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A Bit of Summer Reading

Tuesday, July 28th, 2015

[by J. Scott Shipman]

dead wakestraight to hellGhost Fleet

The Fate of a ManBachCalvin Coolidge


Dead Wake, The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, by Erik Larson

Straight to Hell, True Tales of Deviance, Debauchery and Billion Dollar Deals, by John Lefevre

Ghost Fleet, A Novel of The Next Work War, by P.W. Singer & August Cole

The Fate of a Man, by Mikhail Sholokhov

BACH, Music in the Castle of Heaven, by Sir John Eliot Gardiner

Seeing Calvin Coolidge in a Dream, by John Derbyshire

The summer of 2015 for me is becoming memorable for the diversity of the books making it into my queue through unexpected circumstances. Larson’s Dead Wake was an surprise gift from a neighbor familiar with my professional pursuits. I read “Wake” in two sittings and it is superb. Larson puts faces on the victims, and highlights the politics from both sides of the Atlantic, to include the German U-boat commander responsible for the sinking. This tragedy reads like a novel and is wicked good.

Last year my son turned me on to the feed of @GSElevator on Twitter. I would have never read this book  had I not become a fan of Mr. Lefevre’s decidedly politically incorrect sense of humor. With over 700k followers on Twitter he created an instant potential market and I bit. Straight to Hell is an entertaining irreverent look at the top of the banking profession, and is not for the faint of heart—and very funny.

Ghost Fleet is one of the most anticipated techno-thrillers in recent memory. Singer and Cole have spun a good yarn of how a future world war between the USA and China/Russia. While the book is a page turner, the authors thankfully sourced their technology assertions in 22 pages of notes! A great resource for a very good book. One could quibble over lack of character development, but this book is driven more by technological wizardry and is a fun and instructive read.

Fate of Man was recommended either at a blog or in blog comments—I don’t remember. This tiny but poignant book (it is more a bound short story) provides the reader with a glimpse of the hardships and sacrifices in Russia post WWII. Torture and suffering on a scale foreign to 99.9% of those living in the modern Western world.

BACH was a birthday gift, and I would like to report I have finished Gardiner’s masterpiece, but that may take some time (I’m at page 330). Gardiner shares insights on JS Bach’s life and music, and while I have over forty Bach recordings in my iTunes account, this lovely book is introducing a massive body of Bach’s cantata work—over 200 and I’m unfamiliar with most. My method has been to read Gardiner’s description of the piece, then find a recording on YouTube. Unfortunately, Gardiner does not discuss one of my all-time favorite Bach Cantatas Ascension Oratorio BWV-11 (the last five minutes are simply divine).

Finally, the Calvin Coolidge book came to me via CDR Salamander in a Facebook thread. As a fan of Coolidge and Derbyshire, I grabbed a copy and I’m glad I did. Derbyshire has written a sweet and insightful story of love, betrayal, and redemption, all the while providing the reader a frightening description of China’s cultural revolution.

My China study continues, adding Edward Rice’s Mao’s Way, along with CAPT Peter Haynes’ Towards a New Maritime Strategy: American Naval Thinking on the Post-Cold War Era—-both are thus far very good. Also thanks to a friend, I recently spent some quality time with the late master naval strategist, Herbert Rosinski’s The Development of Naval Thought. This is my third or fourth pass through a very good little book.  If naval strategy holds any interest, this little book is not to be missed.

Are you reading any unusual titles?

Aircraft Carriers and Maritime Strategy – a debate

Tuesday, January 13th, 2015

[by J. Scott Shipman]

Last Friday night at the U.S. Naval Academy, retired Navy Captain Henry “Jerry” Hendrix and Commander Bryan McGrath debated the future of the aircraft carrier. My wife and I were fortunate to attend. Given the pressure placed on the Navy’s shipbuilding budget, the debate could not have been more timely. Commander McGrath argued the “nuclear aircraft carriers with air wings are the most cost effective and efficient platform to project power in the maritime and littoral realm to support U.S. national security interests in current and future security environments.” Captain Hendrix argued against this resolution. While both arguments hold much merit, I tend to side with Captain Hendrix.

