10 Jun 22

Both of these books are about professional military education and are written by active practitioners of this arcane art who used to be American naval officers but who have gone over to the dark side and have become military academics at either Newport or Annapolis. All three authors are animated by the urgent need to provide the naval service with the intellectual tools that it needs to confront a world that is as worrying as it is complex. Developing the Naval Mind is the most straight-forwards of the two.

It starts by reminding its readers of the value of discussion of important naval issues. We learn and reason by dialogue, it says, rather than simply by individual study. Even when reading something on our own, it suggests we should enter into a dialogue with its author, asking questions like ‘why do you say this here?’, ‘doesn’t this miss out ….?’. Don’t use highlighters – you need to engage with the material more than that. Effective reading takes effort. This advice is in the first part of the book which is a guide to how naval professionals should set about developing their minds, through guided reading on the topics of the day before that very necessary discussion with others.  Discussion is the best way to test and refine your ideas. Advice is given on how to facilitate discussions and is by no means directed simply at academics. Anyone with properly professional interests could benefit from the authors’ suggestions whether they be on how best to do the preliminary reading, or organise an informal seminar, or how to produce a rough syllabus of what needs to be discussed. This first part of the book is full of very sensible suggestions. When participating in a discussion, don’t try and cover all aspects of your case in one transmission; it will take too long and leave you nothing else new to say. Don’t try and do improving reading ‘on your rack’ (in bed), you’ll only fall asleep – or occasionally you’ll be so enthused by it you won’t be able to!

The second part of the book focuses not so much on the ‘how’ to set about improving your mind but on what you should be improving your mind about. What are some of the key issues that professional naval officers should be thinking about? The authors’ suggestions come in the form of 12 short Proceedings type articles by the great and the good (amongst whom your reviewer was surprised to find himself!) followed up by some excellent subjects for discussion. As you might expect the articles range over everything from the most important functions of the US Navy to the way orders ought to be given on board, and very stimulating they are too.

Finally, there’s a brief and again very sensible guide to how to get your ideas published so that by contributing to the general discourse they can advance the intellectual development of both author and the naval service. Read, think, write, publish – get stuck into the naval issues of the moment. Surely music to the ears of all readers of the Naval Review – and its Editor!

In some ways the second book Habits of Highly Effective Maritime Strategists covers the same ground but there’s a narrower focus on how best to develop specifically strategic thinking and the emphasis is on the lone toiler in this intellectual vineyard and on how he or she should go about doing so. Even the title of this little book is unusual. The normal positioning is reversed. What is clearly the main title, to judge by the big letters on the cover is ‘Maritime Strategists’; the ‘habits’ bit of it looks like a kind of prequel, but that is actually what the book is about rather than maritime strategy. This sets the reader up for a voyage of discovery. What Jim Holmes has done is to explore the assumptions and approaches behind the observations of strategists like Clausewitz, Mahan, Corbett, Liddell Hart (who these days is rarely elevated to such heights) and company.

In what he freely admits is an “undisciplined study”, Holmes labels his four chapters ‘Pursue the Good Life in Strategy’, ‘In Peace, Prepare for war’, ‘In Peace, Win Friends and Overawe Opponents’, and finally ‘In War, Fight for a better State of Peace’. The content of the last three is pretty much what readers might expect, but handled in an intriguingly idiosyncratic way. Lots of sensible assertions, if without much in the way of hard evidence, but certainly stimulants for thought. There are quotations galore, often from quite un-maritime sources, to help along the way.

In a way, though, the first chapter is the most intriguing and typical of the rest. What is the ‘good life’ in this respect? Its title turns out to be quite clever. Holmes is arguing that to understand and construct effective strategy the best way forward is to read lots of biographies of famous thinkers and war-fighters. “It’s a fount if wisdom for newcomers to the field of strategy and veterans alike”, he says on page 2. Character and personality matter. The fact that Mahan sought to analyse Nelson and Farragut as people and was interested in the types of naval officers he drew from his examination of the Royal Navy, perhaps reinforces Holmes’ point. What follows is an agreeable ramble through the lives, sayings, approaches and conclusions of a whole host of past and present sages of strategy, with some surprising inclusions and emphases. Aristotle gets a lot attention for example. At the end of the chapter, we are invited to conclude the need to take a long view, to keep the desired shape of the peace always firmly in mind, to get organised so that brilliant insights are translated into practical actions and to focus on the important.

So, if you’re looking for in depth analysis of maritime strategy, past and present, Holmes’ book is probably not for you, despite what the cover seems to suggest, but if you want to know how to look at strategic thinking, then it might very well be. For anyone interested in a more general and down-to-earth guide to how develop a naval mind, then the Armstrong and Freymann volume is very reader-friendly, clear, sensible and logical and so highly recommended for this wider purpose. I have been running naval seminars for longer than I care to remember and found their tips and techniques approach well worth thinking about. It’s a nice book for practitioners, of all sorts, to have by their side.