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History as a Gen Ed Credit for Engineering Students Aspiring to Naval Leadership

Tuesday, February 15th, 2011


As a rule, I generally do not write about US Navy affairs because it is not an area of expertise for me and I think Galrahn covers that territory admirably well without my poor help. Every so often though, an item from our sea-roving friends catches my eye that I am qualified to speak about and today is one of those days.

Teaching naval history has become an inconvenience to those entrusted with training our nation’s future captains and admirals because they need to get the budgetarily “sexy” topic of “cyber warfare” into the US Naval Academy curriculum. Yes, that’s right. Because someday, in the midst of battle, the combatant commander of PACOM will be furiously barking out HTML code at the bridge of the Eisenhower, above the cries of wounded men.

Gentlemen, gentlemen….in matters of education, fundamentals come before esoterica!

I strongly recommend this post by LCDR Benjamin “BJ” Armstrong, historian, pilot and Navy officer who tackled this subject with an enviable grace and eloquence at the USNI blog:


….More than policy or naval strategy, Mahan believed in teaching officers the best ways to approach the challenges of command.  He saw his job as a Naval War College plankowner in those terms, about teaching command, and to do so he turned to history.  But, it wasn’t just senior officers who needed grounding in our naval past.  He wrote in his very first published article, winning third place in “Proceedings” annual essay contest, that history was also a key foundation for learning at the Naval Academy.

When he said that history “lies at the foundation,” it wasn’t just a convenient turn of phrase.  He believed that before subjects like gunnery, engineering, or even cyber-warfare, could be taught a Midshipman needed to know why he was learning them.  Why did any of it matter?  The best way to show a student why hitting the target in gunnery class was important was to teach him the history that showed what happened when crews weren’t drilled properly.  Perhaps he would teach the Midshipman about Captain James Lawrence sailing Chesapeake out of Boston harbor with a green and undrilled crew in 1813 to face HMS Shannon, a short time later uttering his final command, “Don’t give up the ship” just before he succumbed to his wounds and the British boarding party swarmed aboard in victory.  Maybe the Midshipman would recognize the words…from the battle flag bearing the phrase in Memorial Hall that was flown at the Battle of Lake Erie.  Mahan felt that once a Midshipman understood the importance of mastering the craft, of studying their trade, a subject like weapons systems engineering would become important even to the lowly humanities major.

The second part of Mahan’s statement is also important, “all sound military conclusions and practices.”  In our age of checklist leadership and officers educated as engineers there is a desire to approach leadership challenges as equations where certain inputs are guaranteed to give you the desired results.  But Mahan doesn’t say all “correct” military conclusions and practices, he says “sound.”

Mahan recognized that both naval strategy (conclusions) and combat leadership (practices) were art, not science.  In his book “Naval Strategy: Compared and Contrasted with the Principles and Practice of Military Operations on Land,” published in 1911, Mahan compared naval officers to artists.  He wrote that artists had to learn certain techniques, mediums and certain skills, but that wasn’t what made their artwork great.  In the end “art, out of materials which it finds about, creates new forms in endless variety,” artists take those foundation basics and then mix and match them based on inspiration and experience to create a masterpiece.  History helps us understand that frequently there are no right answers to military questions of strategy or leadership.  There are only “sound conclusions,” which are drawn from understanding basics and history.  Demonstrating this great truth to Midshipman early in their education, say as a Plebe before they have taken three years worth of engineering classes that teach them there is always an equation and a correct answer, is much more valuable than having them learn it after years of service.


This decison is wrong on so many levels it amounts to pedagogical malpractice. It should be reversed.

What kind of mind do we want our Navy officers to have in the moment of decision?  An admiral in command of a carrier task force has more destructive power at his disposal than any man on earth except for the ruler of Russia and the President of the United States. At a crisis point, it is too late to roll back the clock to gain the benefit of a career of professional reading, discussion and reflection on the lessons of naval warfare, strategy and statesmanship. EE courses are good things, and demonstrably useful, but they do not inculcate the same habits of mind as does the learning of history.

Historically, the US Navy was the plenipotentiary service of the United States with it’s admirals and commodores assuming extremely sensitive diplomatic or even proconsular duties alongside their responsibilities of military command. The careers of Farragut, Perry, Dewey, Leahy, King, Nimitz and others of lesser rank attest to how naval command has always been deeply entwined in American history with statesmanship and keen political insight. The 21st century will be no different.

The lessons of history are a sword and shield.

Foreign Policy, Tunisia and the Net

Saturday, January 15th, 2011

[ by Charles Cameron ]

Foreign Policy has had two articles up in the last couple of days with somewhat similar headlines:

Links: TwitterWikiLeaks

The site which specifically tracks WikiLeaks on Tunisia is TuniLeaks:

My rosette for best tweet of the week goes to Galrahn and all those who RT’d him:

What a world, eh?