Lots of numbers and statistics were thrown around, but one issue did not enter the debate: it has been 70 years since an aircraft carrier was shot at. The lesson of the Falklands War underscores the potential power of modern precision munitions, and carriers are big targets.

This video is highly recommended. C-SPAN also recorded the debate with a transcript here.

In Search of Strategy(s), a Voice, a Narrative because, ‘Gentlemen, We Have Run Out Of Money; Now We Have to Think’

Friday, December 13th, 2013

[by J. Scott Shipman] [Warning: Maritime in flavor]

No matter how far humanity may go in seeking to foster the arts of civilization and the ideals of civic peace, there will come times when acts of war are required in order to defend world order and sustain the peace of civilized peoples. Charles Hill’s, Grand Strategies, Literature, Statecraft, and World Order, page 48

The lift quote in the title is attributed to Winston Churchill, and in this period of uncertainty with sequestration and deep cuts in defense commanding the attention of military leadership, one thing is becoming crystal clear: we have no cogent or explainable military strategy. Sure, we have “concepts” like Air-Sea/Air-Land Battle, A2/AD, and Off-Shore Control, but our most recent unclassified Navy strategy document A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower was written in 2007 may be a bit dated.

This week I attended the U.S. Naval Institute’s annual Defense Forum, Shaping the Maritime Strategy and Navigating the Budget Gap Reality and given the title, there was a lot of talk about funding and in that light/context, strategy was that thing “we’re in the process of doing.” Several people I spoke with expressed concern about “telling the navy’s story,” “why we have a navy,” and one member of Congress encouraged us to build an engaged constituency to put pressure on Congress to knock-off the schizophrenic approach to appropriations, so that a bit of certainty will allow the development of a strategy. Since DoD hasn’t been successfully audited in a long, long time (if ever), I wouldn’t hold out hope for a grass-roots rescue. As Mr. Churchill wisely advises, “now we have to think.”

Strategy Defined

Since strategy is a hot topic, offered here are several definitions ranging from the classic to practitioners and academics, with the goal of framing the elegant simplicity of strategy as a theory, and challenge of defining in reality. As Colin Gray points out in his National Security Dilemmas: “The United States has shown a persisting strategy deficit.” (page 170) Dilemmas, written in 2009 before the budget axe fell in earnest he offers: “One would think that the following definition and explanation must defy even determined efforts of misunderstanding:” (he then quotes Clausewitz)

Strategy is the use of engagement for the purpose of war. The strategist must therefore define an aim for the entire operational side of the war that will be in accordance with its purpose. In other words, he will draft the plan of the war, and the aim will determine the series of actions intended to achieve it: he will, in fact, shape the individual campaigns and, within these, decide the individual engagements.” (On War, page 177)

The definition of strategy from the Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, Joint Publication 1-02:

strategy — A prudent idea or set of ideas for employing the instruments of national power in a synchronized and integrated fashion to achieve theater, national, and/or multinational objectives. (JP 3-0)

Other definitions:

J.C. Wylie, RADM, USN, Ret., Military Strategy, page 14

“A plan of action designed in order to achieve some end; a purpose together with a system of measures for its accomplishment” 

Henry E. Eccles, RADM, USN, Ret., Military Concepts and Philosophy page 48:

Strategy is the art of comprehensive direction of power to control situations and areas in order to attain objectives. (emphasis in original)

Bernard Brodie, Sea Power in the Machine Age, page 78

“Tactics may be distinguished from strategy by the criterion proposed by Mahan—the fact of contact. “Tactics” refers to localized hostilities that occur where the adversaries are in contact; “strategy” refers to those basic dispositions in strength which comprise the entire conduct of a war.” 

General André Beaufre, Introduction á la stratégie, 1963, page 16. (note: I don’t read/speak French, I found the quote in Edward Luttwak’s Strategy, The Logic of War and Peace)

“…the art of the dialectics of wills that use force to resolve their conflict.” 

Paul Van Riper, LtGen, USMC, Ret, Infinity Journal, Volume 2, Issue 3, Summer 2012

“…strategy is specifically about linking military actions to a nation’s policy goals, and ensuring the selected military ways and means achieve the policy ends in the manner that leaders intend.”

From John Boyd’s Strategic Game of ?And?

What is strategy?

