Adam Gopnik was recently on CNN with Fareed Zakaria discussing the place of the humanities in our world. It was a conversation that continues the recent debate aboutr the U.S. education system and the role of STEM. It also is a mirror to the discussion of officer education and training in the U.S. Navy, albeit somewhat inverted. While the discussion of U.S. education at large is one of too few science, technology, engineering, and math students and practitioners, in the Navy we face an officer corps where STEM educated officers are by far the majority, and according to policy will only become more dominant. But Gopnik said something that caught my attention: “We need the humanities … because we are human.”
The statement reminded me of a conversation I recently had with a Captain in the Pentagon. Following the relief of yet another Commanding Officer, for a leadership mistake that seemed obvious to us, the Captain asked how come, after 238 years of naval history, we haven’t figured this out? We all know what good leadership is, we all know not to be a toxic leader, and doesn’t it all seem so simple? It’s reminiscent of a letter Admiral Hyman Rickover wrote to the editor of Proceedings in 1981. For Rickover, the engineer’s mind could not fathom why people didn’t simply follow the procedure, put the inputs into the equation and get the guaranteed result. There was no need, he wrote, for Proceedings to ever publish another article on leadership. Good leadership was a settled matter.
The reason, of course, is that we’re talking about human beings, complete with all of our frailties, failings, and free will. One of the great truisms of military leadership is that our people are our greatest strength, or our most valuable asset. It’s repeated time and time again. Today Chief of Naval Operations Greenert tells us that “Our power comes from our folks, the attributes and their skill which they bring.” A century ago Alfred Thayer Mahan wrote that having a good Navy “consists not so much in the building of ships and guns as it does in the possession of trained men.” Is it true? I certainly think so. But if people matter, we’re not talking simply about end-strength numbers or rack space in berthing. We’re talking about humans. And because we’re talking about leading, working with, partnering with, and eventually even fighting other humans…we need the humanities.
Cultural understanding, emotional intelligence and empathy are fundamental parts of good leadership, and also a part of modern naval concepts like international partnerships. They come from experience. It is my great hope, however, that I will never have to experience all of the trials and challenges my fellow sailors face in life in order to help them. What a tragic life that could be. Instead, I’d rather read my share of Shakespeare, Hemingway, or O’Brian, which might help me learn a thing or two about emotion and about the way people face different challenges in their lives, even at sea. Reading the biographies of great leaders, the histories of battles both large and small, and the classics of strategy, helps me learn from the mistakes and successes of others rather than have to learn only from my own multitude of mistakes.
Many of you right now are thinking, sure but will it give me practical answers? No. Will it help me on my next tactics quiz or NATOPS closed book test? No. And that’s not the point. Empathy is not about perfect answers; it’s about finding a place to begin understanding each other and finding a way to connect. Without that connection, leadership is purely a matter of positional authority. Of course, only barking out orders is one of the worst ways to be a leader. The goal is leadership where, as one of Lord Admiral Nelson’s officers once said, “we all wish to do what he likes, without any kind of orders.” And if you remember that the enemy gets a vote, then the human mind will also play a role in how they formulate that decision.
Admiral Harvey was simply wrong when he told CDR Salamander and Eagle One on Midrats that “this is not a business for poets.” (Actually, his friend ADM James Stavridis, counters the idea directly since he studied English literature instead of engineering as a Midshipman.) It is true that we do need practical answers sometimes though. When running a nuclear plant, the Admiral is of course right that we need technical experts who can give the definite answer. But technical knowledge and execution are only a part of my job as an officer. (And, incidentally, something that Nuclear Power School has taught lots of historians and English majors.) If half of my job is working with other humans, why should I only study science and machines? Shouldn’t we have balanced officers, able to integrate the human and the technical? In order to have that, we must educate in a balanced way as well.
In the critical scene in Lord Jim, Joseph Conrad’s classic novel of the maritime world in the late 19th century, the Second Engineer of the tramp steamer Patna comes up to the bridge from below, long after dark as they head across the Gulf of Aden. The novel’s anti-hero Jim repeatedly checks the clock, as the final minutes of his bridge watch tick down (a moment we all know and identify with). The Engineer and the Captain, who had just come to the bridge in his pajamas, begin to argue about the role that Engineers should play at sea. Without them the ship wouldn’t even move, and they could pretty much take care of all the responsibilities aboard ship, exclaims the engineer. The Captain argues back about the importance of seamanship and command, both men likely having had a nip from the bottle. Jim, paying attention to the amusing give and take, feels the ship give a shudder. Patna struck something in the water. The officers, distracted by their argument and the sudden fear that Patna will sink, abandon ship.
I can’t help feel like the scene tells us something about the debate over officer education. We need both. We need engineers to provide technical expertise and their particular way of approaching problems and we also need a balance of line officers who have studied humans and human interaction, who have studied the humanities. We need diversity. But maybe most importantly, we need both of them to stop arguing with each other and stop maneuvering for position. Stop making official policies that benefit their tribe and take us further out of balance. Stop thinking that only they and their type is what our navy and our nation need.
