Tag Archives: Book Review

Other People’s Wars: The U.S. Military and the Challenge of Learning from Foreign Conflicts

Sterling, Brent L. Other People’s Wars: The US Military and the Challenge of Learning from Foreign Conflicts. Washington DC, Georgetown University Press, 2021. 336 pp. $39.95 (soft cover). ISBN: 1647120594.

By LtCol Adam Yang, USMC

The conflict between Ukraine and Russia has already raged on for nearly two years and continues to provide the US Department of Defense an incredible opportunity to derive insights on the changing character of war. Similarly, Israel’s offensive against Hamas terrorists in Gaza today may likely reveal new insights on urban and tunnel warfare in densely populated areas. 

Though it can be quite hazardous to draw definitive lessons for an ongoing conflict, there is a remarkable appetite across the defense community to extract preliminary lessons and implications from their unique vantages. For observer nations, the spectacle of a foreign conflict might reveal critical battlefield information on new capabilities and concepts and provide the critical information-edge needed to overcome an opponent in future battle. Why learn the hard way when you can learn from the wartime successes and challenges of others?

Though there is plenty of literature on learning and training processes, Brent L. Sterling’s book, Other People’s Wars, provides a structured academic view into the lesser-examined topic on how, specifically, the US military has served as third-party but direct observers to learn from foreign conflicts in the field. Sterling delves into four historical examples when the United States deployed some of its best military minds to learn up close battlefield lessons in a bygone era that lacked the information systems we enjoy today. The four cases are the Crimean War (1854-56), the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05), the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), and the Yom Kippur War (October 1973). 

In each case, Sterling provides a snapshot of each respective conflict and answers four basic questions: 1) How did the US military attempt to identify lessons, 2) What lessons did the services identify, 3) How did the services apply those lessons, and 4) What were some of the implications of those applied lessons? As an overarching theme, Other People’s Wars is less about the specific lessons derived from each conflict and more about the leadership, bureaucratic, parochial, and cultural challenges military organizations face when they attempt to “learn” lessons and enact resource decisions based on foreign battlefield information.1

The academic foundation of Other People’s Wars blends literature from military innovation, information diffusion, and organizational learning and Sterling, thankfully, keeps much of his analysis away from academic jargon. Sterling rightly distinguishes the act of “drawing a lesson” and “learning a lesson.” The former implies the process of collecting, observing and deriving a valid insight from a foreign conflict. The latter idea of learning itself relates to how organizations actually apply observed lessons to improve their combat effectiveness.2 In other words, Sterling suggests that organizational learning does not truly occur unless there is actually change in organizational behavior based on related combat findings.

Across four cases, Other People’s Wars offers the gritty details how the US Army, Navy, and Air Force leaders strived to glean insights from foreign conflicts based on their unique political climates, budgetary constraints, and cultural lenses. The cases then show how military organizations enacted or failed to enact change after returning home with their troves of newly acquired tactical knowledge. The decision and authority to initiate such studies were almost exclusively top-down given the political sensitivities of their work and invasiveness with scrutinizing foreign armies in active combat zones. The ideal method to learn from foreign conflicts is to embed neutral observers with all belligerents to capture reciprocal perspectives of their engagements. However, at least in the Sterling’s cases, this standard was rarely met save for a few limited instances.

For example, during the Crimean War in June of 1855, Secretary of War Jefferson Davis dispatched three trusted Army officers to Crimea via Russia. However, though acting as neutral observers, these officers were blocked by both sides (France and Britain on one side and Russia on the other) and lost valuable observation time waiting in neutral areas because local commanders did not want any distractions amidst active battle. Later, during the Russo-Japanese War, the US War Department’s General Staff dispatched eight observers to observe both Japanese and Russian forces with greater success. Those observers gained enough access to observe the aftermath of the Japanese siege of Port Arthur in December 1904, and directly monitor the Battle of Mukden on the front lines in February 1905 – two of the most decisive battles of the entire conflict.

When the United States could not gain direct access to a foreign battle, it leveraged third-party observers for direct reporting of critical capabilities and systems. Sterling shows how the US military frequently leaned on its network of defense attaches. During the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, US defense attaches in Spain, Germany, Italy, and Russia, developed a dense network of local contacts and foreign officials to help collect.3

The Pitfalls and Perils of Learning from Others

For US military personnel attempting to learn from foreign conflicts, Sterling draws a clear line between their observations, drawn lessons, and reports back to senior military and political leaders. However, it is the process of stateside reception and critique and of those lessons that complicates the learning process in each historical case. In some instances, the US Army or Navy enthusiastically adopted lessons from the front lines that would trigger systematic doctrinal and capability changes across their Services.

