articles on how the U.S. military might change to meet the new demands of the 21st century. The series is posted at:

http://www.pulitzer.org/winners/6908

Ricks also was part of a Washington Post team that won the 2002 Pulitzer prize for reporting about the beginning of the U.S. counteroffensive against terrorism.  Those articles are posted at:

http://www.pulitzer.org/prize-winners-by-year/2002

He is the author of Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2003-05, which was a no. 1 New York Times bestseller and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2007. His second book on that war, The Gamble: General Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-08, was published in 2009.   He also wrote Making the Corps, which won the Washington Monthly’s “Political Book of the Year” award. His first novel, A Soldier’s Duty, about the U.S. military intervening in Afghanistan, was published by Random House in June 2001–some four months before the U.S. actually did intervene there. He also has written on defense matters for the Atlantic Monthly and other publications. His most recent book is The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today. 

Born in Massachusetts in 1955, he grew up in New York and Afghanistan and graduated from Yale in 1977. He is married to Mary Catherine Ricks, author of Escape on the Pearl, a history of one of the biggest slave escapes in American history. They have two grown children. For recreation he enjoys sailing, hiking, sea kayaking, downhill skiing and reading military history. 

Lieutenant Commander Christopher Nelson, USN, is an intelligence officer stationed at the US Pacific Fleet Headquarters in Honolulu, Hawaii.  Lieutenant Commander Nelson is a graduate of the US Naval War College and the navy’s operational planning school, the Maritime Advanced Warfighting School 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.

On Naval History, Books, and Coal: An Interview with Rear Admiral James Goldrick, RAN(ret.)

By Christopher Nelson

A little over a month ago, I had the opportunity to sit down and talk to Rear Admiral James Goldrick, RAN(ret.), over lunch.  It was a fascinating conversation that covered books, naval history, and yes, even coal.  Admiral Goldrick is, in my opinion, that rare naval officer that combines a deep understanding of history with operational naval experience.   I hope you all enjoy the interview as much as I enjoyed talking with him. 

Admiral, thank you for taking the time to sit down and talk.  Starting off, who is a historian writing today that you admire? And why?

Nicholas Rodger.  Nicholas – apart from an extraordinary intellect, the ability to read in multiple languages, a wonderful literary style and a very strong work ethic – has the ability to look deeply, to look again, and to bring things together.  All that is combined with a deep understanding of how navies work.  He is currently writing a three volume history of the British Royal Navy.  The first two volumes (The Safeguard of the Sea and The Command of the Ocean) have already been published, and he is currently working on the third.  Now, it’s not in fact a history of the British Navy – it is a naval history of Britain.   I particularly admire Nicholas because he avoids the trap that naval historians often fall into, that is, of being too tunneled.  What he is trying to do is explain the role of the navy as a national institution and what its relationship was with the nation.  What is quite clear from his studies, for example, is that it can be strongly argued that the Royal Navy was a key trigger of the industrial revolution.  The things required for the Royal Navy – for example, long range distribution and preservation of food – helped with the ability to operate big industrial cities.  The mass production systems developed to run Nelson’s fleet – the manufacturing of blocks, and so on – were another contribution through the application of such ideas in the commercial sphere.  Like all the greatest historians, Nicholas can synthesize a great deal of information and bring it all together to tell a story.  What I can tell you, is that his third volume is late.  And the reason for that is that, while he always knew that he had to synthesize a massive amount of material for the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, he has also found that the canon of naval history in the modern era is superficial. When you start to dig into things, you often realize that is not the way it works, that is not the way it happened.

Talking earlier, you mentioned Rodger’s book The Wooden World, and strongly recommended it, and that the movie “Master and Commander” was in part based on that book, which is something I had not heard before.

