Tag Archives: reading

A Holidays 2020 Reading List

By the CIMSEC Sea Control Podcast Hosts

Aloha Shipmates! We at the CIMSEC Sea Control Podcast have put our heads together to come up with a “Holidays 2020 Reading List” or perhaps more appropriately named  “What We Were Able to Read This Year…” reading list. We’ve each chosen a few books that we read and loved this year and are at least tangentially related to international maritime security. We’ve also included a few that either we didn’t get to in 2020 or we’re looking forward to in 2021.

Walker Mills

Missionaries, by Phil Klay, Penguin Press, 2020. 

Missionaries is veteran author Phil Klay’s second work, coming after his award-winning collection of short stories Redeployment (2014). Well-received by U.S. and Colombian critics, Missionaries is a wrenching story about several characters coming together in Colombia as the government was finishing a peace agreement with the FARC in 2015-2016. Klay uses his characters and their lives to explore violence at the human, community, and system levels and its impact on the human soul. 

Feeding Victory: Innovative Logistics from Lake George to Khe Sanh, by Jobie Turner, Kansas University Press, 2020. 

Feeding Victory is an eminently readable book about logistics in war. Jobie Turner, an Air Force colonel, breaks down five different case studies in logistics – all unique in their own way. The history is mixed with analysis and takeaways for the contemporary practitioner. Perhaps most interesting to CIMSEC readers will be the Guadalcanal case study where Turner compares and contrasts Japanese and American expeditionary logistics in the months-long struggle for the island. 

Cod: A Biography of the Fish the Changed the World, by Mark Kurlansky, Penguin Books, 1997.

Though over twenty years old, Cod is still a riveting introduction into the world of commercial fishing through a deep dive into the history of a single fish: Atlantic Cod. Fishing is more relevant than ever – in 2020 the United States Coast Guard released an Illegal, Unregulated and Unreported Fishing Strategic Outlook,” massive Chinese fishing fleets off the Galapagos attracted international attention, and the United Kingdom has threatened to use naval vessels to protect its fisheries in the event of a no-deal Brexit. Kurlansky’s book is a quick read and each chapter includes a recipe for cod to help deal with the inevitable craving. Listeners can check out Sea Control 206 about the “Cod Wars” between Iceland and the UK or Sea Control 219 to catch a conversation with USCG Commandant Karl Schultz about the IUU Fishing Strategic Outlook. 


The Kill Chain: Defending America in the Future of High-Tech Warfare by Christian Brose, Hachette Books, 2020.

Adaptation Under Fire: How Militaries Change in Wartime, by David Barno and Nora Bensahel, Oxford University Press, 2020.

Both of these are books came highly reviewed and despite the fact that I pre-ordered them I still have not managed to read them yet. But I’ve followed the authors’ work at War on the Rocks and intently listen to their podcasting. I’m sure these books won’t disappoint.

2034: A Novel of the Next War, by Elliot Ackerman and James Stavridis, Penguin Press, 2021.

Can’t overstate how excited I am for this one. Ackerman is a former Marine who has written several very good books, including the award-winning Dark at the Crossing, and Stavridis has written several previous books about leadership (including another book on this list) and his extensive Navy experience including serving as former Supreme Allied Commander at NATO.

Jared Samuelson

Learning War, by Trent Hone, Naval Institute Press, 2018.

Selling Seapower: Public Relations and the U.S. Navy, 1917-1941, by Ryan D. Wadle, University of Oklahoma Press, 2019.

These books are paired because they address the question “how did we get here?” for two different communities in the Navy. If you are a surface warfare officer, you have undoubtedly spent hours in the darkened cold of your ship’s Combat Information Center. How did that space come to be, why is it designed the way it is, and what problems was the Navy trying to solve? Learning War addresses all those questions and, if that weren’t enough, you get a graduate-level discussion of the evolution of the officer corps and some early 1900s ship design. Listen to Sea Control 209 with author Trent Hone to learn more. I thought Selling Seapower did much the same for today’s public affairs community, from its birth in the Office of Naval Intelligence, the development of the collateral duty Public Affairs Officer, and the Navy’s relationship with mass media (spanning early radio to film). 

The Alice Network: A Novel, by Kate Quinn, William Morrow Paperbacks, 2017.

The best possible endorsement I can give this book is that I read it in less than 48 hours while co-parenting an infant and doing my day job. It was that good. The pace is incredible and the historical setting will have you picking up your phone to Google “did X really happen” multiple times. The author’s follow-up, The Huntress, is sitting on my to-be-read pile.

The Riddle of the Sands, by Erskine Childers, Modern Library, 2002.

Originally printed in 1903, The Riddle of the Sands was a recommendation from an old friend and former CO that took me completely by surprise. The book is the story of two friends ostensibly on a late summer sailing expedition in the Baltic and North Seas who stumble onto a sinister plot whilst being pursued by German agents. No less than Winston Churchill cited the novel as a reason the British ultimately established multiple naval bases on the North Sea prior to World War I.


Grey Dawn: A Tale of Abolition and Union, Balance of Seven, 2020, by Sea Control 163 guest and now host of her own podcast, Friday Night History, Dr. Nyri Bakkalian. 

How the Few Became the Proud, Naval Institute Press, 2019 by Sea Control 184 guest Dr. Heather Venable. I have a literal signed copy just waiting to be cracked open. Massive personal failure on my part.

Wargaming Experiences: Soldiers, Scientists and Civilians, by Natalie Wojtowics, J10 Gaming, 2020.

