Writing professional articles has a long history in all the U.S. military services. American naval publications date as far back as the 1830s. While military personnel are commonly lauded for their willingness to take physical risks in defense of the nation, sometimes we are less open to taking the intellectual risks involved in the betterment of our profession. In #RTSW 2 we discussed the fear some writers have that they might embarrass themselves through a small mistake or problem in a professional article. Taking an intellectual or academic risk is far different than strapping into an aircraft, rigging to dive the boat, or free-falling out of a perfectly good airplane.
The reality is there are a number of things military authors do which are sort of embarrassing from an editor’s perspective. Military personnel hold themselves up as professionals, but occasionally behave like inexperienced freshman undergraduates when it comes time to submit an article for publication. Most of the issues can be addressed by acting like the professional we all claim to be. These are not actually hard things to do, but generally fall into the GI Joe category of knowledge.
Follow the contributors guidelines. Seriously. If the journal or publication says they take feature articles with a maximum word count of 3000 words, do not send them 4500 words. Some will give you some latitude, maybe 10% overage, but not always. It is not the editor’s job to turn your over-length piece into something appropriate. You are telling them either you could not be bothered to check the guidelines, you have never read their publication, you just don’t care, or you think you are so brilliant the rules don’t apply to your ideas. None of these interpretations will help you impress anyone.
From my experience as an editor this is an across the board issue. Frankly, most junior personnel tend to follow the rules, but sometimes they don’t understand the difference between “departments” at some journals. Some mid-grade officers, senior officers, and Flags, however, have issues understanding the rules apply to them. One would hope the professors from our PME institutions who encourage officers to use their school papers for articles would help them understand how it works. Yet, I have also seen PME professors who submit articles which are thousands of words over maximum, so sometimes they are part of the problem.
Papers and assignments written in the professional military education system, or from academic work, are a great source of material for articles. I have used the work I wrote for class in a number of articles I have published. But, a school paper and an article are not the same thing. We’ve already covered the length issue, but this is a common problem with academic papers. There are also differences in style and tone, occasionally in formatting, and in the types of arguments that will fit at certain publications. Do not simply send your PME paper to an editor. Always rewrite and reformat the paper to ensure it fits the publication you are sending it to. The editors will still help you make it better, but it is on the author to make the first effort of getting it right for the publication in question. It should not require mentioning, but the editor is also not interested with the grade you got on the paper. No need to share, the work should stand on its own.
Ensure you are sending the right submission to the right publication. If a certain publication has a name for a “department,” or type of article, don’t use that same name at a different publication. For example, Proceedings has opinion pieces called “Nobody Asked Me But…” An author who sends a commentary submission to War on the Rocks or The Bridge “for your Nobody Asked Me But section” is immediately off on the wrong foot.
Simple freelance manuscript format is the best way to approach an editor. Do not try and impress with multiple fonts, complicated formatting, etc. Depending on what software they are working with, your fancy format may get thrown off anyway. You aren’t applying for a job in desktop publishing, the words in the article are what matter and speak for themselves. Name, contact info, word count, title, one font, double spaced, simple paragraph format. Use bold, underline, or italics to set things off, but only sparingly. It is designed for fiction authors, but William Shunn’s website gives a good image of how to set things up. Avoid pdf’s to the best of your ability, because the editor will probably want to digitally mark up the piece.
The concept of authorship is directly tied to the question of personal integrity in the academic world. Almost every university or institution of higher learning has an authorship policy statement (read Yale’s here). Fundamentally “authorship” is the question: who belongs on the byline of an article? Who should get credit? This is a question every senior officer looking to publish an article must ask themselves when they think about the staff process which might have helped them produce the article. Senior officers and civilian leaders sometimes have speechwriters who help them. At what point, and in what venues, should they get mentioned for written work? Is a shared byline proper? Or is a mention in the author bio at the end of the article the right place? “LCDR Jones contributed to the writing of this article.” Perhaps a junior officer on the staff amassed the research and wrote the first draft of sections of the piece. Do they deserve some credit? These questions don’t always apply, but in colleges and universities this is a key ethical question. If we are going to pursue professional integrity in the military services, and consider it intellectually, it makes sense for us to examine authorship as well.
Professional articles on military subjects are not the place for personal attacks or for antagonism. Even if the spark which got you writing was disagreement with someone else’s idea, take a step back and make sure you are writing about ideas and content and you are not being antagonistic. Sometimes this is unintentional, and requires you to look at your own work closely. Also, some publications do not publish this kind of tit-for-tat writing, so expect rejections if you are writing something focused on being critical. You should be focused on new ideas and solutions. It is ok to be constructively critical of another writer, thinker, or publication, but avoid personal or professional antagonism: try and follow Dennett’s rules. Aim at the ideas, not the people, and give credit where credit is due.
Cite Your Work
Footnotes, endnotes, hyperlinks…they matter. They help prove you have done the research and reading discussed earlier in this series. More importantly, perhaps, they acknowledge the hard work of others who have tackled the same or similar subjects and on whose shoulders your work stands. They offer the editor and the reader a chance to check up on you. None of us form our ideas or opinions in a vacuum. Even senior officers haven’t come to all their knowledge through experience or epiphany. We should acknowledge that through good use of notes and links. This does not mean every article must be peppered with quotes from Clausewitz or Mahan. You do not have to tackle the great masters. Sometimes it makes you look silly. I know from experience.
Say something in your article. Identifying a problem is certainly a contribution, but often times it is not enough. It only becomes a good article when you also suggest a solution or a path to a solution. You have to argue for something, not just report on a situation. In the first post in this series we talked about John Adams’ call to “dare to read, think, speak, and write.” Professional articles are at their best when they remember that first word. Writers must dare.
Take It or Leave It
This series of three posts has tried to offer a starting point for military professionals and members of the national security community who want to take up the call to contribute to our profession, all call which was recently echoed by the CNO and Lt O’Keefe. The observations offered are intended as a little bit of what naval folks call gouge to get started. Like all gouge, the advice offered is worth exactly what you have paid to read it. These are simple observations from my past several years both writing and editing on military and naval subjects. Individual experience will vary. As we say in the navy, if you live by the gouge you’ll likely die by the gouge. But it least it gives us somewhere to start.
This post is the third in a three part series where the author shares lessons learned from a decade of his own professional writing, almost four years on the editorial board of the U.S. Naval Institute, as a Senior Editor with War on the Rocks, and as series editor of the 21st Century Foundations books from the Naval Institute Press. The opinions expressed are offered in the author’s personal capacity and do not represent the policy of the US Navy, Department of Defense, or any government agency.
Chief of Naval Operations Richardson has put out a call for more naval professionals to contribute to their profession through writing. Other Flag Officers have followed his lead and there is a rising movement across the joint force. The first post in this series examined how someone can develop an idea into a professional article. The next two posts will look to offer a clearer picture of what a writer should expect once their article is written: from submission to when it is out in print or online.
The advice in this series is based on professional writing for a print or online magazine/journal. People interested in blogging can certainly also learn from these ideas. But blogging has a slightly different place in our digital society, and frequently has different (sometimes looser) standards. As seen from the fact this series is published on a pair of blogs (USNI and the Military Writer’s Guild), I see a lot of value in both approaches.
One of the most intimidating things about publishing a professional contribution is fear the author will get something wrong, or embarrass themselves through small mistakes. The reality is a typo, an improperly used italics formatting, or a misspelled name is not something most editors care about. If the problems are repeated and glaring, that is different, but a couple of small mistakes are not very important.