One of the reasons I think it is really important, and a The Wooden Worldreally good book for naval officers to read, is because Master and Commander is slightly anachronistic.  What Nicholas is talking about in The Wooden World: An Anatomy of the Georgian Navy is the mid-18th  century Royal Navy, although Peter Weir and Russell Crane applied it to the service of the Napoleonic Wars as, arguably, did the author of the original series of Jack Aubrey novels, Patrick O’Brian.  Nicholas’ mid-18th century navy is one that is pre-ideological, and has a pre-rigid class organization. Some of this still applied in the first decade of the nineteenth century and this is where Master and Commander is right to show the legacy – even if the navy was changing.  There was in the navy of Nelson an officer who flew his flag at sea as, I think, a vice admiral, who had been flogged around the fleet as a naval seaman for desertion.  He was a real person and ended up as Knight Commander of the Bath – Sir William Mitchell.  Now, what I am getting at is the pre-ideological situation of circa 1760, in that you have a navy which is based on mutual confidence, mutual respect and professionalism.  We talk about patronage, and yes, if you were from the upper class and had good connections, it was much easier to get ahead.  But if you were incompetent, you generally didn’t get ahead, since if you are the First Lord of the Admiralty or a commander-in-chief, and you are promoting people who are idiots, your ships won’t last.  They’ll sink for a start just from the effects of weather, they won’t be able to capture the enemy, and so on.  However, late on in the eighteenth century, what you begin to get, and the American revolution marks the first rumblings of this (it really sets in after the French revolution), is that ideology and class and the fear of subversion become factors. In the navy that Nicholas Rodger talks about it was OK to mutiny in certain circumstances – if you haven’t been paid for instance.  If the food was bad.  And it is very interesting, in that navy, that if there were a mutiny for other reasons the Admiralty usually fired the captain, however harshly they dealt with the ringleaders.  Because, if there were a mutiny for other reasons than pay or food – or losing accustomed officers – the Admiralty’s assumption was it was resulted from a failure in leadership.  I hope you begin to see where I am coming from.  When we are in are a post-ideological, post-class system in 2016, what do we actually base our navy on?  We base it on mutual respect and professionalism and support for each other. And if there is a problem in a ship, how do the admiralties of the western navies now generally respond? They fire the captain.  In between, roughly from 1800 to 1990, when you have ideology, subversion and all the rest of it, there is always this idea that a mutiny will have external motivations.  In such circumstances, admiralties may have to support the command because they have to support the system. That’s not the case now. What I am seeing in The Wooden World that Nicholas Rodger is telling me about is a navy that I recognize, much more in certain ways than the navy of the centuries in between.

What advice would you give to a junior or senior officer on how to use history to think about our current challenges in the naval profession?

I like the aphorism “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.”  You use history to identify the rhymes, to start identifying the questions that you should be asking.I’m particularly seeing rhymes when we look at the First World War and many of the challenges we face now.  And many of these challenges are caused by technological change, but the key shared issue is command and control. I think we are facing some real problems of a similar nature to 1914 at the moment.  We have got ourselves used to an uncontested electronic environment and a virtual reality which allows constant communication between commands and subordinates.  That creates two problems: the one that gets talked about most frequently is the “thousand mile screwdriver.”  But there is another problem that worries me even more and this is also a World War I problem – subordinates won’t make a decision; many would rather ask permission than seek forgiveness.  And that I think creates the prospect that if communications are cut off, operations will be paralyzed because people will wait and see if communications become reestablished rather than do anything themselves.  The direct parallel is the effect of radio on naval culture in 1914.  Before radio, it was inherently bipolar.  If you were in sight of the admiral you were doing exactly what the admiral directed.  But if you were not in sight of the admiral before radio, you knew what the intent was, and you went. As one British prime minister of the nineteenth century remarked, if he had a problem overseas, he’d send a naval officer. 

Your latest book is about The Battle of Jutland?

It predates Jutland; it’s about the opening months of the war and is called Before Jutland.  One of my argumentsBefore Jutland is that there were failures of leadership which were based on this “virtual unreality.” I can see why people are failing to exercise initiative which I am pretty sure wouldn’t have been the case to the same extent had there been no radio.  The problem was that, with the introduction of radio, when the practical problems and the associated concepts had still to be worked through – and the conceptual changes in particular were profound – detached commanders began to behave in the way that they would when they could actually see their boss. People acted as if they could see the admiral and get an immediate direction to go here or there, and they also assumed the admiral had the picture they have. 

To be fair, there was a whole raft of unrecognized problems of understanding on how people talked to each other remotely.  That was another art and another science that had to be learned, effectively from scratch.  For example, the first time the Royal Navy issued a format for radio reporting of an enemy contact there was no position.  Why?  Because when you are in a visual environment you are really only interested in two things: what the enemy bear and what they are steering. It is remote reports, with the much greater distances involved, that require much greater detail and precision. The fact was that the out-of-sight admiral did not have the full picture in 1914. Arguably, given transmission delays, deficiencies in reporting systems and the combined navigational errors both true and relative, he could never, at least in 1914-18, have that full picture.

You can also see in 1914 an essentially arithmetical approach to the correlation of forces.  What I mean by that: It is a simplistic approach, the idea that if someone has a long range and a longer gun, we can’t go for
them. This happened during the chase of the German battlecruiser Goeben in the Mediterranean in August 1914 and it also happened more than once in the North Sea.  Sorry, but, as Nelson used to say, “something must be left to chance.” 

Großer_Kreuzer_SMS_Goeben
SMS Goeben on a postcard pre-World War I/Wikipedia

Another thing that is similar in 1914 to now, is how short of money the navies were at the time.  We talk about the great expansion, the arms race, and it’s absolutely true that enormous amounts of money were being spent. Both the Germans and the British had budgetary crises over such expenditure.  But the money is going to the battle fleets, not operations. The British are enforcing strict fuel economy.  Why?  Because they are building fifteen inch gun battleships which cost the earth, as does oil fuel.  There is a major cabinet crisis going on about the naval estimates and the Admiralty has to make economies where it can.  So you have limited time at sea and limited exercises in a period of very rapid technological change. You haven’t got the ability to exercise sufficiently, to experiment sufficiently, to become proficient enough to even understand the risks. Arguably, the Germans were even more constrained and thus even worse off.

