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Mastering the Art of Command: Admiral Chester W. Nimitz and Victory in the Pacific (Trent Hone, Naval Institute Press, ISBN 13 978 1 68247 595 9, £41.95)

31 Mar 23

Operational success, however defined, is nearly always the aim of military leaders. And such leaders tend to think that the quality of their own capacity to lead and to command makes a material contribution to the achievement of that success. Hence the vast literature on command and leadership in war, and in many other walks of life as well come to that. This literature explores what we mean by good command and how we can hope to improve it. Clearly a whole lot of factors shape its effectiveness. The commanders’ character is obviously important. By nature, are they of an autocratic top-down disposition, or is their personal style more one of consensus building?  What experience of command do they have?  How does their character and experience fit in with the objective demands of the situation they confront? The required qualities of command in battle may be very different from those of someone conducting a major procurement campaign, for example. In the first case, where should the balance lie between decisions made before the operation begins and those left to the heat of conflict?  Then there is the issue of the organisational clarity and appropriateness of the institutional arrangements through which command is implemented. Effective command, though, is not an independent variable in the military equation. While it may well make a decisive contribution to operational success, other factors may make the achievement of operational success and the conduct of effective command more difficult.

These are important questions which are extremely hard to answer. Some at least are tackled in Trent Hone’s Mastering the Art of Command. In effect, the book is a review of the career of Admiral Chester W. Nimitz during the Pacific campaign of the Second World War. Brilliantly successful, Nimitz would seem to be an ideal model for working out the answer to those questions. In his previous well-regarded book, Learning War, Trent Hone sought to show how the war-gaming protocols pioneered at the US Naval War College during the interwar period gave the US Navy a terrific advantage over the Japanese in the Pacific campaign. (Not immediately, because it was first caught by surprise and then distracted by the requirements of a massive and immediate expansion).  Nimitz was a beneficiary of this. The story is taken forwards in Mastering the Art of Command. The book starts with Nimitz’s appointment as Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific Fleet in the demoralised days after the Pearl Harbor attack and follows him through to final victory four years later in Tokyo Bay.

Hone is not your standard academic. Although a civilian, he is active in naval business and a keen historian of the US Navy’s past activities and commentator on its current ones. In the course of a busy and varied career, he has absorbed organisation and management theory and deploys this in both these books. In the first, he developed the idea that the US Navy succeeded because it was able to become a ‘learning organisation’, which consciously and deliberately made a particular point of benefitting from its past experience (and other peoples’ too) and developed the mechanisms that would help it do so. There is an element of this in Mastering the Art of Command as well, in that Nimitz likewise encouraged analysis of operations recently conducted; the aim was to discover what had worked last time, and what hadn’t, and what should be done about it. But this was just a part of Nimitz’s exercise of command.

Hone also shows that Nimitz was able inspire his subordinates into a positive and aggressive mind-set that would lead them though to final victory.  He could dispense with the services of those he considered not up to the mark, but also to find many of them alternative and useful positions which better suited their talents.  He was both willing and able to defend his position against his formidable boss, Admiral Ernest J, King, (effectively Chief of Naval Operations, a controversial figure who does not come over very well in this account). In the end, Nimitz became very influential in the highest level of US strategic decision-making on such issues as whether or not finally to invade Japan.

Nimitz wasn’t of course a battle commander in the normal sense of the word. Based most of the time back in Pearl, it was his famous subordinates like Halsey and Spruance who physically led their carrier battle groups into the great conflicts of that campaign, Midway, Guadalcanal, Leyte Gulf and so on. Nimitiz’s task was to monitor them all, advise and to juggle their commitments and to adjudicate between their competing priorities. This meant taking, and enforcing, decisions for people like Halsey when confronting familiar issues such as to whether they should stay in touch with colleagues conducting a difficult amphibious operation or go after the Japanese forces that might threaten it today or tomorrow. Above all command at this level required attention to choosing and preparing subordinates to conduct operations effectively without Nimitz having to look over their shoulders all the time.

As a clear and persuasive analysis of what made Nimitz such a successful Fleet Commander, this book is clear and sensible and therefore recommended. I am less persuaded, however, of its success as a treatise on successful command in general. Firstly, this is partly because Nimitz’s task was quite unique in many ways and what worked for him might not for other commanders of other enterprises elsewhere. Secondly Hone tries to situate his investigation in modern organisational theory with its often quite mystifying concepts. All too often the author’s discussion of Nimitz’s activities comes perilously close to falling into the trap of using reality to explain the theory rather than the other way round, as it surely should be. Thirdly, I was also a bit concerned that Hone all too often seemed to equate ‘being offensive’ with ‘effective command’. Can’t someone necessarily on the defensive (perhaps because of severe resource shortages) be a good commander? Fourthly some of the tools of Hone’s analysis, like the apparently novel notion of ‘calculated risk’, teeter on the edge of being blinding glimpses of the obvious. But perhaps these caveats aren’t all that important; they do at least raise the sorts of questions that we need to ask when trying to understand the success of great leaders like Admiral Chester H. Nimitz. In my view, Nimitz thoroughly deserves having a carrier named after him, and this book does him justice.