Battle in the Baltic: The Royal Navy and the Fight to Save Latvia & Estonia, 1918-1920, by Steve R. Dunn, Naval Institute Press, 2020.

This book seemed like a logical successor after reading Michael B. Barrett’s Operation Albion: The German Conquest of the Baltic Islands in preparation for Sea Control 168. Cautiously optimistic the author will be coming to a podcast near you in 2021!

Anna McNeil

Can’t Hurt Me: Master Your Mind and Defy the Odds, by David Goggins, Lioncrest Publishing, 2018.

If talks about resilience and hope are ringing empty in your ears this holiday, or you feel depression and disempowering thoughts setting in, this is the book I suggest you begin with. Cultivate the knowledge that you can and will get through to a brighter future. Then, move forward with intention for the new year ahead.

Honor Harrington series, by David Weber, 2002-2017.

Science Fiction. Space Navy. Military-Industrial complex. Vast sprawling strategic positioning and tactical level skirmishes. Personal assistant on the Commander’s shoulder and in her ear. A female protagonist who lives up to the name Honor. The first of this series, On Basilisk Station, was given to me by my grandfather, a retired U.S. Navy Electronics Technician. It was a large part of the reason I considered joining the Navy. The best fiction is that through which we can more clearly imagine possibilities for ourselves in the real world. Fiction lovers can check out the wrap-up of CIMSEC’s Fiction Week in Sea Control 216 with an interview of the winning authors Mike Burke and Nick Nethery. 

The Good Shepherd, by C.S. Forester, reissue by Penguin Books, 2018.

Yes, Hollywood made a movie of this already, but the discussion on social media about the proper use of helm commands doesn’t even scratch the surface of how much justice is done to the seagoing service. Read the first ten pages and you’ll see why I was suddenly inspired to write Steering Casualty and Tactical Signals drill cards.


Navigating the Seven Seas of Leadership: Leadership Lessons of the First African-American Father and Son to Serve at the Top in the US Navy, by MSCM (ret) Melvin G. Williams Sr., and VADM (ret) Melvin G. Williams, Naval Institute Press, 2011.

Wisdom direct from the experiences of one very special military family, written down and offered to the benefit of anyone willing to read it. This book was written with such generosity and goodwill toward all mankind that it simply must be on my holiday reading list.

The Military Lens: Doctrinal Differences and Deterrence Failure in Sino-American Relations, by Christopher P. Twomey, Cornell Studies in Security Affairs, 2010.  

I suppose this could be considered a book about peace on Earth. Or rather, understanding how to use the military to lead options other than shooting wars.

Icebound: Shipwrecked at the Edge of the World, by Andrea Pitzer, Scribner, 2021.

Get ready to be transported out of your own struggles into the tale of the famous polar explorer William Barentz’s year-long fight for survival in the Arctic. Out in January 2021! 

Jonathon Frerichs

Fleet Tactics and Naval Operations, Third Edition, by Wayne Hughes and Robert Girrier, Naval Institute Press, 2018.

 A Brief Guide to Maritime Strategy, by James R. Holmes, Naval Institute Press, 2019.

During a month-long temporary duty assignment to Naples, Italy, I recognized that I utterly lacked an understanding of how the Navy operates (despite having deployed on three different Marine Expeditionary Units, or MEUs). Seeking answers, I picked up Fleet Tactics and Naval Operations from the Navy Exchange on base. With nothing else to do in the evenings but eat Napoli pizza, I quickly devoured the book and found it immediately valuable in expanding my knowledge of naval operations. Upon completion, however, I found myself thirsting for a better understanding of how naval forces have contributed to obtaining national strategic objectives. 

Enter A Brief Guide to Maritime Strategy – a perfect complement. This short, digestible book is power packed with historical examples and an easy-to-apply framework through which to look at the application of naval forces from competition to crisis to conflict. For either the military historian or the naval practitioner, this book is guaranteed to be a great read and valuable resource. 

The Art of War: A New Translation by Michael Nylan, Sun Tzu, W. W. Norton and Company, 2020. 

I have digested bits and pieces of various translations of The Art of War over my career, but never sat down and read it cover to cover. When I saw @teaandtactics recommend the book, I decided I would bite and resolve my academic shortfall. Combining a depth of Chinese history and a nuanced fluency of the Chinese language, Nylan has created a translation that is easy to read, cover-to-cover. Additionally, in her introduction she provides an opportunity to apply the ideas of strategy and conflict to life outside of war. 


To Rule Eurasia’s Waves: The New Great Power Competition at Sea, by Geoffrey Gresh, Yale University Press, 2020.

Just received my copy of this book. Upon a quick scan, I am excited to digest the multinational look at great power competition in the maritime domain. Many recent books have focused on looking at great power competition through a bipolar lens (Russia/United States or China/United States) but this book appears to take a much more expansive and systemic look at how great powers compete in the maritime domain. If you’re interested in To Rule Eurasia’s Waves, be on the lookout for a future Sea Control episode. 

The Pacific War trilogy, by Ian Toll, W. W. Norton & Company, 2011-2020.

I continue to see these recommended from military history scholars and servicemembers alike.

Andrea Howard

If 2020 did not provide enough existential fodder for society, The Master Algorithm: How the Quest for the Ultimate Learning Machine Will Remake Our World  Basic Books, 2018, by Pedro Domingos serves as one of the best introductions on how machine learning – and the prospective development of a unifying master algorithm – will forever alter the world. Unsupervised learning algorithms can structure and illuminate meaning from raw data, and the naval-oriented mind will see the innumerable applications from fire control systems to underwater mapping. 

