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Lind on “the Navy’s Intellectual Seppuku”

William Lind had a very important piece regarding an extraordinarily ill-considered move by the Navy brass:

The Navy Commits Intellectual Seppuku 

The December, 2013 issue of the Naval Institute’s Proceedings contains an article, “Don’t Say Goodbye to Intellectual Diversity” by Lt. Alexander P. Smith, that should receive wide attention but probably won’t. It warns of a policy change in Navy officer recruiting that adds up to intellectual suicide. Lt. Smith writes, “Starting next year, the vast majority of all NROTC graduates will be STEM majors (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) with minimal studies in the humanities … As a result of the new policy, a high school senior’s best chance of obtaining a Navy scholarship is to apply for Tiers 1 and 2 (engineering, hard sciences, and math), since CNO guidance specifies that not less than 85 percent of incoming officers will come from this restricted pool.”

….The engineering way of thinking and the military way of thinking are not merely different. They are opposites. Engineering, math, and other sciences depend on analysis of hard data. Before you make a decision, you are careful to gather all the facts, however long that may take. The facts are then carefully analyzed, again without much regard for the time required. Multiple actors check and re-check each others’ work. Lowest-common-denominator, committee-consensus decisions are usually the safest course. Anything that is not hard data is rejected. Hunches have no place in designing a bridge.

Making military decisions in time of war could not be more different. Intuition, educated guessing, hunches, and the like are major players. Hard facts are few; most information is incomplete and ambiguous, and part of it is always wrong, but the decision-maker cannot know how much or which parts. Creativity is more important than analysis. So is synthesis: putting parts together in new ways. Committee-consensus, lowest-common-denominator decisions are usually the worst options. Time is precious, and a less-than-optimal decision now often produces better results than a better decision later. Decisions made by one or two people are often preferable to those with many participants. There is good reason why Clausewitz warned against councils of war.

Read the whole thing here.

Rarely have I seen Lind more on target than in this piece.

Taking a rank-deferential, strongly hierarchical organization and by design making it more of a closed system intellectually and expecting good things to happen should disqualify that person from ever being an engineer because they are clearly too dumb to understand what resilience and feedback are. Or second and third order effects.

STEM, by the way, is not the problem. No one should argue for an all-historian or philosopher Navy either. STEM is great. Engineers can bring a specific and powerful kind of problem solving framework to the table. The Navy needs a lot of smart engineers.

It is just that no smart engineer would propose to do this because the negative downstream effects of an all-engineer institutional culture for an armed service are self-evident.

5 Responses to “Lind on “the Navy’s Intellectual Seppuku””

  1. Nathaniel T. Lauterbach Says:

    This is symptomatic of the quantitative revolution and also of imperial decline.
    Now that more and more aspects of our lives are interfaced by computers, humans have the problem of interfacing reality to those machines.  That, combined with bureaucracy’s tenancy to be risk-averse, creates a system where human beings are no longer quite human, but instead are beings with credentials.  These credentials take the form of degrees awarded at university, qualifications, course completion certificates, and other forms of tokens, documentation, etc.  The perverse effect is that people are no longer really treated as people.  Rather, they are walking, talking credentials that do credentialist things.
    So, in my personal experience, I am not a merely Marine Officer.  I am a graduate of various MOS-producing schools and non-MOS producing schools.  I am a walking, talking being holding various “qualifications”, “combat leader designations”, “instructor designations”, and “certifications.”  Because my mix of “quals”, “designations” and “certs” is quite unique, it’s more difficult to swap me out for another person–and that’s the thing that generates job security for me and value for the system–not the missions I accomplish, at least from an HR point of view.
    The scary part of all of this is that it has the tendency to create masses of people who are striving Amy Chua-style to be the next super-credentialist.  This means that people are all striving to be the same ideal.  That’s fine with pursuits in areas where emulating an ideal leads to fitness in whatever ecosystem you inhabit.  But war is funny.  The enemy doesn’t care that he’s fighting a Weapons and Tactics Instructor with every qual and designation in the book.  He cares only about the lead that you sling at him.  Slinging lead is a function of tactics, technology, leadership, logistics, information, and luck.  Not quals, certs, or designations.
    Put another way, if quals, certs, and designations did matter, then I would merely print my most recent MSHARP training and readiness report. (MSHARP is the computer system used in Marine aviation which translates individual quals and designations into unit readiness for reporting to higher headquarters.)  I would then hand that report over to the enemy.  He would do the same with me.  Whoever was the most qualified would win.  Not a shot would be fired.  Except that war doesn’t doesn’t work like that.
    So, bringing this back to big Navy–you are seeing the navy make a big mistake in succumbing to the quantitative revolution.  Perhaps one day they’ll realize that technological things which require more or less technical mastery do matter, and that it’s good to have people who are inclined in such things.  But it’s probably also worthwhile to have somebody who knows a thing or two about Marathon (ancient history) or Jutland (also considered to be ancient history).  Or maybe a leader who understands rhetoric and argument who is able to be the basis for naval alliances.  Or even having a guy who knows a thing or two about Stoic philosophy and is able to build a small civilization inside a POW camp.  (For the unread, looks up Stockdale)
    So maybe it’s a good idea to have an HR policy in the navy where engineering is favored but not to the point of discrimination?  Just saying.
    As for my imperial decline argument, credentialism is also a function of that, too.  The Soviet nomenklatura system, the North Korea Songbun system, or even the reforms of Diocletian are all symptomatic of societies that are in decline, and, as a stopgap to that decline, they enforce various “standards”.  This increased regimentation of thought and action usually limits decline in the short run, but leads to brittleness and ossification in the long run.  Which isn’t good.

