Archive for the 'Training & Education' Category

For the Sailor, nothing is more immediate, more “now” and of more impact to their personal and professional lives than their next set of orders.

For our Navy, nothing defines present operational performance, the development of future leaders, and ensuring success at war for the next few decades than personnel policy.

Our guest for the full hour this Sunday from 5-6pm Eastern will be the Chief of Naval Personnel, Vice Admiral Bill Moran, USN.

We will discuss the drive to man the Fleet to appropriate levels now, while looking at ways to modernize the personnel system to provide greater choice, flexibility and transparency for our Sailors and the commands they serve.

We will also look at the ongoing discussion about how to best keep with one hand a firm hand on what has worked, while with a free hand, reach for those things that will ensure that today’s officers and enlisted personnel have a Navy that not only is meeting its needs, but takes in to consideration the individual goals and priorities of its personnel.

Join us live if you can by clicking here (if you can’t join us live, you will also find show archived at that link or at our iTunes page here).



22nd

A Call to Write

April 2015

By

The Institute is pleased to have the guidance of a select panel of Navy Officers who believe this destination can continue to host the most important lines of thought concerning naval policy and the nation’s defense. LTJG Chris O’Keefe and a network of junior naval officers have agreed to assemble content for the USNI Blog, focusing specifically on key issues that they describe below in their inaugural post.

They are not strangers to the forum, and already have an impressive resume of posts and articles. They continue a fine tradition of important discussions on the USNI Blog led by a strong network of key Navy figures including guest bloggers from the naval blogging community, who were responsible for guiding the USNI Blog to three consecutive years of being named “Best Navy Blog” sponsored by Military.com and USAA. Our founding guest bloggers will continue to contribute as they desire.

Mary D. Ripley | Director of Digital Content

Bill Miller | Publisher

LTJG O’Keefe:

Since 2008, the Naval Institute’s blog has served as a key forum for thinkers and naval leaders to collaborate, argue, think, and write. The blog, with its essentially unlimited audience and condensed production timeline, helps ensure the Institute continues to play a vital role in shaping the dialogues that will shape the Navy of the 21st century and beyond. It is important therefore to periodically step back and ensure that the blog’s content sufficiently captures the critical discussions taking place throughout the Fleet. A small group of junior naval thinkers is working to facilitate this, and we would like you to join our ranks through thinking and writing.

Looking forward, we’ve identified conversations in the naval sphere that we believe are not getting enough attention, and that are ripe for dynamic debate. The four identified areas are:

-The navy and cyber

-Personnel policy

-Future war fighting

-Revitalizing practical professional notes

One of the flagship platforms for naval discourse is Proceedings. However, the capacity of the magazine is finite, and there are many discussions that simply may not meet the threshold for publication in a particular issue. The blog team is coordinating with the Proceedings editorial staff to develop a framework for two-way content flow between the magazine and the blog. A rising tide raises all ships, and just because an article doesn’t find the right home in the magazine does not mean that it is not a valid discussion piece meriting dissemination. Therefore, beginning shortly, authors who submit to Proceedings whose articles are not accepted for publication will be invited to submit to the blog team for editorial assistance and publication. At the same time, blog authors whose pieces are well received will be invited to contribute a larger, more comprehensive piece to Proceedings Magazine. Our essay contest winners will also begin to have entries published on the blog, and we will eventually sponsor online-only essay contests. Combined with other events, we hope broaden naval discussion by encouraging more people to write, speak out, and be heard.

The online blogging forum presents unique technological affordances compared to traditional mediums. In thinking about the implications of the blog’s digital existence, we were forced to reflect on how the digital has altered the form and practice of naval discourse more broadly. By extension, we were prompted to contemplate how the digital space has fundamentally altered naval disciplines. Therefore, as our first effort, we will be launching a conversation starting May 3rd about the Navy and cyber, and how this discussion should be framed and shaped.

Kasparov-DeepBlueWhy May 3rd? On that date in 1997 IBM’s Deep Blue began a 6 game re-match with chess champion Garry Kasparov. Although Kasparov won this match, an apparent bug in Deep Blue caused it to make a move that puzzled Kasparov. American statistician Nate Silver believes that “Kasparov had concluded that the counterintuitive play must be a sign of superior intelligence. He had never considered that it was simply a bug.” His confidence shaken, Kasparov would go on to lose the series, marking the first time under tournament conditions a computer had defeated a reigning world chess champion.