Shifting over to a work that explicitly discusses the impact of cyber developments in the warfare domain, I recommend Cyber Security and Cyberware: What Everyone Needs to Know by P.W. Singer and Allan Friedman, Oxford University Press, 2014. While exploring the ramifications of the Stuxnet virus and cyber units within the American and Chinese military structures, the authors outline how future conflicts will touch every individual via cybercrime in the financial realm and attacks on infrastructure. 

To round out the two above choices, the Commandant of the Marine Corps’ top choice for 2020 is a strategic must-read. The Kill Chain: Defending America in the Future of High-Tech Warfare by Christian Brose, Hachette Books, 2020 explores the emerging technologies that present disturbing threats to American military superiority, but he also advocates for the development of a battle network of systems (a “kill chain”) to uphold deterrence and ultimately prevent war. 


For my upcoming deployment, I’m intending to bring along The Leader’s Bookshelf by Admiral James Stavridis and R. Manning Ancell, Naval Institute Press, 2017 to consume the lessons learned from the active and retired four-star military officers’ habits and favorite books. The promised efficiency will be necessary for the small bits of time afforded before hitting the rack and awaking for watch.

Readers and listeners can get to know the podcast team better by listening to Sea Control  214 “Meet the Team!” or finding us on Twitter at @jwsc03@AndreaR_Howard, @WDMills1992, @2BAtSea, and @hoplitemarine

Featured Image: Book collection, photo via the U.S. Naval War College.

Power to the Polymath: Why Defense Engineers Should Know the Classics

By Mark Vandroff


Engineers and scientists are under ever expanding influences to obtain expertise in continually narrowing fields of study. At the University of Michigan, one of the largest and most respected schools of naval architecture in the world, graduate students may specialize in a variety of concentrations including: hydrodynamics; marine and offshore structures; marine system integration; marine robotics; marine design, production, and management; marine renewable energy; and structural and hydro-acoustics. Naval architecture is itself a specialized form of the engineering discipline, so mastery in any one of the concentrations involves a great deal of learning about a relatively few things. 

At one level, this is good. As the sum of human knowledge continues to expand, no one can be a true Polymath; a person knowing a great deal about all the fields of academic study. There is simply too much information to be learned. A scientist or engineer who wishes to make significant contributions to his or her field of study will have to concentrate on some specialty narrow enough to be mastered and relevant enough to produce useful knowledge. However, I would entreat scientists and engineers to take at least a brief side trip through an academic field apart from their own. I would make this plead especially to those in technical fields whose work impacts national defense. Those professionals whose life’s work takes the needs of the warriors who defend our way of live and turns those needs into the products placed back into the warrior’s hands would do well to study classic literature.

What do I mean by “classic literature”? I refer to those texts foundational to Western Civilization. The holy scriptures of Judaism and Christianity. The historical, poetical, mythological, philosophical and scientific writings of Greek and Roman civilization. I do not offer this suggestion for solely aesthetic reasons. While it is a fine thing in the middle of a cocktail party in your neighbor’s house to look around the room and utter Cicero’s quote “a room without books is like a body without a soul,” it will not improve the design of the ship, tank or fighter jet that is the object of your labor. Knowledge of the classics helps practitioners be better program managers, technical directors, and requirements setters. Here are three reasons why.

Human Factors as Design’s Purpose

 A study of classic literature yields insights into human nature. This is important because all engineering is ultimately “human factors” engineering. Human factors engineering as a unique discipline is a relatively recent phenomenon, with professional societies devoted to its study appearing in the middle part of the 20th century. At its core, human factors engineering seeks to optimize the interaction of an engineered system with the people with which the system is designed to interface. Examples range from designing the driver’s seat of a car to be comfortable to designing a website interface to be intuitive to use. In our specialized world, human factors engineering is thought of separately from fields such as aeronautics, electrical engineering, or material science. However, everything an engineer does ultimately aims to have at least some effect on people.

As Aristotle begins the Nicomachean Ethics, “Every art and inquiry, and likewise every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good.” The Greek word translated as “pursuit” is techne, from which we get the English word “technology.” Even 2500 years ago, Aristotle understood that technology did not exist for its own purpose but had to serve some purpose that a person had identified as good. Engineers need to appreciate what constitutes “the good” for the people their systems serve and a study of the classics is the best way to understand what is fundamentally good for people. 

An example I like to cite in the discipline of warship design is the concept of balance. Just as Aristotle observed that virtue is often the midpoint between two vices, a good ship design must reach a balanced point between multiple competing priorities. If a ship is designed to be heavily armored, with very low vulnerability to gun or missile attack, it will by necessity be much harder to remove outdated equipment during its service life. In this example, a balance point must be found between survivability and reconfigurability. The whole point of Nicomachean Ethics is to inquire what is good, primarily for people; however, the concept of “the good” extends into the designed systems which serve people as well. Plato’s Republic, the Bible’s Book of Micah, Cicero’s  De Re Publica, and Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations all offer different yet complementary insights on what is good for people. A modern engineer, schooled in works such as these, will bring a basic wisdom concerning human nature and the process for balancing competing demands to the task of designing systems to meet human needs.