Blogfriends on the Make

Thursday, April 16th, 2009

Galrahn of Information Dissemination was interviewed by James Joyner and Dave Schuler at OTB Radio. The interview is approximately an hour. 

OTB Radio – Tonight at 7 Eastern 

As usual, Dave Schuler will co-host.  We’ll be joined tonight by Raymond Pritchett, who blogs under the pseudonym Galrahn at Information Dissemination and the United States Naval Institute Blog.  We’ll talk about the Somali pirates, the state of the U.S. Navy, and the Tea Party Protests.


Tom Barnett has a muscular op-ed piece up in Esquire Magazine that is making some waves:

Inside the War Against Robert Gates

….When it came to selling that paradigm shift, Gates didn’t need to convince the military itself – the ascendant Army and Marine corps have suffered enough casualties to have learned it the hard way. And quite honestly, Gates needn’t worry about the defense industry’s willingness to follow the money, because Lockheed Martin and L-3 have been snatching up enough blue-chip companies to prove they can spot the Pentagon’s future funding spigots.

Turns out you can find Gates’s biggest antagonists in the halls of Congress, where the battle cry of “Jobs, jobs, jobs!” echoes the military’s growing embrace of funding for the manpower that’ll keep this counter-insurgency movement as successful as it’s become. So even amidst all this fighting and dying – neither of which is likely to slow down any time soon – the American military’s newest struggle seems to come down to one question: whose economic stabilization package matters more?

Read the rest here.

Is A Weak or “Hollow” State Worse than a Failed State?

Thursday, April 2nd, 2009

Galrahn, writing at USNI Blog about my recent post on Mexico, raised an important question: “Are Weak States a worse outcome from the perspective of U.S. national security than a Failed State?”. Galrahn comes down squarely against the “muddling through” of a weak state:

Failed States Are Worse Than Weak States

….My point would be this: there is no value in the cartels overthrowing the Mexican government because its existence helps them more than its absence helps them.

But this is my larger point. There are currently zero, none, nada 4GW/COIN/Whatever military solutions for failed states; our emerging 4GW/COIN/Whatever doctrines, strategies, and theories only apply for weak states that have legitimate governments that can be supported. Failed states are problems that can be handled, even in an ugly way, by conventional military forces. The danger to US strategic interests is not failed states, as is often claimed, rather the real danger to US strategic interests always comes from weak states.

The ugly truth is, failed states allow for freedom of action by military forces without consequence; weak states do not allow such freedom of military action. Afghanistan before 9/11 was a weak state, not a failed state, thus Al Qaeda operated under the state governance of the Taliban and had top cover to carry out its evil agenda. In Somalia, pirates operate in a failed state, and as a failed state the west has taken military action, including cruise missiles, hostage rescue attempts with special forces, and other military activities without consequence against targets as they have been identified. The danger Somalia poses in the future to US strategic interests is not that Somalia continues as a failed state, rather if it were to become a weak state with a recognized legitimate government strong enough to say, eliminate the pirate threat while still being too weak to prevent the training and development of terrorist cells.

….but because it is a weak state, we face serious and complex diplomatic obsticles in taking freedom of action, even along our own national border. In a failed state, we could do what needed to be done to take out the bad guys. As a weak state, we are far more limited in options, and must account for the legitimate governments perspective a lot more than we would if Mexico was a failed state.

Zenpundit may or may not be right regarding the threat posed by Mexico, but if he believes Mexico as a failed state is more dangerous than a Mexico as a weak state, he is mistaken.

Read the whole post here.

I found Galrahn’s argument to be very intriguing. There’s the issue of Mexico specifically in his post and then Weak States being worse than Failed States as a general rule. First, Mexico:

The thought experiment I penned previously aside, Mexico is not yet a Failed State and I hope it does not become one – though I would not wager a mortgage payment on it staying away from catastrophic failure. Mexico is definitely, in my view, already a Weak State suddenly resisting the process of being “hollowed out”, slowly, by vicious drug cartels. I wish President Calderon well in his efforts to crush the narco networks, but just as America cannot avoid admitting that our drug laws are impacting Mexico severely, let’s not let the fact that Mexico’s ruling oligarchy has also brought this disaster on themselves with their self-aggrandizingly corrupt political economy escape comment.

The crony-capitalist-politico ruling class in Mexico ruthlessly squeezes their poor but ambitious countrymen to emigrate and is too greedy to even invest properly in the very security services that keeps their own state apparatus afloat. Mexico is not a poor country, their GDP is in the same league as that of Australia, India or the Netherlands. Mexico can afford to pay for a professional police, a functioning judiciary and a larger Army at a minimum. On a more reasonable level, Mexico can also afford basic public education and core public services for it’s citizens and could liberalize it’s economy further to stimulate entrepreneurship. They choose not to do so. An elite that stubbornly refuses to reform, even in the interest of self-preservation, is not a group likely to make statesmanlike decisions in the Cartel War.