Now to tie your earlier comments about the challenges of radio and command and control in World War I to today. Is flexibility, and the assumption that you are not going to have secure communications, those assurances, are those the going in conversation?

I’m old enough to remember having to navigate out of sight of land for extended periods of time with no artificial aids.  When people talk about the revolution in military affairs, I go, come on guys, the first naval combat data systems went operationally to sea about 1960.  The data links were running about 1961-1962.  The revolution in military affairs is not computer systems and it is not data links – it’s GPS.  Because GPS puts everybody in the same constant frame of reference.  Trust me.  Try doing a link picture before GPS.  Manually updating and watching your whole system slide sixty miles, and all of the other problems that occur if one ship fails in reporting or muddles its settings.  Same with joint fires; it’s all GPS.  OK.  So what happens if you are in a contested environment and your GPS doesn’t work?  I think we are coming to an era where we will be very vulnerable if we go on this way. The truth is that you won’t be able to do the things that you think you can.  

That similarity with the First World War – I mean – do you know what the most useful thing in navigation was in the First World War in the North Sea?  Depth soundings.  Bathymetry.  What did the British do?  What are they doing enormous amounts of from about 1908 on?  They are surveying the North Sea to get the depths and the currents. These are things we don’t think about anymore because we don’t have to.  But the trouble is I think we have to think about these things because the remote data sources will not necessarily be accessible in a contested electronic environment.  As I understand it, the United States Naval Academy is going back to teaching astro-navigation. 

What are the top three history books that you’ve read and that you would recommend to anyone?

The Rules of the Game by Andrew Gordon is one of them.  IRules of the Game was really pleased to be sitting on one occasion with my chief of the navy and Vice Admiral Art Cebrowski. Both had read the book and were talking about the take-aways from The Rules of the Game.  Next, is Nicholas Rodger’s naval history of Britain that I’ve already mentioned.  My third book would probably be one of Norman Friedman’s works.  Which one would depend who you are.  For me personally, one of the highlights is his U.S. Destroyers book.  It encapsulates all the best that Norman does in terms of understanding how a design evolves, what the operational factors are, the financial factors, etc.  I would also say his book on interwar aircraft carrier development is really worth reading (American & British Aircraft Carrier Development 1919-1941).  See, one of the real problems is hindsight, and not understanding that things change and that they change in relation to each other.  What Norman conveys really well is that there are always changing variables.  He explains very well why the Brits got some things wrong in naval aviation, but often for very good reasons that were valid at the time.  

There is another wonderful history book, and it is sort of a joke about British cultural education.  It’s a book called 1066 and All That.  It is a satire of history.  It is written by two guys, who I think were middle and secondary school history teachers.  It’s called 1066 and All That 1066 And All Thatbecause the book is about the history that people remember, not what they were taught.  The authors called it that because they reckon that 1066 is the only date in British history that all Brits would remember from their school days.  And there is a great quote in the book about “The Irish Question.”  And it is worth thinking about: “The English never settled the Irish question because every time the English found the answer the Irish changed the question.” Naval policy and force structure development are a bit like that.

World War I produced some of the best poets in the English language.  Do you read poetry?

I do enjoy it.  I have a number of anthologies.  I particularly like Field Marshal Wavell’s anthology, Other Men’s Flowers.  If there is a poet of the navy, it’s actually FlowersRudyard Kipling.  Kipling wrote about the navy very sympathetically and very well.  Kipling is the poet of technology; he’s the poet of the engineers.  And he is also the poet of commanders – “The Song of Diego Valdez” and its examination of the “bondage of great deeds” is worth reading carefully.

Of course the naval experience was never the same as that of the army, and in many ways the education you needed in the navy was not the same in the army.  The navy didn’t get that sort of flower of a generation from liberal arts universities that the army did in 1914-18.  They didn’t get the Siegfried Sassoons, Robert Graves, and all the rest.  However, rather than poetry, when I lecture on leadership, particularly at the staff course to all three services, I suggest officers read these works: 

For the army, I suggest a book by John Masters.  He wrote Nightrunners of Bengal and other stuff.  Masters was an Indian Army lieutenant colonel at the age of thirty-two, and he earned a DSO and an OBE by the end of World War II, having been one of the leaders of Wingate’s Chindits in Burma.  I recommend his book called Man of War. It is set in pre-Dunkirk France.  It’s about a lieutenant colonel who ends up running a battalion group.  And it is based on history.  He faces off against Rommel.  Army officers like it because it is a great book on that level of command.

