2017 McMullen Naval History Symposium

IMG_1786I thoroughly enjoyed being part of the “extraordinary breadth” of scholarship presented at the McMullen Naval History Symposium last week at the U.S Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD. It was a wonderful conference, and Cdr. B.J. Armstrong deserves a lot of credit for its success. I’m very glad I finally got to meet him.

I attended several thought-provoking sessions on World War I, the interwar period (1919-1939), and the Battle of the Virginia Capes. I participated on a panel titled “1942 and Its Continued Historical Relevancy for the U.S. Navy” and I was also fortunate to win second prize in the CNO (Chief of Naval Operations) Naval History Essay Contest. I discussed my essay with some of the other winners in a session last Friday morning. Here are some of my highlights from the conference.

David Kohnen discussed the report of the “[Dudley W.] Knox, [William S.] Pye, [Ernest J.] King Board” issued in 1919 and its impact on officer education in the U.S. Navy. The report is an important part of the story of how the U.S. Navy harnessed the lessons of World War I and improved its approach to officer education before World War II. It was not surprising to hear that King was the “principal man” behind the report. It was also not surprising to learn that King published a version of the report in the Naval Institute’s Proceedings in 1920, sparking heated debate. Kohnen pointed out the importance of officer relationships for understanding the U.S. Navy of this period. King was a protégé of Henry T. Mayo, who commanded the Atlantic Fleet during World War I, and also knew William S. Sims, who commanded American naval forces in Europe. These more senior officers gave King and his colleagues “top cover” for the report and its recommendations.

Alexander Howlett presented his research into lessons learned by the Royal Navy’s Air Service and the Royal Air Force (RAF) in their campaign against the German U-Boats in 1917 and 1918. I thought one of his most interesting findings was that the British Admiralty allowed a great deal of variability; the development of tactics and doctrine devolved to individual stations. Those that created effective partnerships with surface forces and devised new techniques were more successful. When the RAF was formed, much of this learning appears to have been lost. Increasing centralization and ignorance of the best techniques for fighting the U-Boats prevented the RAF from capitalizing on established lessons. I enjoyed discussing this important shift with Howlett later that evening.

Branden Little highlighted the fact that U.S. Navy ships were used to ferry gold to American citizens in Europe immediately after the outbreak of war in 1914. Currency destabilized and many vacationers found themselves stranded without a means to pay for food, transportation, or lodging. The gold was a deliberate loan to allow Americans to pay for their needs before coming back to the United States. Armored cruiser Tennessee alone provided $5,867,000 according to one contemporary newspaper.

Sidney M. Chester followed the path of Tennessee and her sister North Carolina. They were sent to the Mediterranean where they spent a good deal of time in Beirut, then the “center of American and protestant activity” in the Middle East. The ships helped maintain harmony between various religious and ethnic groups; Chester related how more frequent liberty for the crews furthered this goal. Evidently, the sailors were good at picking fights and the regular fisticuffs diffused ethnic violence, a fascinating dynamic that I had never considered.

In our 1942 panel, I discussed the importance of the fighting in the Solomon Islands and how it triggered the U.S. Navy’s system of organizational learning; K.J. Delamer explained that PT Boats, although they had few tactical successes, were part of a multi-dimensional system of unrelenting pressure on the Japanese; and Hal Friedman illustrated that the Naval War College’s exercises of 1946 harkened back to the challenges of early wartime battles like Coral Sea, Eastern Solomons, and Santa Cruz. I particularly liked Delamer’s description of the challenge of attempting to fight steel-hulled Japanese barges in wooden-hulled PT Boats.

I moved out of my main area of interest to attend the session on the Battle of the Virginia Capes, and I’m very glad I did. James Holmes presented his “strategist take on history” by describing the effective ways in which the British deprioritized the North American colonies in favor of more important strategic theaters, like the sugar islands in the Caribbean. Holmes used the concepts of war developed by Carl von Clausewitz to frame his discussion and it was quite effective. However, at the end he introduced the idea of antifragility as developed by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, suggesting that liberal democracies like 18th century Britain can “bounce back” from failures like that experienced by the loss of the colonies.