Deep Blue’s name is particularly appropriate for conversation about the Navy’s cyber domain, and this comes on the heels of the launch of the concept of all-domain access within the new maritime strategy. We already have a few articles ready in rough draft form, and have been in conversations with leaders at all levels in the naval cyber realm. We invite you to submit an article between 800 and 1000 words that would help shape the conversation on how we integrate the navy and the cyber domain.

In the next week we will announcing our revised blog submission policies and instructions on how to submit posts for publication. Whether you are a member of the nation’s Naval service, or an armchair admiral, the groundswell of naval thought is palpable, and we hope you will put pen to paper or open your laptop to join it.

Chris O’Keefe is an active duty naval officer who spends much of his spare time working to foster professional naval discourse by helping and encouraging current and future thinkers and writers.



For the past few years, professor Timothy Demy and Major General John J. Salesses, USMC(ret.), have been teaching the elective the Pen and the Sword at the US Naval War College. It’s a class, Demy says, that uses the literature of war to explore the relationship between the fiction and reality, the written word and the lived experience.

Herman Melville, 1870. Oil painting by Joseph Oriel Eaton

Herman Melville, 1870. Oil painting by Joseph Oriel Eaton

Students study leadership, ethics, and the experience of war from the pens of those who have experienced it as well as those who have imagined it. A while back I had the opportunity to sit down with Dr. Demy and talk about books, poetry, and the state of reading in the military today.

I noticed that you teach the Herman Melville novella Billy Budd the Sailor. Why that book?

Billy Budd is a leadership issue and an ethics issue. Here the captain is a witness to an event [Budd strikes another crew member]. And he clearly sympathizes and empathizes with Billy Budd, but he still has to hold captain’s mast. It is one illustration that personalizes the challenges of command. The commander always brings his or her personality, morality, and ethics to the job. I think we read literature like that through a different lens once we have had some military experience. Of course, students, they’ve read the books and seen the movies — but once you’ve had some military experience it becomes more than entertainment. The purposes of literature are to entertain and instruct — those are the two great purposes of literature. So usually when people read they are reading for entertainment. But we are trying to get students to really learn. I think you’ll find that the challenges of leadership don’t change through the centuries. War literature shows that and how literature really is a conversation throughout history.

Why do you think so many people really don’t want to tackle someone like Melville?

For a lot of people, literature was something that was thrust on them. So it was more of something to be endured rather than enjoyed. Most products of American high-schools, at least for my generation, endured 10th grade English; we were just trying to get through Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar.” And military leaders are incredibly busy people; It’s hard to find time to do everything. Sometimes their lack of reading is lack of desire, sometimes it’s simply priorities, lack of time, or a lack of a sense of direction. Or what little time the leader may have is used carefully. Do I go to the golf course? Do I go to the gym? Many of them are out there trying to balance many things. You kind of have to cram it in when you can, but I’m sure there are those out there that would like to get more reading done.

Do you think poetry is relevant today?

It seems that 99% of the population cringe when you mention poetry. But once you understand what it does it can be very powerful. There is a poem called the Death of the Ball Turret Gunner. A very short poem; a WWII poem. I once had a student who signed up for the class, and he came up to me and asked me if he could read and discuss the poem in class. He told me that he had been in Fallujah, and that he read that poem everyday, and he prayed his experience would not be the same fate as the character in the poem. Poetry gives voice to that which is otherwise often unspeakable.

The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner

From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,

And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.

Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,

I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.

When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

What poets today do you think are approachable for a military audience?

The First World War poets are worth reading. They are a watershed in the history of war poetry. Before that it was the Charge of the Light Brigade, and themes of God, King, and Country, that sort of stuff. The WWI poets on the other hand were very personal. It wasn’t for God and Glory; it was for me and my mates. It’s very intense. I recommend the Oxford Book of Poetry. It’s a good anthology through the centuries. We read a number of poems in there. The poems of Thomas Hardy; his poem Drummer Hodge or The Man He Killed are Boer War poems and are worth reading. Certainly Kipling’s poem Tommy is very well known. If you read Tommy, it brings out all the things you would discuss in a class about civil-military relations. Kipling’s words are based on an earlier short poem: In times of war and not before/God and the soldier we adore/In time of trouble and not before/The battle over and all things righted/God is forgotten and the soldier slighted.

