Tag Archives: Writing

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)

Sea Control 93 – Warrior Writers with Claude Berube

seacontrol2We discuss the Warrior Writers exhibit at the USNA Museum with Director Claude Berube. We also take some time out to discuss his new book, Syren’s Song – second in the Connor Stark Series.


DOWNLOAD: Warrior Writers

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The Thinking Professional v. The Practical Officer

On Thursday evening CIMSEC held the first annual Forum for Authors and Readers (#CFAR15). The opening keynote talk was delivered by BJ Armstrong, a member of the Center as well as a PhD Candidate in War Studies with King’s College, London and a member of the Editorial Board of the U.S. Naval Institute. The talk is based on his new book “21st Century Sims: Innovation, Education, and Leadership for the Modern Era” and kicked off an evening of great thinking and discussion on maritime affairs.  We will have videos of the presentations on the website shortly. The following are his prepared remarks…

The Thinking Professional v. The Practical Officer:
Sims on Sailors, Scholars & Scribes

simsIn November of 1900 Lieutenant William Sims joined the wardroom of USS Kentucky, the U.S. Navy’s newest battleship. He had just come from a tour in the Paris embassy, studying and collecting intelligence on European battleship design and gunnery practices. As Kentucky sailed for China Station Sims got his sea legs back and began getting to know his new ship. He started comparing what he had observed in Europe with what he found back at sea with his shipmates, and he began to think that despite new ships and a new found place on the world stage following the victory in the Spanish-American War, the U.S. Navy still had a lot of room for improvement.

Many of you know the history that follows, how Sims found and frankly stole the concept of continuous-aim fire from Captain Percy Scott of the Royal Navy, and then went on to revolutionize naval gunnery. His course was treacherous, and unclear, but eventually throughout the fleet William Sims became known as “the man who taught us how to shoot.”

Sims continued pushing boundaries in the years leading up to World War I: advocating for the all-big-gun battleship, developing torpedo boat and destroyer tactics, and eventually commanding all American naval forces in Europe when the U.S. entered the war. During the war he was central to the adoption of the convoy system that beat the U-boats in the First Battle of the Atlantic. When he returned home he had a second term as President of the Naval War College. There he helped establish the system of study and war-gaming used in the inter-war years to develop naval aviation and American submarines.

William Sims was, beyond a doubt, an innovator. Naval innovation is often seen through the lens of technology, defined by the weapons and hardware which we label as “game-changers” or “transformations.” However, some of the most important developments in history have come from the “software”: or innovations in tactics, techniques, and procedures. Like the development of continuous-aim fire. Ideas, it must be remembered, can be even more powerful than the steel and explosives that dominate our naval heritage.

It was on the prompting of President Teddy Roosevelt that Sims wrote his first article for publication. The success of that piece led him to realize the power of sharing ideas and innovations through professional writing. Throughout the remainder of his life he wrote about dozen articles for the Naval Institute’s journal Proceedings, and more for other magazines. After returning from World War I, he collaborated with Burton Hendrick to write a book. The Victory at Sea was part history and part memoir of the war, and was published to great acclaim. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1921.

As the President of the Naval War College at the beginning of the inter-war years, Sims’ thinking on naval warfare and military professionalism had an impact on an entire generation of officers. These were men returning from war and trying to put their experience in perspective and learn lessons for the future. They had names like Nimitz, Spruance, and Halsey.

Today, the ranks of the United States military are again filled with a generation of men and women who are looking back on wartime experience. Many of our junior officers and enlisted have had a level of responsibility during their service which now causes them to bristle at perceived micromanagement and bureaucracy. The military will likely struggle over the next several years to learn how to return to non-combat roles.

What can we do to improve that struggle? What can we do today to ensure that lessons we have learned over the past decade and a half of conflict are not forgotten, and are not ignored?

Over the course of his career, Sims learned a great deal about fighting the military bureaucracy, about successful innovation, and about service before and after war. He wrote about all of these subjects in the latter part of his career, and this knowledge and advice has sat quietly in the archives for today’s innovators and service members, if they want to learn from it.

Here, with CIMSEC’s members and readers, the most relevant parts of this advice may be the importance of professional writing and personal, professional learning. Sims wrote about his experience with both. They were also central to what he saw as lacking in many officers in the Navy of his day.

Taking on The Mahan…

Alfred-Thayer-MahanIn 1906 William Sims was a Lieutenant Commander and still serving in his role as Inspector of Target Practice. The Russo-Japanese War had just come to an end, and navalists all over the world were combing through news reports and the stories of the Battle of Tsushima to analyze lessons for modern naval warfare. One of these navalists was the historian and strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan.