A mental tapestry of changing intentions for harmonizing and focusing our efforts as a basis for realizing some aim or purpose in an unfolding and often unforeseen world of many bewildering events and many contending interests.

What is the aim or purpose of strategy?

To improve our ability to shape and adapt to unfolding circumstances, so that we (as individuals or as groups or as a culture or as a nation?state) can survive on our own terms. (emphasis added)

Our own Lynn Rees

Politics is the division of strength. Strategy, its tool, squares drive, reach, and grip while striving for a certain division of strength.

Drive falls between too weak and too strong. Reach falls between too short and too far. Grip falls between too loose and too tight.

How strategy squares the three is open ended and ongoing. Outside friction, deliberate or not, always conspires with inside friction, intentional or not, to keep things interesting for strategy.

Drive is the certainty you want. Reach is the certainty you try. Grip is the certainty you get. Grip can be a little sway over certain minds. It can be big hurt carved in flesh and thing. Amid uncertainty, strategy strives for certain grip. The varying gulf between certain want, uncertain try, and not certain getting is the father of strategy.


Paradoxically, complexity is easy to design.  Colin S. Gray, The Strategy Bridge, page 25

All of these definitions have merit, and most coalesce around: power, conflicting wills, violence, and control. Lynn recently had a post on “Grip” where he offers a guide to physically grasp strategy (I do admire his imagery). Admiral Eccles also has a similar and complementary list:

A strategic concept is best expressed in explicit statements of

What to control,

What is the purpose of this control,

What is the nature of the control,

What degree of control is necessary,

When the control is to be initiated,

How long the control is to be maintained,

What general method or scheme of control is to be used. (page 48)

Both of these lists are unambiguous. (One of the biggest complaints about Air-Sea Battle and A2/AD is the ambiguity. Sam Tangredi wrote a book on the latter which I’ll review soon.) Bernard Brodie in A Layman’s Guide to Naval Strategy, page 14-15 (emphasis added), reminds us:

There is no need for a complicated terminology. However, to say that the basic principles of war are easy to understand is not to say that it is easy to comprehend the finer points, or what is more important, to determine upon a wise plan of strategy and then carry it out. The great commander must of course have a profound insight into all the ramifications of strategic principle, but that is only the first requirement of military leadership. He must thoroughly understand tactics, which with modern arms is bound to be exceedingly complex and require long training and experience. He must know how to solve problems of supply or “logistics,” he must know human nature, and he must have certain qualities of character and personality which transcend mere knowledge. He must be able to stick to his course despite a thousand distractions and yet be sufficiently elastic to recognize when a change in circumstances demands a change in plan. He must above all be able to make adjustments to the inevitable shocks and surprises of war.

Unfortunately, the very preoccupation of commanders with specific and inevitably complex problems sometimes tends to make them impatient with the age old verities. Long-tested doctrines which are utterly simple are rejected in part because of their very simplicity, and in part too because of the dogma of innovation so prevalent in our age. The French High Command in the summer of 1940 found out too late that the side which carries the ball makes the touchdowns, and that all the maxims of great military leaders of the past relative to the merits of initiative had not been outmoded by modern arms. We live in an age when basic theories of naval warfare are being rejected out of hand by responsible officials on the wholly unwarranted assumption that they do not fit modern conditions. One can say about theory what Mahan said about materiel: “It is possible to be too quick in discarding as well as too slow in adopting.”

There’s a lot to digest in those two paragraphs, but one take away is that whatever the Navy presents as a strategy should be easy to understand and explain. The strategy should also explain how it plans to maintain control or “command the seas.” And finally, as Wylie reminds the planner:

Wylie’s assumptions in a General Theory of War:

Despite whatever effort to prevent it, there will be war

The aim of war is some measure of control over the enemy

We cannot predict with certainty the pattern of the war for which we prepare ourselves

The ultimate determinate in war is the man on the scene with a gun

As we build our strategies and plans, these decidedly old-fashioned and many cases very simple guides can help us get it right.

