10 Dec 21

This is one of the better examples of a slew of books that have come out recently from the USA on how militaries can learn before or, in this case, during a war. The structure follows the standard pattern. There is an initial chapter on the chosen underlying theory, then some case studies leading to a conclusion.

The theory presented here is simply that militaries have something called an ‘organisational learning capacity’ which determines how good they are at adapting. This in turn depends on the four criteria of leadership, organisational culture, learning mechanisms and dissemination mechanisms. Get these right and you learn effectively, and so adapt to the situation; get them wrong and you don’t.

The approach is simple and persuasive. It usefully avoids some of the abstractions inspired by international relations theories and properly engages with the issue of organisational culture. There are perhaps other plausible ways of looking at the issue, but I’d be happy to use the one presented here to assess an organisation and see what could be improved.

The four examples which are used to apply the theory to reality are, so far as I can judge, well if not exhaustively researched. Unfortunately, all are based on the US armed forces. Many Naval Review readers will be interested in the story of the developing efficacy of US submarines in the Pacific between 1942 and 1945. You may though be slightly frustrated by the almost complete lack of mention of sea-based air power in the Korean War.

Our author, a retired US Marine, does his level best to be impartial between the US armed forces. He however falls for the common US habit of giving their forces a more positive report than justified. The prime example is the US submarines in the Second World War. It took over 18 months for the US Navy to fix their malfunctioning torpedoes despite repeated evidence that they weren’t working. This was far longer than should have been necessary, particularly when we compare it with the four months it took the Germans to fix similar issues in 1939. Yet Hoffman tells us that the US submarine force’s organisational learning was overall a success. Really? If the US carriers had taken as long to work out how to strike effectively, the battles of the Coral Sea and Midway, and indeed the entire war in the Pacific, would have taken a rather different course. One can think of other examples.

No book can cover everything. There is a nod to the role of doctrine in disseminating ideas but use of the literature on how it works beyond the merited reference to Hone’s work Learning War could have added greater depth. Hoiback’s Understanding Military Doctrine is an excellent starting point, and recent case studies not mentioned here include Long’s The Soul of Armies, Counterinsurgency Doctrine and Military Culture and Jensen’s Forging the Sword, Doctrinal Change in the US Army. I also felt that more on collective psychology and cognitive science would have been useful, though here I will forbear to advise where one should start.

Finally, I should mention Barno and Bensahel’s Adaption Under Fire: How Militaries Change in Wartime, on much the same subject. It came out only just before Mars Adapting, perhaps too late to be taken into consideration. This is a pity as I’d have enjoyed a comment on its suggestion that organisational culture is so integral to what happens as to not be worth considering on its own. I’m still grappling with that idea myself!

To conclude, this is a good book and worth reading. It continues the wider discussion on how militaries can learn rather than finishing it, but it has use for both the practitioner and the theoretician.