To illustrate this point, Sterling describes how the Army dispatched Major General Donn A. Starry – a future Commanding General for the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command (1977-81) – to capture lessons from the Israelis shortly after the Yom Kippur War in 1973. In turn, the Army would transform Starry’s findings, particularly those related to combined arms and the need for greater air-ground coordination, to guide the development of its famed Air-Land Battle doctrine over the next ten years. Yet, this example tends to the be exception rather than the norm in terms of bureaucratic change. Sterling identifies at least five recurring challenges the US military faced when learning from others:

Preexisting Preferences. A recurring culprit in this book, prior organizational preferences shape every aspect of a learning process, including what data to pursue, how to interpret such data, and whether any “lessons” are relevant to the service. The Navy believed that the Russo-Japanese War validated Alfred Thayer Mahan’s core idea that “concentrating capital warships was the key to winning fleet engagements” and that defense-oriented alternatives were a losing proposition for any great navy.4 Though this lesson may be have been “correct,” the Japanese never allowed US Navy personnel directly near the waters of Port Arthur and forced the Navy personnel to interpret battle information from Japanese liaisons and foreign attaches that had first-hand accounts of the battle.5

Failure to Identify What Happened. The inability to access relevant battlefield information undermines the entire learning process. Surprisingly, the act of sending multiple observers to document different battlefield phases and stages tended to generate contradictory and conflicting reports, which buried important lessons under the noise and weight of lesser observations.

Application of Disputed Lessons. Senior leaders with bureaucratic power can build “artificial consensus” and use ambiguous lessons to muscle through preferred programs. Sterling cites how Secretary Davis and some Army leaders used the Crimean War to justify the development of more masonry fortifications after claiming this is what allowed Russia to repel the assaults by the Allies, rather than focusing on the failure of Allied coordination during the assault.

Rejection or Ignoring of Lessons. This pitfall occurs when military forces ignore or write off important observations because they do not directly apply to their current activities. Sterling shows that in the 1930s the Army Air Corps failed to take notice of German close air support tactics because they were primarily focused on the effects of strategic bombing.

Identifying Contradictory Guidance. Another common challenge includes the identification of two or more relevant lessons that signal contradictory behaviors and investments. After the Yom Kippur War, the Army observers separately noted that it was more beneficial to boost the “tooth” (i.e. combat power) versus “tail” (sustainment) ratio – and vice versa – to generate the greatest utility from its armor formations. Consequently, the Army diluted its limited resources for several years as it experimented with both courses of action.

A Modern Context

As the conflict in Ukraine nears the end of its second year, the Department of Defense and other foreign militaries will continue to capture what they believe to be relevant information on the conflict inform resource decisions. Modern information technologies provide military experts and researchers incredible access to information and individuals at incredible rates, however, an on-the-ground investigatory approach even today would yield incredible insight and knowledge that one does not get from distant observation. Even Carl von Clausewitz recommended that military leaders “should be sent to observe operations and learn what war is like.”6

Sterling’s book offers a historical gateway into this phenomenon and provides remarkable insight into the benefits and challenges of learning from foreign conflicts from an American point of view. Other People’s Wars mostly focuses on the challenges with institutional learning and, admittedly, does not attempt to detail how to overcome such issues. Sterling writes that there are “no easy remedies;” but stresses the need for organizations to build complete and objective histories of events, and to disseminate findings widely to solicit a broad assessment of findings. For a different view on this subject, readers can also explore John Nagl’s dissertation turned book, Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife, as he elucidates how organizational culture skews organizational learning by comparing the US Army and British Army experience with counterinsurgency.

Overall, Brent Sterling does a remarkable job illuminating the benefits and challenges of organizational learning in the US military. Though this subject has been written on in other forms, Other People’s Wars captures the US military’s historical experience methodically and with great clarity, purpose, and evidence. While these cases are historical, the stories related to leadership, hubris, and bureaucratic slow-walking are timeless and seemingly reminiscent to the strategic churn that occurs today. This book is a must-read for military professionals, educators, and those interested in organizational change.

Lieutenant Colonel Adam Yang, PhD is a Marine Corps strategist assigned to the Strategy Branch in the Plans, Policies, and Operations directorate of Headquarters Marine Corps.