It’s time to drive the ship. The issue is on the table, but instead of tribal preservation we must figure out how to bring balance back to the Navy, to educate officers and integrate the technical specialist’s skills with the strategic thinking and leadership lessons of the humanities and social sciences. Instead of piecemeal decisions and salami slicing policy, we need a holistic vision. It is time for an official and comprehensive look at the kind of naval officer we need in the 21st century, and how our system develops those officers. If we neglect our professional responsibilities the tragic victims may not be our service, but instead the passengers we abandon: the American people. It’s time to stop arguing at the back of the bridge and start looking outside. It’s time to focus on our profession. We’re headed toward a collision.
In the midst of political battles in Washington, D.C., dramatic cuts to military spending from the sequester and continuing resolutions, and the now infamous government shutdown of 2013, a group of military officers, enlisted, government civilians and men and women from industry gathered in Chicago last fall. The Defense Entrepreneurs Forum was held at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business to bring together innovators from the junior ranks of the military, senior officers with experience and advice, and experienced entrepreneurs who had come from the ranks to make a difference. Speakers ranged from Silicon Valley gurus, to military officers, and even one history geek. It was an inspiring event, and helped to stoke the embers of innovation that have been a central part of American military success time and again, through the ages.
This spring the opportunity is presenting itself again. This time, it’s closer to home for the decision makers in D.C. and the think tank crowd, as well as the U.S. Naval Institute. Not far from where the last Liberty Tree once stood, the gathering place for a previous generation of upstarts and thinkers, DEF[x] Annapolis will be held on 1 March, 2014 on the campus of St. John’s College. Bringing together the ideals of intellectual inquiry represented by St. John’s unique curriculum, the promise of military service from the U.S. Naval Academy, and a proximity to the movers and shakers in Washington, D.C., the speakers, breakouts, and social events show a lot of promise. Some of the events will be sponsored by organizations like Unleashed Technologies and USNI. The list of TED-style talks slated for this one day event are likely to be just as inspiring and informative as Chicago, including successful military innovators, operators, and again, at least one history geek.
If you’re looking to learn a little bit more about innovation in the U.S. military, about successful entrepreneurs, or about operators who have tried something new in the field, this will be the place to be on Saturday, 1 March. Even if you’re just looking for an excuse to escape the beltway and see historic Annapolis, it’s worth the short drive. Registration is limited and the seats are filling up quickly, so click through to sign up.
“Our objective must not be “safety first” in the sense of adherence to already tested practices and implements, but safety first in being the first to recognize, the first to experiment with, and the first to adopt improvements of distinct military value.” – Admiral William S. Sims, 1921.
In an era of defense draw down, technological acceleration, and globalized connections, doing the “same old, same old” is not an acceptable answer. Come join some folks who are interested in trying new things, and looking for creative solutions.
Mid 20th Century the “Happy Hour” was a common occurrence in the USN. It was an opportunity for sailors to blow off some steam, and maybe even get a little exercise. Also known as a “smoker,” in those days a “Happy Hour” was usually series of boxing or wrestling matches when the ships weren’t busy.
In our post-prohibition world it means something a bit different, but still gives us a chance to blow off some steam. On Thursday, 12 December, The Naval Institute will host a Happy Hour in Newport, Rhode Island for members, prospective members, or anyone who wants to show up to talk about daring “to read, think and write” about sea power and national security.
A member of our Editorial Board will be there to answer questions, and some writers and thinkers who have contributed to the Institute to share some of their experiences. While there will be no punches thrown, sparing over strategy and grappling with the naval issues of the day will be encouraged.
If you are in Newport, please join us to splice the main brace at the USNI Happy Hour/Social:
12 December 2013, 1700 until the tab runs out or the grog runs dry.
Over the Columbus Day weekend I had the great opportunity to participate in the first national Defense Entrepreneur’s Forum conference. The event was hosted at The Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago and a number of other organizations, like USNI, sponsored events from breakfasts to happy hours. At its heart, however, the conference was independently organized by a group of mid-grade and junior officers to explore the nexus of innovation and entrepreneurship with military affairs and defense industry.
Off the top, the very existence of the event was something to behold. Over a hundred men and women from the junior ranks of the military, civilians from the defense world both inside and outside government, and innovation/silicon valley folks, got together for three days to talk about how to make the military better in the 21st century. They paid their own way. The government is shutdown. Even if it wasn’t, sequestration meant there was no travel money. They filled out a leave chit and pulled out their personal credit cards. These individuals have such a belief in the idea that the military needs new ways of looking at things and doing things, and such an overwhelming desire to be part of that, that they all dropped hundreds of dollars and their long weekend to go to Chicago to meet with one another.
I do have a personal note about attendance that I think should be made: while many junior personnel had the guts to vote with their wallets and their time, only one General officer showed up, and a couple of Colonels. I’m not sure what any of that means, but it is worth noting because ALL ranks, rates, and grades were invited. In fact, there was some pretty significant outreach to the Flag and General Officer community by the organizers.