There are two great themes in poetry — one is romance and the other is war. Once people read a few poems, they’ll realize how similar they are to their own experiences. We read a poem called The Lament of the Frontier Guard. It’s a seventh-century Chinese poem translated by Ezra Pound. Anyone who has stood a late night watch can relate to this, regardless of how old it is or what culture it is from. This is a similar experience that transcends centuries. Poetry can help you think: “That’s me, I can relate to that.”

What do you think fiction does for us? Many military readers read because they want information, so they turn to nonfiction.

There is a lack of appreciation that through reading fiction we gain insights into humanity, the human experience, and the challenges of life. We are able to be transported to other worlds — real and imaginary. And everybody loves a story… “Once upon a time”; “In a galaxy far, far away.” Story telling is part of the creative experience of people. And some cultures and people spend more time telling stories than others. C.S. Lewis said that “Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege of individuality. In reading great literature I become one thousand men and yet remain myself, like the night sky in the Greek poem I see with a myriad eyes but it is still I who see.” He also said, “Instead of stripping a knight of his armor you can try to put his armor on yourself.”

What are some of your favorite books that you teach?

I really enjoy C.S. Forester’s The Good Shepherd and also his story Rifleman Dodd. I also enjoy Bridges of Toko Ri.

What are some of your favorite books Fiction and Nonfiction?

Well, for nonfiction, a great book that is not really known is a book called To War with Whitaker. It is by the Countess of Ranfulry. She was Australian, married a Brit, during the Second World War. She follows her husband to the Middle-East in WWII. It’s her wartime diaries. Because of her competence she meets all the great leaders in WWII, and ends up working for some of them. Her husband gets captured. It’s just a fabulous memoir. When I got to the last third of the book I had to ration my reading. I’ll go on Amazon.com and buy a few used copies and give them away to friends as gifts — it’s just a great book. Gordon McDonald Frasier’s Quartered Safe Out Here, which is his war memoirs, are fabulous. He’s often known for his Flashman Series, which are also great. I enjoy C.S. Lewis; his letters are excellent. A great book that every student should read is Karl Marlantes’ What It Is Like to Go to War. And after that, people need to read his book Matterhorn. Len Deighton’s Bomber is also a powerful book. And a little bit different, but also a great book is Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.

What it is LIke to go to war

What do you read for entertainment?

I enjoy the detective stories of Philip Kerr. I’ll read all of the Flashman series. I tried to get into science-fiction, but it just didn’t click with me. I tend to like the things that are a little bit different. I enjoy the Patrick O’Brien series, so much that I’ve started it a second time. But it takes a while to get through it. The NY Times called it the best historical fiction novel; and it is. And just looking at my shelf, I notice my copy of World War Z, and it’s also a great book. I was surprised, really, on how good it was. My motto is never go anywhere without a book. I either have my Kindle with me, or a book. You never know when you’ll have some free time which to read a book. And I keep a mixture of novels and nonfiction. I will often have two or three books going at the same time.

How do you become a better reader?

First, you need to read more. But you want to identify for what purpose you are reading something — is it for entertainment or instruction? Write down words and phrases and sentences that mean something to you. Figure out what you are reading and why.

Sir Thanks for your time.

Thank you. Great talking with you.


Professor Timothy J. Demy is Professor of Military Ethics at the Naval War College. A retired Navy chaplain and the former chaplain for the NWC, he holds doctorates in historical theology (Th.D.) and humanities and technology (Ph.D.) and several master’s degrees including the Master of Arts in National Security and Strategic Studies from the Naval War College from which he was the President’s Honor Graduate. He also received a master’s degree from the University of Cambridge in international relations with an emphasis on religion and international relations (honors thesis). He has published extensively in the areas of ethics, theology, history, and international relations. As a chaplain for 27 years, he served in a variety of assignments including Navy afloat and ashore assignments and tours with the Marine Corps and the Coast Guard.



What are the intellectual responsibilities of the naval professional? What is the canon sound thought in the maritime realm is based?
Historically, what has been done, what has worked, and what should we be doing? Should the naval professional just focus on his narrow area of expertise, or does he need to have a more interdisciplinary approach to his intellectual development?

Our guest to discuss this and more for the full hour will be William M. Beasley, Jr., associate attorney with Phelps Dunbar, LLP in Mississippi. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Mississippi with a BA and MA in history where his graduate thesis examined the impact of popular culture, inter-service rivalry, civil-military relations, strategic planning, and defense unification on the “Revolt of the Admirals” of 1949.