During the commentary and questions, I started to consider the implications of this. We can potentially do ourselves a disservice if we apply a clausewitzian frame to the process of military decision-making in all times and periods. The way Holmes described the British approach, it seemed much less like a clear process of finding the “decisive theater” and much more a series of experiments and hypotheses intended to determine the most effective potential outcome. More specifically, I started to wonder if the concept of antifragility might not be a better frame for understanding British strategy in the late 18th century. Could the move into the southern colonies, which ultimately resulted in disaster t Yorktown, be seen as a minor investment with significant potential upside rather than a strategic mistake? I think that is a valuable question worth further investigation.

There were many other important sessions and talented presenters. I regret that I could not attend them all, but it has me looking forward to the next one in 2019. The McMullen Symposium is a great opportunity to learn, connect, and share ideas with the most talented minds in the field of Naval History.

 

Strategic Limitations of the German General Staff

It has become common for those who study business organizations to embrace military analogies and military models when they think about strategy and organizational complexity.1 This is a good thing; cross-disciplinary approaches can offer new perspectives and help seed new ideas. However, limited knowledge of the subject matter can lead to overly optimistic interpretations of historical examples and restrict our ability to learn from them. This is particularly true in the case of the German General Staff (GGS) in general and Helmuth von Moltke (the elder) in particular.

Moltke is considered one of the greatest military minds of the nineteenth century. He was appointed chief of the Prussian General Staff in 1857 and led the Prussian Army through the wars of German Unification, including victories over Denmark (1864), Austria (1866), and France (1870-71). Those who believe in flexibility, learning, and adaptability in the face of uncertainty find appeal in his famous quote about the nature of war: “No plan survives contact with the enemy.”2

Moltke built the Prussian Army—and later the German one—on this assumption about the nature of war. Rather than issuing detailed instructions, Moltke stressed adaptability and flexibility. Officers were given high-level objectives and guidance. They were expected to develop specific plans based on the circumstances of the moment, without consulting higher headquarters for approval. This allowed Moltke’s armies to shorten their decision cycle. In modern business terms, Moltke’s armies lowered the cost of decisions by placing authority to make those decisions at lower levels. They got inside the “decision cycle” of their opponents.

There are extremely salient lessons to be gained from this experience. Distributing decision-making more broadly throughout the organization is an effective reaction to increased complexity and uncertainty. Education, training, and practice will give better results in the field of knowledge work than detailed instructions that become obsolete at the first unanticipated circumstance. However, if we consider this one aspect of Moltke’s approach worth emulating, we must also be conscious of his limitations.

The most effective critique of the GGS and its approach springs from another Prussian military thinker, Carl von Clausewitz, and his famous dictum, “War is the continuation of policy by other means.”3 This concept has been interpreted numerous ways, but there is no escaping its fundamental essence, and that is that nations (and would-be-nations4) wage war to achieve political ends.

Moltke would have agreed with this, and the political objective of his famous victories is readily apparent from their name, the “Wars of German Unification.” It is unfortunate that in our praise for Moltke, the essential political side of these wars is often forgotten. The political side was dominated by the Minister President of Prussia, Otto von Bismarck. Without Bismarck’s skill and acumen, it is unlikely that Moltke’s battlefield victories would have achieved lasting fame.

This is primarily because Moltke’s battlefield emphasis was the encirclement and destruction of the opposing army. Moltke focused on crafting the quintessential military victory: the annihilation of the enemy forces. The approach worked for two reasons. First, the era of total war, where nations mobilized their entire economies in pursuit of victory, had not yet come. Military victory could, in such an environment, deliver political victory. Second, the circumstances that allowed the Prussian state to achieve battlefield success—the delicate management of alliances, the choice of the right moment in time, and the selection of willing allies—had been put in place by the diligent Bismarck. His deft hand provided the context for Moltke’s triumphs.

The necessity of an effective interplay between military and political spheres is illustrated by what happened after Moltke and Bismarck retired. Moltke left the GGS in 1888; Bismarck retired in 1890. The delicate balance of alliances Bismarck had brokered for Germany’s benefit fell apart. France and Russia, long potential enemies, entered into an Alliance in 1892. This left Germany in a difficult strategic position, with powerful opponents to the east and the west.