Personally, this is why I like working with journals and magazines more than unedited blogs, or blogs run from personal websites. My work always benefits from the critical eye of a dedicated editor, whether a paid employee of a publication or sometimes a volunteer. That kind of sanity check has kept me from embarrassing myself when the editor asks “hey, are you sure that is right?” or “what is your citation or link for this fact?” From fixing typos, to helping improve the writing in terms of style or house format, and challenging flawed logic or argument, editors have always made my work better. Once the article or essay has made it through them, or their editorial board, there’s a much smaller chance I am embarrassing myself.
Finding a Publication
With a completed draft on the computer screen, it is time to decide where to submit the article. There are many, many options. For naval writers there are the big time naval professional journals like Proceedings and Naval War College Review, to the magazines published by community organizations like Tailhook and the Naval Helicopter Association. The other services have similar venues like Military Review, The Gazette, or branch publications like Armor. There are also the online publications about defense and national security issues. Authors must realize each and every publication has its own niche and its own style. Your manuscript should aim to fit their unique niche and style.
There are two good rules of thumb for selecting where to send the article. First, make sure you’ve read articles from the publication you want to target and ensure your article is the kind of thing they publish. Second, find the publication’s “contributor guidelines.” They all have them, and the editors actually put hard work into getting them just right. Here is the link to Proceedings, and here is War on the Rocks, to give you an idea of what they include. Frequently, these pages are also a wealth of advice on good writing. FOLLOW THE GUIDELINES. (Yes, I just stomped my foot and yelled at you.) Do not let the word “guidelines” fool you, these are the rules for the publication. The quickest way to get rejected by an editor is to send them something clearly violating the rules they have put out in the open. And don’t blast the article out to multiple publications at the same time. Pick one, submit, and be patient. Give the editors a couple days to acknowledge your submission, and even more time before you demand an answer. Some have review processes which take months. Even if the article is rejected, you frequently will get constructive feedback that will help you make it better before sending it to the next publication.
You may decide you are interested in a less formal arrangement, and go with a blog such as USNI Blog or work with junior folks like at CIMSEC. But deciding where to send your article should be a conscious choice based on knowledge of what they publish and how you fit into their corner of national security or professional discussion. You do not need a personal introduction to an editor. Find the email address for submissions, write a brief introductory email (include who you are, title of the article, length, and where you see it fitting into the publication), attach the article (or just make a pitch if that is what the guidelines say), and hit send.
Working with Editors
Editors are here to make our work better. Sometimes, we don’t like to hear their criticism, but it is really crucial we listen and consider it. You can push back against an editor’s changes or suggestions, but you should be able to explain why. Also, you can ask an editor to explain the reasons they have made or suggested a certain change. The writer-editor relationship should have plenty of back and forth, with give and take from both sides.
A professional editor will also never talk about the details of the work they do with you. For example, the Editorial Board at the Naval Institute has very strict privilege rules covering what is discussed in the boardroom. Some new writers fear editors will bad mouth them to other publications or with other writers, but that has never been my experience. In fact, I’ve had many editors try and help me by suggesting other publications which might be a “better fit” if they have rejected my work. Editors have also offered to make introductions to other publications for me. While talking with an editor isn’t quite like talking with a Chaplain, respected outlets are run by respectable people. Publishers always want you to come back with good material, because it is how they keep their journal up and running.
The vast majority of material published today ends up online. Even print journals like Proceedings place their articles on their website. Along with this comes the dreaded “comments section.” Realize there is no obligation for you to read the comments section. Frankly, most of the time I try and ignore it. For each ego stroking reassurance you have offered a brilliant analysis, there’s a troll looking for a fight or a pedantic fact checker ignoring the actual point. Sometimes, a genuine expert in your subject might respond with good insight. When I am tempted to look, and I discover someone like that, I have been known to contact them directly to learn more, but not engage in the furball of likes and unlikes and replies. Most publications want their authors to engage, on more than one occasion staff at USNI have suggested I dive in. However, the key for any author is to realize engaging with commenters is entirely a personal choice. There is no requirement to do it, and there is no requirement you ignore it.
A number of professional naval journals have had a history of allowing the use of pen names. Many excellent digital commentators, like our friend Cdr Salamander, use them with skill and for excellent reasons. The first thing to realize is most publications have a specific policy on the use of pseudonyms. They probably are not going to break their own rules for you, and you better know what they are before you try and submit as “W.T. Door” or “Sailor Timmy.” Many blogs also have a policy on it as well. If you decide you need to use a pen name to protect yourself, you may be limiting how seriously your work will be taken and limiting the kinds of publications you can approach.
Personally, I have also found my writing is far better when I do it under my own name. There is less of a temptation to resort to snark and sarcasm and greater incentive to make sure the research is fully and rigorously sourced. Since we have been talking about writing for professional journals and magazines, it is uncommon for them to resort to pen names. If you are publishing in a respected journal or online publication the odds are you want some credit for your ideas, and for having the guts to get them out there, anyway.
This post is the second in a three part series where the author shares lessons learned from a decade of his own professional writing, almost four years on the editorial board of the U.S. Naval Institute, as a Senior Editor with War on the Rocks, and as series editor of the 21st Century Foundations books from the Naval Institute Press. The advice contained is worth exactly what you have paid to read it and individual experience will vary. The opinions expressed are offered in the author’s personal capacity and do not represent the policy of the US Navy, Department of Defense, or any government agency.
The June issue of Proceedings offered a call from CNO Admiral Richardson, and his speechwriter Lt. Ashley O’Keefe, encouraging naval professionals to engage with their service through the act of professional writing. The CNO has not discovered a new idea, but instead lends his voice to something a number of recent senior officers have called for, from Stavridis to Winnefeld. Even some “not so senior” officers have suggested the same. Others have written indications and warnings about the risks the voyage entails.
There have been a long list of professionals throughout our history who have participated in the development of naval affairs in this way, from Maury to Mahan, Nimitz to Zumwalt. And while the spark for this post came from the CNO and the Navy, the other services have a history here too: from soldiers in the 19th century to leaders like Patton in the 20th century. However, the repeated calls to arms over time, or perhaps calls to pens, have missed something. How do you do it?
Our Navy is a technically oriented service. This is also generally true of the other services to greater or lesser degrees. Our educational policies focus on engineering and technical study, and rarely encourage us to learn how to communicate in writing beyond a bare minimum. In our staff positions we use briefing slides and other communication methods which inspire partial thoughts, quick hits, and incomplete sentences and no concept of paragraph structure or style. For cultures raised on procedural compliance and powerpoint, what is the procedure for writing a professional article? Some simple steps inspired by the words in the Naval Institute’s mission can help set our course.
The mission of USNI is to:
Provide an independent forum for those who dare to read, think, speak, and write to advance the professional, literary, and scientific understanding of sea power and other issues critical to global security. [emphasis added]
The bold words are borrowed from President John Adams. In his 1765 pamphlet “Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law,” Adams examined monarchy and feudalism and compared them to the growing movement for freedom and liberty in the American colonies. The future president called for Americans who valued liberty to develop their knowledge, and their argument, by daring to read, think, speak, and write on the subject. It was a clarion call, but it also hinted at a certain amount of process. Adams was a careful writer and it is quite possible he put these words in a very specific order. Following his counsel can help professionals chart their process for developing an article which contributes to understanding of our profession.
