Category Archives: Book review

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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The Dance of Leadership: The Art of Leading in Business, Government, and Society by Robert B. Denhardt and Janet Denhardt

The Dance of Leadership: The Art of Leading in Business, Government, and Society: The Art of Leading in Business, Government, and SocietyThe Dance of Leadership: The Art of Leading in Business, Government, and Society by Robert B. Denhardt and Janet Denhardt

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I pulled this from a shelf in my office (leadership books acquired over time, more than a few I’ve not gotten to yet) and had hopes. In the first chapter, the authors observe “we think leading is something people do at all levels of society and in all areas of human endeavor.” While that should be intuitively obvious to the most casual observer, a quick survey of the body of work out there returns a majority targeting traditional leaders and how to improve. I find the best books on leadership are not the academic overwritings of say, Kouzes and Posner, or the annoying parables of Blanchard or Lencioni, but the ones that bring a different perspective, a non-traditional perspective (thus, my hopes). correlating the qualities of good leadership with dance, music and other arts should have been a winner.

To play the hands dealt, this falls short of having any real contribution to the repertoire. There are takeaways, but there is little depth. These are basics, with the difference of anecdotes culled, or more probably created, from the arts world.

Still, here are a few margin notes. Each chapter has four pseudo-anecdotes setting the expectations of the chapter topic. For the chapter titled “The Interplay of Space, Time, and Energy”, one was

An executive, sensing that where she sits in a crowded meeting will make a difference in the way people respond to her, moves instinctively toward the “head” of the table.”

Bad example. Or, rather, good example of an immature (sadly, traditional) leader. “Instinctively” is a problem. Good leaders think about things like that. For me, depends on the purpose of the meeting. If it is my meeting and I don’t want my presence to influence, I’ll sit to the side or back. I’m more interested in productive conversations than seeking my concurrence (well, it’s still needed, but not during the process!) It it is my meeting and I want my presence to influence – maybe I need to establish a direction, convey expectations, etc. – I will sit where I can “command” attention.

Artists see the world differently from other people. Their italics, and spot on. I like to populate the table with as many brains as needed plus more (one of the things I do is manage design and construction of capital facilities.) I value different perspectives.

In that same chapter (this is where the most value is, it seemed when I was done), the authors use a metaphor of moving between boxes and making an assumption moving steadily from box to box results in success, and making the mistake of thinking time stands still while in the various boxes. That they acknowledge boxes is good (and they fall into the trap of saying leaders need to “think outside the box”, not knowing there is always a box!)

In the chapter titled “Communicating in Images, Symbols, and Metaphors, the authors bring up Howard Gardner and his book Frames of Mind. Gardner posited multiple intelligences. I wasn’t totally on-board with Gardner, considering some of his “intelligences” skills rather than, well, intelligence, but that was just my take.

And my take here is that despite that different perspective, this does offer much.

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Rip Foster in Ride the Gray Planet by Blake Savage

Rip Foster in Ride the Gray PlanetRip Foster in Ride the Gray Planet by Blake Savage

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There’s a story that goes with this story… I got this book at a school book fair some 48 years ago when I was 10. Many years later (~43) I was Nostalgically Re-reading some of my childhood books and tried to remember the title of this one, to no avail. I even posted in the Goodreads group What’s the Name of that Book, with as much as I could remember: I thought it was a “Scholastic paperback edition of a juvenile science fiction most likely from the 1960s, possibly early 1970s. The plot revolved around two rival (Cold war similar) space powers that were trying to claim a metallic asteroid and bring it back to Earth. I seem to remember one of the powers being “The Confederation” or something similar. A main character was probably a young adult/teen male. Something happened that required the two enemies to work together. Reluctant friendship ensued. Moral lesson/political melodrama imparted on the young readers.” Sadly, no one could help and I tried different search terms of the years with nothing to show. Fast forward to a few weeks ago when I was reading The Disappearing Spoon, a wonderful book about the periodic table and when the author talked about thorium…ding!…quick check and…voila! Found! But…I had to search for different covers to confirm with my memory and this is the one. Internet order to the rescue and nostalgic re-read checked off!