So, the Defense Entrepreneur’s Forum 2013 set out in part to inspire, in part to educate, and in part to execute. The events were livecast with the support of Google, and there is a DEF Youtube Channel. The Tweetwall went up and participants were encouraged to tweet as the event went on to highlight ideas and lessons. You can read back through the tweets from the weekend at #DEF2013 if you are interested.
Over the next week or two I’m hoping that there will be a number of blog posts across the web about what we all experienced at DEF. LT Hipple has already reported back at USNI Blog and there are a few others (here, here, here) to get us started.
I just wanted to share one observation that I took away from the weekend. On Sunday, Sean Maday, a former USAF Captain who now works at Google pointed out in his Keynote that a few short years ago, when he was wearing baby blue with railroad tracks on his collar, a three or four-star wouldn’t even acknowledge his existence, never mind listen to his ideas. Today, just because he put on a pair of jeans and a t-shirt instead of a uniform, they travel to Palo Alto to meet him, desperate to know what he thinks. This illustrates one of the great truths that was only hinted at in the excitement of DEF: Innovative junior officers don’t have the power to execute their ideas.
One of the mantras of the weekend was that we must have results. Ben Kohlmann quoted fellow board member Micha Murphy that “execution is the new innovation.” This is a valid observation, but only after the innovator is given the nod, a green deck if you will. Someone in a position of power and influence has to buy into the idea that a) there is a problem and b) this is a good solution. In the world of Silicon Valley they don’t have Flag and General Officers who are part of a massive, centuries old bureaucracy. However, they do have the venture capitalists and money men, and if you can’t get a money man to buy into your grand IT innovation or start-up it’s going to be pretty tough to get anywhere.
It may be that the best way to look at this is to think about military strategy, maybe think a little bit about Sun Tzu and stir in some Liddell Hart with a touch of John Boyd, and look for an indirect approach. In the closing hours of the conference Colonel Michael-Bob Starr (USAF, one of the few senior officers at DEF) tweeted:
Implementation is not the goal. Goal is to INFLUENCE the implementers. #DEF2013
— Michael Bob Starr (@mbobstarr) October 14, 2013
So how do you influence the decision makers? While it was not formally talked about, it did come up again and again with comments about communicating your idea. As Howard Lieberman said on Sunday in a breakout: “Publish your idea and get credit for it.”
So, here’s my lesson observed from DEF 2013: It isn’t good enough to have a great idea or to figure out how you would implement it. Neither of those things matter unless you figure out how to influence the influencer, how to get your idea in front of someone who can make a decision and get the green-light. We heard repeatedly this weekend that one of the best ways to get your idea in front of someone is to publish it. The hyperlink, the pdf, or the hard copy of the magazine are a lot more likely to find their way in front of the person with that power than you are just wandering aimlessly around your base with a great innovation in your head.
I think we’ve heard this before: Dare to read, think, write…publish.
As this week’s addition to the USNI Blog series in the run up to the release of LCDR BJ Armstrong’s book “21st Century Mahan: Sound Military Conclusions for the Modern Era” we are republishing his article from the May issue of Proceedings. The call for sailors and Marines to become active participants in the debates of the 21st century has long been a rallying cry here at USNI. From Senior Chief Murphy’s “A Pseudo-Intellectual Wanna-be” in the March issue to the 2008 article “Read, Think, Write, and Publish” by ADM Jim Stavridis. While critical for the future of the Sea Services, it also applies to our brothers and sisters in arms, as illustrated by Jason Fritz at FP’s Best Defense Blog.
When the latest issue of Proceedings arrived in June 1906, Naval Institute members and the American people heard from a renowned global expert, a retired naval officer whose pen had been quiet for some months. His name was Alfred Thayer Mahan. His article, “Reflections, Historic and Other, Suggested by the Battle of the Japan Sea,” derived from the recent Russo-Japanese naval war lessons for U.S. fleet design and battleship construction. Just a few years away from Great Britain’s launch of HMS Dreadnought , which would revolutionize ship design by bringing speed together with an all-big-gun main battery, Mahan advocated for smaller and more numerous ships with mixed batteries of different calibers. As the leading naval expert, Mahan’s articles were voraciously read worldwide, and his analysis matched well with the “Big Navy” party line.
The U.S. Naval Institute, then as today, was a members’ organization. It didn’t exist for the sake of itself, but to share ideas and debate the future of the Sea Services. A naval arms race was developing in Europe; after the U.S. victory in the Spanish-American War, the nation stepped onto the global stage as a naval power. A year away from the Great White Fleet sailing around the world, the USNI members understood that their ideas, innovations, and wisdom mattered. Even though many considered Mahan the greatest living navalist and a strategic genius, he was not impervious to challenges from Naval Institute members.