In order to make a contribution to the field of military, naval, or national security knowledge, you have to know the state of the field. The way to do this is by reading. If you have come up with an interesting analogy for a current debate the only way to know if someone has made the argument before is by reading the field. If you wonder what counter-arguments may be against your position, that also comes with reading the field. Articles in journals like Proceedings, Military Review, or Naval War College Review, online publications like War on the Rocks and The Bridge, blogs like Next War, all contribute to the state of the field. Not only will reading them give you new information, and new ideas, but they also tell you what others have said before. It can save you from the embarrassing retort: “yeah, Lieutenant Commander Jones said it six months ago and had a better argument.” (Not that you have to be entirely original, but knowing the field helps you understand where you fit.)
It is not just articles and online posts we should be reading. Books have long given us the deep knowledge needed to understand where the profession has been and where it may head in the future. There is a common refrain in the modern world that we simply do not have time for books. The watch schedule keeps us too busy. Digital media has affected our attention span. Military service is demanding, and we need time with our families. Yet we find time for physical exercise, while we discount intellectual exercise. According to some studies the average college graduate reads around 300 words a minute. If we read 15 minutes each evening, it totals up to 18-20 books a year. The excuse there is “no time” would never be accepted when we failed the PFT. Accept the challenge to read more widely. Maybe this sounds “high brow” or too “egg headed” but as President Truman, a WWI Army veteran, said: “Not all readers are leaders, but all leaders are readers.”
Once a servicemember or natsec professional has an idea of the subject they want to write about, has done some research and reading about it, and has come up with the initial kernel of an argument, they must spend some time thinking about it. This advice probably goes against the grain of what digital media incentivises, or what social media seems to encourage. However, the point of this effort is to make a contribution to the field of military and naval affairs or national security, not to rush into being a “thought leader” in the crashing tide of the blogosphere. Thinking hard about the subject you intend to tackle includes attempting to employ the skills of critical thinking.
Critical thinking gets a lot of attention these days and there are numerous competing definitions of what it means. Unfortunately, too many people seem to think “critical thinking” means “thinking about important or critical things.” That’s not the case. Instead we need level criticism at ourselves and our ideas. We need to examine our ideas with depth, and rigor, in order to get to the heart of whatever issue we want to write about. This includes becoming a critic of yourself and your own ideas, as well as the ideas of others. As you develop the concept for your article, be exacting and penetrating with the evidence you have amassed either through research or your own experience.
Having researched, considered experience, and critically examined the subject in your own mind, it is important to get a sanity check from someone else. In the academic world, this is part of the reason there is peer review before journal articles are published. In the professional and popular press, editors and editorial boards will judge your work with a dispassionate eye. The best way to ensure your argument makes sense, and you have developed a sound approach before contacting an editor, is to talk about it with other people.
Speaking about your idea can take a number of forms. It can happen with a pint in your hand at a pub with a mentor or group of respected friends. In the lost days of our Officer Clubs this was actually a common way of helping people develop professional ideas. It could also involve a cup of coffee. Seek out a mentor who you trust, whether a senior officer or a former professor or co-worker, and see what sticks in your conversation with them. Speaking also does not have to be taken literally, even if some of us work better in the give and take of live conversation. It can take the form of an email or social media exchange. The goal is to introduce new criticisms the writer has not considered, or clarifying the way to express the ideas.
Sit down and write the article. Just do it. Don’t allow the blank page on the computer screen to intimidate. One of the benefits of having thought through the idea systematically, and then spoken about it with a trusted friend or mentor, is you have already started to develop the words to express the idea. As many successful authors have told us, from Stephen King and Anne Lamott to Ernest Hemingway: the first draft is going to be bad. It does not matter. Sit at the keyboard and bang away until you have said everything you want to say.
Once the words are on the page, raw and terrible as they might be, the writer has crossed a major hurdle. After that, it is a matter of editing, organizing, and rewriting, which should be easier than putting the idea down the first time. The editing does not need to be rushed, and the mentor or friend you spoke with probably will be excited to take a look at the article and help make suggestions to improve it. You have already made them feel like a part of the process. When the draft is something which reads well, and you’re happy with it, then it is time to start looking for a place to publish it. Good editors, strong editorial boards, and the review process they use will help strengthen the piece even more. Be ready to make more adjustments to help clarify any issues they discover.
The RTSW Loop
The steps of RTSW might be seen as a sort of OODA loop for professional writing. In some ways it is similar to Boyd’s strato-tactical ideal. For example, each element can send you back to a previous spot. Speaking with a mentor may send you to a book or article you had not heard of before which you need to read, or the process of writing may cause you to return to your thinking and reorganize your approach. But there are also differences with Boyd’s Observe-Orient-Decide-Act sequence, most notably speed. Speed can be your enemy when writing a good professional article. There is no hurry. Please do not try to beat the rush of modern media, this can lead to shallow writing, weak argument, and poorly sourced facts. Doing it right may take time, and multiple rounds of the “RTSW loop,” but that only makes the article stronger and a better contribution.
Writing for publication can be a rewarding challenge. It is also something a legion of Sailors, Soldiers, Marines, Airmen, and security professionals have done throughout history. Many discover the process of writing clarifies their thinking. It also develops our communication skills, our critical faculties through practice, and our leadership ability. All of these make us better military professionals. Writing for publication is not something we should do because we need another FITREP or evaluation bullet, or because we think we can impress our boss. We don’t do it simply because the CNO says so. It is something we do in order to move our profession forward and to improve our service or our nation’s security. So, it is time to dare. Dare to read, think, speak, and write.
The author would like to thank Cdr Mike Flynn and his Naval Academy summer school class on “Professional Writing” for their invitation to join them for a day of class, where the author had a chance to speak about and refine some of these ideas.
This post is the first in a three part series where the author shares lessons learned from a decade of his own professional writing, almost four years on the editorial board of the U.S. Naval Institute, as a Senior Editor with War on the Rocks, and as series editor of the 21st Century Foundations books from the Naval Institute Press. The advice contained is worth exactly what you have paid to read it and individual experience will vary. The opinions expressed are offered in the author’s personal capacity and do not represent the policy of the US Navy, Department of Defense, or any government agency.
I was intrigued by the recent article under the ‘Charting a Course’ column. The notion of ‘geometry’ in a career is certainly an interesting one, and in the previous article it is formed by the relationship between the individual officer and the Detailers, with an aim to help the individual officer get what they want. We can extend the author’s concept of geometry to the relationship of all Officers with the Enterprise. As a supplemental lesson, I would like to present the ‘iron triangle’ of manpower.
Figure 1: The “Iron Triangle” of Operational manpower, modeled after expeditionary helicopter squadrons. At any given time, 36 LTs representing 3 year groups will ‘neck down’ to 12 Department Heads, eventually becoming 3 CO Selectees (CO, XO, PXO) Other community triangles may have different angles, but all follow the same basic geometry. This is stolen, of course, from the “iron triangle” of systems engineering, which consists of Weight, Strength and Cost.
While we can argue about selection policies for any given year group, in aggregate, the Operational Fleet as a whole cannot stray too far from the triangle. This structure is in our organizational DNA and attempting to change it would be folly. Actual selection rates should be slightly higher than the triangle, because some leave the Operational Fleet, either by separating or transitioning to staff/support functions.
If you are convinced that you will make it to the top of your operational triangle, I wish you all the best.
If you are not as certain as the average Charting a Course reader – or if you supervise someone who might not be certain – the next part applies to you:
Your Operational leaders don’t usually know very much about those who ‘evaporate’ from the triangle – i.e. escape from the sides. This is because everyone you deal with in an operational setting is by definition still inside. Here’s the insight and our second lesson in geometry – Corporate Navy is not a triangle but rather a ‘square’.
Figure 2: The “Iron Triangle” in context with the overall ‘value ecosystem’. The challenge for talent management in the current epoch is to recapture those who exit the ‘white’ pyramid and put them into the Orange or Green triangles.