1. Brent L. Sterling, Other People’s Wars: The US Military and the Challenge of Learning from Foreign Conflicts (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2021).

2. Sterling, 6.

3. Sterling, 138–39.

4. Sterling, 74.

5. Sterling, 62.

6. Carl von Clausewitz, On War, ed. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton University Press, 1989), 122.

Featured Image: Ukrainian troops participate in a military exercise. The main task of this brigade is to shoot down Shahed-136/131 drones used by Russia to attack Ukraine. (Photo via the “Rubizh” Rapid Response Brigade of the National Guard of Ukraine)

CIMSEC Holiday Reading List 2023

By the CIMSEC Team

Happy holidays shipmates! The CIMSEC team has once again put our heads together for what is our fourth annual Holiday Reading List. Below you will find a selection of books we have read and enjoyed over the past year and some that we plan on enjoying in the future (and that we think you might enjoy, too). And of course, we have noted when recommended authors have been interviewed by CIMSEC and come on the Sea Control Podcast to talk about their work. So whether you need to find a book for that special navalist in your life, or if you need something to read on the beach with your toes in the sand, or curled up by the fire – we have got you covered. Enjoy, and happy holidays from the CIMSEC team to all our readers and listeners!

Brendan Costello
Sea Control Associate Producer

The Admirals by Walter R. Borneman

Borneman masterfully reviews the naval careers of all four of the U.S. Navy’s Fleet Admirals – Nimitz, Halsey, Leahy, and King – from their humble beginnings in Annapolis to the height of the Second World War, and their instrumental roles therein. Alongside illustrating their influence in the Pacific theater, Borneman simultaneously conveys each admiral’s personal leadership style and mutual interactions that portray their very human flaws and strengths. The Admirals is an intriguing look at the human component of leadership and some of the United States’ greatest military leaders in its greatest moment of crisis. 

The Chinese Invasion Threat by Ian Easton

The Chinese Invasion Threat analyzes the military and political factors of a cross-strait amphibious invasion of Taiwan. Most analysis from the U.S. perspective on a cross-strait conflict emphasizes countering PLA operations in the Western Pacific and largely undervalues the island and its immediate waters. Easton’s analysis not only provides a unique perspective on the strategic importance of Taiwan to a growing discourse on intelligence analysis, but is infused with the author’s cultural, social, and geographic understanding gleaned from years of study and life on the island. For anyone interested in the Indo-Pacific, especially those of the amphibious variety, this is a must-read.

Chip War by Chris Miller

Miller reviews the humble beginnings of the semiconductor, the intricacies of semiconductor design and production, and the microchip’s current and future significance. He seamlessly blends the economic and geopolitical motivations and challenges of every major stakeholder in the industry, revealing that the future of American military dominance, and China’s, hinges on tiny, nano-meter-thick slabs of silicon. If you want to understand the importance of East Asia to American technological development and foreign policy, this is a great place to start.

Dmitry Filipoff
Director of Online Content

The Origins of Victory: How Disruptive Military Innovation Determines the Fates of Great Powers by Andrew Krepinevich

Military transformation has had an outsized impact on the course of global events and history. The ability of militaries to effectively transform and be superior learning organizations is closely connected to their ability to win and deter wars. In this deeply illuminating book, Andrew Krepinevich dives into major historical case studies of how militaries transformed themselves and evolved their visions of future warfare. Krepinevich focuses on the key personalities and institutional properties that enable or hinder military transformation. The result is an insightful work that shines a light on how to navigate the often tortuous and risky process of military transformation. Origins of Victory also highlights critical shortfalls in the U.S. military’s ability to be an effective learning organization, its deep-seated struggle to manifest meaningful new operational concepts, and how this bodes for its future competitiveness.

Navy Staff Officer’s Guide: Leading with Impact from Squadron to OPNAV by Dale C. Rielage

Navy staffs perform invaluable work for the fleet, yet formal staff officer training may not effectively prepare officers for all the challenges and opportunities that come with these roles. In the Navy Staff Officer’s Guide, Dale Rielage provides a comprehensive overview of major naval staff functions and responsibilities. Rielage draws on extensive personal experience working on navy staffs to describe critical staff dynamics and offer recommendations on how to succeed. The Naval Staff Officer’s Guide is also infused with practical anecdotes and vignettes that illustrate what and what not to do as a staff officer. This book will long serve as an outstanding resource and in-depth look at how Navy staffs enable critical command functions and serve the fleet. Read CIMSEC’s interview with Dale on the Naval Staff Officer’s Guide here.