Boyd and Beyond Local DC Event

Tuesday, December 18th, 2012

[by J. Scott Shipman]

Jim Hasik’s White Board Outline


At the suggestion of Adam Elkus, we were privileged to host our first “local” Boyd and Beyond event on 15 December. We had 14 attend, and five speakers. Logistically, we turned our family room in to a fairly comfortable briefing area, using a wall with Smart Sheets as a temporary white board. In keeping with our October events, we took up a collection and had pizza delivered for lunch. Coffee, soft drinks light snacks were provided. Each speaker was allotted 50 minutes, but given the participation of the audience, most talks lasted about 90 minutes. I should emphasize to those planning one of these events, to keep a lean speaker’s list, as the Q&A and discussion can easily double the time of a presentation—-and I believe all who attended would agree the comments/discussion made already great presentations even better.

My sincere thanks go out to my wife and partner, Kristen, for making this event look easy! She was the one who made sure everything was moving along and that folks felt at home. I would encourage others around the country to schedule and hold events through the year. We’re looking to do another in March 2013.

Our speakers were:

Jim Hasik, Beyond Hagiography: Problems of Logic and Evidence in the Strategic Theories of John Boyd

Francis Park, The Path to Maneuver Warfare in the U.S. Marine Corps

Robert Cantrell,  Which Card Will You Play?

Terry Barnhart, Designing and Implementing Maneuver Strategy in Transforming Major Organizations

Marshall Wallace, Theories of Change and Models of Prediction

I led off with a few comments on the military professional and intellectual rigor. I recommended the best book I’ve read this year: Inventing Grand Strategy and Teaching Command, by Jon Tetsuro Sumida, and the challenges he suggests in the realm of intellectual rigor. He writes:

“It remains to be seen whether readers exist with the mind and will to accept his guidance on what necessarily is an arduous intellectual and moral voyage into the realm of war and politics.” (emphasis added)

I followed with the example from An Unknown Future and a Doubtful Present: Writing the Victory Plan of 1941, by Charles E. Kirkpatrick. Mr. Kirkpatrick’s little book provides an excellent primer to the formulation of the United States’ WWII strategy and a refreshing insight into the education of an master strategist, then Major Albert C. Wedemeyer, attached to the War Plans Division, the Army chief of staff’s strategic planners, who wrote the Army strategy for WWII in 90 days. (read the review here) I suggested that military professionals should start something akin to a book club, where they can discuss and debate strategic issues and concept.

Following my comments, Jim Hasik offered his critique of John Boyd’s work. Adam tweeted that we were a “tough crowd,” but Jim was able to discuss his misgivings with respect to Boyd’s work and a lively discussion got us started. For those unfamiliar, Jim is the author of a paper called, Beyond Hagiography, which generated controversy in the Boydian community following this year’s October event at Quantico. (reviewed here and at zenpundit.comHere is a link to the paper. (see Hasik’s white board outline above).

According to Hasik, Boyd erred when extrapolating from physical processes/science to social processes. He reviewed Boyd’s use of science in his essay, Destruction and Creation, and suggested no literal correlation between Clausius’ Second Law of Thermodynamics (entropy), Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, and Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle and human behavior (on this I concur with Hasik, as analogy or metaphor these scientific principles enlighten).  Hasik asked if OODA scales from air-to-air combat to large scale events, and whether OODA was original (compared to PDCA, for example). One point that generated quite a bit of discussion was whether one could “like” Clausewitz or Sun Tzu and Boyd. Hasik questioned whether Boyd’s work should be judged as social science, history, or war studies, and suggested that further work was needed to fill in the gaps in his work. In October, someone suggested Boyd needed a “Plato,” someone to address Boyd’s work with less emphasis on science (as in Osinga’s book), thereby making Boyd’s work more accessible. The Strassler model was suggested; Strassler is an “unaffiliated scholar” who has written exhaustively referenced versions of ThucydidesHerodotus, and Arrian. [personal note: I believe a Strassler-like book on Boyd’s ideas would be a great resource] A great thought-provoking conversation.

Francis Park’s White Board


Francis Park’s talk on on maneuver warfare, the evidence of history began with “I’m a historian and I have a problem.” The irony wasn’t lost on the audience, as Francis is an active duty Army officer, speaking on the history of the USMC’s adoption of maneuver warfare (MW). Park called the Marine Corps “the most Darwinian of the services.” The venue for for the Corps discussion between MW advocates, and the “attritionists” was the Marine Corps Gazette. This venue was “unofficial,” otherwise the debate may have never happened. The Gazette’s forward-thinking editor made space and encouraged the debate, which was a “long, bitter, and complex fight.”