Enduring Narratives and Human Traits

A study of classic literature yields insights into the societies in which an engineer operates. Imagine living in a society that is the exception for its times; a society that is both a democracy and a maritime power. Imagine further that this society depended upon freedom of and access to sea lines of communication in order to maintain its security and its economic prosperity. Picture such a society threatened by adversaries that are either dictatorships maintaining large standing armies or malevolent forces originating from Persia with religious beliefs so different from those of the society as to seem fanatic and bizarre. Aristotle’s Athens was just such a society. Any similarities between ancient Athens and modern states such as the U.S., UK, or Japan, should give one pause to contemplate how geography and human nature are eternal. While simple engineers see strategy as something that provides an input to their efforts, wise engineers knows that an understanding of the world and the society in which they life have a profound impact on the ultimate trade space available to them. A society that values human dignity and autonomy will constrain acceptable designs in the areas of safety and survivability in a way that would not be constrained by other societies. A wise engineer, tuned to the values of the society, takes this into account.

Trireme Olympias of the Hellenic Navy (Wikimedia Commons)

When Plutarch wrote Parallel Lives, he sought to show how the human virtues and failings had manifested their consequences for both good and evil in the great leaders of Greece and Rome. Contemporary readers of Parallel Lives have the benefit of another 2000 years of human history with which to view these classical figures, yet, human nature continues to produce the same combination of achievements and failures as it did in the leaders of old. Pitfalls such as pride and anger still plague leaders gifted with extraordinary ability and awareness of our limitations is still a vital precaution several centuries after Plutarch. For engineers, the vice of pride could be especially deadly. The design of any complex system, especially a ship or aircraft, is the result of a great deal of teamwork and will require input from dozens of experts. An engineer that believes that only his or her way is right and is uninterested in listening to dissenting views is an engineer whose project is doomed from the start. Because collaborative design is a human activity, the other human vices; anger, sloth, envy, etc, all constitute real risk to a project’s success. Those involved in engineering the common defense in a representative democracy would be especially well served equipped with the understanding of humanity, especially their own humanity, which classic literature can provide.

The Basic Nature of Problems and Problem Solving

A study of classic literature yields insights into overcoming challenges. At the heart of the engineering discipline is solving problems. A customer needs the ability to do or have something and the engineer provides the capability or product. In the Bible’s Book of Ezekiel, there is a famous passage known as the prophecy of the valley of dry bones. In this story, God commands Ezekiel to raise an army from a valley full of dead, dry bones. However one views this passage theologically, from a practical standpoint Ezekiel shows tremendous engineering discipline. He started to sort and attach “bone to its like bone.” After the bones were attached, there came sinew and after the sinew came flesh. Like any good systems engineer today, Ezekiel started to solve a big problem by breaking it down into its component parts.

The Book of John begins with the statement “In the beginning was the word.” The Greek word in the original writing that is usually translated as “word” is “logos,” from which we get “logic” which can also be translated as “information” or “plan.” One of the clear implications of the Book of John is no great feat can be accomplished without a plan. From the Bible’s telling of Nehemiah building walls around Jerusalem to the Augustan History tales of Hadrian’s Wall across northern England, classical antiquity abounds with difficult problems being solved with ingenuity, prudence, and courage. Here are three examples of how these ancient ancient virtues translate directly to the practice of modern engineering.

First, as the modern management expert Steven Covey would say, “Begin with the End in Mind.” In two of the Biblical examples above, the Divine customer communicated a clear requirement. The course of actions in the stories that followed all flowed from that clear requirement. In all the most successful defense acquisition programs, from nuclear power, to the F-16 Falcon, to AEGIS, there was a wide and well-documented consensus on what was to be achieved. Those trusted to manage the design and procurement of these capabilities had those clear requirements to guide them as they made programmatic and technical decisions. 

Second, success depends on solid system engineering.  Ezekiel did not try to build an army all at once. AEGIS BMD, once of the most complex systems in the DoD inventory, takes a page from Ezekiel. Every part of the chain that results in destroying a missile flying through outer space is a part of the greater whole. From the radar that detects, to the combat direction system that evaluates, to the missile that impacts the target, to the ship that maneuvers the whole system into place, a complex task is accomplished by breaking it down into smaller, achievable tasks.  \As Ezekiel says, “bone to bone.”

Third, personal leadership is as much a part of an engineering accomplishment as technical excellence. The story of Nehemiah’s rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem contains a fair amount of technical information about how high the walls were built and what material was used. Just as fascinating was Nehemiah’s story of bringing together the different talents and resources of the citizens of Jerusalem in order to get the job done. Today, we remember Admiral Hyman Rickover as a great engineer. That is true, but the management system and the different talent sets he brought together to make Naval Reactors a longstanding historic success is a legacy at least as worthy of study as the technical achievement of naval nuclear power.          


To my fellow engineers and scientists who work in the defense of our nation, I ask you take at least a brief periodic break from your computers and calculators. Pick up a good translation of Plato or Vergil as you read at the end of your day. You may grow to like the wisdom they offer into the human condition. In the end you will be far the better for it. You will have the power of the Polymath. 

Captain Mark Vandroff is a 1989 graduate of the United States Naval Academy. His 28 years of commissioned service include duty as both a Surface Warfare and Engineering Duty Officer. He was formerly the Major Program Manager for the DDG 51 program and is currently the Commanding Officer of Naval Surface Warfare Center, Carderock. The views expressed in this article are the author’s personal views and do not reflect the official position of the Department of Defense or Department of the Navy.