Mr. Beasley received his JD from the University of Mississippi School of Law, where he served on the editorial board of the Mississippi Law Journal. Prior to joining Phelps Dunbar, Mr. Beasley worked as a research consultant with the Potomac Institute in Arlington, Virginia. He is a member of the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC) and his work on maritime history and security has appeared in Proceedings, The Strategy Bridge, and USNI Blog.

Join us live or pick the show up later by clicking here. Or you can also get the show later from the Midrats iTunes page.



Please join us Sunday, 15 March 2015 at 5pm (U.S. EDT) for Midrats Episode 271: “Red Flag and the Development USAF Fighter Pilots”

In parallel efforts that in the Navy which led to Top Gun, the US Air Force looked hard at the lessons of air to air combat in the Vietnam War and brought forward “Red Flag,”

Moving beyond the technical focus, they looked to training and

fundamentals to bring back a primacy of combat skills.

Our guest for the full hour to discuss this and his new book, The Air Force Way of War: U.S. Tactics and Training after Vietnam, will be

Dr. Brian D. Laslie, Deputy Command Historian, North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and United States Northern Command (USNORTHCOM).

A historian of air power studies, Dr. Laslie received his Bachelor’s degree in history from The Citadel: The Military College of South Carolina, his Master’s from Auburn University Montgomery in 2006 and his Doctorate from Kansas State University in 2013.

Dr. Laslie was Honorably Discharged from the United States Air Force in 2007 as a Captain after serving as a logistics officer, doctrine instructor, and Action Officer to the Commander of Air University.

Join us live if you can (or pick the show up later) by clicking here. Or if you prefer, you will find the show later on our iTunes page here.



24th

The Struggle to Think

February 2015

By

While catching up on USNI posts from the past few months, the recurring themes of professionalism, education, and the need for more ideas and thoughts to move us forward jumped out from my monitor. It seemed appropriate to be reading about such topics upon emerging from the black hole of preparing for and—hallelujah—finally passing my PhD comprehensive exams. I failed my first attempt last September, so over the fall and winter I entered into full-blown hermit mode to pass it this second and last attempt. We are only allowed two attempts; failing twice kicks you out of the program, a somewhat common occurrence.

Given recent posts by Will Beasley and LT Misso and LTJG O’Keefe, this experience seems particularly relevant. My initial failure and subsequent furious hibernation would not be worth noting on a public site except for one thing: in my program, military members seem to struggle to pass the comprehensive exams while our civilian academic peers have not struggled to the same degree. Certainly civilian students fail at times, but their rate of failure is significantly lower than ours in my cohort. Anecdotally, servicemembers going through comparable PhD programs at separate institutions have experienced similar problems.

I was not surprised strictly by our failures; I was surprised by why we each failed. We didn’t fail due to comprehension or writing ability. Instead, uniformly, we each failed because we did not thoroughly own the literature. We did not question it at its depth and tear it apart to its roots. We did not question in it ways that existed outside of our comfort zones. Each of us fully absorbed the stuff and spit it back out along with some tepid critiques, but we fell far short of the standard expected along the way. Something about the way we learned and processed information in the services created a mindset that was fundamentally different from what was expected of us by our professors, kind of like “academics are from Mars, the military is from Venus.” While all students have to reset their way of thinking and start digging deeper inside their own brains to reach a different level, doing that as a 24-year-old right out of college is different than doing it as a 45-year-old post-command O6 who has been hard-wired to process information in a completely different manner.

One of my military peers at school thinks it’s not that we think differently, it’s that we have had to view the world as it is instead of how it is theorized to be, but I don’t buy that. Many of us began to study International Relations to understand more of the world as it is versus what we saw of it, and to that end this education has been quite a ride. Instead, I think we struggle because from day one in the military, we are expected to process large amounts of information and to live by that information. Seriously challenging convention is not something we regularly include in that process. Thinking critically, independently, and “outside the box” is given lip service (often only during PME studies), but at no point do I see it being actively, comprehensively encouraged through all aspects of our careers. The level of creativity currently desired is rarely hard to summon.