man of war

For the navy, I recommend The Cruel Sea by Nicholas Monsarrat.  He was a volunteer, a reservist, who started his war with complete inexperience as a sub-lieutenant and finished it commanding a frigate. So he understands his subject, leadership at sea in the Battle of the Atlantic. Another is Herman Wouk’s Caine Mutiny, which I would put in the same league.  It is the study of leadership in a slightly different context, but very valuable for all that.  Herman Wouk did the same as Monsarrat, he served in the Pacific War as a reserve officer.  I met him many years ago when he visited Australia and he told me that he had to write this book, but he was terrified how it would be received.  You know, that the US Navy (which he loved) would never talk to him. Instead what happened was that The Caine Mutiny was published and became a best seller very quickly.  And then for six weeks after it came out there was a deathly silence; none of his navy friends would talk to him.  Wouk was thinking “Oh God.”  Then someone asked the then-CNO publicly if he had read the book.  And the CNO said “It’s a great book!  I’ve met every one of the single people in that book, not on the same ship, but I’ve met all of them – it’s a great book.”  Herman Wouk told me he breathed a huge sigh of relief after hearing that.

Now, for air power, you should read the book Twelve O’clock High.  And actually, I recommend you watch the film as much as reading the book because the men who wrote the book wrote the film script.  And both of them had done full deployments in the US Army Air Corps in the bombing campaign over Europe.  In theory it is a high command novel, but in reality it isn’t, it’s about unit command in attrition warfare.

All these works convey a reality of the experience of command and war that in some ways expert fiction can do more easily than history.  If you read all of these books seriously, they’ll tell you the sort of things you should be thinking about. 

What is the best Nelson biography you would recommend? Other biographies you recommend?

Roger Knight’s The Pursuit of Victory: The Life and Achievement of Horatio Nelson.  Very good indeed; Head and shoulders above others.  I also think that Andrew Lambert’s Admirals book is very good – especially about his nineteenth century subjects.  I also recommend that every US naval officer read Admiral Elmo Zumwalt’s book On Watch.  Zumwalt made his mistakes as CNO from 1970 to 1974.  And of course he won’t admit many of them in his autobiography.  But, as the story of a genuine change effort as well as some interesting – and continuing – naval problems and how you deal with them, it is a very worthwhile read.  If you think of the subtext, and then you go and read other stuff, you can see he is sort of admitting that where he failed is engaging commissioned and noncommissioned leaders.  The US Navy was in a bad state in 1970 and something had to be done.  Navies can get disconnected from the culture of their nations.  This is not to do with standards or things like that.  It has more to do with cultural mores.  It’s the old thing about are you allowed to wear jeans as a liberty uniform?  If jeans are the accepted thing in society…well, then, yes, you should be.

What four people from history would you have at your dinner table?  And why?

If I start with Americans, William S. Sims. I suspect I would like to have dinner with Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt.  And I admire Harry S. Truman – he and the other two presidents were all readers, too.  Next, I’d like to meet Nelson.  Whatever Nelson had, the really striking thing about him is that he had this extraordinary ability that if the enemy did anything wrong Nelson went straight at them.  Nelson led at all levels.  Everybody working for Nelson loved him.  And he was, by all accounts, a great host at dinner himself!

As a historian digging into the archives, and as you’ve studied history, what are those things that you’ve touched and read that reminded you why you love being a historian?

Yes, there is that moment when you find something that nobody else has looked at before.  When you find something, a particularly important piece of evidence…there is one I found about the Battle of the Dogger Bank in January 1915.  It was in Beatty’s flag commander’s recollections written within two days of the battle – and nobody had picked up on this.  They were written before they got back in harbor.   There is a key narrative there about one vital tactical decision in the battle.  And if you read this you understand very differently why and how everybody else reacted.  

Another thing I ended up getting heavily involved in when doing research for World War I, was coal.  Coal turns out to be fundamental.  I ended up writing an academic paper on it because it was so important (“Coal and the Advent of the First World War at Sea).  It’s all to do with the sort of coal you used.  First, it is about understanding how the ships worked.  You now we have this picture of it being the boilers and the stokers…well, that’s not the problem.  The problem is the bunkers, and what’s called trimming.  It’s getting the coal from the bunkers to the stoke hold, that’s the problem, not shoveling it into the boilers.  In fact, quite a lot of the deck crew had to support trimming operations.  And because of this, the British had to change their manning to support trimming.  In World War I, for all major units, the last 25% of the coal was inaccessible if they were doing any sort of reasonable speed.  They couldn’t get the coal from the bunkers to the stoke holds fast enough.  That problem started at 60% capacity with the battle cruisers.  