This was high adventure for a ten year old in 1971! And the actual science was pretty good, which is to be expected because Hal Goodwin wrote it (and the Rick Brant series as John Blaine). The science fiction was pulpish (Venusian silicon armadillos, Martians and even Mercurian creatures). The world outlook was rather forward thinking to cooperation beyond our time with multinationals in the space fleet, and also contemporary with a Cold War-like adversary. And, given that it was published in 1952 for one assumes to be a boy audience, there is the period sexism – one character piloting a (space) boat “balanced the opposite thrusts ” with “the delicacy of a woman threading a needle.” As to some of the science, either Goodwin/Savage was visionary- his clear bubble helmets could be darkened electronically (electrochromic devices were still relatively theoretical in 1953)

Okay, so my fuzzy memory wasn’t quite right – there was no cooperation (maybe there’s another book hidden away in my memory closet), Rip Foster was a young adult, and it was a Golden Griffon paperback, but five stars for high adventure!

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The Father of American Conservation: George Bird Grinnell Adventurer, Activist, and Author by Thom Hatch

The Father of American Conservation: George Bird Grinnell Adventurer, Activist, and AuthorThe Father of American Conservation: George Bird Grinnell Adventurer, Activist, and Author by Thom Hatch

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I am grateful to the publisher for granting me access an advance review copy from Edelweiss. With any history there must necessarily be creative nonfiction to fill the gaps, else we’d be mostly reading a chronological listing of (hopefully factual) facts. The differentiator between poor or merely passable books and one such as this is the writing and this is an engaging narrative. And, unfortunately, with a few exceptions of in text references (mostly to Forest and Stream articles), it is like so many of its genre absent any citations and references. There are no notes in my review copy, and I don’t think there will be any in the final. As such, the reader has to take the content with the proverbial salt grains. Yes, there is an extensive bibliography, but that is of little use in tracking down a particular event, quote, etc. and is disappointingly common. In one example, Hatch quotes Grinnell (within quotation marks, so we assume it is quoted) recounting something Grinnell did not observe himself, prompting the question, was there another source Grinnell had access to? But…that absence is more than less absolved by the content.

This is a rich account of Grinnell’s life, more than the first third of the book recounting his life before his conservationist awakening. Be warned, there are dark narrations in this that should affect anyone sensitive to the heinous atrocities against the First People, treated with the dispassion of a dissociated historian and yet embellished with the excited creativity of a connected storyteller. An example, in recounting a planned butchery of a Sioux village by Custer’s 7th Cavalry, Hatch says of one failing part of the plan that Sioux warriors chased after retreating soldiers with “gleeful whoops”. Really? And Hatch says that the “survivors of the cowardly retreat cowered on that hill four miles away from the death scene for two days…” History is an interesting topic that is more than not treated as definitive, inerrant, objective, and is anything but. I’m sure the coward moniker was an Army brand. Did Hatch write with intentional cultural relativism, or is this just his style? From a sample of one book, I do not know.

Now, once Grinnell embarked on his conservationist track, Hatch, using the same tone and unrestrained literary license, shifts his target; recounting the slaughter of bison in Yellowstone, Hatch deems the butchers of bison fleeing “the carnage” by crossing a river, only to be shot indiscriminately as they emerged from the river, as “assassins”.

Grinnell advocated for Native Americans, an unpopular position then (and some would say even still), using his Forest and Stream platform. And Hatch, with poetic license again, describes a typical Cheyenne day that Grinnell would have likely experienced, concluding with “And then the white man came West, and daily life for the Cheyenne people would never be the same.” Still, Grinnell tried to change perception

I have never been able to regard the Indian as merely an object for study – a museum specimen. A half-century rubbing shoulders with them, during which I have had a share in almost every phase of their old-time life, forbids me to think of them except as acquaintances, comrades, and friends.