The challenge for the manpower system is to manage the box as a whole. Should the white triangle take priority? Absolutely. It should not do so to the complete disregard of the box. Picking and Paying for the equipment is neither (physically) dangerous or glamorous, but it does require competence – frequently in specialties that bring unique one-off skills to the Navy.
BONUS: Sometimes we don’t get what we want from the Detailing Process. Sometimes we wonder why our tours/careers/lives have taken the path they have, it is useful to recall Sherlock’s answer when Watson asks a similar question (His Last Vow, BBC, 2014)
Watson: What have I ever done? Hmm? My whole life, to deserve you?
Watson: Sherlock, I told you. Shut up.
Sherlock: No, I mean it. Seriously. Everything, everything you’ve ever done is what you did. You were a doctor who went to war. Your best friend is a sociopath who solves crimes as an alternative to getting high…you’re addicted to a certain lifestyle! You’re abnormally attracted…to dangerous situations and people, so is it truly such a surprise that the woman you’ve fallen in love with conforms to that pattern?
We are who we are, or as Popeye the Sailor man would say:
I yam what I yam.
In 1805, Boston’s Frederic Tudor stumbled upon the most innovative idea of his life. The global economy would actually pay handsomely for ice harvested and shipped from New England. Within fifty years, Tudor grew that idea into a highly profitable industry, shipping this new commodity throughout the U.S. and internationally. He didn’t even flinch with the invention of a new machine that could produce ice anywhere in the world. Large, cumbersome, and expensive, the machine produced ice that came at nearly 21 times the cost of Tudor’s harvested ice. Slowly the industrial ice maker became more efficient and less expensive. Tudor and the entire New England ice-harvesting industry lost much of their market share. Stiffening their resolve in the face of steadily waning profits and a changing technological landscape, they doubled down and invested in more effective ice harvesting techniques that would allow them to harvest more ice than they ever had before. The nail in the coffin for the ice harvesting industry came in the 1940s with the invention of the refrigerator which allowed consumers to make their own ice.
In retrospect, their fate seems painfully obvious. However, their problem is a human problem. We create organizations and services that are sustainable, improving incrementally over time, rather than the drastic transformations necessary to evolve. Known as the innovator’s dilemma, ideas are rejected that do not conform to the pre-existing business models that generated the initial success. This lesson shouldn’t be lost on the United States Marine Corps. Our Commandant has challenged us to “Innovate, Adapt, Win”, based upon a rich history of adapting and innovating. We consider ourselves able to accomplish any mission; to be ready when the national calls. However, the modern age of resource commons, digital technology, and social globalization is transforming the world around us, while we remain unmoved. We must inculcate a culture of innovation throughout the Corps, by rapidly and cheaply testing new ideas, empowering visionary Marines across ranks and communities, embracing learning through failure, and disrupting our own 20th century warfighting models with new tactics and modern, inexpensive, and impactful technologies.
Everything Old Is New Again
The evolution of innovation is no accident, nor is it a passing fad. The past 100 years of glorious success and excruciating industry collapse have borne out the approaches required for systematic innovation. Those approaches can be classified into the following strategies: Acquire, Accelerate, or Incubate. Corporations may choose to either acquire a disruptive new startup, accelerate that startup by funding it and gaining a controlling equity in the process, or they can incubate internally. Incubation empowers their existing entrepreneurially-minded employees to act like startups, but within a relatively protected corporate harbor. All these approaches hold to a consistent set of mantras: “Think Big”, “Start Small”, “Fail Fast”, “Invest Minimally”, “Learn Continually”, and “Validate As You Go”. Somewhat surprisingly, these words should sound very familiar to those versed in Marine Corps history and maneuver warfare doctrine. However, to those recently or currently serving in the Marine Corps, those same words prove discordant with our current Corps culture. Since this discordance is debatable, let’s explore each mantra.
- Think Big. Marines are often challenged to ‘think outside the box’. We also require that same Marine to be realistic in their approaches and to practice strict obedience to organizational and rank-based hierarchies. Although necessary for the instantaneous obedience to orders required for combat, these requirements directly suppress the promotion of unorthodox ideas. Particularly those that challenge core values or practices, and yet those ideas are exactly what is needed in order to identify our vulnerabilities.
- Start Small. We routinely emphasize this mantra at the tactical, deployed, mission planning environment. However, outside of that specific environment, we assemble like-minded Marines into a U-shaped ambush around a projected computer screen and heroically execute the Marine Corps Planning Process (MCPP) as the only trusted methodology to solve problems. We develop plans with the knowledge that the plan won’t ‘survive first contact’. Nonetheless, we still demand fully developed requirements that are meant to mitigate all possible risk.
- Fail Fast. Failure, at nearly all levels, is typically cause for reprimand either socially, verbally, or formally. Even earnestly intended experimentation often results in punishment for ‘good initiative, poor execution.’ This mentality has caused some to argue that our promotion and assignment system encourages status quo behavior that incentivizes Marines to perform minimally so that they may simply survive until retirement.
- Invest Minimally. The Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) has crippled our combat development and acquisitions cycles. They have become so obfuscated that it now requires decades of experience, certifications, and graduate degrees to navigate them. These processes are designed to handle high-dollar, high-risk, weapons systems. Those same processes are fundamentally at odds with modern, cheap, and rapidly developed information and communication technologies. Recently published efforts have begun to allow faster, cheaper, and more responsive acquisition models. However, it remains to be seen whether this will result in any near-term change in the subsequent processes and mindsets of the individuals who implement and control these processes.
- Learn Continually. Should our requirements make it through the combat development and acquisitions crucible, they will find a home within a solutions development office from across the range of doctrine, organization, training, materiel, leadership, personnel, and facilities. These offices are designed to execute requirements planning documents and carry a program throughout its lifecycle. Slow or nonexistent warfighter feedback mechanisms do not allow solution developers to pivot on that warfighter’s emerging needs. Similarly, solution developers are challenged to adjust the initial requirement based upon a more clarified understanding. Requirements creep has become a dirty word, rewarding requirements inflexibility.
- Validate As You Go. Our experiments and operational tests are planned and executed in large cycles, usually taking years to develop a wargame or field test. For that reason, there is no option for mid-execution assessment and cancellation of the experiment. Even a basic understanding of the scientific process shows us that experiments are designed to be small and incremental in nature, and be halted at the earliest possible opportunity.
Self-Examination: The State of Marine Corps Innovation
Nearly every facet of our modern lives, from how we communicate, create, lead, entertain, and educate, has seen a drastic transformation outside the gates of our bases. Despite this, the Corps woefully lags behind in creating or even following a similar transformation. Cloud computing has combined with lightweight apps and mobile devices to offer overwhelming potential for military capability, but Marine Corps implementation of any of these technologies remains nascent at best. Nearly a decade has passed since the global revolution of smartphones and tablets, and yet these items haven’t been measurably integrated into our force. It’s been over 12 years since social networking has turned into a trillion-dollar market, but we haven’t managed to find any role for it within our Corps. These examples are representative of a much larger problem, one recognized across the military. On April 8th, 2015, Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work stated “Our technological superiority is slipping. We see it every day.” We innovate linearly in a world where Moore’s law dominates with exponential increases in technology. We must then expect a high risk future state where we are unable to incorporate the technology used by outside industry. Or worse still, the military’s inability to innovate restrains the progression of our military-industrial complex. Our current emerging innovation projects are in name only, watered down to suggestion boxes and process improvement training. Augmented reality, robotics, and 3-D printing could fundamentally transform who, what, when, where, how, and even why we deploy our force. New technologies are able to drive disruptive innovations and social change. These shifts have altered how individuals, businesses, and nations function, yet our Corps remains largely unchanged. The Marine Corps must look to new models to innovate, integrate new technologies, anticipate disruption, and rapidly transform itself.
