- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at email@example.com.
On the water, I responded to various naval officers who noticed that I questioned in my latest book whether the Navy has had any impact on national strategy in recent years. I see raising issues like this as part of my job-that is, speak up when I think the emperor has no clothes. The commonality in these discussions is that the denunciations are posted on blogs and websites while the attaboys are sent privately by e-mail. As David Halberstam once said to me, “That’s the nature of the business. [pause] Suck it up.”
Responding to my question of why the Navy hasn’t had much effect on national strategy since 9/11, a friend who is a defense expert shot this back:
I would disagree with Tom; naval officers and thinkers have had a profound, but entirely negative, effect on American post-9/11 strategy: think of Mike Mullen, Fox Fallon, Giambastiani and Bill Owens. The first two fought the surge, fought COIN (and Mullen still is), wanted to bug out of Iraq, favored a “light footprint” and “offshore balancing,” etc. etc. The latter two were apostles of “transformation” of the “transparent battlefield” variety, which led us down a very bad and wrong path.
Meanwhile, here’s a comment from an active-duty Navy officer whose name cannot be used here:
The reason the Navy doesn’t have the sorts of folks like H.R. McMaster or John Nagl is that our personnel system is set up to discourage folks from taking the opportunities that would give them the knowledge base they need to do it. When I was selected to go to a fellowship at RAND I was counseled that it would negatively impact my chance to screen for command, primarily because the tour would result in a not observed fitness report, which doesn’t look good up against the guy that goes and works in an office somewhere, but gets an observed fitrep. I decided that 9 months at RAND couldn’t really be that big of an impact, and I would volunteer to go back to sea again after to make up for it, but it was a big impact, despite co-authoring two studies and participating in several project teams. Then when I was accepted to the PhD program in security studies . . . , I was all but told that I would not select for command if I came here, again because of the not observed fitness reports. We are never going to have warfighters and strategists with the requisite knowledge skills in both sides of that coin if folks have to choose one or the other. When people point out that Admiral Stavridis managed to get a PhD, from Fletcher no less, and still say competitive up the chain–this is an argument I’ve heard–I’d say it’s not fair to point to one of the most brilliant naval officers in decades as the example, and there are very few others, of how the system works well.
. . . I wish we had more naval officers engaged in the national debate over grand strategy, as I think the Navy has a big part to play in it, and our skills sets as naval officers tend to be a bit broader than in some of the other services as we are routinely forward deployed working with allies and friends, engaged with activities beyond the limits of traditional warfighting. Unfortunately, the best contribution the Navy’s added to the national security debate in years might just be the three unnamed snipers who took out those teenage pirates on Easter Sunday. However capable we are at completing the mission given us, if we don’t have a voice in the debate over what the right mission is, or what the right strategy and policy should be, we are selling ourselves short.
Photo: Flickr user Amanda M Hatfield