Featured Image: Odysseus bound to the ship’s mast is attacked by the Sirens. Red-figure pit of Sirens Zografos, 480-470 BC Source: www.lifo.gr

Operationalizing the CNO’s Call to Read and Write

By Dmitry Filipoff


“I strongly encourage you to read, think, and write about our naval profession.” – Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson with Lieutenant Ashley O’Keefe, “Now Hear This – Read. Write.Fight.”1

Earlier this month, Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) of the U.S. Navy Admiral John Richardson published, with Lieutenant Ashley O’Keefe, Now Hear This – Read. Write. Fight.” In this piece, the CNO issues a call to read and write: “I want to revitalize the intellectual debate in our Navy. We all—officers, enlisted, and civilians—need to develop sound and long-term habits for reading and writing during the entire course of our careers.”2 The CNO hinted at several initiatives that aim to promote public discussion and publication accessibility. The CNO plans to create an e-book program, share what he considers “a canon of classic works,” and “open up a way for all of us to talk about what we are reading.” These plans should surely excite those who are invested in the Navy’s success.

There is more that can be done to operationalize this call to read and write. The Navy needs a strategy to cultivate intellectual development and  encourage sailors to read and write more. As the CNO has just done, the Navy must continue to express the importance of writing to the Navy’s future. The service must improve its self-awareness of its own intellectual culture and mold it to encourage better habits of thought. The Navy must develop means to extrapolate value from published work and public discussions. Proper incentives should be instituted to show sailors that publishing is in fact career-enhancing and serves the Navy’s interests. There is a lot that can be done.

There is also more we can do here. As CIMSEC’s editor-in-chief, I will describe how our audience has made strong contributions to the Navy’s public discussions, what makes CIMSEC an ideal platform for facilitating such debate, and what we will do to improve. 

Why the Navy Must Read and Write

“You will learn that bravery is not enough – and that you must do your utmost by professional study and reading of history to perfect your readiness to serve your country.”- Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, “Address to the Japanese Training Squadron in San Francisco, August 1964.”3

Active public discussion will help the Navy make the most of its best resource, its people. Public discussion will help mitigate the inherent disadvantages in operating a large and compartmentalized institution. Healthy reading and writing habits build better warfighters. It will better connect the fleet and make issues relevant to more stakeholders.

At any given time, there are innumerable conversations happening on how to make the Navy better. These conversations include interpretations of past decisions and assessments of present challenges, with an eye towards the future. These are among the most exciting and consequential conversations of individual careers and even entire generations of sailors. They are being spearheaded by the Navy’s best and brightest across numerous commands and institutions. But most of these conversations occur within meetings, emails, or in some other closed format that does not fully engage all those who are interested and able to make the Navy better. Admiral Jim Stavridis, a strong proponent of reading and writing, recognized this issue, “We often express these ideas and observations in wardroom discussions, which are critical elements of personal and unit development. But these discussions usually make local impact only and stay within the lifelines of the ship or unit.”4 The fruits of experience may be lost in the form of insights that were never put forward in public writing.

Public discussion will broaden the impact of promising ideas and successful solutions. The CNO’s plan to “open up a way for all of us to talk about what we are reading” may be the most exciting initiative as it will help ensure great writing gets noticed regardless of where it gets published or who reads it.5 An organization that can rotate personnel assignments as often as every 18 months may impair the development of its own institutional knowledge and the continuity of expertise. Reading lists and well-read personnel can mitigate this challenge. Ultimately, public discussion will help the Navy identify more of its best and brightest and direct them towards where they can make the greatest impact.

Robust public discussion is important in keeping to a theme of operating in a complex, highly interconnected world. It will empower junior leaders that are closer to problems and their potential solutions. Disruptive challenges may arrive spontaneously, and innovative solutions can come from any rank. Publications can provide early warning and unbiased assessments. Robust debate can help process and make sense of information overload as strong arguments streamline options. Additionally, it can check groupthink and discourage complacence. Public discussion can provide a venue for introducing ideas and information when bureaucracy is too slow or unreceptive. It can connect everyone regardless of rank and command, thereby providing a level playing field where ideas can stand on their own.

Reading and writing hones critical thinking skills that improve warfighting proficiency. Among other things, writing improves self-awareness, information processing, and the ability to anticipate. Reading and writing habits will enhance the strategic communication capabilities that are growing in significance in today’s complex security environment. The same skills will better enable commanders to lead highly trained personnel and fully understand their leadership’s intent.

It is a step up to go from reading to publishing one’s own work and joining the debate. Publishing is an act of leadership. It requires initiative, commitment, and courage. Initiative, because publishing is an independent act that seeks to be forward thinking. Commitment, because ideas must be defended in depth once published. Courage, because the decision to publish is made in spite of the nagging insecurity that written work will never be as perfect as the author would have ultimately desired. Combine these themes, and it becomes apparent that publishing provides valuable experience in dealing with risk. Publishing develops positive leadership attributes.

Better reading and writing habits will connect the fleet by raising awareness of shared challenges and the interesting and dedicated work occurring at any time across the numerous institutions and commands that support the Navy. It will broaden perspectives and connect expertise. For example, the naval aviation community should closely follow the distributed lethality concept being spearheaded by the surface warfare community in order to explore new concepts of operation for carrier and land based aircraft under a new warfighting construct. Coast Guard operating challenges and lessons learned could inform those operating on the frontlines of the South China Sea. The effectiveness of the joint force would be greatly enhanced by increasing awareness of the challenges, modernization programs, and operational contributions of all the services. A greater appreciation and knowledge of foreign policy will help service members justify their efforts and sacrifices.

