Learning War by Trent Hone

Learning WarLearning War by Trent Hone

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Disclosure: I am retired Navy and worked in my career with all of the other services – years, not just a weekend, in case there is a question. I have seen how they operate and I’ve experienced how the Navy operates and the Navy of my career benefited and embodied the learned lessons Mr. Hone expertly captures in this book. While this focuses on the operational elements of warfighting, the culture is embraced throughout all areas of the Navy. I was in a staff corps (Civil Engineer Corps) and experienced the strategic planning, learning and adaptations necessary to evolve in a modern world that the warfighting Navy has to respond to at an accelerating pace.

This is detailed, specific history with deep dives into the Naval War College (and education in general), creating a professional officer corps, gunnery improvements, tactical changes necessary with the evolution of warfare between the world wars, creation and development of the Combat Information Center and the lessons learned from the victories in the Pacific. Hone talks about the officers that effected changes when needed: William Sims, William Pratt, Chester Nimitz, Ernest King, “Bull” Halsey, Raymond Spruance.

To many notes to summarize… Some nuggets:
Vice Admiral William Sims’ instructions to his new command, American Naval Forces in Europe, March 1917, the first being “the concept of a mission and general plan to focus the attention of subordinates on critical objectives, promote mutual understanding, and foster individual initiative:”

It is manifestly impossible for the Commander of the operation to give detailed instructions in advance that will cover all emergencies; it is equally impossible for the Commander of an operation to give these instructions on the spot to meet adequately a local situation suddenly developed. Hence the importance of having the immediate Mission and General Plan clearly understood in advance, and the necessity for leaving as wide an area of discretion to subordinates as possible

and the second

No officer should fail to exercise his initiative and judgment in support of the General Plan when confronted by unexpected conditions.”

Train to think on the spot. Obvious flexibility …within the structure of command. That may be self-evident now, but understand that warfare in the 19th century played by different rules. (And even in the early 21st century, every Army officer I worked with below the rank of Colonel seemed to have to ask their CO for permission to do things. Still stuns me to this day that a titled Officer in Charge had to “ask my Colonel” if it was okay for me to change out the batteries in their communications backup power supply – the Navy encourages its junior officers to make decisions.)

Hone observes several times that the Navy, as it developed solutions, and doctrine, “avoided prematurely converging on any specific approach”, leaving options open to modify doctrines as required. With respect to weapons systems, Hone said the “Navy avoided a common problem for organizations pursuing innovation: premature convergence. [Yes, same words] It did not attempt to identify a ‘good’ approach quickly; instead, it allowed time for an excellent approach to emerge from the collective work of many individuals.” I have mixed thoughts on that. I agree in principle, but 25 years of engineering thinking have taught me that sometimes close enough is not only good enough, it can be preferred to “excellent”. An “analysis paralysis” is a real thing, to be also avoided.

Minor catch: I like that Hone took a different perspective on the common position of the battle of Midway being “the turning point of the war in the Pacific; less a “turning point” than an opportunity to take the initiative.

Final paragraph of Hone’s conclusion, he notes that when evaluating a variety of potential solutions simultaneously in a combat situation, failures were “the subject of harsh – and deserved – criticism.” And this:

However, without the possibility of failure, evolvability would not have been preserved, Those early setbacks were essential to ensuring later successes.

Tom Peters, a favored thinker of mine, said innovation should have us fail often, but fail fast. Not ideal when counting war losses, but sometimes unavoidable. The vision is that evolution is necessary to remain vital.

Other observations:
Some of the technical elements described (a range projector, for instance) could have used illustrative photographs.

Some of the writing came off as elitist academia … think Alan Sokal and the post-modern hoax. I am a fan and when appropriate, a practitioner, of concise writing. I am also a fan and practitioner of accessible writing. But those parts do not take away from the excellent work of this book.

Excellent book. I have never read a Naval Institute Press publication that was not excellent. (That’s not to say there aren’t any, but I’ve never read any!)

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