This challenge required a balance of political and military thinking, but the voids left by Moltke and Bismarck were filled by less-capable individuals. By the time of the time of the Franco-Russian Alliance, Alfred von Schlieffen had assumed leadership of the GGS. Schlieffen was not a politically astute individual; he had less influence over other governmental departments than Moltke. Rather than seeking to collaboratively develop a solution to Germany’s strategic dilemma, Schlieffen, “responded to this challenge… by focusing inward on areas he could control and influence.”5 The result was a purely military solution to Germany’s strategic problem, the infamous Schlieffen Plan.

The Schlieffen Plan was a reckless attempt to use military means to achieve political ends while ignoring the political consequences of those means. Schlieffen—and his successor, the younger Helmuth von Moltke (cousin of the elder Moltke)—embraced the approach of the elder Moltke and placed an emphasis on quick battlefield victories. They expected to defeat France with a huge flanking movement that would enter northern France through neutral Belgium. Germany’s eastern border would be secured by a small force; Russia’s mobilization was expected to be slow and cumbersome. The delay would allow the bulk of the German Army to defeat France before turning eastward and defeating Russia. As the world witnessed in the fall of 1914, it didn’t work.

There were numerous flaws in the plan; two were crucial. First, the violation of Belgian neutrality made Germany a global pariah and brought Great Britain into the war on the side of France and Russia. While there is some question as to whether Britain would have interceded anyway, the military plan guaranteed this political result. Second, the plan assumed that swift military victories were still possible in an era of national mobilization. This was no longer the case. The elder Moltke and the General Staff had gotten evidence of this in the latter stages of the Franco-Prussian War, when new French armies appeared after the initial German triumphs. Schlieffen and the younger Moltke both had sufficient evidence to anticipate these flaws. That they did not is a weighty indictment of the approach of the GGS, and through it, the legacy of the elder Moltke.

When we praise Moltke for developing a potent framework for overcoming uncertainty and developing high performance on the dynamic environment of the battlefield, we praise his work within the German Army. But it is essential to remember that Moltke’s framework was successful because of the political circumstances Bismarck brokered. The two of them, along with a broader supporting cast, created the system in which Moltke’s battlefield triumphs brought political success. Without that broader system, Moltke’s work—while impressive—does not guarantee victory. The example of Germany’s performance in World War One proves that point.

What lessons then should the modern student take from Moltke? His system of decentralized decision-making is laudable, certainly, and has been a model of effective military leadership for over a century. However, if we adopt such an approach, we need to ensure that the end goals remain at the forefront. Too often, like Schlieffen, we seek to optimize the work within the spheres we can control, and ignore the challenges outside of them.

The end goal for the GGS should have been political victory for Germany. Instead, it became victory on the battlefield. The two were not the same thing. A more modern example would be a software team that makes its end goal the creation of features, and ignores the process of validating that those features are ones that will solve their customers’ business problems. Moltke was like a software manager, who, having developed an effective rapport with his peers, focused on optimizing the work of his software team. After his departure, his successors continued to optimize and refine their work, but lost the rapport, and in the process, lost the system that allowed their work to be valuable. This is the great lesson we should take from the elder Moltke.

Further Reading:

German Strategy and the Path to Verdun, Robert T. Foley, (Cambridge University Press, 2005)

The Principles of Product Development Flow, Donald G. Reinertsen, (Celeritas Publishing, 2009)

On War, Carl von Clausewitz, Edited and Translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret, (Princeton University Press, 1989)

Moltke, Schlieffen and Prussian War Planning, Arden Bucholz, (Berg Publishers, 1993)

The Marne, 1914, Holger H. Herwig, (Random House, 2009)

The Ideology of the Offensive: Military Decision-Making and the Disasters of 1914, Jack Snyder, (Cornell University Press, 1984)


1. Perhaps the most effective example of this is Don Reinertsen’s The Principles of Product Development Flow, (Celeritas Publishing, 2009). See Chapter 9, p. 243-266

2. Moltke’s Wikipedia entry is a good starting point to learn more.

3. Clausewitz Wikipedia entryOn War, Carl von Clausewitz, Edited and Translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret, (Princeton University Press, 1989)

4. It is useful to think of the terrorist network of Al Qaeda and its affiliates this way.

5. Robert T. Foley, German Strategy and the Path to Verdun, (Cambridge University Press, 2005), p. 64