Category Archives: History

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!)

View all my reviews

The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books: Christopher Columbus, His Son, and the Quest to Build the World’s Greatest Library by Edward Wilson-Lee

The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books: Christopher Columbus, His Son, and the Quest to Build the World's Greatest LibraryThe Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books: Christopher Columbus, His Son, and the Quest to Build the World’s Greatest Library by Edward Wilson-Lee

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received a eGalley of this from the publisher through Edelweiss.

The subtitle order is Columbus, Hernando (his son) and lastly, the library. And what you get is a lot of Columbus, nearly as much Hernando, other contemporary hsitories of the various crowns and explorers, and a fraction by comparison about the library Hernando assembled. In reading this, I kept asking myself how much was speculation and how much had some basis in history. More history than I thought, as the endnotes are detailed and extensive and provide an excellent collateral backstory to the main narrative. Unfortunately, an electronic interface is clumsy (see note below) and their value is hard won for the poor reader. Continue reading

Random thoughts to start a new year…Quantum Time, New Dark Ages, Beer Entropy, Movies in Comfort, Books, Fine Coffee, and more

Here are some odds and ends before we set our calendars back 1,000 years on January 20th. I thought of the quantum time ambiguity (sounds like a Big Bang Theory episode title) the other day when driving and realized I had a few more pseudo-random thoughts jockeying for attention…

Continue reading

On the reactions to bin Laden’s death

I was watching a movie with my sons last night when my wife called me to tell me that Al Jazeera was reporting that bin Laden had supposedly been killed.  My immediate thoughts were that

  • if Al Jazeera was reporting it, then it probably was true – they have a better track record for actual news lately;
  • it has been too long; if this news had come eight years ago during the “Mission Accomplished” speech, then it would be a different story
  • Al Qaida has grown too much;
  • how influential was bin Laden anyway? “mastermind of 9/11”? probably not; certainly no more than President Obama was the “mastermind” behind this strike
  • and in the grand scheme this wasn’t going to be as good as it might sound

More on those later. I checked the Google News headlines (nothing from Fox, of course…I guess they hadn’t figured out how to credit President Bush yet) and saw the “Breaking News” on CNN.

I stopped the movie to watch President Obama’s address when he came on, and then returned to the movie, not thinking much more on the issue.

Until today. I was profoundly shocked to see pictures of Americans cheering, waving flags, acting very much like our Olympic hockey team had just beaten Canada. Why was I shocked? Because “rejoicing” in the death of an enemy  – this singular enemy – makes no sense to me:

– we didn’t win “the war”; you can’t win this war; you can’t win a war against means and methods – there is no “terrorist”, no “terrorist” organization, “no terrorist” nation; there are people who use terrorism as a mean to their ends, there are many groups who use terrorist tactics…but no one organization, there is no nation that is a terrorist nation, despite any labels we might apply…there are many nations which may or may not harbor the people we label as terrorists, but we can’t invade and conquer them all, and we certainly did not defeat the organization known as Al Qaida

– we took out a titular head – not the generals. Think about it…that would be like killing Hitler, but leaving the entire German war machine including its masterminds in place. A hollow victory at best, and one sure to spur many deadly responses.

– his network has grown in scope and power and is the proverbial multi-headed hydra; cut one head and three more arise.

Could bin Laden have been taken alive?  What would have the ramifications been if he had been taken alive? Worse than those that will undoubtedly result from this manner of death? I don’t think so.

The U.S. Navy SEALs are among the best at what they do. We showed that we can execute (deliberate verb) a plan regardless of where in the world. Of course, it took nine years to find him, and nearly another to set up the operation. Yes, it worked, but it could have failed spectacularly like our attack on Gadaffi in 1986, or the hostage rescue in 1979. This time, no such failure. That’s a good thing and we should be proud of our armed forces.

But what has really been accomplished? Can I travel now without a body cavity search or adding to my lifetime exposure to radiation? Sadly, no.

With this latest development, I’ve seen questions like, “Was 9/11 an unjustified attack?” As you can imagine, the chorus sings loudly, “Yes!”

I don’t think so. Who armed Saddam Hussein against Iran? Who gave/sold/whatever him chemical weapons that couldn’t be found 20 years later but watched as he used them against Iran and the Kurds? Who overthrew the Iranian Prime Minister in 1953 and propped the Shah until the 1979 revolution? Who sold arms to Iran after they took U.S. citizens hostage? Who armed the Afghan “freedom fighters” that later became the Taliban? Who later overthrew that Taliban? Who blanketed the South Vietnamese jungles with napalm, Agent Orange, and a bombing campaign that was truly “shock and awe”? Who took down that same Saddam Hussein and still occupy TWO countries that happen to be Muslim? Oh, and play a significant role in the current campaign against another Muslim country? I think you know the answer to each of those questions. We’re not clean and shouldn’t be thinking or pretending we are. We’ve had our fingers in the Middle east pie for a very long time – I’ll leave you to reason why. That still doesn’t justify any terrorist attacks (I can see my words being twisted), but it sure can go a long way toward explaining them.

Think about it from their point of view. If I haven’t painted a good enough picture, read what I wrote here and watch the video Dr. Sam Richards made at TEDxPSU. Maybe he can help you understand.

So I find myself embarrassed and supremely dismayed at the reaction that I deem wholly inappropriate. The rejoicing in the streets comes off to me as wrong on so many levels. A Facebook post is circulating and it strikes a chord with my unease over the reaction:

“I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that”
~ (attributed to) Martin Luther King, Jr.

(he said the “Darkness cannot drive out …” part, but I can’t verify the first part)

Andrea reposted that quote on her page earlier today and sparked a string of responses. In that string, Andrea noted:

“Please know that I feel that justice has been done, but you won’t find me dancing in the streets. To act otherwise puts us on par with the extremists who clamor for our blood. I think as a country we’re better than that and should lead the world by example.”

And she also reposted a couple of comments from the friend’s page who she got the quote from, highlighting the tone of the opposition:

“…The war on terrorism is not about love. These people real killers who do not give a shit about you and I. Or anyone around. You cannot talk love with these people. They are natural born killers and you will have a bullet in your brain before you can say hi.”

{and}

“I have to agree with … on this— these are people who strap high explosives to CHILDREN and march them into the police station to die, along with anyone else who happens to be there.”

Her response to those, on that thread:

The point is we’re ALL natural born killers – reading Biblical history makes that clear. We as a nation and as individuals need to rise above in our behavior and thinking, while still seeking justice for our people. It’s the only real hope for peace our world has.

Well said! The cheering in the streets, the rejoicing over a slain enemy, those are straight out of the Bible – same theme, different “chosen people”.

We do need to rise above. And be prepared for repercussions. Chris Hedges wrote an excellent article at truthdig.com (“Chris Hedges Speaks on Osama bin Laden’s Death“); he should know – he got a Pulitzer for covering Al Qaida.

One less bad man and the world is so much scarier. Wow.