As the US military faces an “austere budget environment” in the coming years, senior officers have been quick to trot out the Winston Churchill’s quote “Gentlemen, we have run out of money, now we have to think.” It appears to be a line appropriate to today’s challenges. However, the fact that senior leadership has latched on to this quote is disturbing, primarily because it begs the question: “what exactly have we been doing for the past twenty five years?”
Military affairs, and the conduct of war, are a thinking man’s profession. Brute force, attrition strategies, and the reality of death and destruction is, and will always be, a central part of the military profession. But to use another Winston Churchill quote, “Battles are won by slaughter and maneuver. The greater the general, the more he contributes in maneuver, the less he demands in slaughter.” Thinking does and always has mattered in the conduct of war.
This past week Lieutenant Ben Kohlmann, an F/A-18 driver from the West Coast, wrote an article entitled “The Military Needs More Disruptive Thinkers” for Small Wars Journal that has garnered attention. MAJ Peter Munson and the beloved Superhero-of-Sanity Doctrine Man, and the comment sections in a number of blogs, have added to the debate. The discussion of “disruptive thinkers” and the apparent embrace of “thinking” by today’s senior leaders appears to be a natural combination. But that’s not necessarily the case.
There are places and people that have a long tradition of creative thinking, problem solving, and innovation. A great deal of military innovation throughout history has come from junior and mid-grade officers. LCDR Claude Berube has documented the Naval Institute’s history of junior officer innovation and the rise of the Institute from a small group of officers on shore duty to a pre-eminent thought center. There is a movement within USNI that is growing to bring JO’s and mid-grade Officers back to the pages of Proceedings with their innovative thoughts. This is important, but not enough by itself.
Ben Kohlmann brings up some very interesting points in his essay on “disruptive thinking.” I wholeheartedly agree with the overarching thesis of his piece: that the military services need to be more open to new ideas and need to figure out how to educate officers in critical thinking and innovation. However, there are a few areas where I differ with his details. Personally, I think the U.S. Navy’s focus on providing our officers graduate education in the field of business (MBA’s) and engineering rather than subjects like history, political science, and other social science fields is a net negative for our service. Most MBA curricula don’t really focus on innovation and new ideas, instead they teach number crunching and bureaucratic organization. Steve Jobs, used by Ben as an example in his essay, was a great innovator…he dropped out of college, never mind getting a graduate degree from any of the schools Ben suggests. Alfred Thayer Mahan warned us to “avoid the administrative mindset” and I don’t know that a Navy filled with people who have mastered business administration really makes us better or more innovative warfighters. Ben is 100% right, however, when he points out that we should be encouraging interaction between our officer corps and thought leaders from other fields, I just don’t believe the business field is the one we should be focusing on.
I also think that Ben is catching some flak for his use of the term “disruptive.” I think we all know why. We’ve had them in our ready rooms or wardrooms, that “disruptive JO” who constantly mouths off about what he or she hates but never has a constructive idea to attempt to solve the problem. Disruptive behavior doesn’t exactly sound military, and by itself it doesn’t give us innovation or solutions.
Disruptive thinking is, however, the starting point. We need critical thinking that starts with new ideas and we need to develop those into innovative solutions that are researched and workable. Just pointing out problems doesn’t get us anywhere. John Boyd, another great example from Ben’s essay, always did his homework and knew exactly what the staff-pukes were going to ask at the end of his briefs. Their questions were usually intended to try and derail him or embarrass him. But, he used his research to set traps for them, using their own questions and lack of homework against them to help push his ideas through the Pentagon bureaucracy. He wasn’t just disruptive, he had the research done in advance and the solutions ready which made him unstoppable.
So where do we go from here, whether we’re talking about disruptive thinking or contrarian ideas? First, we need to know what we’re getting ourselves into. John Boyd never commanded a fighter squadron, he made too many enemies to survive a selection board. Then again, ADM James Stavridis has had a career which has taken him to the pinnacle of the naval profession. If you’re going to be disruptive or you’re going to put your ideas out there, you have to do it aware of the risks and possible feedback. But, if you’re already that kind of person then you probably agree with Mahan that “failure to dare is often to run the greatest of risks.”
Second, we need to develop our ideas properly and do our homework. This includes figuring out how to best introduce them. Writing for professional journals is frequently a great way to launch innovative ideas and solutions. Whether we’re talking about traditional journals like Proceedings or new online mediums like Small Wars Journal or USNI Blog, discussion of a new idea can start quickly once you summon the courage to publish it (just look at the debates swirling around Ben’s article on social media sites). In 2008 Proceedings had a pair of articles that help give us some guidance. ADM Stavridis’ article “Dare to Read, Think, Write, and PUBLISH” charts a course for us, or at least gives us a point to begin our own dead reckoning. The process of writing should help us develop our ideas and force the right research to defend them. Captain William Toti followed a few issues later with “Write with Your Eyes Wide Open,” which helps develop our sense of the I&W as we enter the battlefield of ideas.
Third, and finally, we need senior leaders who believe what they are preaching. If we are going to “start thinking” what that really means is that leadership has to “start listening.” General George Patton once said that “If everyone is thinking alike, someone isn’t thinking.” For over two hundred years Sailors have been offering new ideas, whether we’re talking about Sailors figuring out how to repair their systems instead of using contractors at the turn of this century or a young William Sims fighting his superiors to improve gunnery practices at the turn of the last century. Ideas are already out there and leaders need to encourage them to develop, while at the same time growing new thinkers and ideas. The question isn’t whether or not we need to start thinking, the question is whether or not the decision makers are willing to listen, and willing to help. As General Mattis once told a group of officers, “Take the mavericks in your service, the ones that wear rumpled uniforms and look like a bag of mud but whose ideas are so offsetting that they actually upset the people in the bureaucracy. One of your primary jobs is to take the risk and protect these people, because if they are not nurtured in your service, the enemy will bring their contrary ideas to you.”