Innovating From The Core, For The Corps
A fundamentally different approach to innovation in the Marine Corps is needed. The program must look, feel, and sound different than anything we have done in the past. However, it will largely be a return to a time when our Corps was permitted to fail, to experiment, to be nimble, and to be genuinely creative. The approach I recommend builds directly upon the incubator innovation engines found within 80% of the S&P 100, such as GE, 3M, and Adobe. In addition to this, incubation has been adopted by forward thinking government organizations, such as the National Security Agency, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the National Aeronautics and Space Agency. A Marine Corps innovation incubator will foster new ideas, develop those ideas through deliberate and anonymous collaboration, build minimum investment prototypes with specialized teams of experts, and transition those prototypes into formal capabilities. The approach won’t be detailed here, but it can be thought of as a mashed-up process that crowdsources both support and ideas like Kickstarter, builds prototypes like Mythbusters, and invests resources like SharkTank. The program will use a modern, web-based, mobile-friendly, platform that is centered upon transparency, open collaboration, and empowering Marines to behave as entrepreneurs and investors. Participation is incentivized through unique and refreshing methods that are far beyond the simple and relatively ineffective approach of cash pay outs.
Why An Innovation Engine At All?
It’s reasonable to ask why a new approach to innovation is even needed. After all, we already have several activities that serve some type of innovation function and currently produce capabilities. However, we must recognize that there are endemic problems that exist today which aren’t being addressed by current approaches. Although an innovation engine like the one discussed above will never be a silver bullet solution, there are several advantages that have been proven out by the corporations and government agencies which have implemented these engines.
- People. We empower our Marines and civilians to own the future of their Marine Corps, giving them greater value to the Corps and themselves. Our visionaries are recognized and embraced, rather than marginalized. Further, we capitalize on the strengths of the incoming generation’s ability to use technology and social platforms to create change.
- Capability. We can now rapidly and efficiently test a high quantity of ideas in order to fail our way towards success. This strategy is built upon principles found in MCDP-1 Warfighting, and has been shown to develop richer and more beneficial capabilities within industry. Strategic risks are mitigated by exploring both near and future-term disruptive ideas, before an adversary can discover them. We can also directly and transparently identify deficiencies in current capabilities. Conversely, solutions developers and leadership can now engage with a Marine directly to develop creative solutions to those deficiencies.
- Culture. We promote our innovative spirit while demonstrating willingness to adapt to any future condition. This sends a strong message of stepping away from current risk-averse, zero-failure culture. We outwardly display eagerness for innovation, bringing in entrepreneurs and startups to support the innovation program itself. Such a display provides a crucial bridge to the incoming generation of Marine Corps recruits and future business leaders of America.
Our own history, in conjunction with modern corporate innovation approaches, has blazed a trail towards innovation. These modern approaches are even more important in today’s constantly changing digital world. Any modern bureaucracy, to include the Marine Corps, must seriously consider how innovation can be used to evolve the organization. Nowhere does the popular mantra of “Innovate or Die” hold truer. However, success in innovation demands enthusiastic support from every leader, as well as Corps-wide participation. Our Marine esprit has primed us for success, if we may only direct it towards transformative approaches to innovation. This transformation cannot come too soon. Today’s technologies are rapidly driving down the cost to innovate. For the Marine Corps, the cost of failure is simply too high to continue harvesting ice.
Following the end of the Second World War, Captain B.B. Wygant felt that the United States Navy needed a reminder of the great men of its past. With so much valor and accomplishment during the war in the Pacific, and on the European front, he appeared to fear that important historical examples of naval professionalism might be lost.
There was one man, above all others, that he felt the next generation of officers needed to be aware of: Admiral William Sims. He wrote an article that was published in Proceedings in 1951 entitled “Admiral Sims As I Knew Him,” where he reminisced of his personal experience serving under Sims and the stories that circulated in the fleet during his years in uniform.
For more than two decades William S. Sims was at the forefront of naval affairs. From the revolution in naval gunnery to his development of torpedo boat and destroyer operations, he was a central figure in preparing the U.S. Navy for World War I. During the war, he served as the senior naval commander in Europe and was instrumental in the establishment of the convoy system. Following the war his leadership as president of the Naval War College established the foundation of the creative and innovative Navy that developed the operating concepts for submarines and aircraft carriers leading up to World War II.
Below are excerpts from Wygant’s article. For USNI members who want to read the original, with a multitude of sea stories and leadership lessons, it can be found in full in the Proceedings Digitization Project.
By 1903 I had been detached from the Kearsarge and was a division officer on board a gunboat with four inch guns. At the time that Sims came on board we were engaged in the process of substituting human hair for the coarse metal wires that had been supplied in the telescopes. He took as much interest in that procedure as if it had concerned the telescopes of a turret in a battleship. In the conferences that were held to discuss gunnery matters he encouraged the younger officers to speak out and not to be tongue tied in the presence of their seniors.
He was liberal minded in other things as well. One day while walking in the countryside near Newport, he told me something of his experiences while serving as Naval Attaché in Paris and St. Petersburg. When asked about life in the Russian capital during the gay season, he remarked that he avoided social activities as much as possible because Russian society was extremely corrupt and the treatment of the lower classes was revolting to him. “Had I been a Russian I might have been a Nihilist,” he added jokingly.
Later he had command of the Atlantic Destroyer Flotilla, and it was in this latter position in particular that his characteristic methods were brought into play. Frequent conferences were held in which all were encouraged to be outspoken and decisions were arrived at after free discussion. Sims was never a great advocate of “spit and polish” but was immensely concerned with getting things done. In May 1917 when the second group of our destroyers arrived in Queenstown for antisubmarine operations the Admiral came on board the destroyer Tucker to ascertain how we had stood the trip. After looking about and asking a vew questions he requested a boat to take him ashore, having dismissed the familiar green barge on his coming aboard. A boat was called away and while I explained that there had not been time to shine the brightwork since our rather rough passage he interrupted, “Will the boat run?” When I replied that it would, he said, “What is it for?” The thing that mattered was not the appearance of the boat but its ability to carry out its mission.
Sims had the ability, essential to a naval officer, of making decisions and making them quickly if necessary. He expected the same of those under him. There are several versions of a story which illustrates this characteristic. The captain of a destroyer on his way from Newport to Charleston sent this dispatch to Sims, whose flagship was anchored in Chesapeake Bay. “My starboard engine is disabled, shall I continue to Charleston under one engine or put in to Lynnhaven Roads and effect repairs?” Promptly came the answer from Sims, “Yes.” The puzzled skipper sent another dispatch saying he did not understand and repeated his original query. This time, equally promptly came the reply, “No.” I once intercepted a message from Sims to one of his destroyer captains tersely instructing the officer, “Don’t ask questions, act.”
Sims’ willingness to permit the exercise of initiative by the man on the spot was noteworthy, as was also the extent to which he decentralized administration at a time when such practice was somewhat new in the service. I have a letter from him in this connection in which he wrote as follows: “Decentralization was of course bound to come with experience. Probably you do not know to what extent. Here is an example from before your time: I was closely associated with a C-in-C … who opened all the flagship mail, wrote all the endorsements … in his own hand, had all signals brought to him, wrote the answers himself, and allowed nothing to be done without reference to him. And he was immensely proud of his achievement!”