My worry is not that we are doomed to struggle to pass big exams, it’s what that signifies for how we as a force encourage thought, education, and analysis, and what this means for the future of the military. At no point in my career—ever—have I been expected to think, question, or analyze to the degree that I am now in school. When I checked into my first squadron, I was handed a stack of pubs. Over the next few months, I slept with those babies under my pillow at times, trying to absorb the information they contained into my puny brain. I wasn’t trying to learn it in order to improve upon it, challenge it, or turn it all on its head. I was trying to memorize it as quickly as possible so that I could advance in the squadron and do my job quickly and competently. I learned this mentality and applied it rigorously throughout the following years, which eventually brought me around to my comprehensive exam last fall, which I then failed. I failed the exam because my brain did not grasp where it truly needed to go.

That failure is a failure for so many of us, and I believe it indicates a failure for the military at large. Do we steer away from critical thought? Why, how, and at what point do we stop encouraging it? Is it unconscious? Automatic? And what can we do about it? Why did officers in my program struggle so uniformly? Is this because by the time we reach the ten-year mark or more, we have largely been trained to think and process info in similar ways? In the execution of our duties, do we soak in information as fast as we can, hit the pertinent parts with a highlighter, and move on? That’s what each of us did on the comprehensive exam: we took the key points, made bland yet reasonable arguments with them, and thought we had done well. Rereading my answers from this past exam, I saw no glaring problems at first. I had answered the questions on the surface. But those answers weren’t enough. I had to question the basic accepted standards of each theory, each hypothesis, and each assumption. I had to make a convincing argument that master theoreticians were wrong in ways I had never thought possible, and I was wholly unprepared to do so.

Training our brains to think in a new way is not impossible, but it’s tough when you’ve trained for years to think differently, sometimes under life-or-death stakes. Yet more than ever before, we need challenging thinkers and writers in the services at every level. The level of comprehension and analysis I needed to develop to pass my comp was far beyond anything I’ve attempted before, and nothing in the past two decades prepared me for it. However, it has been surprisingly fun and liberating, and it is making me better in other aspects of my life too. It’s changing the way I look at everything. I wish I’d started this program years earlier.

Given the complexities of our world, the need for stronger civil-military integration, and the budget realities we face, we need people who are not afraid to look at a problem upside down and see a new solution or a new path. Can we encourage and teach this in the military? PME schools can make a dent in developing how we think, but don’t approach the amount of “immersion” and reaction to established theory that the group in my program needed to summon.* Resident programs don’t reach enough people, non-resident programs aren’t intense enough to produce deep changes in the ways we think, and programs targeting senior officers and enlisted are too little too late. While we have existing programs to send servicemembers to higher education, I wish we did a much better job of encouraging younger Marines and Sailors to dig into the world from the start instead of waiting twenty years. We should encourage and want everyone to not just comprehend a problem, but to find its shortcomings, pick apart its vulnerabilities, and imagine other options. We don’t all need to graduate from Princeton and redefine counterinsurgency, but we should encourage creative thinking and new perspectives from the beginning. How? I haven’t figured that one out yet, but pushing critical thought via the written word is a start. I do wonder how the last 14 years would have looked with a more questioning, challenging military.

*It would be great to hear from anyone associated with a PME school here. Do you see similar problems among students? Different ones? Opposite experience?



Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA) based out of Djibouti is playing the long game with the nations of east Africa, our allies, governmental organizations, non-governmental organizations, and other concerned parties to not only help build a better future for the nations in that corner of the continent, but to ensure the security of the American homeland.

Our guest to discuss their role and more will be Major General Wayne W. Grigsby Jr., United States Army – Commander CJTF-HOA.

Due to scheduling issues, the interview with MG Grigsby was recorded earlier.

Listen “live’ or download the show later by clicking here. Or pick the show up from our iTunes page here.



“Let us dare to read, think, speak, and write.”
-President John Adams

If John Adams were a junior officer in the Navy today, his admonition to his fellow officers might read something like this:

Let us [not] dare to read [lest my own beliefs be challenged], think [lest my perceived truths be shown as falsehoods] , speak [lest my commanding officer notice me], and write [lest my FITREP result in an MP].

As junior officers, we recognize this attitude in ourselves, our peers, and our superiors. Yet if today’s junior officer is to have any lasting legacy on the Navy or Marine Corps, it will be by recognizing and acting upon an essential truth:

The health of the service is more important than your career.

We need junior officers willing to stick their necks out and write. Our service and our country are dealing with serious challenges, many of which may have non-traditional solutions. This generation of junior officers will be judged for our courage to stand up and work to solve those problems. The nation can no longer afford our silence.