A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine

A diplomat arrives in the heart of the capital city of a powerful galactic empire, determined to preserve the independence of her small polity. Yet her arrival is overshadowed by the recent assassination of her predecessor, whose long absence from home obscures the political state of play. Gripped by imperial intrigue and surrounded by violently deteriorating politics, diplomat Mahit Dzmare is inexorably pulled into the highest levels of empire as unconscionable bargains are considered and discovered. A Hugo Award winner, A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine is a spellbinding story of political machination, brimming with alluring personalities and weighty mysteries. Its engrossing sequel and fellow Hugo Award winner, A Desolation Called Peacereveals how the politics of fleet commanders and defense ministers can be decisive, especially in an escalating first-contact war.

Andrew Frame
Sea Control Associate Producer

In The Hurricane’s Eye by Nathaniel Philbrick

The American Revolution may have been started on the green in Lexington, Massachusetts, but the end began in the choppy waters off Chesapeake Bay. By late 1780, Washington knew he needed the help of the French Navy. But coordinating a land army with a fleet was next to impossible. On the first of September 1781, the Battle of the Chesapeake – fought without a single American ship – set the last moves in play that would eventually culminate in the victory at Yorktown.

Operation Drumbeat by Michael Gannon

Fifteen days after Pearl Harbor, U-123 backed out of the submarine pen in Lorient, France, and began a patrol the would bring the war in Europe to the American homeland. Michael Gannon tells the story of the first U-boat attacks along the United States Atlantic Coast during World War Two. For almost seven months, they chewed through shipping unimpeded, demonstrating an incompetence on the part of U.S. Navy leadership that cost dearly in lives, cargo, and ships.

The Ship and the Storm by Jim Carrier

If you are old enough, you may remember Miami-based Windjammer Barefoot cruises, “tall ships” that took passengers on hedonistic Caribbean cruises starting in the late 1950’s. Jim Carrier takes us though the period around October 27, 1998 when Hurricane Mitch sank the 282-foot schooner, taking 31 lives. His narrative explores the lives of the passengers, crew, and the ownership, as the tragedy unfolds against a timeline of National Hurricane Center advisories.

Nathan Miller
Sea Control Co-Host

They Marched Into Sunlight by David Maraniss

While not explicitly a maritime book, They Marched Into Sunlight, is easily the best book on the Vietnam War I have ever read. Maraniss utilizes three narratives in his book (infantrymen on the front lines, student-protestors, and political decision makers) to capture the chaos of the U.S. experience.

Lincoln and His Admirals by Craig L. Symonds

This book does a masterful job of exploring the complex and enthralling characters of the Union Navy in the American Civil War. Symonds investigates not only the strategic and operational aspects of Union efforts, but the interpersonal and political intrigue that typified the top decision makers in that conflict. This book is also a recipient of the Lincoln Prize.

Armada by Colin Martin and Geoffrey Parker

Armada is an exhaustive investigation of the Spanish attempt to invade England in 1588. Dr. Colin Martin was also a guest on Sea Control 467 to speak about this seminal work. I was struck not only by the astounding detail, academic rigor, and photos but by the ease with which one can read this book.

Power Up edited by Steven Leonard, Jonathan Klug, Kelsey Cipolla, and Jon Niccum

Steven Leonard came on Sea Control 473 to discuss his most recent work, Power Up. This edited volume explores the character building and leadership themes that make superheroes so compelling. Leonard is also known as Doctrine Man and regularly publishes humorous and insightful cartoons on a variety of social media platforms.

To Be Read:

The Greatest Coast Guard Rescue Stories Ever Told edited by Tom McCarthy

The Greatest Coast Guard Rescue Stories Ever Told is the next book on my “to read” list. It is an edited volume that documents some of the United States Coast Guard rescues that have built its reputation as the preeminent search and rescue (SAR) organization in the world

Walker Mills
Sea Control Co-Host and CIMSEC Senior Editor

The Mediterranean: A History edited by David Abulafia

I read this book while on vacation in Spain and Italy and it helped me understand the places I was visiting in the greater context of Mediterranean history. Abulafia has pulled together nine excellent chapters that cover the maritime and terrestrial history of the Mediterranean, from pre-history to the present ,and work well as an introduction to the region or in challenging some of the history you thought you knew.