An example of Sims’ tendency to reduce things to their essentials is his definition of a destroyer in an attack against capital ships. “A destroyer is a projectile and the Captain is the fuse.”
His life was largely spent in uncovering deficiencies and smashing idols, but while deprecating his tendency to overstatement and his occasional inability to make clear his point of view, I feel that to him more than to any other single person belongs the credit for the efficiency which the U. S. Navy demonstrated during the Second World War.
Readers interested in the writing, thinking, and professionalism of William Sims can read some of his essays and articles, with introductions, in “21st Century Sims: Innovation, Education, and Leadership for the Modern Era.”
Recent writing by Lieutenants Misso and O’Keefe here at USNI Blog, with their call for JO’s to “stick their neck out,” as well as contributions from Lieutenant Hipple and Major Byerly at FP’s Best Defense Blog, has forwarded a vital challenge. The call for Sailors and Marines, as well as our brothers and sisters from the other services, to become active participants in the debates of the 21st century has come and gone a number of times across our history. Recently Senior Chief Murphy wrote about it from an NCO’s perspective in his Proceedings commentary “A Pseudo-Intellectual Wanna-be” in the March 2013 issue. Two months later former Army officer Jason Fritz wrote about it, also at FP’s Best Defense. Claude Berube has given us the long view of our naval history when it comes to debating new ideas with his writing on the Naval Lyceum of a century and a half ago.
On February 15th the Naval Institute Press will release the new book “21st Century Sims: Innovation, Education, and Leadership for the Modern Era.” The collection includes LCDR William Sims article “The Inherent Tactical Qualities of All-Big-Gun, One Calibre Battleships” which was seen in Proceedings in 1906. I wrote the following for Proceedings’ May 2013 issue, which offers a preview and an example of why our military services need junior officers and upstart thinkers to challenge the status quo and engage in professional writing.
Now Hear This – “If We Are to Remain A World Power…”
When the latest issue of Proceedings arrived in June 1906, Naval Institute members and the American people heard from a renowned global expert, a retired naval officer whose pen had been quiet for some months. His name was Alfred Thayer Mahan. His article, “Reflections, Historic and Other, Suggested by the Battle of the Japan Sea,” derived from the recent Russo-Japanese naval war lessons for U.S. fleet design and battleship construction. Just a few years away from Great Britain’s launch of HMS Dreadnought , which would revolutionize ship design by bringing speed together with an all-big-gun main battery, Mahan advocated for smaller and more numerous ships with mixed batteries of different calibers. As the leading naval expert, Mahan’s articles were voraciously read worldwide, and his analysis matched well with the “Big Navy” party line.
The U.S. Naval Institute, then as today, was a members’ organization. It didn’t exist for the sake of itself, but to share ideas and debate the future of the Sea Services. A naval arms race was developing in Europe; after the U.S. victory in the Spanish-American War, the nation stepped onto the global stage as a naval power. A year away from the Great White Fleet sailing around the world, the USNI members understood that their ideas, innovations, and wisdom mattered. Even though many considered Mahan the greatest living navalist and a strategic genius, he was not impervious to challenges from Naval Institute members.
In the December issue of Proceedings, a member responded to Mahan’s assertions. The article didn’t come from a civilian contractor who was building the next set of battleships, or from an academic expert who made his living advising politicians. The response came from an upstart lieutenant commander on staff duty in Washington, D.C. Then-Commander Mahan had once written him up for being disorderly at the Naval Academy as a first-class midshipman. Lieutenant Commander William Sims’ article “The Inherent Tactical Qualities of All-Big-Gun, One Calibre Battleships” dissected and refuted Mahan’s arguments. He argued that “if we are to remain a world power,” the large, fast, heavily gunned battleship was the future of naval warfare.
President Theodore Roosevelt read with great interest the exchange between the renowned, retired officer and the active-duty staff officer. The articles were republished in public-affairs magazines and entered into the record during debate on the floor of the Senate. The names of two great officers and naval thinkers make the story interesting, but it was the mission and membership of the Naval Institute that made it possible. The exchange didn’t happen in the pages of The Atlantic or Harper’s. It happened in Proceedings. Both men were USNI members and understood that ensuring the future of their Navy required discussion, debate, and participation of the membership.
In the case of battleship design, the lieutenant commander won the debate. After studying the response and new information about the Pacific battles, Mahan admitted that his argument didn’t stand up. Nevertheless, his expertise and experience as a retired naval officer-turned-civilian expert was central to the development of the future Fleet, as was his willingness to debate an upstart like Sims. The Royal Navy launched HMS Dreadnought before the United States could put its first large, fast, heavily gunned battleship to sea. But we weren’t far behind, because the ideas had already been debated in Proceedings.
In the first decade of the 1900s, the United States was fighting a counterinsurgency war in the Philippines. An Asian power, the Empire of Japan, was rising to become a major economic and military force, rapidly building up its navy. USNI members faced shifting alliances and adversaries, new technologies, tactical innovation, and globalized economics. These challenges should sound familiar today. We need the expertise and experience of our senior members to keep us from repeating past mistakes. We also require the exciting and innovative ideas of new, younger members, junior officers and enlisted personnel, to propel the discussion and debate forward.
The pages of Proceedings (and USNI Blog!) need your well-developed research, thoughtful articles, and best ideas to ensure that we continue the vital debate in the 21st century. To provide an independent forum to advance the professional, literary, and scientific understanding of sea power and national defense, we must first have those who dare to read, think, speak, and write. The U.S. Naval Institute is a members’ organization—help us continue the debate!
In 1916 Europe was engulfed in the beginning of The Great War. The rapid campaign that was expected in the summer of 1914 had degenerated into something unexpected, a long and almost siege like struggle. While the United States proclaimed neutrality, the Navy suspected things would get worse and they would either need to protect the American coastline or lead a mass mobilization to carry an army across the Atlantic. They began to prepare volunteers who expressed interest in joining the naval services with information to jump start their training when the time came. It began with a series of lectures, including subjects like coastal defense tactics and torpedo boats, and a short period aboard a ship a sea.
Captain William Sims was asked to prepare a lecture for the Naval Volunteers on the subject of “military character.” Sims was well known in the service. He had led the gunnery revolution a decade prior, at one point earning him the nickname “The Gun Doctor,” and was a leading voice in the development of modern battleships. He had spent some time at the Naval War College as a student, and was kept on as an instructor before returning to the fleet. During the war he would command all U.S. Naval Forces in Europe, the Navy’s command equivalent to General Pershing’s on land.
The subject of professionalism is central to much of Sims writing, both before the war and after returning home to assume responsibilities as the President of the War College. From the importance of personal professional study, to the tenets of mission command, to the need for constant military innovation, he spent a good deal of time thinking about the subject.
What did Sims believe were the professional and ethical responsibilities of a military leader? In his view a central tenet was the importance of self-awareness. Professionalism requires a constant personal net assessment, or “estimate of the situation.” This is what he told the Naval Volunteers who had gathered with the knowledge that they might soon leave their civilian responsibilities and take on the mantle of military leadership:
It seems almost incredible that there should be men of marked intellectual capacity, extensive professional knowledge and experience, energy and professional enthusiasm, who have been a detriment to the service in every position they have occupied. They are the so-called “impossible” men who have left throughout their careers a trail of discontent and insubordination; all because of their ignorance of, or neglect of, one or many of the essential attributes of military character.
I knew one such officer who was a polished gentleman in all respects, except that he failed to treat his enlisted subordinates with respect. His habitual manner to them was calmly sarcastic and mildly contemptuous, and sometimes quite insulting, and in consequence he failed utterly to inspire their loyalty to the organization.