800px-British.coalfields.19th.century
British Coalfields in the 19th Century

Then you get into types of coal.  The right coal for a warship boiler is what’s called semi-bituminous coal.  There is one area which produces the best such coal in the world – and it’s a particular section of the Welsh coal fields.  There were 40 collieries which produced what was called “Admiralty coal.”  Now, outside of them, are what’s called “steam coal” areas.  It’s still pretty good coal, but the Admiralty coal burnt producing almost no smoke (and that’s really important for its effect on visibility in battle). Furthermore, the coal lumps were the right size, and they “cauliflowered” – as the Admiralty coal heats up the top breaks open which actually increases the surface area and increases the efficiency of combustion.  Admiralty coal is what the Royal Navy used.  Basically, the difference in coal performance was – and here I have the Australian figures – because for this purpose [powering warships] Australian coal was crap. When the battle cruiser Australia arrived in Australia in 1913, naturally enough, the Australian government wanted it provided with Australian coal rather than Welsh Admiralty coal because Welsh Admiralty coal was much more expensive.  Now, Australia, with 31 boilers on Admiralty coal alone, could do 26 knots.  Using Australian coal, with supplementary oil firing, on all boilers, she could barely do 15 knots and her range was reduced by 40%-50%; and in fact, even then she would start having incredible problems with the boilers choking…with ash and debris buildup. 

Circumstantial evidence supports my contention that the Imperial German Navy did their high-speed steam trials using Welsh admiralty coal.  Knowing the German Navy was a political institution and that its official history Der Krieg zur See was written with an eye to encouraging Germany to rearm, it is not surprising that this doesn’t get a mention. I think what happened is that they were embarrassed, because this is not something you can admit, you know, you did your power trials with your prospective enemy’s fuel source.  The German battle cruisers could do 28 knots during sea trials.  As far as I can figure in an operational environment, no German major unit never achieved more than 24 knots sustained.  And in every German operation the ships are complaining about the quality of coal, because they are using Westphalian coal.  So you have serious operational implications.  It’s actually when you look at this closely that it does matter.

Sir, thank you for your time.

Thank you.

Rear Admiral James Goldrick, RAN(ret.), AO,CSC joined the Royal Australian Navy in 1974 and retired in 2012 as a two star Rear Admiral. He is a graduate of the RAN College, the Harvard Business School Advanced Management Program, the University of New South Wales and the University of New England, and a Doctor of Letters honoris causa of UNSW. He commanded HMA Ships Cessnock and Sydney (twice),

Rear Admiral James Goldrick, RAN(ret.)
Rear Admiral James Goldrick, RAN(ret.)

the RAN task group and the multinational maritime interception force in the Persian Gulf (2002) and the Australian Defence Force Academy (2003-2006 and 2011-12). He led Australia’s Border Protection Command (2006-2008) and the Australian Defence College (2008-2011). He is a Fellow of the RAN’s Sea Power Centre-Australia, a Non-Resident Fellow of the Lowy Institute for International Policy, Adjunct Professor of UNSW at ADFA and SDSC at The Australian National University and a Professorial Fellow of the Australian National Centre for Ocean Resources and Security. In the first half of 2015 he was a Visiting Fellow at All Souls College in the University of Oxford. James Goldrick’s books include: The King’s Ships Were at Sea: The War in the North Sea August 1914-February 1915 and No Easy Answers: The Development of the Navies of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, and, with Jack McCaffrie, Navies of South-East Asia: A Comparative Study. His latest book is Before Jutland: The Naval War in Northern European Waters, August 1914 — February 1915. The comments above are the author’s own.

Lieutenant Commander Christopher Nelson, USN, is an intelligence officer stationed at the US Pacific Fleet Headquarters in Honolulu, Hawaii.  Lieutenant Commander Nelson is a graduate of the US Naval War College and the navy’s operational planning school, the Maritime Advanced Warfighting School in Newport, Rhode Island.  The comments above are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the US Department of Defense or the US Navy.

On Books: An Interview with VADM James P. “Phil” Wisecup, USN(ret)

Vice Admiral James Wisecup recently sat down with me to chat about books and how they have shaped him throughout his career.  It was a wide-ranging discussion — covering everything from poetry, science-fiction, history, and some of his favorite authors.  Following our conversation, I purchased some of the recommendations he offers below.  Suddenly, my stack of books to read has become much, much taller.

The interview has been edited for style and length.

What do you think the state of reading is in the naval profession today?

I think everybody knows they should be reading.  I think that many naval officers are voracious readers. I’ve talked to a few of my friends in the last couple of weeks.  And one of the first things we always ask each other is: “What are you reading?” In the normal life of an active naval officer, you have to carve that time out to read, no one is going to give it to you.  If you are going to work those long days then you have to cultivate it in yourself.  And it is a lifelong thing if you do.  In formal education you can develop that, but you know, the naval officers’ ability to carve that time out to read is a personal thing, you either do or you don’t.  Unfortunately, everybody doesn’t make time to read.

What are three of your favorite biographies?  And why?