In the December issue of Proceedings, a member responded to Mahan’s assertions. The article didn’t come from a civilian contractor who was building the next set of battleships, or from an academic expert who made his living advising politicians. The response came from an upstart lieutenant commander on staff duty in Washington, D.C. Then-Commander Mahan had once written him up for being disorderly at the Naval Academy as a first-class midshipman. Lieutenant Commander William Sims’ article “The Inherent Tactical Qualities of All-Big-Gun, One Calibre Battleships” dissected and refuted Mahan’s arguments. He argued that “if we are to remain a world power,” the large, fast, heavily gunned battleship was the future of naval warfare.
President Theodore Roosevelt read with great interest the exchange between the renowned, retired officer and the active-duty staff officer. The articles were republished in public-affairs magazines and entered into the record during debate on the floor of the Senate. The names of two great officers and naval thinkers make the story interesting, but it was the mission and membership of the Naval Institute that made it possible. The exchange didn’t happen in the pages of The Atlantic or Harper’s. It happened in Proceedings. Both men were USNI members and understood that ensuring the future of their Navy required discussion, debate, and participation of the membership.
In the case of battleship design, the lieutenant commander won the debate. After studying the response and new information about the Pacific battles, Mahan admitted that his argument didn’t stand up. Nevertheless, his expertise and experience as a retired naval officer-turned-civilian expert was central to the development of the future Fleet, as was his willingness to debate an upstart like Sims. The Royal Navy launched HMS Dreadnought before the United States could put its first large, fast, heavily gunned battleship to sea. But we weren’t far behind, because the ideas had already been debated in Proceedings.
In the first decade of the 1900s, the United States was fighting a counterinsurgency war in the Philippines. An Asian power, the Empire of Japan, was rising to become a major economic and military force, rapidly building up its navy. USNI members faced shifting alliances and adversaries, new technologies, tactical innovation, and globalized economics. These challenges should sound familiar today. We need the expertise and experience of our senior members to keep us from repeating past mistakes. We also require the exciting and innovative ideas of new, younger members, junior officers and enlisted personnel, to propel the discussion and debate forward.
The pages of Proceedings (and USNI Blog!) need your well-developed research, thoughtful articles, and best ideas to ensure that we continue the vital debate in the 21st century. To provide an independent forum to advance the professional, literary, and scientific understanding of sea power and national defense, we must first have those who dare to read, think, speak, and write. The U.S. Naval Institute is a members’ organization—help us continue the debate!
As this week’s addition to the USNI Blog series in the run up to the release of LCDR BJ Armstrong’s book “21st Century Mahan: Sound Military Conclusions for the Modern Era” we are republishing this post from USNI NEWS. First published July 7th of last year, it remains a relevant discussion today. The potential for negative impacts from globalization was the subject of ADM James Stavridis’s oped “The Dark Side of Globalization” in the Washington Post on Sunday, and it reminds us of the dangers that Mahan saw in an interconnected world.
“It seems demonstrable, therefore, that as commerce is the engrossing and predominant interest of the world to day… The instrument for the maintenance of policy directed upon these objects is the Navy.”
– CAPT Alfred Thayer Mahan
Much of today’s discussion of international relations is based around the core idea that globalization has radically changed the political landscape of the world. Today’s thinkers, writers, and strategists tell us that because the world is flat, and we are closer to each other than ever before, we are in uncharted seas. In 2011 LCDR Matt Harper suggested in an award winning article in the pages of Proceedings that the economic ties between China and the United States, the “WALMART factor,” made military conflict almost impossible. Recently the discussion has once again been taken up in the pages of Proceedings. In the April issue LCDR Rachel Gosnell and 2LT Michael Orzetti wrote a piece suggesting that great power conflict was still something that should be planned for in the twenty-first century. LT Doug Robb responded in May with his Now Hear This…, “Why the Age of Great Power Conflict is Over.” He made a familiar case familiar to readers of the writing of Tom Friedman today or the idealism of Norman Angell, early in the last century.
Both articles suggest that this is a new question and the question is a new challenge to be tackled. The dawn of the twenty-first century, however, is not the first time that the world has dealt with globalization. Alfred Thayer Mahan wrote about it in a number of his essays at the turn of the last century. In 1905 he published “Considerations Governing the Dispositions of Navies,” which opened with what he called “an antecedent appreciation of the political, commercial, and military exigencies of the state.” He felt that before he discussed how and where naval forces should be deployed it was important to first talk about the condition and political state of the world because the use and deployment of a fleet in peacetime should be done in anticipation of the needs of war. ATM believed that any military policy had to be in tune with political and economic realities. This opening discussion centers around what readers in the twenty-first century recognize as globalization.
The adoption of steam power, transatlantic telegraph cables, and wireless telegraph technology had dramatically shortened the connections around the world. This created a global economic and political system that ATM called “an articulated whole.” He foresaw that as commerce and economic considerations increased in their power, there would be a desire to maintain the global status quo for reasons of economic power. The economic, political and military power of a nation, according to ATM, was all intertwined and he wrote, “This is the more necessary to observe, because, while commerce thus on the one hand deters from war, on the other hand it engenders conflict, fostering ambitions and strifes which tend towards armed conflict.”