If Mexico fails, really fails on the order of Lebanon in the 1980’s or Somalia since the 1990’s, Galrahn is correct that the U.S. military would, in the last analysis, have a free hand to do things in Mexico that could not be remotely contemplated today. However the  second and third order effects of a Failed State Mexico are calamitous enough that I’d prefer to skip enjoying that kind of “free hand”. Unless Mexicans have something in their DNA that makes them different from Iraqis, Afghans, Cambodians or Kosovar Albanians, extreme levels of violence in one area will cause them to move to areas of relative safety in another place. Internal displacement will precede external displacement. Elite flight will precede the flight of the masses.

That brings us to the general question of, is a Failed State better or worse than a Weak State whose tattered shreds of international legitimacy prevent robust foreign intervention? I am going to “punt” by inclining toward judging on a case-by-case basis. “Failed State Botswana” is not likely to impact the world very much nor is “Functional State Congo” going to look very good next to anything except Congo as the Failed State that it is. Now “Failed State China” or “Failed State Russia”, that has consequences that are the stuff of nightmares.

What do you say? Which is worse: Weak State or Failed State?


SWJ Blog links to a Washington Post series on the Cartel War

When Old Government Intersects with New Media

Thursday, January 22nd, 2009

Galrahn at Information Dissemination:

Admiral, Do You Tweet Sir?

….In no small part due to a comment in the article by John Nagl, the Small Wars Journal gets an honorable mention in this article as an example where new media is having influence in the national security debate. While it is possible other areas of new media are having a similar effect, I would argue the Small Wars Journal is the exception, not the rule, and is the only place this is happening. What makes the Small Wars Journal unique?Because it is where active and retired members of the military want to debate their ideas, want their opinions in the open source on any given topic, and Dave has tapped into a community that has become comfortable with their ideas debated in an open forum. The Small Wars Journal has the capacity to “help shape the public debate about national security policy” primarily because those involved in the debate have found value participating in the public debate.

As I have noted in the past, each military service has taken a unique approach to new media. The article highlights unique examples where our military leadership has found utility within new media to introduce and discuss their message. I follow all of these discussions, and they have all met the same challenge: the discussion is still one way and while there is a network, it is yet to become a truly interactive network of idea sharing, or just as relevant, idea shaping.

….What is the role of new media in the national security debate? I have asked this question on the blog since I began blogging, and have seen some brilliant answers in my email and in the comments. This CSM article added another slide to a brief I am building that answers this question. I think it is a really good brief, but the question I still haven’t answered is whether the better audience for the brief is the military services, or the think tanks. That John Nagl hasn’t suggested CNAS buy the Small Wars Journal from Dave suggests to me that the think tanks somehow believe the Web 1.0 model they all currently use will somehow stay relevant in the rapidly evolving information age.

Read the rest here.

Very interesting thoughts by Galrahn and I agree with his assessment of the value of SWJ as it evolved under the stewardship of Dave Dilegge and Bill Nagle though I’m not certain SWJ is unique so much as it is  a succcessful “first” because Dave and Bill did everything right. They allowed a community to form from the ground-up without trying to ramrod an ideological agenda. Sure, SWJ is primarily about COIN but opposing views are invited, welcomed, heard and debated because the moderators are honest brokers and that imparts credibility to the entire enterprise. Intellectual integrity begets quality as well as quantity in terms of readership and submissions.

Tradtional think tanks are not set up to do what SWJ does because they come with either ideological baggage (Heritage, Brookings Carnegie) or institutional affiliations (SSI, CNA, Hoover) that preemptively circumscribe membership, discussion and research interests for fear of drying up the revenue stream. Few large donors, be they Uncle Sam, Richard Mellon Scaife or George Soros, are motivated to open their checkbook by the idea of unfettered inquiry and unlimited time horizons or providing a platform to their professional or political opponents. Attempts by official orgs to imitate SWJ will result in costly but sterile echo chambers. Genuine Web 2.0 interactivity is not desired because it is spontaneous and unpredictable but without that interactivity there’s no spark, no insight and no intellectual productivity.

The Obama White House just started a “blog” but despite the sleek visual design, “The Briefing Room” is a very Web 1.0 format. Media expert Jay Rosen of Press Think  on Twitter described it as “press releases” and scanning the posts leads me to agree with him. It’s very hard for established legacy entities – even one now filled with techies – to embrace the risk of uncontrolled discussion. Perhaps the blog should be farmed out to whatever Obama is calling his private political action group; lacking comments or an authentic, personal, voice The Briefing Room is likely to become a tepid EOB version of Dipnote – except even less interesting.

The SWJ Model can be replicated for other fields but the requirements of independence, community-building, intellectual diversity, relative transparency, openness to membership and free debate appear to be non-negotiable elements. Features, not bugs. 

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