Park listed and discussed the champions of MW Michael D. Wyly, G.I. Wilson, William Woods, William Lind, and Alfred M. Gray. Park recommended Fideleon Damian’s master’s thesis, THE ROAD TO FMFM 1: THE UNITED STATES MARINE CORPS AND MANEUVER WARFARE DOCTRINE, 1979-1989. (Adam Elkus recommended Eric Walters essay in the Small Wars Journal, titled Fraud or Fuzziness? Dissecting William Owen’s Critique of Maneuver Warfare.)

Park called the USMC adoption of MW a “confluence of fortune” that may have never happened without the vigorous efforts of proponents.

Robert Cantrell’s Which Card Will You Play? was an instructive and interactive example of Robert’s strategy cards. Cantrell has two decks of strategy playing cards, one devoted to strategy, the other to sales strategy. The user’s guide is at www.artofwarcards.com.

Robert provided examples of how the cards are used to spark strategic thought and ideas. Volunteers pulled first one, then two cards from the decks, and read aloud and commented on how the statement(s) on the cards could be used in practice. For example, “Muddy The Water To Hide the Nets” was drawn (the 8 of clubs, a bit more on card suits from Robert below). The “strategy” is to “confuse your adversary so he cannot perceive your intentions. The “Basis” is “Confused adversaries make mistakes they would not make if they grasped your intentions.”

Longtime friend of this blog, Fred Leland at Law Enforcement Security Consulting is using the cards with success. Fred’s goal is “to get cops thinking more strategically and tactically in their work. I have been pulling a card from the deck and writing my thoughts and sharing them with cops who have been passing them along to their officers.” He is using Robert’s cards for “in-service” training, and providing a low cost entry into strategic thinking.

I followed up with Robert and asked for an explanation of the card suits. Here is his response:

Hi Scott – although they are gray delineations, the Hearts are oriented on the shaping self, the Clubs on shaping the field of contest…the diamonds are isolation strategies, and the spades are elimination strategies. This is the wolf pattern on the hunt: wolf becomes all the wolf it can be, shapes the hunt, isolates a member from the heard, brings that member down. With aces high – and again also gray – the higher cards tend to be strategies used from a greater abundance of strength and the lower numbers from comparative weakness in strength. Of course from here we can talk about gaining relative advantage if we cannot have absolute advantage to gain strength for a critical moment…and so on

Terry Barnhart spoke on Boydian organizational applications in a talk called Designing and Implementing Maneuver Strategy in Transforming Major Organizations. Terry said any organizational change had to be accomplished on the realms of the moral, mental, and the physical. With that in mind, he advised mapping the social networks of the organization and speaking in “the language of the culture” and “asking for what you need” when attempting to transformation. The end goal is “aligned autonomy,” and Terry’s recommended method of choice is taken from Boyd’s Patterns of Conflict,Slide 80:

Patterns of Conflict, Slide 80


Search out the “surfaces and gaps”, as reference from Slide 86, POC. In Boyd’s language:

•Present many (fast breaking) simultaneous and sequential happenings to generate confusion and disorder—thereby stretch-out time for adversary to respond in a directed fashion.

•Multiply opportunities, to uncover, create, and penetrate gaps, exposed flanks, and vulnerable rears. [emphasis added]

Create and multiply opportunities to splinter organism and envelop disconnected remnants thereby dismember adversary thru the tactical, grand tactical, and strategic levels. [emphasis added]

In Terry’s words, “be everywhere at once” and establish relationships that result in buy-in, avoiding “no,” as Terry advised it can take a couple of years to overcome an objection. As aligned autonomy is reached, word will get around about the successes, and all of sudden what was a single agent of change becomes a movement. So Terry is recommending methods in maneuver warfare as a method in transforming organization culture.

During Terry’s talk, Dave recommended Orbiting the Giant Hairball, by Gordon MacKenzie as a guide in navigating the bureaucracy and obstacles often found in large organizations.