In his day, Mahan was the great thinker on the subject of war and peace, something like how men like Brzezinski or Scrowcroft are seen today combined with a Stavridis or McMaster. He wrote an article for Proceedings that analyzed the events in the Sea of Japan. It drew the lesson that a properly designed fleet required battleships of moderate size, with a varied battery of different sized guns, that could be built in large numbers and were multi-mission. It was a conclusion well in line with the thinking of most of the Admirals in the Navy, and it encouraged the status quo.

Sims’ own experience, gathering intelligence on battleships and in developing continuous-aim fire, suggested something entirely different. He also had a friend with a report on the actual events in the Tsushima Strait to base his analysis on. Sims wrote an article that directly contradicted the great navalist. He demonstrated that the lesson of the Russo-Japanese War was that large battleships, with a battery full of all big guns of the same caliber, were the best way to construct a fleet, even if the expense meant you could only build a smaller number of them. As he wrote in the conclusion of his article:

“I have attempted to show that Captain Mahan’s conclusions are probably in error.”

As the development of the British Dreadnaught would demonstrate, Sims was far closer to how the navies of the world would develop than Mahan was.

Sims’ essay offers readers in the twenty-first century something more than an interesting story of two great naval minds and an abandoned ship class. First, it demonstrates how important a healthy professional debate is for our national security. Without discussion generated by forward-thinking officers and junior civilian analysts in military and security journals, both in print and today online, the military bureaucracy will stagnate and become reactionary. Without the engagement of innovative junior members of the team any organization, whether military or civilian, risks becoming followers instead of leaders in their field.

Sims’ article also demonstrates the importance of expertise. Readers will understand his deep knowledge and obvious study of battleship employment and design. Today’s military innovators and thinkers must learn from this example. They must be willing to jump into the arena of ideas, but they also must be willing to do the hard work of researching and studying their subject in order to get it right.

Today, whether the debate is about the future of the big-deck nuclear aircraft carriers as we recently saw in Annapolis, or about questions of the military effectiveness of swarming small combatants versus today’s modern dreadnaughts, the arguments must be logical, informed by a mastery of the facts, and well presented.

Sims knew that in order to engage the world’s leading navalist in a debate, in order to challenge the great Alfred Thayer Mahan, he had to have his details right and his logic had to be sound. This kind of rigorous and researched engagement on the defense questions of the day offers us an example for the twenty-first century, one that we must aspire to no matter where we are writing, whether in the pages of print journals like Proceedings or online at leading blogs like CIMSEC’s Next War or our other friends at The Strategy Bridge.

“The opportunity that can never return”

But how do we get that level of expertise? Some of it will come from our personal experience on the deckplates or in cockpits deployed across the seven seas. Or service in the desert, or working on staffs in the halls of power, or the buildings of DC. Some of it will come from studying for our tactics quizzes or our NATOPS exams in the ready rooms, or working on getting the right font on the briefing slides at a think tank. But those sources are only going to provide us with a small scale of knowledge, a vital foundation that we must master but something in desperate need of context and broadening. According to Sims we must add to that knowledge through a dedicated pursuit of personal professional study.

In 1921 Sims published his Newport lecture “The Practical Naval Officer” in Proceedings. The lecture is something like a Jazz cover, since he took the title and some of the inspiration from a lecture that Mahan had given in Newport nearly thirty years before. Sims, who had locked horns with the great navalist on Tsushima, now came to embrace his view of strategic education and how to prepare officers for the highest responsibilities of command and policy. There is much to talk about in his lecture, but I will focus on this last of his three pillars of strategic education.

Sims lamented the fact that when he was a junior officer, he spent his time reading subjects that had no real bearing on the military profession. He read some philosophy and political economy, but he appears to have avoided reading military history or learning about governments and international relations or current events. As he became more senior, he slowly realized that he was missing a lot of knowledge. In fact his own perception of his time as a student at the Naval War College wasn’t that it taught him the things he needed to know, instead it highlighted all of the things he didn’t know and still needed to learn.

He wrote:

Specifically addressing the younger officers of the navy, let me say that you now have the opportunity that can never return. It lies with you to determine whether, when you become old, you will have to regret the wasted years of your youth; whether at that period of life you will find yourselves simply “practical men”—“beefeaters’’—or really educated military naval officers.

It will depend largely upon self-instruction and self-discipline. But you must keep clearly in view the fact that, under modern naval conditions, an officer may be highly successful, and even brilliant, in all grades up to the responsible positions of high command, and then find his mind almost wholly unprepared to perform its vitally important functions in time of war.