One is J.O. Richardson’s On the Treadmill To Pearl

Admiral James O. Richardson. He was relieved in 1941, shortly before the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Admiral James O. Richardson. He was relieved in 1941, shortly before the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Harbor.  Richardson was the fleet commander before Husband Kimmel.  Richardson got across the breakers with FDR over whether the fleet should stay out in Pearl Harbor and watch it diminish little by little, because there was no place to train — or to bring it back to United States for training.  Richardson wanted to bring the fleet back to the U.S.  Well, in the end, Roosevelt wanted to leave the Fleet out in Hawaii, so Richardson was asked to retire.  He was relieved by Husband Kimmel.  That’s one book I like.  I also enjoy the biography of Admiral Spruance, The Quiet Warrior.  Another book that I like is Eric Larrabee’s Commander in Chief.  Larrabee’s chapter on FDR is excellent.  All three of those books are great.   

What books do you think are timeless — ones that you would recommend to officers from ensign to admiral?  

The first book that appealed to me when I was a young officer was a book of collected essays by Jonathan Swift.  I read them when I was in my frigate wardroom.   This was years ago. These were the days before TV.  In that book was an essay he wrote on good manners and good breading.  I encourage you to read it.  It’s very interesting.  And it is where I developed some of my philosophy, some of my thinking.  The key thing he says in there, is that the person with the best manners is the person who makes others feel at ease.  When people think about manners they think about how they hold their fork, and sit, etc. But in the end what it really has to do with is a way of being.  Whether you want to put the other person at ease or make them tense. I have also recently been reading books about the Greeks.  Of course, part of that started when I was at the naval war college, with Thucydides.  J.E. Lendon wrote a book called Song Of Wrath.  And it is another take on the Peloponnesian War, and it is very interesting.   I like short stories, myself.  One is a collection of stories by Richard McKenna called The Left-Handed Monkey Wrench. It’s a hard to find book. Richard McKenna wrote the well-known book called The Sand Pebbles. Well, The Left-Handed Monkey Wrench is a series of stories that he tells of essentially the old Navy.  But what the book really is, is a book that talks about people.  That’s whats interesting about it in my view.  A lot of these kinds of stories are still relevant today because the people are still the central piece of the Navy.  Even though we work with machines — and we work a lot with machines — it is still about the stories you tell are rarely about the machines.  They are mostly about what people do.  

The Admiral's at work library.
The Admiral’s at work library.

There’s an author named Robert Harris who has written two books on the Romans, one is called Imperium the other is called Conspirata.  One of my heroes is Cicero.  While he wasn’t a perfect man, Harris tells the story of how Cicero rooted out corruption in many places. He also tells the story as his rise as a magistrate.  What you really see from reading these types of stories is that human nature is unchanging over time.  As I’ve read more-and-more of the classics, that’s what I’ve learned.  There is a book by Steven Pressfield called The Tides of War where he talks about Alcibiades.  It’s interesting because he basically says about Alcibiades is that “the Spartans understood battle, Alcibiades understood the rest.”  I reread that and I thought it was very interesting. Steven Pressfield has also written three nonfiction books that are very interesting.  The one I like the most is Do the Work.  There are times where you have to simply buckle down and work.  And if you know Pressfield’s story, you know he never had it easy.

That’s right.  I believe Pressfield wrote The Legend of Bagger Vance while living out of his car?

Yes, that’s absolutely right.  It’s a great story.

Other books that you think are timeless?

The other book that I came across — and this was in 1990, after Desert Storm — I came across the Norton Book of Modern War, edited by Paul Fussell. After I read it I wrote a letter to him.  This was in the days before e-mail.  He wrote me back on a postcard; he was in the imperial war museum doing research.  I was coming back from Desert Storm and I found Fussell’s book in Hong Kong, and I sent him a short note.  

Paul Fussell postcard

Another timeless book is Jacob Needleman’s The American Soul. Needleman is a philosopher out at the University of San Francisco.  One of the interesting things in this book is the preamble. He has a great quote in the book on how we shouldn’t take the U.S. for granted.  He has great anecdotes in this book about why the U.S. has become the country it is today.  There is also a great story later in the book about George Washington that people must read — the Michael Widman story about Euphrata.  It’s a story that goes to the American Soul.  Joseph Ellis’ Founding Brothers is also a great book.  One of the stories in there is the story about how Washington D.C. became the nation’s capital, in a story called “The Dinner.”

You’ve had a long and distinguished career.  Did you use books to prepare you for any of the jobs you have entered?

I didn’t necessarily use my reading to help me prepare for the job I was going into.  But often I came across books that were helpful when I was in a particular job.  Here’s an example, War and Politics by Bernard Brodie, which falls in the timeless category, and every naval officer should read this.  He writes this in 1973, and it really lays out the difference between the political and the military.  In the first chapter, Brodie asks the question, quoting Ferdinand Foch — “What’s the war about?”  Someone has to be able to explain what a war is about.  In the end, it’s up to the politicians to decide what is worth fighting for, and then explain that to everybody.

I also like to reread a section in The Thin Red Line, by James Jones.  And a movie was also made about it.  It is about World War II and Guadalcanal.  It’s one of those books in which there is fighting, but it also talks about risk.  What’s worth it?  In other words, the captain in the book doesn’t want to take his men to attack a machine gun nest, because he doesn’t want to get them killed.  There is some interesting dialogue in that book about what is worth it.