White Sun War: The Campaign for Taiwan by Mick Ryan

The latest book from retired Australian general Mick Ryan is fiction and it is a book I quite literally couldn’t put down. A prescient mix of combat narrative, just-out-of-reach technology, and a realistic geopolitical scenario, the book will push readers to think about the possibility of a Taiwan crisis more seriously. It is a worthy companion of books like Ghost Fleet and 2034: A Novel of the Next War. You can also listen to Ryan talk about his approach to “useful fiction” on Sea Control 258.

To Be Read:

Maritime Unmanned: From Global Hawk to Triton by Ernst Snowden and Robert Wood

As the U.S. Marine Corps and other sea services around the world look increasingly toward the capability provided by unmanned systems, understanding the history of unmanned systems in the maritime domain is important. I’m looking forward to digging into this one.

Chris O’Connor
Vice President

Questioning the Carrier by Jeff Vandenengel

Building off the work of Captain Wayne Hughes and Captain Jerry Hendrix (ret.), among others, this is a clear-eyed examination of the fleet design of the U.S. Navy and how it should be changed in the era of missile warfare. The book reads as a short history of naval warfare and technological change with excellent breakdowns of air, surface, and undersea warfare tactics and how they apply to the current carrier-centric fleet. The future “Flex Fleet” that it proposes does not fix all fleet design problems, but the discussion in the book is a vital part of the debate.

Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson

Despite this book’s over 1,100-page length, I burned through it. Published in 2000, it is a healthy dose of historical fiction about a Second World War secret crypto detachment, weaved into a plot that takes place in 1999. It is a journey that passes through the history of computing and cryptography, with multiple narratives that weave a conspiracy storyline across generations. I know that I did not get all the programming references in this book, but I found it a fun read that had a healthy balance of the cerebral and the exciting.

Erebus: One Ship, Two Epic Voyages, and the Greatest Naval Mystery of All Time by Michael Palin

This book is the perfect holiday read for anyone who is maritime history and geography buff. It chronicles the age of polar exploration for the mid-19th Century Royal Navy, when there was a competition between the maritime nations for geographic and naturalistic discoveries. Its readability keeps the wealth of interesting facts coming with the subtle humor and dry tongue-in-cheek sensibility of the comic mind of a Monty Python member who was also the President of the Royal Geographical Society. Bonus: The audiobook is read by the author!

Addison Pellerano
Sea Control Associate Producer

The Mysterious Case of Rudolf Diesel: Genius, Power, and Deception on the Eve of World War I by Douglas Brunt

This is a little-known history about the inventor and the story behind how the diesel engine came to be. Coupled with the mystery of his disappearance, it is an interesting history book about an episode that changed naval power forever.

On Dangerous Ground: America’s Century in the South China Sea by Gregory B. Polling

Poling details the United States’ history in the South China Sea, between territorial disputes, and the moves that each nation has or has not taken up to the present day.

The Kill Chain: Defending America in the Future of High-Tech Warfare by Christian Brose

An inside look on how the U.S. government and Department of Defense acquire platforms and weapons to fight America’s wars. Brose argues that we should break from the current model to move towards a model that focuses on the idea of a “Kill Chain” rather than specific capabilities. 

Jared Samuelson
Executive Producer and Co-Host of the Sea Control

The Titanic and the City of Widows It Left Behind – The Forgotten Victims of the Fatal Voyage by Julie Cook

A great story of the forgotten personal impacts from an author with a personal history with the disaster. Listen to the author discuss the book on Sea Control 476

Airborne Anti-Submarine Warfare From the First World War to the Present Day by Michael Glynn

Whether you are a novice or a professional with a few decades of experience hunting submarines, this book has a lot to offer on one of the most complex tactical problems confronting modern naval officers. Glynn also happens to be a tremendous interview guest and you can listen to him on Sea Control 468.

The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny & Murder by David Grann

Grann goes into the archives to discuss the arduous journey endured by the crew of the Wager as they wrecked on the southern tip of South America before making their way home. A great story that spurs the reader to ponder what they would do in trying circumstances. Listen to Grann on Sea Control 440

In Deepest Secrecy: Dutch Submarine Espionage Operations from 1968-1991 by Jaime Karremann

Most readers will be familiar with Blind Man’s Bluff, the story of U.S. Cold War submarine operations. In this book, Jaime Karremann chronicles operations by the Dutch Navy, to include their initial sorties into northern waters that just barely avoided catastrophe, as well as operations in the Mediterranean against Soviet fleets at anchor. You can find Karremann on Sea Control 444

Chris Stockdale

The Deadly Trade: The Complete History of Submarine Warfare from Archimedes to the Present by Iain Ballantyne

Ballantyne’s work charts the early development and use of submarines in warfare and the various roles they played in the First and Second World Wars. Particular analysis is given to some of the most important and impactful missions conducted by more notable boats during the conflict, highlighting the contribution of submarines and their crews. The work also brilliantly covers the Cold War period and gives considerable insight into the roles of submarines during this era and their importance in ensuring and maintaining nuclear deterrence at sea. This is a first-class read, highly interesting, well written and well researched. For those with an interest in submarine warfare, I thoroughly recommend it!