Our Past

At the turn of the 20th century, a young naval gunnery officer couldn’t get anybody to listen to his revolutionary ideas on gunnery. Unwilling to be silenced, he stuck his neck out. In what he later termed “the rankest kind of insubordination,” he wrote a letter to President Theodore Roosevelt. This young officer, William Sims, would later use the pages of Proceedings to challenge his peers to be wary of the dangers of a lack of innovation or honest introspection, asking, “which of us will be quoted in the future as example of dangerous conservatism?”

In 1894, another author wrote scathingly about the lack of introspection in the British Empire’s naval culture. The parallels to today are striking: the world’s dominant maritime power for three generations, unchallenged in might but facing an increasingly complex and globalized world. Entitled “The Children of Nelson” and reprinted in the pages of Proceedings, the article lambasts British naval leadership, saying:

“The Admiralty … sternly refuses to permit junior officers to write or speak on questions of speculative strategy and other subjects which involve neither criticism of things that are, nor betrayal of official secrets. Junior officers are thus restrained in their usefulness and discouraged in their legitimate professional ambitions; and the impression has taken root amongst them that the man who endeavors to elbow his way out of the crowd, to bring forward a new theory, or to do any kind of serviceable work beyond the minimum which his position requires of him, is a fool for his pains… Thus discouraged on all hands, the British naval officer, with a few brilliant exceptions, resigns himself to living and moving in deep and well-worn grooves. He thinks little; he speculates less; he almost fails to realize, save in a dull and general way, that some day the storm of battle will again rage around him, and that he will be expected, by an unreasonable country, to repeat the triumphs of his ancestors.”

One hundred years later, the US Navy seems to have institutionalized and incentivized intellectual conformity in both strategy and policy through a culture that discourages professional intellectual dissent in favor of promotability. Navy Captain Jay Avella said it best in 1997 when he wrote, again in Proceedings, that the problem, “is about the culture change that seems to be pervading the sea service—a change that says, ‘don’t rock the boat, it will cost you your career.’”

The US Navy is in a perplexing situation: we pay lip service to buzzwords such as “innovation” and “transformation,” but will only act if ideas don’t upset entrenched interests or institutional inertia. Nevertheless, junior officers today are the scions of generations of transformative men and women who came before us—those like Mahan, Sims, and countless others. These officers never accepted the status quo just because “it’s the way we’ve always done things.”

As organizations such as naval aviation’s Tailhook Association prepare to name 2015 the “Year of the Junior Officer,” it is important for the thousands of junior officers in the Navy and Marine Corps to engage in some serious introspection. What will be our enduring mark on our service?

Our Present

From a rank and file perspective, junior officers can drive change in their divisions and departments, and if lucky with supportive commanding officers, within their ships, submarines and squadrons. But what ultimately set Sims apart from many junior officers who have driven innovation on the deckplates was that he wrote about it. Had Sims not put pen to paper, unrelentingly, institutional change might never have happened. Today, we must pick up our tablets and laptops, just as those before picked up their pens and typewriters, and write, regardless of the pressures on our careers.

There is a disturbing trend among some that equates intellectual dissent with outright insubordination and disrespect. One recent Proceedings article went so far as to suggest that today’s millennial generation is derelict in their adherence to time-honored naval customs and courtesies, simply for asking “Why?” This belief blithely ignores examples like William Sims, that show us one of the most time-honored naval traditions is that of innovation driven by the junior officer ranks challenging the status quo.

Again, this sentiment is not new; one need only consult Alfred Thayer Mahan’s FITREPs to appreciate its longevity. CDR Rich LeBron, Commanding Officer of the USS Benfold, put it this way: “In this vertically stratified setting, the boss can find isolation behind the closed door of authority and good ideas can be transmuted, crushed, or simply dismissed on their way to the top as spirits and morale are driven into the ground.” Today’s navy, facing a staggering array of complex geopolitical, fiscal and technical challenges, cannot afford to keep thinking that all the answers reside with senior leadership.

Yet we cannot wholly blame a cessation of intellectual development on this entrenched culture; fault lies within the junior officer corps as well. Writing is hard, and quite often, after a long day aboard ship or in a cockpit, the last thing we wish to embark on is a quest to articulate on paper a problem and solution that we would simply prefer to move past. It forces us to defend our ideas, to take a stand, and perhaps even to be wrong. But it is a duty that lies squarely on our shoulders, and we must rise to the occasion.