Where to start? Well, Sims leaves us with a short reading list in his lecture, which you can find in my book “21st Century Sims.” It is impressive how well this list still stands up today. But as he points out, that is just a start. Even after completing their studies at the War College he emphasized to the graduating officers that they should consider themselves to be at the beginning of their education. They must continue on their own if they hope to achieve the level of professionalism that the American people deserve from their armed forces.

There is a common bit of advice that many of us have heard from senior officers looking to mentor us: Take care of your job today, do it well, and you will be prepared for your next job. Focus on today’s tasks and everything else will take care of itself. Sims comes out in direct opposition to this advice. Sure, from a purely careerist point of view it is the best way to ensure you have the right grades and catch phrases on your fitness report for promotion. But from a professional point of view the unspoken part of this advice is that you don’t need to look to the future, to think about the questions “above your pay grade.” Instead, once you’ve completed your daily tasks and your administrative minutia, you can just return to managing your fantasy football team or play some more video games. Even in his day Sims was incensed that senior officers continued to give this advice. He believed that professionalism was more than the shine on your shoes, or the grade on your rules of the road quiz, it meant reading and studying your profession, even in your personal time.


In his recent book “Saltwater Leadership,” which you will hear some more about later this evening, Admiral Robert Wray conducted a survey of active duty naval officers. They were asked to rank seventy six leadership traits. The last two traits on the list, the least important things to teach young naval officers about leadership, were sensitivity and scholarship. Now, a bit higher on that list was writing ability, at number 33. This begs the question, if we haven’t studied our profession or looked at it in a comprehensive and scholarly way, what exactly do we have to write about? Admiral Sims would probably take exception to this list of what today’s officers believe. He would emphasize that professional writing must be about something, it must demonstrate mastery not only of the technical aspects of a problem but also understanding of the context and history of the issues involved. It must be the result of research, personal study, and yes, scholarship.

In conclusion today, I leave you with the knowledge that the pursuit of professional writing and personal professional study has a long history in the maritime service. It is true, there appear to be very few members of the Flag Ranks who published in the pages of Proceedings before they became important enough to have a staff to help them write. But across time the sailors that really made a difference like Samuel Du Pont, William Sims, Ernest King, Chester Nimitz, Bull Halsey, Bud Zumwalt, Tom Hayward, Jim Stavridis, and a few in uniform today, studied their profession and wrote articles to forward its development. They engaged in the professional debate and discussion well before they assumed the highest responsibilities of command, and our navy and our nation are better for it.

William Sims’ writings offers us an opportunity to be mentored by an accomplished leader who lived more than a century ago. His essays and lectures, with their examples of innovation, education, and leadership, can help us look at the challenges militaries and organizations face in the twenty-first century, ask the right questions, and find solutions. These certainly apply to those in uniform, but at their heart they apply to all leaders, whether from the military, industry, or government. Everyone who is interested in thinking about defense issues.

Like Alfred Thayer Mahan before him, the foundation of much of Sims’ writing and thinking is the idea that asking questions, and doing the work of research and reflection necessary to find the right questions, is at the heart of being a professional. I hope that with new organizations like CIMSEC, and older ones like the Naval Institute, with engaged junior officers and members of the defense community, we can carry on that vital part of our naval heritage.

Thank You.

Future War Fiction Week 30 Dec – 3 Jan: Call for Articles

For New Years, looking into the future through fiction.

Heinlein, Heller, Macdonald Fraser, Clancy, Haldeman, Drake. The list could go on of great military, science, and strategic fiction. Some of those authors had foresight that now takes on the patina of genius, other had an ability to better convey the emotional history of a moment than those that lived it- all of them raised the collective ability of military thinkers and strategists by leaps and bounds. Whether they inspired you to become an officer, or helped you to understand your experience at war, all  of them gave us  part of our intellectual kit.

Johnson Ting: Oct 24, 2014
Johnson Ting: Oct 24, 2014

In the spirit of those great minds, CIMSEC is hosting a Military Fiction week. Maybe you want to write something forward looking that hopes avoid future tragedy or ensure yet to be won victory. Perhaps you seeks to better describe the what if counterfactuals which could have led to a different world. Either way, fiction provides a wider canvas for strategists to paint their minds onto. The only criteria is that you write an original piece of military fiction, it can be historical or futuristic, that seeks to provide other strategic and security thinkers better context of the problems we did, do, or may face.  Short stories of 1000-5000 words are what we are seeking but, who knows, if something turns out to be gold we can turn it into the next Flashman series.

Read, Think, Write- just this time make sure you pull the stories from inside your head.

SEND ARTICLES TO: nextwar(at)cimsec.org
Length: 1000-5000 words, unless you can reasonably justify otherwise.
Due Date: December 26th