Featured Image: Artwork created with Midjourney AI.

Tech Trends and the Navy-Marine Corps Team

By Christian Heller

Soon after a new year, it is worth considering again the forecasts of futurists and the impacts their predictions may have on the naval services. Predictions about the future of war have often been inaccurate and sometimes detrimental to military institutions. For instance, H.G. Wells correctly predicted the emergence of aviation and bombing, but incorrectly predicted widespread militarized societies and the willing capitulation of defeated combatants. Kori Schake explains this recurrence of failure: “Futurists of warfare suffer from the same failures of imagination that frequently shackle their brethren in other professions: They overemphasize present trends and assume that their society’s cultural norms will similarly bind their adversaries.”

Best-selling book lists are replete with futurologists and their latest texts about the changing decades of warfare ahead. Thinkers like Paul Scharre lead the way at the intersection of artificial intelligence and national security. The works of P.W. Singer and David Sanger are near canon for information and cyber warfare. Authors such as these are widely reviewed and familiar to many. Two lesser-known books about the overall changing trends in the world today are reviewed here to add a wider societal and cultural context to the rapidly advancing technologies the Navy and Marine Corps are adapting to. Both raise important questions not so much about the systems and weapons of the future services, but about the processes, interactions, societies, and operating environments of the next decades.

The Industries of the Future by Alec Ross

Alec Ross, a former State Department advisor to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, wrote The Industries of the Future based largely on his travels and experience while working in government. As Secretary Clinton’s advisor for innovation, Ross identified and assessed trends he saw emerging outside of the United States, most of which happened in disadvantaged countries. The topics of the book range from artificial intelligence and cybersecurity to genomics and education. Ross keeps the chapters in narrative form to talk about possible changes for governments and societies without distracting the reader with technical details.

Ross addresses how mobile phones and digital apps have accelerated the rates of development in poor nations by skipping entire phases such as hardwired telephone lines. He also repeats the common alarm about the security perils of digitization, and how all data-dependent systems are inherently vulnerable to cyberattack. One of Ross’s most interesting contributions is his insights into urbanization and innovation. Alongside their economic development, vibrant and growing cities are necessary centers of innovation due to their accumulation of financial and intellectual capital. Closed and authoritarian societies have largely forfeited their access to these potential innovation hubs. While countries like Saudi Arabia spend enormous amounts of money in grand projects to establish domestic ‘Silicon Valleys,’ Ross argues that societal features like cultural openness and independence from government censorship are some of the most important and underappreciated factors in technological advancement.

Ross also raises multiple issues which may influence the future Navy and Marine Corps. He highlights how advanced global data algorithms failed to correctly predict the scope of the Ebola outbreak in Africa because the programs could not monitor information in the local languages. This big data vulnerability could easily be at play in any of the Navy’s operational areas, and raises the importance of maintaining human oversight in intelligence and operational analysis. He also covers how smaller countries are making rapid advances in technology and innovation, like in Estonia where children learn to code and use robots in primary school.

Ross continues, “What I have seen in Africa makes me believe that industries of the future will have more broadly distributed centers of innovation and wealth creation than was the case in the past 20 years, when Silicon Valley dominated all comers.” This fact reinforces the observed changes to the Navy and Marine Corp’s future operating environment. Operational theaters of the future will be anything but vast, open expanses with freedom to maneuver and the ability to affect societies and geography how we see fit. Instead, the populations we fight amongst may very well be more advanced technologically than the Marines and Sailors deployed there. This dispersion of knowledge also means the dispersion of power, and the government and militaries which the U.S. has spent decades supporting and building relationships with may prove unreliable partners or outright antagonists in a time of conflict.