In other writings ATM warned that “civilizations on different planes of material prosperity and progress, with different spiritual ideals, and with very different political capacities, are fast closing together.” He saw the rise of new powers in Asia as a source of future conflict. When the rising powers and the great powers come into commercial and economic competition ATM saw it as a recipe for the development of armed conflict. With economic conflict leading to potential political conflict, which would lead to military conflict, he believed that America required a solid strategy based in naval strength. Why? Because, “it seems demonstrable, therefore, that as commerce is the engrossing and predominant interest of the world today, so, in consequence of its acquired expansion, oversea commerce, oversea political acquisition, and maritime commercial routes are now the primary objects of external policy among nations. The instrument for the maintenance of policy directed upon these objects is the Navy.”
There is a common tendency for us to look at our challenges and strategic questions as new, with more complexity, or wickedness, or whatever other new adjective we can think of, than ever before. However, history and the strategic thinking of the past frequently helps us develop the right approaches to those questions, or can provide realistic starting points for debate and research. Reading and studying ATM, who addressed globalization in his thinking and writing, can help add to our modern discussion, debate, and strategy formulation.
The vast majority of naval theory and strategy has focused on fleet engagements during times of war, rather than the smaller engagements and expeditionary operations that, more often than not, occur in times of relative peace. Counter-piracy operations have long been one of the irregular missions conducted by naval forces that didn’t fit the traditional mold. The writing of Alfred Thayer Mahan is a common foundation for many naval thinkers, and they remember his strategic focus on blue water and fleet engagements. In his book Naval Strategy ATM lamented “police duties” and emphasized that these operations detract from the central principle of concentration of military power.
However, ATM’s dislike of anything that would distract from the concentration of effort for naval formations did not automatically mean that he disliked expeditionary operations or naval irregular warfare. He believed that counter-piracy missions, in particular, were a valid function of naval forces. In writing about Nelson’s operations in the Mediterranean in the early 19th century, ATM agreed in theory with the Admiral’s desire to attack the Corsairs of Algiers and end the Barbary menace. In Nelson’s own words, “My Blood boils that I can not chastise these pirates,” and Mahan identified with the sentiment. In practice, however, he supported Lord Nelson’s decision not to attack because it would split his force, and detract from his primary mission, which was the destruction of the French Fleet.
It wasn’t that attacking piracy was an invalid naval mission, as some who claim to be part of a Mahanian tradition maintain; it was that Nelson’s Fleet had a higher purpose that required concentration. Without that higher purpose, an attack on the Barbary Corsairs would have been an important and distinctly naval mission. In his biography of Admiral Pellew, ATM championed the 1816 attack on Algiers which did finally end the Barbary menace once and for all, an operation that would today be described as a multinational force conducting power projection against an asymmetric menace.
ATM also wrote about the American 1820’s counter-piracy campaign in the West Indies which was led by Commodore David Porter. In his brief discussion of the subject in his biography of Admiral Farragut, he approved of Porter’s decision to leave the heavy frigates and traditional naval warships behind in favor of Sloops-of-War, armed schooners, and gun barges. What he termed the Mosquito Squadron, fulfilled his thoughts on concentration, as the ships worked together to attack the pirates both offshore and in the shallows of Cuba. It also illustrated the point that he would made in his debates with William Sims over the need for a balanced fleet rather than a myopic focus on battleships.
In ATM’s eyes the effectiveness of the squadron fulfilled the important naval mission of providing for “the security of commerce.” Ultimately, because they could not take or occupy territory, ATM realized the influence that navies could exert on an enemy was based in the ability to impact economics. First and foremost the battlefleet had to be ready for fleet engagements to drive the enemy’s naval forces from the sea, to fight the decisive battle in blue water. However, naval forces also needed to be ready to conduct irregular missions, like counter-piracy, because ultimately Mahan believed that “Navies exist for the protection of commerce.”
This is the first post in a weekly series about the writing and thinking of Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan, leading up to the release of “21st Century Mahan: Sound Military Conclusions for the Modern Era” by The Naval Institute Press.
This week is Commissioning Week at The U.S. Naval Academy. It’s an exciting time of ceremonies, balls, parties, and obelisk climbing. At this year’s ceremony the new Ensigns and Second Lieutenants will hear advice from many, including the CNO, SECNAV, Governor of Maryland, and the Commander-in-Chief. Ultimately much of it comes down to the central question: What are the skills, the requirements, the qualifications, of a good naval officer? Or to put it another way: What does it take to earn that “Special Trust and Confidence” from the President of the United States?
It is well known that the passage memorized by Plebes at the Academy entitled “The Qualifications of a Naval Officer” never actually flowed from the pen of Captain John Paul Jones. The story is well documented in an article from Naval History, debunked by a writing team of a Midshipman and an Academy Professor. However, the ideals listed in the passage are worth considering as a benchmark and sometimes we still see them in official Navy documents.