His works ran counter to the only other narratives of the time – that of the Army – because since “the Indians could not write, the history of their wars had been set down by their enemies.” (For perspective, I recommend
History Lessons
, US history as told in textbooks of other countries around the world…quite enlightening for the historically myopic American student…and citizen) Grinnell spent a lot of time listening to the Cheyenne stories, something apparently few “white men” actually did, compiling them in The Fighting Cheyennes. Margaret Mead and Ruth Bunzel said none came closer than his (I’m guessing The Cheyenne Indians…the Mead/Bunzel quote only refers to it as “Grinnell’s classic monograph”) to the Indian everyday life.

Hatch used an epigraph from Rachel Carlson for one chapter:

The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we have for destruction.

That’s a wonderful sentiment that I came to embrace decades ago. Unfortunately, there are too many people in this country ascribing the wonders and realities to a supernatural and then giving themselves license to own, ravage and destroy them. Grinnell focused his attention on the wonders and realities of his universe. Hatch does a very good job condensing the prolific writings of Grinnell’s evolution into a few chapters, capturing Grinnell’s distaste for the destruction of his time.

Don’t mistake conservationism for abstention from anything but observation and complete preservation of the environment. Grinnell hunter and fished, and wrote about methods of each. He casually bemoans “an elk or two, a few deer, and a few antelope” were all that he killed on one trip. He did, however, advocate responsibility in each. He recognized that overhunting (and fishing) was unsustainable, even leading to extinctions.

Side note: There are some wonderful photographs that I hope have captions in the published edition.

I decided to largely ignore a subtext of Hatch where I infer from his choice of words on climate change, which Hatch admits is a serious problem, speculating that “Grinnell would not have fallen prey to hysterical claims and skewered data”, and Hatch’s overly simplistic solution of deflecting blame to China and India because “the American people who have made great strides in cleaning up the air and water and are now watching the ozone layer begin to heal” must have been written before the current administration’s decimation of water and air protections (wildlife and Parks protections as well…Grinnell would be mortified, though not surprised at the planned destruction of Yellowstone for minerals, timber and more… primitive parahumans were as common in government in his time as especially now.) There’s a dichotomy here because Hatch does talk about the rollback of regulations on use of lead ammunition and the devastating effect on bird wildlife and other problems with the current administration.

If you are so inclined, as the author notes, you can read copies of Forest and Stream online. I share Hatch’s awe at the boggling volume of high quality material published weekly over 30 years as writer/editor/ publisher and owner! All while writing books, and reading them (a short review of a young and naive Theodore Roosevelt’s cathartic book on ???? Led to a lifelong friendship and partnership)! And Grinnell wrote well. On the St. Mary region of Montana illustrates his romantic, almost spiritual flair:

An artist’s palette, splashed with all the hues of his color box, would not have shown more varied contrasts. […] In the valley were the greens of the deciduous shrubs, great patches of deep maroon of the changing lobelia, lakes turbid or darkly blue, somber evergreens; on the mountainside foaming cascades, with their white whirling mist wreathes, gray blue ice masses, and fields of gleaming snow. Over all arched a leaden sky, whose shadows might dull, but could never efface, the bewildering beauty of the mass of color.

Good stuff. And never enough time to read more of his writings.

For the publisher, I respectfully submit this needs another editorial pass – its obvious polish tarnishes a little with some of the things I caught. I found a few errors in my review copy, which may have already been caught – missing words (page 87, 2nd paragraph first sentence), incorrect verbs (page 71, first complete sentence following the concluding fragment from the previous page, “was” should be “were”?; page 85, third paragraph, first sentence should not be past tense), extra words (page 153, one of the quotes I was able to track down, from Forest an Stream July 2, 1885, last sentence first paragraph, “he could shift sift”, “shift” should not be there, and wasn’t in the original article)

Page 184 Chapter Nine epigraph, should be Blackfoot, not Vlackfoot; page 117 last paragragh “Needless”

Also, quibbling point, page 71, the 7th Cavalry ditty is “Garryowen”, not “Garry Owen”. Page 167, the battleship is Maine, not Main/I> and the date was February 15, 1898, not Feb 12 (number of dead differs in accounts from that stated by Hatch)

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