The Inevitable: Understanding The 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future by Kevin Kelly

Instead of focusing on case studies like Ross, Kevin Kelly, a co-founder of Wired, writes about 12 technological trends taking place amongst societies as a whole in The Inevitable: Understanding The 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future. Instead of pointing to specific outcomes or endpoints, Kelly describes the trends with  verbs and points to how they are changing various facets of our lives. The chapters describe trends like “cognifying” (the addition of smart technology, artificial intelligence, and the cloud to everything), “flowing” (all information becomes non-stop, real-time, and on-demand), and “screening” (every surface is an interactive space of some sort and can change at our will).

The Navy is already driving towards some of the trends which Kelly investigates.”Accessing,” or the trend of placing information and services in the cloud to be accessed anywhere at any time, is familiar to the force as it pursues cloud technologies. “Remixing,” i.e. breaking down existing products into individual pieces to re-assemble for new purposes, is familiar to any Sailor or Marine with Carrier Strike Group (CSG), Expeditionary Strike Group (ESG), or operational experience in which units are task-organized to meet combatant commander needs.

Other trends remain elusive from the naval services. Decentralized collaboration on a mass scale maximizes small group power, what Kelly dubs “Sharing,” is a perennial struggle for the Navy, Marine Corps, and other branches, and usually half-heartedly pursued in some form of enhanced integration or coordination. Such issues are natural in stove-piped bureaucracies, and the best efforts of the services to overcome them have had limited success. “Interacting” and changing how users engage with systems and computers, likely via augmented reality, is an exciting new area which has been pursued on a limited scale, primarily for training purposes.

“Questioning” builds off of the other existing trends to drive institutions and individuals forward. As artificial intelligence, cloud data, and increased networks make answers easily available, developing the right questions will become even more important for organizational development. It is in this trend that the Navy and Marine Corps are most seriously lacking. Some of the traits of a good question include “not concerned with a right answer…cannot be answered immediately…challenges existing answers…” Such questions drive real innovation. These traits are largely unfamiliar in an organization which prides itself on repeatable tasks and exercises with little time or resources for in-depth experimentation.

Some of the examples used in the book have direct pertinence to future military operations. The digitization of and access to information could reform professional military education (PME). Dematerialization, which is the lightening of objects as materials become lighter and more durable, will impact every facet of the military from Marines’ body armor to the airframes of naval aircraft. Blockchain technologies are already being researched for uses other than finance like communication networks and policy agreements. Future developments could play a major role in the next generation of naval information systems. Localized networks of cellphones (Kelly highlights FireChat) which can speak to each other directly can also provide a possible communications solution for operations in denied or degraded communications environments.

Two Takeaways from Two Books

The two most important questions these books raise for the Navy and Marine Corps are hinted at by Ross and highlighted by Kelly: Ross talks at length about decentralization and Kelly provides additional context. Kelly writes, “Community sharing can unleash astonishing power…The community’s collective influence is far out of proportion to the number of contributors. That is the whole point of social institutions: The sum outperforms the parts.” While no observer can argue that a group of individuals can equal the firepower or presence of a formal naval task force, the inability to mass cooperation or share information between commands, units, and fleets sustains situations like Afghanistan where two decades of war are split into 20 different one-year battles.

But is it possible to freelance or crowdsource security? In some context, partnerships and coalitions in places like the Arabian Gulf and Asia-Pacific do just that. On an administrative level, the ability to flexibly leverage the manpower of the reserves seems like a worthwhile goal. Establishing a program where reserves (or ex-military members with the requisite knowledge) can augment units on an ad hoc basis (see apps like Upwork or Taskrabbit) could greatly benefit the operational readiness of staffs by reducing the administrative burden placed upon commands.

Finally, a recurrent theme in both books is the future of world economies. Innovation, new technologies, and data are the lifeblood of future financial strength. In historic eras, navies were created to physically protect a nation’s flagged vessels as they traded around the world. If the future American economy involves a smaller portion of physical trade and relies instead on services and information, the Navy may need to re-think its role in the defense of these networks and institutions. While cyber policies and authorities have been assigned between military commands and civilian services, the Navy may need to continually refine its role if the defense and support of American trade is to remain a primary mission in the next era of warfare.

Christian Heller is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and University of Oxford. He currently serves as an officer in the United States Marine Corps. Follow him on Twitter, @hellerchThe opinions represented are solely those of the author and do not represent the views of the United States Marine Corps, the Department of Defense, or the United States Government.