[Republished from 13 June 2011] A little bit over a month ago, at his home blog Information Dissemination, Galrahn noted that the 27th of April marked an important day in the history of the United States Navy and Marine Corps, the anniversary of the Battle of Dernah. In his post Galrahn drew a connection between the First Barbary War and Operation Odyssey Dawn and the current operations that are being conducted under Operation Unified Protector. It can certainly be said that the success of Hamet Karamali’s insurgent army, led in reality by Naval Agent William Eaton and Marine Corps First Lieutenant Presley O’Bannnon, played a central role in the conclusion of the First Barbary War for the United States of America. In 1805 boots on the ground mattered after nearly four years of naval operations which had experienced little success driving the Tripolitan Pasha Jousef Karamali to the negotiating table. However, the history of Eaton, O’Bannon, and Hamet in Dernah offers a great deal more to consider than a simple lesson about the effectiveness of land forces.
The March to Dernah
Hamet Karamali had been the crown prince of Tripoli, but was deposed by his brother Jousef after their father’s death. It was Jousef who had declared war on the United States in 1801. When Eaton found him in Alexandria and offered to build him an army, and to help him lead it to Tripoli to reclaim his throne, Hamet jumped at the chance. Eaton, a former U.S. Army officer and previous U.S. consul to Tunis, had at his disposal twenty thousand dollars and a small detachment of United States Marines led by O’Bannon.
On the third of March, 1805 a rag tag army set out from Alexandria, Egypt to cross the desert toward the Tripolitan region of Bomba. About six hundred fighters strong, the force that Eaton organized marched for many different reasons. Some were Greek mercenaries (frequently referred to in the dispatches of the American officers involved as “the Christians”) who were in it for the money that Eaton promised them. Some were tribal loyalists to Hamet. Others were members of local desert tribes who’s Sheiks had been bribed, cajoled, or promised positions of power to join the insurgency. Eaton lamented the “ungovernable temper of this marauding malitia [sic],” which traveled with their families and flocks and offered constant leadership challenges and two mutinies as they crossed the desert.
When they arrived near the coastal city of Dernah on the 24th of April the army was twenty five days since their last meat and fifteen days since their bread ran out, mainly subsisting on rice and water. Eaton’s force rendezvoused with USS Argus and USS Hornet. Under the orders of Master Commandant Isaac Hull, the Sloops of War offloaded as much food, supplies, and ammunition as they could spare which reanimated the insurgent army. They moved forward and took position on a hill south of the town.
On the 26th Eaton sent a letter to the Governor of Dernah and made him an offer to join the insurgency. By allowing Hamet’s army to resupply and pass unmolested he would be permitted to retain his position when Hamet took the throne. Eaton closed the letter saying “I shall see you to morrow, in a way of your choice…” The Governor responded that evening: ”My head or yours.”
On the morning of the 27th Hull’s Sailors moved a field piece ashore, hoisting it up a twenty foot beach front cliff to Eaton and his men. Joined by USS Nautilus, the three Sloops moved to positions off the fortress that protected the town with a battery of eight cannon that faced the sea. Hornet’s skipper, Lieutenant Evans, brought his ship within one hundred yards of the fortress and anchored by setting spring lines. Argus and Nautilus took up positions on either side. It was about two in the afternoon when Hamet’s tribesmen and the mercenaries were in position and the assault began. Eaton later reported that “The fire became general in all quarters.” All three ships opened fire on the fortress and battery, decimating the eight cannon that opposed them. The bombardment lasted about an hour while Hamet led his tribesmen into the southern end of the city. Eaton and O’Bannon led the Marines and the mercenaries around the town and assaulted the fortress along the beach. Hull wrote in his report that “about half past three we had the satisfaction to see Lieut. O’Bannon and Mr. Mann, Midshipman of the Argus, with a few brave fellows with them, enter the fort, haul down the Enemy’s flag, and plant the American Ensign on the Walls of the Battery.” By four o’clock the insurgents had taken control of the town.
A City Under Siege
The Battle of Dernah, however, is just the beginning of this story. The great Mark Twain once said that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme. It is after the battle that we begin to pick up the rhythm that reminds us of today’s challenges on the North coast of Africa.
Eaton immediately set about shoring up the defenses of the city. The guns of the fortress’ battery were turned inward toward the desert and Hull and the skippers of the other Sloops landed Sailors to help move supplies ashore and work on the city’s defenses. After helping the Marines and mercenaries reinforce their defenses the Sailors embarked on their ships. Hull, unsure of Commodore Barron’s orders with regard to the occupation of the city, began cycling the Sloops back to Malta to resupply and inquire about orders. Hornet was sent first, while Argus and Nautilus remained with three weeks of provisions each. Hornet would return with fresh stores and ammunition for the city.