What book or writers did you think were great stylists that helped you with your own writing?

I love George Orwell.  His essays are very interesting.  He wrote a book called Why I Write.  It’s a little Penguin book, only about 120 pages. But it is a great book.  I’ve read most of his stuff and really enjoy it.

Do you enjoy poetry?

I do. In the Fussell book there is a good bit of poetry.  And some from the First World War; in it there is some from every war.  Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon, they are all in there.  There’s also some World War II poetry, like “The Ball Turret Gunner,” for example.  Fussell has included poetry in there all the way up to Vietnam.  So yes, I do like poetry.

If you could only choose one book to take with you, a book that you would come back to over-and-over again, what book would that be?

It is Paul Fussell’s book.  I’ve read it and reread it.  There are a lot of short stories in there, which are what I like.  Another book that I must mention is Hemingway’s book, called Men at War, which came out in the forties.  It is a selection of Hemingway’s favorite war stories.  He included, in its entirety, Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage.  I like Hemingway’s short stories as well.

Do you enjoy fiction?

Oh yes.  I particularly like William Gibson’s science fiction.  And those books over there, those are some of the books in the Harry Turtledove series — for example, Legion of Videssos — which I was reading with my son.

What’s your oldest book in your library?

Oh, that is at home.  It’s a book of Joseph Conrad’s short stories.  

Sir — Thank you for your time, I enjoyed it.

Thank you.  I enjoyed talking with you.

Vice Admiral Wisecup is the Director of the Chief of Naval Operations’ Strategic Studies Group, assuming the position on 1 October 2013. He is from Piqua, Ohio. A 1977 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, he served 36 years of active duty service. He earned his Master’s degree in International Relations from the University of Southern California, graduated from the Naval War College in 1998, and also earned a degree from the University of Strasbourg, France, as an Olmsted Scholar, in 1982.

 At sea, he served as executive officer of USS Valley Forge (CG 50) during Operation Desert Storm. As commanding officer, USS Callaghan (DDG 994), he was awarded the Vice Admiral James Stockdale Award for Inspirational Leadership. He served as commander, Destroyer Squadron 21 during Operation Enduring Freedom after 9/11. His last sea assignment was commander, Carrier Strike Group 7 (USS Ronald Reagan Strike Group).

Ashore, Wisecup was assigned to NATO Headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, served as force planner and ship scheduler for Commander, U.S. Naval Surface Forces, Pacific, and served as action officer for Navy Headquarters Plans/Policy Staff. He served as a CNO fellow on the Chief of Naval Operations Strategic Studies Group; as director, White House Situation Room, and Commander, U.S. Naval Forces Korea. He served as the 52nd president of the U.S. Naval War College.  

Lieutenant Commander Christopher Nelson is CIMSEC’s book review editor.  Readers interested in reviewing books for CIMSEC can contact him at books@cimsec.org.

Innovation Week Kickoff

To mark the success of the first annual Defense Entrepreneurs Forum last year, and to set the stage for DEF 2.0 happening this week in Chicago, The Bridge and CIMSEC have come together to offer a second joint series of posts, this time on the topic of innovation. And this discussion couldn’t come at a more timely moment for many of our followers, given that…

  • Our era of protracted conflict shows no sign of abating, and the very same time that traditional great power rivalries continue to play themselves out.
  • Our current plans for force structure and employment are unsustainable given our internal fiscal situation, and may not be relevant given our anticipated threats even if we can resource them
  • Changes in technology are driving changes in the way we socialize, and are also disrupting traditional balances of power in ways that we cannot yet grasp or adequately anticipate

Why Innovation?

But putting all that aside, why do we innovate, and why do so many of us seem to actually embrace the process of seeking change, even if not all of us do so eagerly?

Because it is literally in our nature to do so.

The story of our ascendance on the planet earth, and our explorations beyond it, despite our otherwise low position on the natural food chain, springs from our ability to innovate new and creative ways to cope with our external environment. Our brains are wired to find satisfaction in making new connections, and seeing existing things in new ways, which has led to our ability to survive in even the most hostile environments throughout history, even with relatively simple technologies.

Because innovation is the key to adaptation in hostile and competitive environments if you want to have a say in your own destiny.

Successful survival in any sense comes from the ability to adapt – to adequately match your response to the challenges that the environment presents, challenges you can never perfectly predict in advance, or sense in the present. The best way to hedge against this uncertainty is to have a variety of potential responses ready, or to design in the capability to rapidly develop adequate ones when a possible threat becomes an actual one. In an organizational sense, we can characterize this organizational ability to adapt as having strategic agility. But agility does not simply mean having many different types of technology available to you – it means being adaptive along the entire process of change within social systems.

Because we have no choice.

