Archive for the 'Training & Education' Category
Even while stepping gingerly past the usual swamps of interservice rivalry, for most of those who have had to work with “them,” it is very clear that there is a large difference in culture between the US Air Force and the Navy-Marine Corps team.
Very different – and in important ways not good.
One of the areas of difference is in their culture’s tolerance of dissent.
While not as open as a spoken-word poetry slam, when compared to the other services, the maritime services are rather open minded and resilient to off-message discussion.
Perhaps we can trace it back to the traditions Admirals Mahan and Sims built on, improved – and eloquently brought to the front from the Revolt of the Admirals to VADM Tom Connolly. It is hard to say, but any time spent in the joint environment you can see the difference.
The events in the last few months have brought out two great examples that would be difficult to see happening in such an open way in the maritime services.
Maj. Gen. James Post, vice commander of Air Combat Command, is accused of telling officers that they are prohibited from discussing with Congress efforts to retire the A-10 attack jet, which many lawmakers would like to keep in service.
“Anyone who is passing information to Congress about A-10 capabilities is committing treason,” Post reportedly said, according to a post by blogger Tony Carr on his John Q. Public website. “If anyone accuses me of saying this, I will deny it.”
Well, Post got fired for his efforts.
More recently, we had this from retired USAF General Roger Brady;
But this is not about free speech. It is about good order and discipline. The Air Force secretary and chief of Staff, in consultation with senior commanders, determine what force structure priorities should be. After considerable discussion, with strong, sometimes opposing opinions being expressed, the secretary and chief forward a recommendation through the Defense Department to the president and ultimately to Congress. Among these senior leaders are combat veterans with close air support expertise, some with considerable A-10 experience. The decisions they make are based on their mission experience and an awareness of the many other mission obligations the service has.
The views of airmen in the field are neither unknown to nor taken lightly by senior leaders. But, these airmen have neither the responsibility nor the perspective required to determine how best to meet the Air Force’s myriad global missions within the resources available. The ethos of military professionals requires that senior leaders make decisions and give direction that is legal, moral and ethical. Individuals of lesser rank and responsibility are obliged to support those decisions, or depart service.
Those who decide to take their opposing views directly to Congress are not whistle-blowers — priorities are matters of judgment and there is no scandal here. Nor are they traitors — they are within their legal rights. They are simply insubordinate — they have denied the authority of their senior leadership.
A valid perspective, perhaps for a retired Soviet Air Force General – but perhaps a little off for one from a representative republic of a free people.
Though that attitude does exist in many places in our Navy towards any off-talking points discussion – it is usually done in quiet way among safe ears. Not in our Air Force though, no. It seems to be comfortable to come out in clear view of all.
That difference in culture can be found in glaring relief in the broader marketplace of ideas. It has long been a staple from the beginnings of new media over a decade ago that the USAF seemed to have a light footprint and not too full of boat rockers. That is getting better.
It is no mistake that Tony Carr’s blog “John Q. Public” has been at the front of both of these events and others on the USAF side of the house – he is one of the few contrary voices out there from that side of the Pentagon – and he is getting good traction as result. He is serving a very underserved market … and the quality of his goods is feeding the demand even more.
As I have seen in comments as of late – I wish this insight was originally mine – there may be something to consider about one potential source of the USAF vs. USN/USMC culture difference. The USAF does not have its version of the US Naval Institute and Proceedings.
Let’s look at the mission of USNI again;
To provide an independent forum for those who dare to read, think, speak, and write in order to advance the professional, literary, and scientific understanding of sea power and other issues critical to national defense.
I think that is something the USAF could dearly use.
As imperfect as it is in execution and perhaps even support – this is something we should all step back now and then and ponder the 2nd and 3rd order effects that the Institute has on our larger culture, and the health of its collective professional intellect.
Do we have our Posts and Bradys? Sure … but they don’t feel supported by a general culture or empowered by their sense of intellectual entitlement to come out in the open and say it.
Looking at the pushback this year – maybe the USAF is headed our way in this respect. Good.
It isn’t just good – the USAF deserves better than this “shut up and color” type of leadership. Those leading the USAF at the highest levels were mid-grade officers in DESERT STORM. In that conflict, one of their leaders was General Charles Horner, USAF (Ret.).
Like many of his generation of military officers, his views were formed by what he saw in the Vietnam War. He and his peers knew what they didn’t want to be when it was their turn.
In Eric Schlosser book, Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety, the author gives a snapshot of where the USAF leadership was in 1991 from Horner’s view, looking back to the General Officers leading the USAF in Vietnam;
I didn’t hate them because they were dumb, I didn’t hate them because they had spilled our blood for nothing, I hated them because of their arrogance… because they had convinced themselves that they actually knew what they were doing and that we were too minor to understand the “Big Picture.” I hated my own generals, because they covered up their own gutless inability to stand up to the political masters in Washington … (I would) never again be a part of something so insane and foolish.
Has the center mass of USAF drifted this far away again? Again in an arrogance not willing to consider the views of their company and field grade officers?
Culture is never a fixed thing, but there can be parts of a culture that can be a damping rod to provide constancy through change. Thinking about our sister service’s battle with the free exchange of ideas and open discourse, at least for me, gives me a greater appreciation of our Institute and its mission.
Along those lines … take a break from reading and hit the keyboard. Someone’s tree needs shaking, and USNI is always looking for writers.
There are three broad avenues of discussion in the last year about how to help build tomorrow’s Fleet; strategy, force structure, personnel reform.
The strategy part burned bright for awhile, but in time, when there wasn’t anything to fuel a larger discussion, it soon dissolved in to the place most are more comfortable discussing, programmatics and fleet structure. The semi-annual carrier battle and the curious, “Build the fleet we can and then we will write a strategy to justify it.” … or other similar variations on the theme.