Hull sent a report to Barron detailing his thoughts on the occupation, and what it would take to move the insurgency forward. He felt that holding the city itself would not necessarily be a difficult task and could be completed by the force on the ground as long as it was provided proper supplies from the sea and that at least one warship was kept on station to provide fire support against any attempt by the regime to retake the city. In order to push forward toward Tripoli, however, it would have required a different approach in the young Master Commandant’s mind. He wrote “I am clearly of the opinion that three or four hundred Christians, with additional supplies, will be necessary to pursue the expedition to Bengaze and Tripoli.” It was a significant increase in support, and an escalation from the American reliance on sea power.
Eaton came up with a plan that was slightly different. Pointing out that, with the proper funding, Hamet could recruit local Sheiks as he moved west, Eaton thought the insurgent army would grow. He recognized that loyalty that was purchased was suspect as a motivator for fighters. To counter that he suggested that as the force encountered difficult or entrenched enemies he would need detachments of Marines or regular soldiers to be landed by the American squadron. This support by amphibious forces would “aid and give effect to such operations as require energy.” After each amphibious raid the forces could embark aboard ship and continue to patrol the coast awaiting the next call.
It wasn’t long after the insurgents victory at Dernah that an army from Tripoli arrived. Initially they took up position on the hill south of town where Eaton and Hamet had planned their own assault. The regime forces laid siege to the city. Attacks or probes were made several times a week. During some of the heavier attacks the regime forces penetrated through the defenders outer lines and into the city. Brutal house to house urban combat was conducted by the insurgents and, with fire support from the Sloops sitting in the harbor; they were able to drive their attackers back to their positions outside the city. In a few instances Eaton lead his Marines and mercenaries out to face the irregular cavalry and undisciplined infantry that opposed them, each time having minor successes but never driving away the Pasha’s army.
While Eaton and Hull endeavored to keep the siege lines away from Dernah, and the regime’s forces at bay, the American Naval and Diplomatic leadership began to listen to Jousef’s new attempts at negotiation. Whether it was the deteriorating situation in his own country, the poor harvest that year, lack of popular support for the war with the Americans (all of which appeared to be true), or whether it was the threat posed by his brother’s foothold in Dernah, the Pasha made an overture for peace.
As the diplomats worked their negotiations the regime’s forces continued to attack and probe at Dernah. Eaton reported that spies had heard dispatches received with orders from Tripoli. The Pasha intended to conclude a peace with the United States and once it was complete he would be able to “dispose of his internal enemies.” Eaton warned Commodore Barron not to accept terms of peace too hastily, and pointed out that consideration of Hamet’s position could result in a true ally on the coast rather than a suspect treaty. He pushed hard, commenting that the honor of the United States required that they not simply abandon Hamet on the shores of Dernah. Cooperation between the United States and Hamet would, according to Eaton’s reasoning, “very probably be a death blow to the Barbary System” of piracy and hostage taking.
Eaton realized, as time went on and the regime’s army was reinforced, that Hamet was being used as a bargaining chip. He received a report that a pair of women had come into the city with orders to poison him and he began spending more time aboard Argus or Hornet, Nautilus having been dispatched for more supplies. On the 4th of June Hull received orders to return to Syracuse with Argus and Hornet and sent word for Eaton and the Americans to join him. Eaton confided to Hull that he was sure that his position in Dernah was playing an important role in the negotiation and he didn’t feel that he could leave until he knew that the negotiation had been completed. Hull prepared to send Hornet to Syracuse as ordered, but remained off Dernah aboard Argus, unwilling to abandon his countrymen.
Neither man knew that on the 3rd of June a peace treaty was signed by Jousef and Tobias Lear who was the State Department’s lead negotiator. The crew of the captured USS Philadelphia, held since the fall of 1803, were freed and sailed for Malta aboard USS Constitution. Lear wrote to Eaton that he had tried to secure some consolation for Hamet, however he decided based on his negotiations that it was “impracticable.” Lear agreed that the United States would remove all support from the insurgent army at Dernah, and also promised the Pasha that he could keep Hamet’s wife and daughters as hostages to ensure that his brother left the country.
The news was slow to spread, and on the 9th and 10th of June the regime’s army launched assaults on the city which were repelled through vicious fighting. The Sloops moved close to the shore and their guns were brought into action, “keeping up a brisk fire” according to Hull’s journal. The Pasha’s army was pushed back yet again and Hull landed more powder for the fortress’ guns.
As the sun reached toward the western horizon on the 11th of June USS Constellation arrived off Dernah, with orders for Eaton and the Americans to embark and withdraw from the assistance of the insurgent army. The withdrawal would be tricky business, and Eaton would not leave Hamet in the lurch. He consulted with the insurgent ruler and they concocted a ruse to have Hamet’s people prepare for an attack on the enemy. After dark on the 13th the Arabs and Tripolitans prepared themselves for their attack while the boats of Constellation rowed to the seawall and began taking off the Greek mercenaries. Once the Greeks were aboard word was sent to Hamet that Eaton wanted a meeting and the leader and his court slipped into the fortress and aboard Constellation’s boats. Eaton, O’Bannon, and the Marines were the last to embark, quietly covering the amphibious withdrawal. By two in the morning the force had been embarked and the insurgent army abandoned. Constellation, Argus, and Hornet sailed into the Mediterranean as Hamet’s tribesmen and the Arabs who had joined him attempted to slip away into the mountains and desert before the regime’s forces could corner them.