A very distinguished officer said after reaching the retired list: “The mistake of my career was that I did not treat young officers with respect, and subsequently they were the means of defeating my dearest ambitions.”
The services of this officer, in spite of this defect, and by reason of his great ability, energy, and professional attainment, and devotion to the service, were nevertheless of great value.
Both qualities and defects of course exist in varying degrees. These sometimes counterbalance each other, and sometimes the value of certain qualities makes up for the absence of others.
Some officers of ordinary capacity and attainments have always been successful because of their ability to inspire the complete and enthusiastic loyalty of all serving with them, and thus command their best endeavors; but no matter what other qualities an officer may possess, such success can never be achieved if he fails in justice, consideration, sympathy, and tact in his relations with his subordinates.
Such men are invaluable in the training of the personnel of a military organization in cheerful obedience, loyalty and initiative; and when these qualities are combined in a man of naturally strong character and intellectual capacity he has the very foundation stones upon which to build the military character.
The pity of it is that so many men of great potential power should not only have ruined their own careers, but have actually inflicted continuous injury upon the service, through neglecting to make an estimate of the situation as regards their characters and through neglecting to use their brains to determine the qualities and line of conduct essential to success in handling their men, and thus failing to reach a decision which their force of character would have enabled them to adhere to.
Such a reasoned process applied to the most important attribute of an officer, namely, his military character, would have saved many from partial or complete failure through the unreasoned, though conscientious, conviction that it was actually their duty to maintain an inflexible rigidity of manner toward their subordinates, to avoid any display of personal sympathy, to rule them exclusively by the fear of undiscriminating severity in the application of maximum punishments, and such like obsessions.
It would appear that such officers go through their whole career actually guided by a snap judgment, or a phrase, borrowed from some older officer, such as the precepts quoted above. Though they have plenty of brains and mean well, their mistake is that they never have subjected themselves and their official conduct to any logical analysis. Moreover, they are usually entirely self-satisfied, and frequently boastful of their unreasoned methods of discipline; and they usually explain their lack of success by inveighing against the quality of the personnel committed to their charge.
All this to accentuate the conclusion of the war college conference that: “We believe it is the duty of every officer to study his own character that he may improve it, and to study the characters of his associates that he may act more efficiently in his relation with them.”
This, then, is the lesson for all members of our military services. Let us consider seriously this matter of military character, especially our own. Let us not allow anybody to persuade us that it is a “high brow” subject, for though military writers confine their analysis almost exclusively to the question of the “great leaders,” the principles apply equally to all individuals of an organization from the newest recruit up.
This is excerpt from chapter two of “21st Century Sims: Innovation, Education, and Leadership for the Modern Era.” It is cross-posted from The Strategy Bridge’s series on the military #profession. The book is available for pre-order and will be available 15 February in paperback and e-book.
Today marks the 239th Birthday of the United States Marine Corps. In remembering the day when Captain Samuel Nicholas walked into a Philadelphia bar, looking for the “bravest men” of that city, Marines all over the world will hear the Birthday Message first circulated by Major General John Lejeune in 1921. Lejeune’s name is far more than just the name of another military base; he and his career are legend in the Marine Corps. He rose through the ranks, serving all over the world. When he reached Europe at the United States entry into The Great War, Black Jack Pershing recognized his leadership and gave the “Marines’ Marine” command of the whole of the 2nd Army Division. He became the 13th Commandant of the Corps after the war and to this day is known as the “the greatest of all Leathernecks.”
Yet it almost never happened. Today a discussion of military talent management has come to life, something that happens on a fairly regular cycle in American military history. Almost 125 years ago, the future of a young Midshipman Lejeune was at the whim of a bureaucracy that cared very little for his personal interests or where he and his peers thought his talents might lay.
In 1890 Midshipman John Lejeune, known among his friends by his nickname “Gabe,” and his Naval Academy roommate Ed Beach returned to Annapolis after spending two years at sea. In those days Midshipmen completed the course of instruction at the Academy but then had to serve in the Fleet for two years before they were commissioned. At sea they learned the basics of life and leadership aboard ship and began earning their qualifications and standing the bridge watches that would serve as the foundations of their careers.
The two young men also returned to the banks of the Severn River unsure that they would even receive a commission. There were a finite number of officer billets in the Navy and Marine Corps. Because promotion was seniority based, not every Midshipman could receive a commission unless there were enough officers who retired. If enough officers left the service everyone would move up the seniority lists and spots would open up at the bottom for the new Ensigns and Second Lieutenants.
Lejeune had wanted to be a United States Marine since he entered prep school at LSU. He finished at Annapolis in the top of his class and assumed that his standing would give him the ability to select the service of his choice. Returning to Annapolis Lejeune discovered that he had made the cut to receive a commission. But he also learned that the Academic Board, which was responsible for making service assignment recommendations, had assigned him to become an engineer in the Navy. His grades in the engineering courses were the best in his class.
Begging the Bureau
Lejeune decided to go to Washington to make his case to the Bureau of Navigation. His roommate Ed Beach agreed to go along with him to provide moral support and later related the story in his memoir. They were able to get a meeting scheduled with Commodore F.M. Ramsey, who led the Bureau and knew of the two young men because his previous position was Superintendent at the Academy.
The two Midshipmen arrived in Washington and Lejeune overcame an attack of nerves and went to the meeting with Beach at his side. He explained to the head of the Bureau that he had always wanted to be a Marine, and that because of how hard he worked and his class standing his preferences should count for something. Ramsey was the final decision maker and would approve the recommendations of the Academic Board. He was the only man who could change Lejeune’s fate. He refused. The Navy needed good engineers and he agreed with the Academy’s recommendation. The only way he would even consider changing his mind was if the Commandant of the Marine Corps requested Lejeune by name.
There was a glimmer of hope, but Lejeune didn’t put much stock in it. He led Beach toward the Commandant’s office in order to try to see him. They actually found Commandant McCawley (improperly called Remy by Beach in his recounting of the story) at a quiet moment in the office and were able to see him. However, he refused Lejeune’s entreaty to make a “by name request” for him to commission as a Second Lieutenant. The Commandant told him that the Corps would take whomever they were assigned and make no special deals.
A Desperate Ploy
Gabe had one last idea. He dragged Beach back toward Ramsey’s office at the Bureau. They were able to maneuver themselves into another audience, but Ramsey again refused to change his mind. Likely frustrated, he repeated that if the Commandant personally asked for Lejeune, then he could become a Marine. In the last moment of the brief meeting Lejeune asked his former Superintendent why? Why wouldn’t he allow him to become a Marine?
“Because, Mr. Lejeune, I am well aware of your splendid and promising mentality. Frankly, you have altogether too much brains to be lost in the Marine Corps!”
With that, Lejeune rushed out the office and headed back for the Commandant’s spaces at a run. Beach struggled to keep up, wondering what the hell was going on. But Lejeune had a new confidence about him. The two Midshipmen burst back into the Commandant’s office and interrupted a meeting with a group of officers on the headquarters staff. Before they could be reprimanded and removed from the room Lejeune shouted out:
“Commodore Ramsey says that the reason he will not recommend me to be a second lieutenant is that I have altogether too much brains for the Marine Corps!”
Ed Beach wrote “Lejeune won, then and there. The Marine Corps went into action,” and the request for Gabe to become a Marine was cut and sent to the Bureau of Navigation. The history books show there was still more maneuvering to be done, including meetings with Senator Russell Gibson and the intervention of the Secretary of the Navy. John Lejeune was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant instead of an Ensign. The rest, as they say, is history.