The value of reading and writing is apparent. How can the Navy encourage more of it?


“Thanks to my reading, I have never been caught flat-footed by any situation, never at a loss for how any problem has been addressed (successfully or unsuccessfully) before. It doesn’t give me all the answers, but it lights what is often a dark path ahead.” – General James Mattis,  “With Rifle and Bibliography: General Mattis on Professional Reading.”6

Steady reading habits can be encouraged by fostering specific interests and having commands build reading lists that are directly relevant to their mission sets. Reading lists should include alternative forms of material besides books, with an emphasis on digital content. Additionally, the unique role of public affairs personnel can be expanded to facilitate more reading. 

Reading lists should not be something that just the CNO assembles and publicly lists, but something that every command puts together. Commands should actively seek out publications that reinforce the subject-matter expertise that supports their specific missions and build their own public reading lists. Captain Wayne Hughes’ (ret.) Fleet Tactics: Theory and Practice should be required reading at the Naval Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center. Personnel at Pacific Command and Pacific Fleet would benefit greatly from having read Captain Bud Cole’s (ret.) Asian Maritime Strategies. Those with the Fifth Fleet would be well served by David Crist’s Gulf of Conflict: A History of U.S.- Iranian Confrontation at Sea. Sailors will be more likely to invest time in reading if the publications singled out are clearly and specifically relevant to their responsibilities. Cultivating specific interests can build reading habits that support professional obligations.

Reading lists often suffer from a big drawback in that they solely consist of books. By confining lists to just books, other types of content are neglected. Reading lists should strive to include articles and recognize the value of media in other formats such as videos and podcasts. Stimulating content is clearly not limited to just written work in the form of books.

Digital content should be prioritized in order to maximize sharing and accessibility. It is admirable that the Chief of Naval Operations Professional Reading Program (CNO-PRP) launched in October 2012 purchased 22,000 books, created 420 lending libraries, and disseminated books across the fleet and around the world.7 But only the resources and influence of the CNO could make such a broad effort possible. If a more junior leader saw great value in disseminating a certain publication within their respective command, the cost of ordering enough books could be prohibitive. With the advent of e-books and audiobooks, writings that used to be only in book form can now be accessed electronically. Navy leaders should take their reading recommendations into the digital age and ensure that the majority of the content promoted can be accessed electronically.

131210-N-PX557-035.NEWPORT, R.I..(Dec. 10, 2103).Cmdr. Daniel Dolan, deputy program manager, Chief of Naval Operations Professional Reading Program (CNO-PRP), Rear Adm. Walter E. ???Ted??? Carter Jr., president, U.S. Naval War College (NWC) in Newport, R.I., and professor John Jackson, program manager, CNO-PRP, participate in a collaboration of CNO-PRP books. The CNO-PRP is designed to enhance professional development, learn about Navy heritage and gain a greater understanding of what it means to be a 21st century Sailor. The 42 books in the collection are arranged in categories that align with the CNO???s three Tenets: ???Warfighting First,??? ???Operate Forward,??? and ???Be Ready.??? Books are available throughout the fleet in lending libraries aboard every ship, submarine, squadron and station throughout the Navy..(U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist James E. Foehl/Released).
NEWPORT, R.I..(Dec. 10, 2103).Cmdr. Daniel Dolan, deputy program manager, Chief of Naval Operations Professional Reading Program (CNO-PRP), Rear Adm. Walter E. Ted Carter Jr., president, U.S. Naval War College (NWC) in Newport, R.I., and professor John Jackson, program manager, CNO-PRP, participate in a collaboration of CNO-PRP books. (U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist James E. Foehl/Released).

Public affairs personnel have an important role to play in strengthening reading habits, as they often collect publications and disseminate them within their respective commands. Public affairs officers (PAO) should be highly interconnected with one another in order to facilitate sharing and awareness of publications. They should be familiar with the many organizations within the Navy in order to know which would benefit most from having read a certain publication. They must have a keen sense of relevance. Additionally, they should be familiar with the many news outlets, periodicals, think tanks, and other forums where issues of import to the Navy are being broached. Public affairs staff should be incredibly well-read and up-to-date on these outlets in order to sift through content in search of the gems that are worthy of sharing and dissemination. They can help build public reading lists. The roles and responsibilities of PAOs should be reviewed and appropriately modified to best connect commands to public discussions.

Solid reading habits will improve professionalism and connect the fleet. All writers are readers, but encouraging sailors to go from following the discussion to contributing to it poses a greater challenge.  


“If you have not written much, I urge you to get started.”- Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson with Lieutenant Ashley O’Keefe, “Now Hear This- Read. Write.Fight.”8

What will ultimately compel sailors to turn a flash of inspiration or a deep seated curiosity into written work is the right intellectual culture and receptive leadership. The Navy must recognize sources of inhibition in order to mold culture and educate sailors on the process of writing. The Navy should develop a real system of incentives, feedback, and recognition to assimilate public discussion into its decision making and motivate individuals to write.