Marshall Wallace’s White Board


Marshall Wallace’s Theories of Change and Models of Prediction was our final presentation. Marshall has emerged as one of the leading thinkers among Boydeans. Wallace said, “people are lazy” as he led off his discussion of change models. [personal note: I’ve come to refer to this laziness as “neurological economy”] His thinking was influence by Daniel Kaneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow and the Heath brother’s Switch: How to Change Things when Change is Hard. When change is desired, clarity is an absolute must have. Wallace offered the four models above as example of change. He said we must ask: “What is the change we want to see?” and ” What are the pre-conditions?”—instead of this model, most people begin with the idea, which more often than not, fails.

Wallace walked our group through the models and emphasized the importance of tempo and used his wife’s efforts to establish dog parks in their city. Everything in government has a process, and Wallace said in this case “going slower than the politicians” paid off. Also, for programs of change, it is best if there is 100% transparency of goals. Both Marshall and Terry recommended a book called The Progress Principle, by Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer. The most powerful model for me was the one in the lower right corner—particular the use of “more people” and “key” people in any effort to affect change.

Post meeting, Wallace posted the following to our Facebook group wall, that rounds out and expands his thinking:

I was on the plane back to Boston yesterday morning, deeply engrossed in Terry’s book [Creating a Lean R&D System] when a phrase leapt into my head: “Target the whole organism”.

As the Michaels in our lives (Moore and Polanyi) remind us, “we know more than we can say”. I feel that quite clearly and I constantly struggle with language. I am never satisfied with any presentation I give because I know that, due to failures on my part to use the perfect word at the right moment, I left some understanding on the table.

Somehow the weekend, with spectacular conversation, a good night’s sleep, the enforced idleness of air travel, and Terry’s superb book, shook something loose.

Target the whole organism.

What flashed through my mind at that moment were pieces of the talks.

Jim prompted discussion of what the next set of books about/on/adding to Boyd should look like.

Francis drew a pie wedge with “firepower” on one edge of the pie and “maneuver” on the other. He was describing two schools of thought on conflict as represented by these extremes. Everybody seemed to agree that the balance lay somewhere in the middle and was definitely related to the context.

Robert’s exercises with his strategy decks shook countless examples of strategic action and insight loose in our minds. The combination of cards, taking one from each of the competition and collaboration decks, was especially exciting.

Terry laid out his plan to blitzkrieg his company, and invited us to make it better.

I ended with a 4-cell matrix demonstrating the four basic categories under which all Theories of Change operate (more on this later). Experience has shown that most people operate out of an implicit Theory that traps them in one quadrant, whereas social change only occurs if all four quadrants are affected.

Target the whole organism.

I got home and opened up “The Strategic Game of ? and ?”. Interaction and Isolation.

Firepower and maneuver – at the same time. Competition and collaboration at the same time.

Boyd side-by-side with his sources and several commentators. CEO, discouraged middle-managers, and the line at the same time. More People and Key People at both the individual level and the structural level all at the same time.

Target the whole organism.

A force that uses maneuver to confuse and firepower to destroy will dominate. A force that can swing rapidly between extremes and also find balance is even more slippery than one that acknowledges the “necessary” balance. The two practices can be in separate parts of the battlespace (context matters), but because both are occurring, the confusion generated may well be more intense. It looks as though the force is two distinct armies and communication among the enemy may be unintelligible because the threats being faced are so different.

Bringing collaborative concepts into competitive spaces or vice versa while not abandoning the underlying logic of the space opens up more options, challenges notions, and expands horizons. Can we interact and isolate at the same time? What does that snowmobile look like?

If we want to effect social change, we need to target the whole system. We can sequence our efforts in time, though we can’t forget to move as quickly as the circumstances allow. At the same time, every effort must be connected to the whole organism.

The target is not the target. I do not aim at the eye of the fish. I don’t wan’t to hit the bullseye.

I want to pick up the whole madding crowd of intense archers, cynical kings, and wildly cheering spectators and move them.

This was the first “local” event, and based on the response, we’ll be doing these a few times a year. Many thanks to all who participated, and Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to  you all!

UPDATE: Dave shared these with our group. Francis said, “We live and die by bumper stickers.” Here is a good example:


Here is Dave’s interpretation of the Sufi elephant:




Cross-posted at To Be or To Do.