Force structure discussions have developed the vibe of a Sunday morning AA-relapse group discussion – looking at all the things that we want but can’t afford to own, things we’ve paid for and own that don’t seem to work right and can’t afford to fix, those things we own and are a little shopworn, and our shrinking fortunes to recover from the benders of the past imperfect.
Hard to believe, but as we approach mid-year, some of the more exciting discussions are coming from the personnel side of the house.
From retirement plans on one end, to providing opportunities to take a multi-year sabbaticals on the other – there are a lot of ideas and initiatives going on in the personnel world to not just try to modernize our system, but to ensure we are attracting, keeping, and providing the most opportunities to those in the Navy – and at the same time try to balance the needs of the collective Navy with individual personal and professional goals.
Some of these ideas will cost money – real or opportunity cost, some will perhaps save money (mostly in the infamous “out years”) – but they all require a fundamental rethink of how we look at career progression for officer and enlisted.
That is a good thing. All organizations must constantly look at what they do in order to keep what works, refine what is close to working, and letting go to the net-negative.
In an era where sequester-level funding – and probably less in the medium term – is the new normal, those ideas that cost more in the short term will probably not have much support. Cost neutral will be given consideration, and any short term cost saving initiatives will move to the front.
In a perfect world, we would look at all three – but we don’t live in that world. Let’s assume that we won’t be spending more to get some additional marginal good. Let’s also assume that anything that saves money will get a good look at. So, in that mind, what are some cost-neutral items we can look at to squeeze a better Navy out of our existing system? How about some ideas that may not be new ideas, but are ideas that are top-of-mind to those who are most affected. What if those same people are in the cohort we are most interested in keeping? There; interest.
One of the easiest ways to gain efficiencies is to look at what barriers or inefficiencies are strictly policy and habit related. Those are the easiest to fix once you acknowledge that you need to. What are they? Why are they still here? What harm would be gained by changing them … or … what is the upside if we do?
ANSWERING THE QUESTION YOU WANTED, NOT THE ONE YOU WERE GIVEN
Earlier this year while attending USNI-AFCEA’s West15, the whole idea of the simple changes with potential gains to both Navy and servicemenber came to mind as a result of a totally unrelated question.
One of the better features of West15 was that the organizers managed to bring in a few fleet units and their Sailors from the riverine and rotary wing communities.
After a few top-shelf speeches and seminars, and once my beltwaybandit goodiebag was full, I grabbed a fellow traveler and decided to check out the static displays.
Remember, you had an exhibit floor full of contractors, consultants, vendors and uniformed personnel who dance with them – so the mind is very focused on “kit.”
I like open ended questions – especially to those who are on the pointy end of things. I walked over to the JOs and POs around their helos and warboats on a perfect San Diego “winter” day, and after the usual small talk, I asked one simple question, “What piece of kit do you not have that you wish you had to complete your mission?”
No one answered that question, except to say, “No, everything we have is fine, but … “
Ah, the magic “but.” That is the connector to what is really on a person’s mind, and what I heard next was nothing new, but it was real, and it was actionable – and it all had to do with personnel policy.
The first answer was simple, “Why am I told by the detailers that there is no way that I can compete to have a career in the small ship Navy? I don’t care about having the perfect career path to be best set up for command of a Destroyer. I like this part of the Navy. Why not me if I want to stay and return, if they have to force others to come here to do the same job anyway?”
That is a very good question, why not?
In the Midrats interview at the end of the month with the CNP, VADM Moran – I brought up that encounter. The answer was the same for that JO that is was for me when I was a JO; it is what is best for the needs of the Navy. Yes, perhaps – but as VADM Moran stated, riverine is one of those places that is hard to get people to go to, but once they get there, many don’t want to get out.
OK, so if a young professional is willing to go down that path – fully knowing that their career path will have a much lower probability of command – why not let them?
Is it better to try to force someone to fit a Millington Diktat, and as a result, embitter them enough that they punch out at first chance, or to allow that officer to compete for a job he loves later on in his career so he actually stays in. Even if there is a 0% selection rate for CDR command, that may be OK for that officer. He may not care. In any event, if he punches out because he cannot stand the prospect of being a gnome in the big-ship Navy – he isn’t going to have command anyway.
If we are looking to break the adhesions in the prescribed career path by having sabbaticals and other changes, why not broaden our aperture a bit more? Are we really saying no to that officer for his own good, or are we saying no to that officer because he makes things too complicated for the detailing shop in Millington? Who is the supported and who is the supporting institution?
The second answer I received was equally old school and on the surface, easily fixed. “No, everything is fine, but … I wish there was some way that we could actually have Sailors show up at the command already finishing the schools they need to work with our equipment. It gains me nothing to have a First Class with all the quals PCS, only to be replaced with another First Class who can’t do anything and is lost to the command for months as he goes to school.”
A decades old problem that still is not fixed. We have to spend money to move people. We have to spend money to send people to schools. Ships have to go to seas, ships have to be full of Sailors. Are our systems so rigid, our procedures so ossified that we cannot in the second decade of the 21st Century match up the requirements of a specific billet with the training required for replacement personnel? Again, supported or supporting? Which organization is which?
Is it so bad that a warfighter is not so worried about what weapons he will be asked to go to war with, but if someone on shore duty could help a brother out by putting the horse in front of the cart?
Just those two examples above, do they require additional funds to accomplish? No. They do require a change of mindset, one for career management, and the other priorities.
Why not? If we are going to make big, new changes … why not the old little?
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.
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
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
-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.
Why 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
“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.
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?
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.
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.