First, sailors must understand what they can write about. The answer is almost anything, and the call to write applies to everyone. However, the nature of what junior and senior leaders can write about differs. Junior leaders can produce effective critiques and local assessments as their fresh perspective allows them to recognize issues that more senior leaders may not detect. They enjoy plenty of latitude in regard to what they can write about. On the other hand, senior leadership operates under constraints that are not necessarily cultural. For example, flag officers cannot credibly publish work that ends with the disclaimer, “These views do not represent the Department of the Navy” because of their significant institutional responsibilities. But while they cannot openly challenge policies and programs, senior leaders can detail the important and interesting work they lead, reflect on progress, highlight obstacles overcome, and acknowledge challenges. There are many institutions working to make the Navy better. Public discussion will allow their stories to be told. Leaders should also be willing to justify and defend decisions in writing, much as they already do in testimony before elected officials. While it is understandable that the military need not operate as a democracy, public writing will allow junior and senior leaders to better understand one another and voice their honest concerns.

Classification presents a challenge. Protecting classified information is a responsible concern, but it encourages certain intellectual habits that inhibit the inclination to write. For example, individuals should not assume that everything of importance is being examined or discussed by somebody somewhere. Despite the numerous problem-solving and innovating institutions that contribute to the Navy’s future, there will still be issues that are not under review. Classification encourages this assumption because many sets of problems and their potential solutions qualify as secrets. This in turn may lead would-be writers to believe that because they do not have all the relevant inputs, their analyses would be critically flawed without compromising classified information. This may also create the insecurity that even if they do publish, there are those out there with access to classified material that could readily disprove them. These inhibitions must be overcome. Top priority must be placed on educating sailors on the regulations that affect public writing and showing them how to protect classified information while still publishing meaningful work.

The Navy must recognize the highly uneven intellectual culture within its institutions and communities. Academic institutions such as the Naval War College and the Naval Postgraduate School regularly publish high quality publications that should be read across the fleet. But in order to operationalize the CNO’s call to read and write, institutions across the Navy that do not traditionally publish must augment their culture in order to facilitate greater critical thinking and the willingness to put it into writing. The Navy should survey its various communities and commands to understand trends in the propensity of writing as well as reading preferences. STEM majors may differ in their inclination to write versus those educated in the humanities. Publishing habits may differ between the surface warfare community and the undersea community, officers versus enlisted, train and equip and operational, etc. Such a survey could reveal differences in intellectual culture and help aim targeted effort.

The Navy must assess the actionable value of exceptional writings, and be willing to turn written insights into decisions. People will write better and more often if they know there is real potential for their ideas to have an impact. Writers also very much enjoy receiving confirmation that they are actually being read. Where possible and appropriate, public affairs personnel should help writers learn where they are being read and by whom.

Writing should be actively promoted as career enhancing. The Navy should officially recognize written work as a professional accomplishment. The Navy can highlight where initiative in the intellectual sphere reaped rewards for the fleet in the past. The aforementioned reading lists can play a role in this by including publications that have made strong contributions to public discussions and fomented real change. Honoring those that have contributed brilliantly to public discussion and spurred real action with their writing will set a standard and show that leadership is paying attention.

Setting this strong standard is paramount. Rehashing common sense principles and stating the obvious is all too common in military writing. This is a symptom of an intellectual culture that favors conformity over originality. Writings should strive to inform, analyze, and provide insight. Discussions have context, history, and evolve through time. The prerequisites for making a meaningful contribution include a willingness to perform intensive research and the intellectual honesty to recognize the limits of one’s own understanding, where the latter guides the former.

Public failure must be made acceptable if there is to be growth. Negligent mistakes should be separated from genuine attempts to succeed. In the Navy today, sailors fail against one another in exercises, simulations, and other forms of competition. These are critical learning experiences that involve extensive feedback and reflection. That same honest willingness to help one another improve and become better warfighters should color the give-and-take of intellectual discussion. Yet these discussions should feature the intense competitive spirit that animates sailors to be at their best.

Meaningful writing will at times require standing up to one’s own institution, which is why it requires courageous leadership. But this requirement deters many would-be writers because military culture is not usually receptive to bottom-up challenges coming from within. Admiral Richardson recognizes this problem as he advocates that “…we need to ‘protect’ our best thinkers from a system that can be intolerant of challenge” and that “…senior leaders must not confuse respectful debate with disloyalty. Sometimes the junior person in the conversation may have the best idea.” This is an age-old problem that has hindered the Navy’s progress before. In an article series recounting the great frustration a young and persistently publishing William Sims experienced with an unreceptive Navy bureaucracy, Lieutenant Commander B.J. Armstrong made the important point that “Having senior leaders that listen, and who become the champions of the great ideas of their subordinates, is just as vital as having junior personnel with innovative ideas.”9 William Sims went on to become known across the fleet “the man who taught us how to shoot.” It would be ironic and to its own detriment if the Navy wanted bravery from its people in combat but not in thinking. Navy leadership at all levels must demonstrate that it is listening with intent.

Lastly, sailors need an understanding of the variety of outlets that are willing to publish their writings. Public affairs personnel can help by maintaining contacts with various editors and ensuring that regulations are being followed throughout the editorial process. It is important that at least several outlets be considered in order to afford writers flexibility since publishing practices and timelines can vary widely. When it comes to helping sailors get published and noticed, we feel we have a superior system here at CIMSEC.  


“CIMSEC is establishing itself as an intellectual powerhouse in maritime matters…”-Vice Admiral Thomas S. Rowden, “Distributed Lethality: An Update.”10

CIMSEC’s format and readership makes our community a strong player in public discussions on naval affairs, maritime security, the Asia-Pacific, and general defense and foreign policy. CIMSEC is unique in that virtually all of CIMSEC’s articles are by those who wish to use the website as a platform for their ideas, and not by our own cadre of dedicated volunteers.