Another Year, Facing the Future
For more than two centuries the Marine Corps, and the rest of our armed forces, have been facing the challenges of talent management and administrative efficiency right alongside the combat stories that we read about in most of our history books. The so-called “needs of the service,” bureaucratic infighting, and service rivalry have a long tradition in how our military service members are selected, promoted, and mentored. But the story of Gabe Lejeune’s quest to become a United States Marine reminds us that sometimes the service is wrong, and sometimes we have to figure out our own “innovative” ways to work the system.
So Happy Birthday Marines. And to all the men and women in uniform who want to follow in Gabe Lejeune’s footsteps, by working both inside and outside the lifelines, to take their career into their own hands: Hoorah. Keep up the good fight.
A couple of weeks ago the U.S. Naval War College hosted the Current Strategy Forum, 2014. It was a two day conference which brought the soon-to-be graduates of the War College programs together with fleet planners and strategists, some of the world’s top scholars, and a few of us strap hangers to discuss maritime and military strategy in the 21st century. The lectures and panels were all livestreamed and then posted to Youtube, so you can watch them yourself here.
One of the things Admiral Greenert said, and was repeated a number of times by the other Admirals, was that the OPNAV staff is looking for help in working on the new iteration of the Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower (CS21). One of the things the organizers of the conference failed to offer, however, was an obvious outlet to provide the feedback. This is reflected in some of the internet “after action” writing, including a post written with obvious frustration by a War College student and published at Steeljaw Scribe and CDR Salamander.
Luckily, the anonymous student stumbled upon the perfect way to provide the feedback: writing about it. CAPT “Barney” Rubel (ret), the outgoing Dean of Naval Warfare Studies in Newport, points this out in his recent monograph “Writing to Think.” He tells us that taking the time to sit down and write about professional subjects like strategy has the ability to clarify and organize things, making our thoughts more useful.
Dispositions of Navies
One of the names which came up a few times at Current Strategy Forum was Alfred Thayer Mahan. One of the godfathers of the Naval War College and professional military education, his name has also become a nearly mandatory cliché when discussing naval strategy. Much of the Mahanian discussion focuses on “The Influence of Sea Power Upon History.” Because of the book’s focus on the age of sail we hear that it’s a shame he didn’t write something more useful for us in the 21st century. If only he had written something relevant to navies with engines instead of sails, that discussed how to dispose of a global fleet in a time of relative peace, with rising great powers. If only.
In 1901 Mahan wrote an essay for the British journal National Review entitled “Considerations Governing the Dispositions of Navies.” It was a study of why, where and how a nation should exercise their naval forces in times of relative peace, “for the dispositions of peace should bear a close relation to the contingency of war.” While the essay is little known compared to his seminal book, the noted strategist of the 1930s and 1940s Herbert Rosinski wrote it was probably some of Mahan’s best work. It gets directly to the heart of the questions a document like CS21 must answer, what are the ideas which govern how we deploy and use our fleet today?
Three Thoughts from The Prophet
The first thing Mahan calls for in his essay is “an antecedent appreciation of the political, commercial, and military exigencies of the state.” At the turn of the 20th century the world was experiencing globalization with an unprecedented scale and speed. Mahan believed any strategic appreciation of how or why to use navies had to be informed by that reality. Because naval power plays a role in military affairs, commercial or economic interests, and the political or diplomatic interaction between states, they should be seen as “an articulated whole,” and all three must be addressed by today’s strategic thinkers. The drafters of a strategic document like CS21 must consider these three factors, and should explain how the Navy views its interaction with each of them individually, as well as a whole, around the globe today.
Another area of the essay for today’s writers to consider is Mahan’s discussion of forward deployed naval forces. Mahan believed America was safest when threats were dealt with far from our own shores. That required not just a navy, but a forward deployed navy which was able to respond quickly because it already had presence around the world. He also highlighted the relationship between offense and defense in naval war, a balance that was a bit different than the way land power strategists have thought about it.
Mahan reminds his readers, “he who has but half way to go does double the work.” Because of this, he writes that the locations for overseas bases are critical and must be selected with strategic elements in mind. He touches on the maintenance of allies and partners as well as the facilities needed to repair and resupply ships in theater, rather than always having to bring them back to the United States. In modern terms he’s talking about the value of forward basing and forward stationing and some of his ideas will likely have direct relevance to those who are working on CS21.
The final element of “Considerations Governing the Dispositions of Navies” I will point out is Mahan’s discussion of technology and fleet constitution. One of the pieces of conventional wisdom about the great navalist is that he was a bit of a Luddite and did not understand the advance of technology, or its importance to naval operations. Thinking about it for a moment, it seems a bit silly to suggest an officer whose career straddled the shift from sail to steam wouldn’t understand how technology impacts naval affairs. In his essay Mahan’s writing also helps to dispel some of that myth.
The airplane and the tactically useable submarine were still a few years away when he wrote the piece. However, he does discuss the importance of the new wireless telegraph technology. He suggests that by using their radios ships could network together and cover much larger distances. Scouting (or what we today call ISR) could be impacted dramatically and the wireless would present the ability for numerous small ships to come together and operate as a massed and coordinated group when needed, but also provide the ability for them to disperse for presence operations.
Importantly, Mahan also discusses the constitution of the fleet. The kinds of ships a naval force needs, the balance of numbers or types, is a vital part of any vision for naval affairs or sea power. In the 21st century we add aircraft, submarines and other platforms and systems to the question as well. Starting with Mahan’s outline isn’t a bad idea. We are commonly taught he was a battleship man and was focused on big guns and big ships. His writing in this essay clears up some of that conventional wisdom as well. Mahan wrote a Navy needed three elements which made up a balanced fleet. The battle fleet was the obvious starting point and required battleships and armament which could defeat another nation’s fleet. Mahan also wrote that a navy needs numerous cruisers to work with the battle fleet, but which can also deploy independently for the protection of commerce and naval diplomacy. Finally, Mahan suggested a balanced naval force required small craft which could serve as scouts as well as move toward the shore and serve in close to the enemy’s coast.
Mahan was writing about ships, but obviously today aircraft and submarines can complete some of the tasks he discusses, though not all of them. A new version of CS21 will require a discussion of fleet constitution and technology, but it must focus on the “why.” At the very end of his essay Mahan points out that after the qualitative must come the quantitative. Establishing how many ships and assets you need is a vital part of peacetime naval policy.
Sea Power and the 21st Century
Reading Alfred Thayer Mahan’s work will not provide a prescription for today’s issues or a checklist the drafters of a new CS21 should follow. One of the other great myths about Mahan is that his purpose was to provide step by step instructions for maritime success. He is frequently called the Jomini of naval strategy. But Mahan didn’t believe in checklists, he didn’t believe in maxims as hard and fast rules. When he used words like principles or maxims, he was describing historical precedents providing naval officers and strategists with ideas to consider. He wrote the purpose of studying and learning historical principles isn’t to tell you exactly what to do to get things right, it’s to give you a hint that you’re about to do something wrong.
The officers working on the new document likely already have many of these concepts in mind. However, there is a great deal more in “Considerations Governing the Dispositions of Navies” which the modern navy can learn from. I’ve just highlighted three elements I think are particularly interesting and relevant to CS21. But don’t trust me, read Mahan himself. You can find the essay either in Chapter 2 of “21st Century Mahan: Sound Military Conclusions for the Modern Era” or you can do a little bit of searching on the internet and probably find it for free download. Mahan’s great value isn’t in telling us what to do or think; it is in helping us ask the right questions. As he told us in another essay, “the instruction derived from the past must be supplemented by a particularized study of the indications of the future.”
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