Featured Image: PACIFIC OCEAN (Dec. 20, 2016) Ensign Margaret Graves scans the horizon in the pilot house of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71). (U.S. Navy photo)

The Secret Ingredients of “Collaborative Leadership”

Weisbrode, Kenneth. Eisenhower and the Art of Collaborative Leadership. New York City, St. Martin’s Press, 2018, 110 pp. $79.955.

Weisbrode – The Art of Collaborative Leadership

By Erik Sand

When Dwight Eisenhower assumed command of Allied forces in Europe in early 1943, he faced a daunting task. Not only did he need to prepare to assault the vaunted Germany army, but he faced a complicated set of command relationships. His three subordinates, Harold Alexander, Arthur Tedder, and Andrew Cunningham, were all British officers. Two of the three were from different services. Moreover, they all outranked him! Later in his life, Eisenhower would define leadership as “the art of getting someone else to do something that you want done because he wants to do it, not because your position of power can compel him to do it, or your position of authority.” Eisenhower’s allied command would test, if not forge, this philosophy. In Eisenhower and the Art of Collaborative Leadership, author Kenneth Weisbrode describes Eisenhower’s leadership style both as an Army officer, and later as president.

Two traits stand out in supporting Ike’s “Collaborative Leadership” – his capacity for empathy and his self-discipline. As a middle child in a large family, Eisenhower grew up needing to recognize, adapt to, and shape the feelings of others. In command, he applied these skills. He sometimes reworded messages to subordinates to ensure they had generous interpretations. He spent time in informal conversations with his subordinates outside of meetings to better understand their perspective. As Weisbrode notes, empathy is “not easy in asymmetrical relationships: for the senior there is every incentive to dismiss the views of the less powerful and to get on with things; for the junior there is often thus every incentive to feel undervalued to begrudge this.” The difficulty of displaying empathy highlights the second theme: the importance of personal discipline to Eisenhower’s leadership.

Ike’s particular forte was leading, and keeping together, alliances. Yet, he often complained about exactly that process. In 1942 he wrote in his journal, “My God, how I hate to work by any method that forces me to depend on someone else.” Later he wrote, “What a headache this combined stuff is. We spend our time figuring out how to keep from getting in each other’s way rather than in how to fight the war.” Historians have called Ike’s leadership as president “the hidden hand.” He carefully chose his moments of intervention in discussions so as not to influence them too early, even though he had frequently already thought through the issue at hand. Even his apparently offhand remarks often were not. To so carefully control his own behavior, as well as to excel in work he found frustrating, required immense self-discipline. Perhaps this combination helps explain why, when it flared, his temper was so famous.

While Eisenhower’s understanding of leadership is simple to state, implementing it is less straightforward. The naval service could gain by discussing both of empathy and self-discipline more explicitly in discussions of leadership. We speak of “knowing our people,” but rarely of having empathy for them. The two are similar, but not the same. Empathy requires sensing and understanding the emotions of the other party. Perhaps our general discomfort with emotions explains why we avoid a term that highlights them.

Discipline forms the foundation of any naval organization, but we do not often explicitly acknowledge the challenge of self-discipline. Even Weisbrode does not explicitly speak to the issue despite its frequent appearance in his descriptions. Few people will point out their leader’s failings directly until it is too late. Often, the discipline required is not to restrain oneself from misconduct, but from excessive intervention in the affairs of subordinates. The challenge becomes greater as leaders rise in the ranks, the temptations of authority grow stronger, and they become more confident in their own opinions. A leader’s discipline must be self-discipline.

In summary, while occasionally difficult to follow as it shifts between Eisenhower’s experiences and actions and the philosophy of friendship and leadership, Weisbrode’s short 93-page text provides a leadership study that focuses on less-commonly discussed leadership traits as displayed by one of America’s greatest leaders.

Erik Sand is a Lieutenant Commander in the Navy Reserve and a PhD candidate in the MIT Security Studies Program. The views expressed here do not represent those of U.S. Government, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Navy.

Featured Image: 01/10/1944-Algiers: Prime Minister Winston Churchill,shown here w/ some of the ‘boys’, is smiling for the camera for the first time since his recent illness and donned his famous siren suit and a colorful dressing gown for the occasion. From left to right: General J.F.M. Whitely Air Marshal Sir Arthur W.Tedder, Deputy Commander of the Allied Forces in the European Theater; Admiral Cunningham; Gen.Dwight D.Eisenhower; Gen. Harold Alexander; Prime Minister Churchill; Lt.Gen.Sir Humprey Gale, Gen. Sir Henry Wilson and Gen. Smith.