The following is drawn from an email sent by a fellow retired naval officer and noted naval strategist in his own right, Peter Swartz whom I’ve worked closely with for a number of years. Peter, currently an analyst at CNA, was one of the principal authors of what many consider to be the “classic” Maritime Strategy that was published int he 1980’s. His email, re-printed here in full, is done with his permission and the proviso that the views expressed are his alone.


RADM Phil Wisecup just passed me the following passage from Tom Ricks’s best-seller THE GAMBLE: General Davis Patraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006 – 2008 (2009) (which I had not seen before):

“But Fallon prided himself on being a strategic thinker, a sense he may have developed because there was little competition in that arena in the Navy, which in recent years has tended to be weak, intellectually, aside from its elite counter-terror force in Special Operations, which is practically a separate service. It is difficult, for example, to think of a senior Navy officer who has played a prominent role in shaping American strategy since 9/11, or of an active-duty Navy officer who has written a book or essay as influential as those produced by the Army’s Col. H.R. McMaster, Lt. Col. Paul Yingling, and Lt. Col. John Nagl.”


My view: Ricks is flat wrong. Not to take anything away from ADM Fallon, and whatever one may think of the merits of the particular positions they took, Admirals Clark (CSGs, ESGs, FRP), Cebrowski, Stavridis, Mullen, Morgan, Martoglio, CAPT Wayne Porter, & recent Navy retirees CAPTs Bill Luti, Ryan Henry, Jim Kelly, and Joe Benkert all played prominent roles in shaping American strategy & policy after 9/11. A succession of Navy officers, including Kurt Tidd, drafted key national security documents while seconded to the NSC staff. It was a Navy officer — Mike Mullen — whom a President and SECDEF chose to be CJCS, based in part on their view of his strategic acumen, by all accounts. And two Navy officers — Mike McConnell and Denny Blair — were chosen by successive presidents to be their DNIs, also — by all accounts — in part due to their track records in thinking about and developing strategy. Navy officers and enlisted at sea imaginatively sought ways to implement new national strategies in unforeseen operational ways (e.g,.: Doug Crowder responding to the Tsunami, and Phil Cullom taking GW etc. around South America, and the Sailors who set up the first partnership stations, hospital ship cruises & NECC commands). (I’ve no doubt forgotten somebody; this e-mail isn’t based on exhaustive research, and the number of Navy thinkers and implementers since 9/11 has been large).

Retiree CAPT/Dr. Bud Cole’s GREAT WALL AT SEA came out in 2001, Active Duty CAPT/Dr. Sam Tangredi’s edited GLOBALIZATION AND MARITIME POWER came out in 2002; Active Duty CAPT/Dr. Terry Pierce’s WARFIGHTING AND DISRUPTIVE TECHNOLOGIES came out in 2004; CAPT USNR Dave Rosenberg & LCDR USNR Chris Ford’s ADMIRALS’ ADVANTAGE came out in 2005, and Retired ADM Holloway’s AIRCRAFT CARRIERS AT WAR came out in 2007. All related significantly to past, present and future American strategy.

There probably is no good analogy in any other service to what the 2 Army & 1 ex-Army authors Ricks cites wrote — interestingly, including the USMC. There are numerous USAF articles trying to counter/ supplement the Army COIN literature, though. One could argue that the Army was screwing up the lead it had been given in the big war of the day, and needed the 3 books/articles in question. The Navy has been performing its various supporting roles well in the 2000s — even enthusiastically — having overcome its own big strategy-implementation issues during the 1990s (when there was an even more significant Navy literature: Bill Owens’s 2 books, PD Miller’s 3 monographs, etc.).

To not even mention the enormous outpouring of naval strategic and operational thinking triggered by John Morgan in 2004-8, fostered by ADM Mullen, aided and abetted by Jake Shuford and recent retiree Barney Rubel, and crafted into prose by then-CDR Bryan McGrath and his team over the past several years is just plain disingenuous. The pages of Proceedings and Naval War College Review, especially the latter, have brimmed with debate by CAPT (Ret) Wayne Hughes and others on national and naval strategy and policy (probably leaving their readership a bit exhausted from it all, and wondering why those same pages haven’t brimmed with more articles about resources, procurement, budgets, overruns, acquisition, and the naval industrial base — where we’ve got real difficulties) (although RADMs Stark and Houley and CDR Jerry Hendrix and others are changing that). And, of course, the Navy and its sister maritime services published” A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower” a year and a half ago — probably before Rick’s book went to press.

A service that has ADMs Walsh and Stavridis — 2 Fletcher Ph.Ds – in its 4-star ranks is hardly “weak intellectually,” whatever its other problems.

Ricks just hadn’t been paying attention.

I will no doubt be accused again of being “too defensive” in my reaction to Ricks’s ignorant blast (as Chris Cavas did a few months ago during a Strategy Discussion Group mtg). But defending against silly accusations from people who should know better seems more appropriate than just letting them pass.

Follow on issue: Ricks is pretty well plugged in. How come he doesn’t know this stuff? Who’s to blame? Him? Us? “Them?” Other?

