‘21st Century Sims’: How a relatively junior officer forced needed change in the Navy
When French novelist Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr uttered the immortal words, "the more things change, the more they remain the same," he probably didn't have the military in mind. However, the written works of Admiral William S. Sims, commander of United States naval forces in Europe during World War I, remind us that this dictum, in fact, often holds true in military affairs.
By Enea Gjoza
Best Defense guest reviewer
When French novelist Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr uttered the immortal words, “the more things change, the more they remain the same,” he probably didn’t have the military in mind. However, the written works of Admiral William S. Sims, commander of United States naval forces in Europe during World War I, remind us that this dictum, in fact, often holds true in military affairs. In his new book, 21st Century Sims, U.S. Navy Lieutenant Commander Benjamin Armstrong has compiled six of Sims’ essays covering topics including military innovation, the nature and importance of military character, and post-war budget cuts. Although writing them nearly a century ago, Sims’ works are notable for their relevance to contemporary military challenges, as Armstrong frequently reminds his readers. His insightful introduction and chapter prefaces shed light on the lasting value of Sims’ contributions.
A noted thinker and innovator with a rebellious streak, Sims drove reforms that revolutionized naval gunnery. His dogged persistence, with help from highly placed benefactors, ensured his superiors’ attention to his innovations, earning the monikers “the Gun Doctor” and “the man who taught us how to shoot.” By virtue of his tenacity and boldness, Simms punched through a stubborn naval bureaucracy which was unable to fathom that good ideas could come from the junior ranks. Sims’ career highlights included managing the adaptation of a rapid firing technique across the U.S. Navy and supervising the defense of the convoy system during WWI. He also served two stints as president of the Naval War College, where he was able to put his long career’s lessons to work molding future generations of officers.
Sims never shied away from controversy. His first essay, published in the naval journal Proceedings, defended “the large, fast, heavily gunned battleship” as the future of naval warfare. Still a junior officer, he wrote this piece as a direct response to another by Admiral Alfred T. Mahan. In it, Sims decisively disproved the legendary naval strategist’s assertion that large numbers of small, low caliber warships were preferable to a smaller number of heavier, higher caliber battleships. His lifelong struggle to compel the navy to embrace innovation is also evident in his essay deriding conservatism in military thinking. Such stubbornness in adhering to established truth, he believed, costs lives and detracts from battlefield effectiveness by preventing the adaptation of new technologies and tactics until left with no other choice.
Ironically, while spending much of his career challenging the status quo, Sims was a man with deep respect for authority, who extolled loyalty’s importance as a core virtue for the ideal officer in his speech on military character. Even so, he gave equal emphasis to initiative, which he believed a military force must nurture in its junior ranks as much as its senior ones if it is to have any hope of successful competition on the modern battlefield.
Some aspects of Sims’ life seem like quaint relics of a bygone era. As a young lieutenant stationed in China, he sent numerous reports to the Bureau of Naval Ordinance in Washington regarding crucial developments in gunnery he observed on a ship led by British officer Percy Scott. They were met with silence, Armstrong notes. In response, Sims wrote to President Theodore Roosevelt himself, who actually implemented his suggestions. Such audacity would be nearly unthinkable for a junior officer in today’s military. On the other hand, some aspects appear to have changed little. Armstrong includes one essay that discusses the failures of the military’s promotion system and offers some thoughts on reforms. While Sims acknowledges the difficulty of crafting a promotion system which satisfies everyone, it is striking to see how, nearly a century later, many of the shortcomings that he identified persist.
As an officer who lived through one of the U.S. Navy’s periods of greatest weakness (the post-Civil War scale-down) and greatest buildups (WWI), Sims saw one navy bootstrapped and another flush with cash. In one essay, he addresses post-war cutbacks. Although he appears sympathetic to arguments for maintain a large standing fleet, he advises the navy to accept political realities and learn to subsist on less. In this way, Sims appears unable to escape his officer’s mindset, preferring to have a larger capability at the ready whether a clear threat exists or not.
One of the book’s most remarkable takeaways concerns the post-Civil War-era navy. With only 17 ships in a world where the great powers possessed far superior forces, both qualitatively and quantitatively, neither Congress nor the public felt threatened enough to support fleet increases. This stands in stark contrast to the nature of budget negotiations in today’s Congress. Fears of crippling military weakness now meet any suggestion to cut spending. Given the relative state of U.S. power today, with the navy far outpacing any potential competitor in capabilities and spending even in times of belt-tightening, the shift in elected officials’ thinking is fascinating.
In his introductions, Armstrong is careful to prevent his personal views from coloring the text. He offers context and clarification without detracting from Sims’ own words. However, Armstrong would have done well to establish a more robust link between Sims’ ideas and the navy’s subsequent evolution and even critique his philosophy where later experience proved it flawed.
Nonetheless, 21st Century Sims offers a snapshot of a remarkable naval mind, well ahead of its time both in its mode of thinking and its embrace of a professional ethos that saw naval service not merely as a job, but as a sacred trust. This book provides an excellent opportunity to glean insights from a key, albeit relatively obscure figure, who nevertheless made considerable contributions to his field and continues to offer educational value for aspiring leaders, both military and civilian. Sims realized early on the importance of communicating ideas within the ranks of fellow officers. Indeed, he influenced many of his peers’ thinking through indefatigable advocacy and frequent contributions to Proceedings. More importantly, he established a lasting legacy at the Naval War College that emphasized a practical and professional military education for service members, an idea today’s military has refined and adopted in all of its branches. For this, if nothing else, today’s service members owe Sims a debt of gratitude.
Enea Gjoza is an intelligence Research Fellow with Young Professionals in Foreign Policy, and a writer for Young Voices. He is also a policy analyst specializing in U.S. foreign policy and criminal justice reform with the Charles Koch Institute. All views expressed are his own.
Thomas E. Ricks is a former contributing editor to Foreign Policy. Twitter: @tomricks1
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