The world is constantly changing around us, and we must be adaptive even just to keep the things we already have. But it’s becoming increasingly clear that our current plans and methods are not keeping pace with the rates of change either internally or externally, and our only way out of our current death spirals will be successful innovation.

What are our challenges to successful innovation?

In his book Military Adaptation in War (With Fear of Change), Williamson Murray summarizes the primary challenges that make successful adaptation and innovation difficult:

The greatest difficulty clearly has to do with the fundamental nature of war itself. Second, human nature – especially when the egos of leaders at the highest levels become involved – places considerable difficulties in the path of understanding the tactical and operational issues military organizations confront. Without that understanding, adaptation to the actual conditions of conflict simply cannot take place, or even worse, will follow the wrong path.

Making change more difficult is the harsh fact that incompetence, rather than competence, lies at the heart of man’s character. Inevitably, a few individuals possess the clarity of vision, the self-discipline, the imagination, and the toughness of mind to understand the daunting problems that war creates. Moreover, effective performance at one level of war rarely guarantees success at the next level…That is why there have been so few great captains in military history…The few competent can see the forest and the wider landscape of war; most, however, see only the details and the irrelevant.

Exacerbating the difficulties that military institutions face is the fact that, more often than not, they reach decisions by corporate agreement. And there are few institutions in human life more dysfunctional in reaching clear, distinct, purposeful direction than committees.

Finally, and perhaps most daunting, is the fact that war inevitably involves issues at the political, strategic, operational, and tactical levels. That spread of perspective invariably presents contradictory choices to military leaders. Moreover, the qualities that provide for excellence at one level may prevent adaptation at the other levels. “

If Murray is correct, it’s clear that the challenge of innovation goes far beyond investments in the right tools and technology – it requires deliberate engagement along the entire process of change within military societies, to include how the groups that use the technology are formed, and how they think.

How We’ll Talk About Innovation in this Series

  • We’ll provide a five part series, “The Foundations of Innovation”, to introduce and discuss a three part model of innovation and change based around the mutual evolutions of “Ideas, Groups, and Tools”,
  • We’ll provide examples of innovative ways to look at some the challenges discussed in the “Foundations” series
  • We’ll provide some practical advice from those actively pushing for innovation
  • Practicing what we preach, we’ll leave open space in the format for creative additions before, during, and after DEF

Recommended Reading

The essays in this series will provide evidence from three noteworthy case studies on military innovation, and one brilliant gem written by a self-described “corporate fool”.

The first is Elting Elmore Morison’s Men, Machines, and Modern Times, complied in 1966.

morris

Morison was an author of non-fiction books, an essayist, a United States historian of technology, a military biographer, an MIT professor emeritus, and was notably the conceiver and founder of MIT’s interdisciplinary program in Science, Technology and Society (STS), through which MIT faculty and students focus on the ways in which scientific, technological and social factors interact. During World War II he served in the Naval Reserve.

 

The Second is Williamson Murray’s 2011 book Military Adaptation in War (With Fear of Change).

militaryinnovation

Murray has taught at the United States Air War College, the United States Military Academy, and the Naval War College. According to the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, he “also served as a Secretary of the Navy Fellow at the Navy War College, the Centennial Visiting Professor at the London School of Economics, the Matthew C. Horner Professor of Military Theory at the Marine Corps University, the Charles Lindbergh Chair at the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum, and the Harold K. Johnson Professor of Military History at the Army War College”. He previously served in the US Air Force, including a tour in SE Asia with the 314th Tactical Air Wing (C-130s).

 

The third is Stephen Peter Rosen’s 1994 book, Winning the Next War: Innovation and the Modern Military.

winning

Stephen Peter Rosen is Harvard College Professor and Beton Michael Kaneb Professor of National Security and Military Affairs at Harvard University, was a professor in the strategy department at Naval War College, and was director of political-military affairs at the National Security Council in the Reagan Administration.

The fourth is Steven Johnson’s 2011 book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation.

good ideas

Steven Johnson is a contributing editor to Wired, he writes regularly for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Financial Times, and many other periodicals. He will also be the host of the upcoming BBC and PBS series,

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0af00UcTO-c

Johnson is also the host of the television series How We Got To Now, a documentary on the history of innovation currently airing on BBC and PBS.

http://video.pbs.org/program/how-we-got-now/

And finally, Gordon MacKenzie’s 1998 book Orbiting the Giant Hairball: A Corporate Fool’s Guide to Surviving with Grace.

hairball

Gordon MacKenzie was an artist and card designer for Hallmark Corporation who established Hallmark’s Humor Workshop, and eventually created his own position as a “self styled corporate holy man” and “loyal subversive” for Hallmark with the self-created job title of “Creative Paradox”, who served as the the “liaison between the chaos of creativity and the discipline of business”.

http://www.fastcompany.com/32950/how-your-company-giant-hairball

Enjoy the series, and we hope to see you at DEF 2.0!

http://defenseentrepreneurs.org/def2014/