And Ricks may be right in one small but significant item: Serving mid-grade & senior mainstream URL officers have not gone public in a series of public “we gotta change the Navy and the Nation” books and articles and studies. Retirees like Jan van Tol, Bob Work (a Marine) and Wayne Hughes have, but there haven’t been many (any? except Jim Stav) active Navy front-runner pointy-end platform counterparts to McMaster, Yingling and Nagl in the open literature. Is that a big deal? Does it matter? Does writing an influential article trump, say, Wayne Porter staff work on Global Fleet Stations or Doug Crowder staff work on the FRP or a CNO decision to stand up an NECC and revive riverine warfare, in the world of naval policy and strategy?

Posted by SteelJaw in Navy

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  • great post as always. most informative.

  • Good thing I have my own blog, because this topic is GREAT!

    ** grabs the popcorn **

    I’ll chill and see what happens, but I’ve read The Gamble twice and have thought a lot about the statement Ricks made. I hope people weigh in, particularly Admirals and active duty mid-grade officers. Very timely.

  • Byron

    I’m hoping that ADMs Stavardis and Harvey show up.

  • One point I would submit is that the referenced works on the Army side got a good deal of play early on in the milblogging environment. That same environment was pretty heavily biased in the direction of ground-forces and grew, in large part, out of a desire to “tell the real story on the ground” from Iraq rather than rely on traditional media. (I know, I know — “no, duh”). At that time, there were but a handful of naval milbloggers, and while today the number has grown, with a few notable exceptions, there isn’t the kind of following (yet) that the ground-force oriented blogs have.
    That said, there was an uptick when the MarStrat was released and discussion ranged (and raged at times) outside the lifelines. But when the shininess wore off, so too did the external discussion and (insert the “there he goes again” qualifier here) absent a NOC to drill down on capabilities/requirements and/or document linking the MarStrat to force structure, the discussion rolled back inside the lifelines.
    There are some projects in the works that will address challenges to strategies, policies and forces across a pretty broad front that will hopefully be seeing the light of day w/in the year (Peter knows of one such project I reference). Hopefully, when they hit the grad schools and PME’s here and abroad as well as the bookstores, they will engender some significant discussion outside the lifelines too.
    – SJS

  • Navhist

    I had Fox Fallon sit in my warfare module for about 10 days during an exercise when he was a battlegroup commander. He was a wise man, a more than competant battlegroup commander, but no strategist. The idea that the Navy has no active duty stategists is, of course, ludicris. Our current list includes, but is not limited to: James Stavridis, Pat Walsh, Doug Crowder, Frank Pandolfe, Rich Landolt and Mark Montgomery. I wouldn’t want to get into a chess match with any of these guys.

  • Somebody should send this Ricks and see if they get a rise out of him.

  • I didn’t say there were no smart guys in the Navy. I said that no naval officer has played a prominent role in shaping national strategy since 9/11, or written a book that has shaped how the public thinks about our military.

    I’ve gotten a lot of denunciations, but nothing I’ve seen that repudiates the statement in the book.


  • Anathema

    So long as the Navy’s Flag Officers (typically NOT those named above) continue to call onto their carpet anyone who writes about the Navy and in doing so dares to stray from the “approved” word, then no one in the active duty O5 or O6 ranks will do what Ricks suggests. It’s not worth the hassle. 😉

  • RickWilmes


    It is not worth the hassel or is it a lack of courage to speak your mind and defend your position.

  • Anathema

    There being a subtle difference between privately voicing one’s opinion and position and publicly publishing it. That debate has been going on for over a decade…the only real result is that more Naval officers have chosen NOT to publish. Call it cowardly if you like…but tough to call those who voluntarily steam in harm’s way cowards for not writing a book or article.

  • Phrogs Phorever

    A key difference between the two services is the type of graduate education forwarded by the two services. Nagl, McMasters, Patreaus (and several others who are frequent in the debates including Gentile, Bateman, etc) are History PhD’s. The Navy places little to no value on history education. In fact, a couple of years ago as a JO I asked BUPERS if I could get funding to pursue a masters in history and was told “the only reason to study history in the navy is to teach at the Academy.” However, my friends that wanted MBA’s got it paid for and were given a day off work to go to class in the NPS – EMBA program. In the sea service we focus on technical or finance education for our officers.

    The second bonus that a history PhD gives a warrior-scholar is the first draft of a book manuscript, aka his dissertation. Most of these men made their academic marks when the edited their dissertations for publication (no simple task, but much easier than writing a book from scratch while trying to do your job, take care of your troops, and be a proper husband/dad on the homefront).

    Is it any wonder that the “History and Heritage Command” is having a rebirth?

    (And on the note of education…check our Rick’s WaPo editorial on the 19th:

  • The second bonus that a history PhD gives a warrior-scholar is the first draft of a book manuscript, aka his dissertation. Most of these men made their academic marks when the edited their dissertations for publication (no simple task, but much easier than writing a book from scratch while trying to do your job, take care of your troops, and be a proper husband/dad on the homefront).

    As one in the midst of such an endeavor (researching a work from scratch) while participating with a team on another writing project on top of a day job that has a propensity to demand upwards of 14-16 hours/day on increasingly frequent occasions (and I’m *not* on active duty anymore) – I would simply add “concur”…
    – SJS

  • Navhist

    As someone who has done a history related PhD (actuall a combo of International Relations, Military History, and Political Science) I can tell you that essentially three years (during my XO and CO tour) of only getting four hours of sleep a night was a long pull.