CIMSEC publications feature a neutral, academically informed tone devoid of cynicism. Our non-profit status eases regulatory concerns. We have no paywalls, and our content is produced as a steady yet flexible stream rather than as a periodical. This allows us to rapidly engage with contributors. From first draft to final posting, getting published on CIMSEC usually only takes a few weeks and sometimes within days. Our monthly topic weeks allow us to focus attention and analysis on issues that are deserving of greater prominence, or engage the community in ongoing discussions on high profile topics. CIMSEC’s editorial team understands the issues and is always accessible to prospective contributors. We enjoy the great privilege of facilitating the ideas and writings of others.  

We are especially proud of our audience. We count active, reserve, and retired naval personnel among our most dedicated readers and writers. CIMSEC contributors can rest assured that their publications are being read and shared by their peers across the fleet and other naval stakeholders, including institutions that are helping determine the future of the Navy.

Distributed Lethality 2016 Cover Image
Click to read.

This last point is proven through one of our recent successes. In February of this year, the Navy’s Distributed Lethality Task Force partnered with CIMSEC to launch a topic week. The Task Force produced the Call for Articles where it outlined various questions of value to the development of the distributed lethality concept that is guiding the Navy’s effort to reinvigorate its offensive anti-surface warfare capability.11 The response from the CIMSEC audience was tremendous. Twelve articles published a little less than a month later. The contributors included a mixture of active duty, reserve, and retired naval officers. They represented various communities from within the Navy, and rank ranged from O1 to O6. They addressed what Captain Peter Swartz (ret.) has described as “the essential questions of the profession,” namely “operations,” “techniques,” “force packages,” and “who should decide?” 12 Their insights were remarkable, and the Distributed Lethality Task Force’s partnership provided the assurance that they would be read by their target audience. Just a month later, our community succeeded again with a ten-article topic week on naval humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HA/DR). In other publications, junior officers have challenged leadership development practices, retired officers have drawn attention to lapses in institutional memory, and senior leaders have updated their visions of the future. CIMSEC’s ability to make significant contributions to public discussions of import to the Navy is proven.

We will be launching several initiatives to improve our ability to facilitate these critical discussions while reinforcing ongoing lines of effort. We will be releasing a CIMSEC reader survey to better understand our audience, solicit their feedback, and measure our impact. In addition to supporting our topic weeks, we will regularly post new Calls for Articles that solicit analysis on high profile developments and ongoing issues of interest to the CIMSEC audience. We will reach out to Navy institutions and commands to propose topic week partnerships and engage the CIMSEC community on their issues. We will continually update our PDF papers database with quality publications drawn from open sources and maintain it as a shareable learning resource. Finally, we will always maintain a link to the Write for CIMSEC page on our homepage to help prospective contributors get in touch with the editorial team and learn of the various ways they can contribute. By growing our efforts we hope to grow the discussion, and the Navy along with it.


“All of us owe it to our nation and those we lead, to begin a consistent practice of self-study.”- Joe Byerly, “Three Truths about the Personal Study of War.”13

Reading and writing will help sailors strengthen their appreciation of the centuries-old institution they proudly serve in. Robust public discussion will foment a constant learning experience that is as informative as it is problem-solving. However, it must be supported by vigilant self-awareness. Not only does there need to be public discussion on all things Navy, but there needs to be a discussion about how that conversation is being fostered and the value it contributes, just as the CNO has done. We need to read and write about reading and writing. Just as the Navy must always question the longevity of its advantages over adversaries, so it must also constantly reflect on the quality of its public intellectual debate. Just as the Navy seeks to draw as much value as possible from investments in people and machines, it should actively explore how to enhance and make the most of public discussions. These are not challenges to be solved by the end of one leader’s tenure or another’s. These are enduring imperatives that every leader at every level should be mindful of for as long as there is a Navy.

Dmitry Filipoff is CIMSEC’s Director of Online Content. Contact him at Nextwar@cimsec.org


1. Admiral John Richardson with Lieutenant Ashley O’Keefe, “Now Hear This – Read. Write. Fight,” United States Naval Institute Proceedings, June 2016.

2. Ibid.

3. Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, “Address to the Japanese Training Squadron in San Francisco, August 1964,” Naval Historical Collection at U.S. Naval War College.

4. Admiral Jim Stavridis, “Read, Think, Write, Publish,” United States Naval Institute Proceedings, August 2008.

5. Ibid.

6. Jill R. Russel, “With Rifle and Bibliography: General Mattis on Professional Reading,” Strife Blog, May 7, 2013.

7. John E. Jackson, “Reflections on Reading #19: Fleet Feedback,” Navy Reading.

8. Ibid.

9. Lieutenant Commander B.J. Armstrong, “Expertise, Voice, Grit, and Listening…A Look at the Possible,” United States Naval Institute Blog, June 2012.

10. Vice Admiral Thomas S. Rowden, “Distributed Lethality: An Update,”Center for International Maritime Security, March 12. 2015.

11. Ryan Kelly, “Distributed Lethality Task Force Launches CIMSEC Topic Week,” Center for International Maritime Security, February 1, 2016.

12. Captain Peter M. Swartz (ret.), “Let Us Dare to Read, Think, Speak, And Write,” United States Naval Institute Proceedings, October 1998.

13. Joe Byerly, “Three Truths about The Personal Study of War,” From the Green Notebook, June 7, 2015.

Featured Image: (Jan. 30, 2010) Logistics Specialist Seaman Joshua Williams browses through books in the ship’s library aboard the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Bradley Evans/Released)