The victory of the United State Navy in its first conflict on a foreign shore is something that we continue to celebrate. However, few know these details of the “success.” Many of Hamet’s supporters were able to escape, a small number were captured and executed. Based on their agreement with the Pasha, a representative of the regime was landed by the Americans just before they left and he immediately began demanding loyalty oaths from anyone in the city. The United States paid Jousef sixty thousand dollars and all the Americans held in Tripoli’s slave camps were freed.
The peace held for less than a decade. Once the Barbary powers learned of the American’s war with the British in 1812 they began falling upon American merchants as their Navy fought in the Atlantic. Americans again began to fill the slave camps on the Tripolitan coast. It would take another conflict and two squadrons of battle hardened naval veterans after the end of the War of 1812 to pacify the Barbary Coast again. The Second Barbary War was considered another successful conflict for the early U.S. Navy. However, piracy and slavery on the Barbary Coast didn’t end until several years later when the Royal Navy finally decided to stamp it out.
The study of history does not provide us checklists for success. It doesn’t describe equations which will give military or government leaders a perfect answer every time. However, it can certainly help illuminate the questions that should be asked, and the possible effects of the answers to those questions. April 27th is an important anniversary in the history of the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps, but so is the 13th of June, when USS Constellation departed the harbor of a besieged city on the Barbary Coast. Eaton, O’Bannon, and Hull slipped away from a besieged insurgency, which had been resupplied and defended from the sea, and which relied on Western support for survival.
Was it the right decision? The expensive war being fought on the other side of the globe was certainly running the American treasury into the red. The infant American democracy struggled with the political challenges of an undeclared war on foreign soil. American casualties were few, the number of Americans taken hostage also dropped, and the reasons to keep fighting seemed small. What of the aftermath? The payment to the Pasha was arguably the very ransom that the Americans did not want to pay. The result of the diplomacy was neither a supportive local government nor a successful treaty of peace. Americans had to risk their lives on the Barbary shore again, many of them the same Sailors who started their career there.
For those who study strategy or who make policy, the story of Dernah may be history worth considering.
Sources: Dudley Knox, Ed., Naval Documents Related to the United States Wars with the Barbary Powers: Naval Operations Including Diplomatic Background From 1785 to 1807, (Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1939-1944). Volumes 5 and 6 contain the original letters and reports related to the Battle of Dernah and the siege of the city.
In June and July of last year USNI published my series of posts on William Sims and the Gunnery Revolution. The discussion of innovation inside military has continued at a slow boil. I was recently invited to Tampa to speak at the U.S. Special Operations Command Innovation Conference. It was a great conference and the speakers included a number of luminaries from the innovation and technology sectors of the business world, including Tom Kelley of IDEO and Michael Jones of Google. The auditorium was filled will staff officers, DoD and contract civilians, and the front table was crowded with Senior Executive Service civilians and Flag and General Officers including Admiral McRaven.
The involvement of Junior Officers in innovation has certainly been highlighted in the past year. However, what is the role of the mid-grade or senior officer? And what about an officer’s peers? In my talk at SOCOM, I told the story of “The Gun Doctor” William Sims again, but with a slightly different focus at the end. The story I’ve told you here at USNI about the Gunnery Revolution is the story as Sims himself likely would have told it. It’s the story that appears in many history books. However, when you keep reading, and get into some of the letters and reports of the time, you realize that while William Sims was the driving force, the brains and the brawn behind this innovation, he wasn’t exactly alone. The Gunnery Revolution had an entire cast of supporting characters, including a number of Senior Officers and some staff officers who were Sims’ friends and peers.
Open Minded Seniors
When Lieutenant Sims was on China Station the Commander-in-Chief of the Asiatic Squadron was Rear Admiral George Remy. Remy was a hero of the Spanish American War and was one of the most highly respected officers of the day. He held a position that is roughly equivalent to the Commander of PACOM today. Sims’ reports went through Admiral Remy on their way back to Washington. The Admiral always added an endorsement and it was always a positive endorsement. Sims’ time on China Station wasn’t entirely spent onboard KENTUCKY. After he forwarded the first couple reports to D.C. Admiral Remy ordered him onto his staff aboard the flagship USS BROOKLYN. Sims was given the position of “Special Intelligence Officer,” an invented job that wasn’t on the organizational chart. Remy told him that he had free reign to work on, study, and report on whatever he wanted; from the growing potential for military conflict between Japan and Russia, to comparisons of the designs of foreign warships on China Station, to gunnery tactics, techniques, and procedures. Remy was a key enabler by helping to create the time and space for Sims to do his work.