Inventing Grand Strategy and Teaching Command, The Classic Works of Alfred Thayer Mahan Reconsidered, a review

Tuesday, September 4th, 2012

[by J. Scott Shipman]

Inventing Grand Strategy and Teaching Command, by Jon Tetsuro Sumida

As of August 2012 this is the best non-fiction book I’ve read this year. Professor Sumida brings a potentially dry topic to life making Alfred Thayer Mahan relevant in the process; as indeed, he should. At a mere 117 pages of moderately footnoted text, Sumida provides the reader a grand tour of Mahan’s life work, not just The Influence of Sea Power 1660-1983. Sumida includes the major works of Alfred Thayer Mahan’s (ATM) father Dennis Hart Mahan, as he introduces ATM’s major works, lesser works, biographies, essays, and criticisms.

Sumida begins his chapters with quotes, and weaves his recounting of ATM’s work with musical performance, Zen enlightenment, and naval command; which is quite a combination, but convincing. Of ATM’s “approach to naval grand strategy” he writes:

Mahan believed the security of a large and expanding system of international trade in the twentieth century would depend upon the creation of a transnational consortium of naval power. His handling of the art and science of command, on the other hand, was difficult, complex, and elusive. It is helpful, therefore, to achieve an introductory sense of its liminal character by means of analogy.

This is where musical performance and Zen enlightenment become relevant and instructive. Sumida writes on musical performance:

Teaching musical performance…poses three challenges: improving art, developing technique, and attending to their interaction.

Sumida goes on to illustrate the parallels between learning musical performance and naval command/strategy and the common thread is performing or, “doing it.” He writes that most musical instruction is through the understudy watching demonstrations by the master, but the higher purpose of replicating the master’s work is “to gain a sense of the expressive nature of an act that represents authentically a human persona.” In other words, the development of relevant tacit knowledge, or as I have come to refer to this as “tacit insight.”

Sumida continues with six short chapters that pack a powerful punch and a good introduction to the trajectory of Mahan’s work from the beginning to end. My favorite was Chapter Six, The Uses of History and Theory. In this chapter Sumida deals with complexity, contingency, change, and contradiction, naval supremacy in the Twentieth Century, Jomini, Clausewitz, and command and history. Quite a line-up, but a convincing inventory of Mahan’s influences and how his work remains relevant today. Sumida writes:

Mahan’s role as a pioneer and extender of the work of others has been widely misunderstood and thus either ignored or misused. The general failure to engage his thought accurately is in large part attributable to the complexity of his exposition, the difficulties inherent in his methods of dealing with several forms of contingency, changes in his position on certain major issues, and his contradictory predictions about the future and application of strategic principles…His chief goal, however, was to address difficult questions that were not susceptible to convincing elucidation through simple reasoning by analogy. He thus viewed history less as a ready-made instructor than a medium that had to be worked by the appropriate intellectual tools.. Mahan’s analytical instruments of choice were five kinds of argument: political, political-economic, governmental, strategic, and professional.

The first three were used in grand naval strategy, the latter two with the “art and science of command.” The section of Command and History is particularly relevant given two recent posts, one at the USNI Blog, The Wisdom of a King, by CDR Salamander, and the other in a September 2012 Proceedings article by LCDR B.J.Armstrong, Leadership & Command. Here’s why: Sumida quotes Admiral Arleigh Burke, who latter became Chief of Naval Operations, during WWII. Of “Decentraliztion,” Burke wrote:

…means we offer officers the opportunity to rise to positions of responsibility, of decision, of identity and stature—if they want it, and as soon as they can take it.

We believe in command, not staff. We believe we have “real” things to do. The Navy believes in putting a man in a position with a job to do, and let him do it—give him hell if he does not perform—but be a man in his own name. We decentralize and capitalize on the capabilities of our individual people rather than centralize and make automatons of them. This builds that essential element of pride of service and sense of accomplishment.

The U.S. Navy could do worse than return to this “father” of naval strategy and give his ideas more attention; Professor Sumida’s little book would be a good place to start.

Strongest recommendation—particularly to active duty Navy personnel.

Cross-posted at To Be or To Do.

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