LEARNING WAR: THE EVOLUTION OF FIGHTING DOCTRINE IN THE US NAVY 1898 – 1945
Reviewed by: Tim Hulme
Ask any graduate of the Advanced Command and Staff Course to repeat the most oft-used, or perhaps overused, quote of the course and it’s pretty much odds-on that they will regurgitate the old chestnut, attributed to Rommel, that the “British write some of the best doctrine in the world; it is fortunate their officers don’t read it.” Taking that as a starting hypothesis, Learning War could probably be considered as the very antithesis of this slightly pejorative viewpoint of an approach to warfare, and learning about warfare in particular. In an immensely detailed and thoroughly researched narrative, the author lays before the reader a compelling case as to how the US Navy adapted to meet the challenges of warfare at sea in this period. He does so, however, not by resorting to the predictable argument of the vast resources and industrial might available to their Lordships of the Admiralty’s transatlantic brethren, but rather by emphasising and demonstrating, through clear evidence, the culture of learning and experimentation that existed throughout the USN and the way in which doctrine was harnessed to transform this fighting force.
The more astute reader will already have noticed a few terms there that are increasingly in vogue today: transformation and experimentation are both very much topics of the moment but, as this book amply shows, there is far more to achieving success. Foremost amongst these is the place of education, and the Naval War College (NWC) in particular, within the USN. The college was not a place of stasis or respite, designed to give hard-pressed seagoers a bit of down-time between appointments. Far from it. It was the hub of an almost revolutionary, motive force to develop the USN into a premier fighting arm to which the very best were sent to learn, to teach and to develop their skills. But it was also more than just a place to pass on the lessons of others. Critically, as evidenced by a quote from one President of the NWC, it was more of a “laboratory than a college.”
Learning from others, adapting and trialling, experimenting and innovating are themes that run throughout this account. Through a succession of carefully chosen examples, Hone shows how, by building on the learning culture that pervaded and was nurtured throughout the USN, and then codifying the successes in the form of standardised doctrine the USN was able to defeat one of the mightiest maritime forces afloat at that time, the Imperial Japanese Navy. It is a salutary tale, and one, perhaps, that we could do well to hoist in even today, especially the successful marriage of technology and operating procedures to deliver advantage in battle. It sounds simple, of course, but often isn’t. Hone picks his examples carefully and expounds in great detail, perhaps occasionally a little too much so, to demonstrate and make his case. And lest a prospective reader should fear that it is all about obscure tactical doctrine, then they will be pleasantly surprised at the practical nature of at least one of the examples chosen, the introduction of the Combat Information Centre, or Ops Room to you and me. This may sound a slightly bizarre example, but it is illuminating to read not just how revolutionary such an idea actually was at the time but how no particular practice was set at first. Instead, broad parameters were laid down and then industrious and innovative COs were enabled and empowered to try their own solutions. Those that worked best were eventually adopted across the Fleet, an exemplar of experimentation in practice.
Of course, there is much more to creating a successfully innovative force than a handful of examples could ever show, but by judicious choice, Hone manages to convey the big themes that drove the USN’s transformation: education, experimentation, the study of battle, formalised systems to disseminate lessons, mission command but within a conceptual framework and the use of doctrine to spread and ensure best practice. Sound familiar anyone? In perhaps one of the most telling sections of the book, Hone even manages to, if not bust then at least crack the veneer of, the myth asymmetry. Referring to the Kamikaze campaign he argues that it was, in fact, a response to the asymmetry shown by the USN in the radically new approaches it had so successfully developed during the first two years of the war. Some may struggle with that notion, but I can’t help but feel he has a point and the evidence he presents throughout the book certainly backs him up. It is an unusual angle but possibly the greatest compliment he could pay to those who drove the development of the USN during this critical period.
For those of us facing similar challenges, albeit in slightly less pressing circumstances, there is much we could learn from this book.