  2. Ed Beakley Says:

    I pretty much disagree with almost everything Lind said accept that diversity is important… but seriously ??? diversity in a career Naval Officer is heavily dependent upon an engineering degree or something else??? Does anyone really believe that undergraduate engineers sit around and ponder more data, more data, I won’t be able to think, or do anything without more data. The sky is falling, the sky is falling!!! I would submit that Lind’s comment about the engineering education world compared to the military world is 100% wrong.  I agree with the previous commenter, but Lind is classifying engineering degrees with a slide rule/pocket protector cartoon.

    And please note Lind said the Navy was mandating 85%… that’s a big misquote… the article said 65%!!!  Given the nature of sea, air, and undersea warfare, I’d say that’s about right. I’d disagree with the higher number but 65% being suicide??? Paleeeeze give my a… a break.
     Have we gotten ourselves into some bad places here with technology.. F-35 being best example? Yeah, verily! But putting that on engineering degrees out of NROTC is horrible logic.. it’s really a bull shit line.  And the Boyd story has nothing to do with the real issue.While I’ve been away from NROTC for a long time, I know we had at least that number of engineers. Quite a few went Nuke.So let’s look at the submarine community. I’m no Rickover fan but no matter what you think about China and ASB, subs will play a huge role. You won’t get a chance to be the next Eugene Flucky if you can’t get the boat to the fight. Nuke power school is tough and damn well ought to be. No engineering knowledge NO Von C from the sea.One learns the art of war on the job with experience after experience…after 4 years of anything in college. Engineering is nice because it teaches problem solving…I completely reject the idea that being educated as an engineer locks one’s mind into long data, data, data decision making. I’d add that getting the techy background up front is a lot easier than going back to school later.  The broader education reading learning comes best with experience and should go on for a life time.

    Lind’s approach to comparing engineering minds/education and warfare is silly at best.  Dog don’t hunt.   Maybe the worst thing I’ve seen from him rather than the best. (And again, I completely agree with the above comment, but that’s not what Lind is talking about to my reading)

  3. larrydunbar Says:

    “….The engineering way of thinking and the military way of thinking are not merely different. They are opposites.”

    I really don’t think that is true. It’s more like Ed Beakley says in his comment. If both minds have the same orientation, then they both have the same chance of thinking in the same way. 

    “Hunches have no place in designing a bridge.” 

    I also don’t believe that hunches don’t have a place in designing a bridge. They do, and there are probably just as many spectacular wins and losses because of hunch in engineering as there is in a military campaign. 

    On the other hand, my hunch is that Lind has got this about right. Maybe not completely right, but there is something changing strategically in the navy and he is very aware of this change. It could be that a shrinking navy does not scale the same as the navy today, and this rule-set reset is an attempt at scaling, as an example. As I have said before, I don’t think China wants to fight the U.S. Navy, it wants to replace it. To accomplish this the U.S. Navy needs to re-scale itself. Maybe this is a work in progress. After all, if you are going to let a military spend itself to death, you don’t want it to end up weak, only smaller in scale.

  4. Grurray Says:

    In my view this is a reflection of the age old struggle between far power and near power,
    or, if you prefer, maneuver and attrition.
    The more scientists and engineers they have, the smoother things will run when they replace everything and everybody with missiles, drones, and robots, and trillion dollar fighter-bomber-motherships.
    “The first are inward-focused, rule-bound, risk-averse, and bureaucratic. The outward-focused, improvisational risk-takers who hate bureaucracy and embrace Verantwortungsfreudigkeit—joy in making decisions and taking responsibility—are usually drawn to the humanities.”
    One thing I’ve noticed about some of Boyd’s boys is the all or nothing attitude. It strikes me as curious indeed that disciples of someone who was such a strong advocate of anti-dogmatic, flexible evolutionary heuristics would be so rigid in their thinking.
    Like Larry says, there is room for creativity in any and all fields, just as there are also plenty of sticks in the mud all over the map.
    Zen, you’re probably familiar with Ken Robinson. Creativity can be cultivated. It isn’t dependent on genetic qualifications. There are no social restrictions.
    The real solution is to jettison backward thinking and outmoded initiative-killing stereotypes like Lind’s.

  5. T. Greer Says:

    I think I am actually on the Navy’s side on this one.
    Writing up a post with the data to explain why.

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