At the junior officer level, we have a responsibility not just to put complaints to paper, but to constructively identify issues or highlight positives, defend our views and promulgate solutions. This improves our professional knowledge, and enables senior leadership to take their pens to paper to engage in dialogue where we can actually leverage and learn from their experience. Simultaneously, it is particularly important for naval leadership to closely examine the quality and content of their own writing, because we as junior officers look to them to provide for both context and inspiration.

Some junior officers are already making positive contributions to our great naval debates. Through projects such as the Defense Entrepreneur’s Forum (DEF), Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC), and CNO’s Rapid Innovation Cell (CRIC), junior officers write, share ideas, and set the tone on issues from future ship design and innovative apps to geopolitics and strategy. Yet more is required — we must fight to forge a culture of writing without trepidation, establishing a groundswell of professional discussion in our service.

Furthermore, we do not simply need more people writing – we need more people writing about the issues that matter. Somewhere along the line, much of naval writing, even in the pages of Proceedings, has devolved to a bland party line. Writing must incorporate substance.

Importantly, we should not solely focus on writing the “next big article,” but also on inscribing in record the grassroots innovation and effective procedures observed and implemented in our divisions and squadrons. We have nearly ceased discussion of the important, often mundane issues and ideas of daily naval life: strategy, operations, tactics, and procedures. Glancing through the pages of Proceedings and similar journals, a majority of material comes from senior officers who have long since moved beyond the realities of division level maintenance and deckplate challenges. Junior officers should remember our roots and reclaim proclivity in this arena, promulgating instructive tips for our brethren and observations on daily naval operations. In the same Proceedings issue as “The Children of Nelson,” there was also an article on the relationship between barometric pressures and ocean currents, a discussion of rustless coatings, and articles on naval reform. By recording these conversations in printed word, junior officers were able to share solutions from around the fleet.

Ultimately, the Navy must be led by the constant ingenuity and engagement of its junior officers and driven by the strategic thought and innovative perseverance of its seniors. Therefore, officers of all levels must write substantive pieces of all types: the mundane but useful, the transformative, the well-founded, the controversial pieces, and we must write without fear for our careers. The currency of institutional change available to the junior officer today, just as with William Sims and Alfred Mahan, is in writing. And so, regardless of the barriers we face, write we must.

Our Future

Much has been written about the institutionalized pressure on junior officers to “get on board, or get out.” This is manifested in discussions, both in print and in individual counseling sessions, about the narrow, cookie-cutter paths to commanding officer; junior officers that deviate even slightly from “the pipeline” risk abandonment.

Many factors play into the issues of junior officer retention, and for some, the pressures to leave the service are strong. Not surprisingly, few officers want to remain in a service where “ducks pick ducks.” Success in our service often seems to be determined by how well an officer’s career mirrors the prescribed path, while intellectual curiosity gets one a pat on the head or maybe even an adverse FITREP.

Yet these challenges to us as individuals are not insurmountable. It doesn’t matter what we face: we need officers willing to stick their necks out. So what if it’s frowned upon to challenge entrenched ideas that can be improved? So what if your career may be shortened? Most of us joined to sacrifice to serve our country. Perhaps some of us may need to sacrifice our perfect FITREP for the greater good.

The kind of change needed cannot be driven from outside the service. Paradoxically, though we may feel that getting out is best for our individual careers, it is harmful to the service overall. The future of the Navy and Marine Corps will be driven by the strength of the positive insurgency forming in the junior ranks today. We must dare to think, write, and speak–and also to stay in the service, despite the financial and psychological benefits of the private sector. We must join our thoughts and words with the courage required to forge the type of leadership our Navy and Marine Corps deserve.

To be sure, there is a time and a place for opinions and disagreement. Respect must continue to be the rule of the day: respect for rank, experience, and naval culture. Junior officers must continue to master their craft, get qualified, and above all, care for their Sailors and Marines.

Likewise, our generation cannot solve these problems simply by shifting our verbal complaints to paper. We must write with substance, bring forward ideas–even contentious ones–and help each other through the writing process. How and when junior officers write is also important; even William Sims acknowledged the inappropriateness of his letter to the President. Thankfully, the commander-in-chief was able to see past Sims’ youthful follies and identify the intellectual substance present behind his actions.

But these requirements should not preclude junior officers from actively engaging in discussions on the tactics, operations, and strategies they will be called upon to execute, on the culture of the institution that we love, in support of the country that we serve. We should not wait to attend the War College or Postgraduate School to consider who we are, what we are doing, where we are going, and why. We should not allow discouraging leadership and administrative burdens to choke our Navy and muddle our Marine Corps.

Many of our brothers and sisters in arms today and in decades past have paid the ultimate price for protecting our freedoms. They sacrificed their lives in defense of this nation. We can only hope to match their dedication by being willing to put our careers on the line, to “stick our necks out,” to make the service and this country better.



Please join us on Sunday, 16 November 2014 at 5pm (EST, US) for Midrats Episode 254: John A. Nagl: 13 Years into the War:

13 years into the long war, what have we learned, relearned, mastered, forgotten, and retained for future use? What have we learned about ourselves, the nature of our latest enemy, and the role of our nation? What have those who have served learned about their nation, their world, and themselves?

Iraq, Afghanistan, the Islamic State, and the ever changing global national security ecosystem, where are we now, and where are we going?

Our guest for the full hour to discuss this and more will be returning guest John Nagl, LTC US Army (Ret.) D.Phl, using his most recent book Knife Fights: A Memoir of Modern War in Theory and Practice as the starting point for our discussion.

Dr. Nagl is the Ninth Headmaster of The Haverford School. Prior to assuming responsibility for the School in July 2013, he was the inaugural Minerva Research Professor at the U.S. Naval Academy. He was previously the President of the Center for a New American Security. He graduated from the United States Military Academy Class in 1988 and served as an armor officer for 20 years. Dr. Nagl taught at West Point and Georgetown University, and served as a Military Assistant to two Deputy Secretaries of Defense. He earned his Master of the Military Arts and Sciences Degree from the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College and his doctorate from Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar.

Dr. Nagl is the author of Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam and was on the team that produced the U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual.

Join us live if you can or pick the show up later by clicking here. You can also pick the show up later at out iTunes page here, where you can also find the archive of all our previous shows.



brain1We like to benchmark successful civilian enterprises, and we like to emphasize that the best training is a technical training. Are those things in conflict?

The STEM bias towards officer education is long documented, defended, and argued – but on balance the pro-STEM argument holds the high ground in our Navy. Good people can argue both sides, but it is clear that the Mahanian ideal of the intellectual training of an officer has been out of favor for a very long time.

Is this technical bias simply a habit born or archaic assumptions towards intellectual development as out of touch with the needs of the 21st Century as Mad Men is toward gender roles in the workplace? Are the greatest challenges in our wardrooms, staffs, and intellectual debates 85% technical in nature? Are the challenges our nation and our military are facing that threaten our national security best addressed by people who made it through thermodynamics and mumble DiffyQ in their sleep?

Why would some of the most successful technical civilian organizations value a liberal arts education? Those with an extreme pro-STEM bias (CNO, I’m blogg’n to you) should take some times to digest what Elizabeth Segran over at FastCompany recently wrote on the topic,

So how exactly do the humanities translate into positive results for tech companies? Steve Yi, CEO of web advertising platform MediaAlpha, says that the liberal arts train students to thrive in subjectivity and ambiguity, a necessary skill in the tech world where few things are black and white. “In the dynamic environment of the technology sector, there is not typically one right answer when you make decisions,” he says. “There are just different shades of how correct you might be,” he says.

Yi says his interdisciplinary degree in East Asian Studies at Harvard taught him to see every issue from multiple perspectives: in college, he studied Asian literature in one class, then Asian politics or economics in the next. “It’s awfully similar to viewing our organization and our marketplace from different points of view, quickly shifting gears from sales to technology to marketing,” he says. “I need to synthesize these perspectives to decide where we need to go as a company.”

Danielle Sheer, a vice president at Carbonite, a cloud backup service, feels similarly. She studied existential philosophy at George Washington University, which sets her apart from her technically trained colleagues. She tells me that her academic background gives her an edge at a company where employees are trained to assume there is always a correct solution. “I don’t believe there is one answer for anything,” she tells me. “That makes me a very unusual member of the team. I always consider a plethora of different options and outcomes in every situation.”

Look again at what the critical thinking skills a well rounded education gave Yi and Sheer, and ask yourself – are these skills we value and need?

If so, why do we actively discourage them?



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