If I Were Secretary of the U.S. Navy for Just One Day

USS Zumwalt underway in formation with the littoral combat ship USS Independence. Flickr/U.S. Navy

What one of the world’s leading naval experts would change.

Riddle me this: what one thing would you change about the U.S. Navy if you were appointed Secretary of the Navy for a Day? And not just any garden-variety secretary of the navy, but an omnipotent secretary empowered to alter the thing of his choosing.

My answer: the culture. It’s the common denominator among naval pursuits. Get the institution’s culture right—get the habits and attitudes of the people comprising it right—and countless other things fall into place. And they will do so almost of their own accord. Inculcating healthy attitudes toward hardware, operations and tactics, and prospective foes bolsters the likelihood of managing these domains well.

Or at least that’s the gist of a recent late-afternoon conversation here in the hallowed halls of Newport, where the ghosts of Alfred Thayer Mahan and Raymond J. Spruance waft about in twilight hours. Such conversations constitute a great joy of working at the Naval War College. They can be high-toned, pondering matters of grave strategic import. They can be silly.

Or they can be both, straddling the serious and the inane. Debating which widget to create or perfect, what policy to institute or abolish, or what institutional trait to instill or modify falls into this category. Strategists like Monty Python and Mike Tyson are as apt to put in an appearance as Thucydides and Clausewitz.

Banter furnishes a focal point for serious thinking nonetheless. It helps us identify problems and issues and set priorities. And setting and enforcing priorities is what strategy’s all about.

Granted, it’s not immediately obvious why a mythical all-powerful official would expend a silver bullet to change something as seemingly malleable as culture. Military institutions are hierarchical institutions reliant on obedience. Why not just issue the requisite orders and watch as the hierarchy executes them?

Because it isn’t so simple to modify how an institution transacts business. Big bureaucratic organizations have distinct worldviews and ways of doing things that give rise to what Robert Komer calls institutional “repertoires.” That’s their virtue—and their vice. Bureaucracy, that is, is good at mass-producing routine acts in steady-state surroundings. Machinelike organizations aren’t so good at keeping up with transients. They tend to keep doing the same thing as the world changes around them.

Repertoires are a problem if you believe Florentine scribe Niccolò Machiavelli, who insists that staying apace of changing times is central to the art of statecraft. So it is for rulers and generals. So it is for leaders of all types. So it is for big, unwieldy institutions.

Komer was mainly critiquing the U.S. Army in Vietnam. He upbraided the army leadership for fighting the conventional war its institutional culture had preprogrammed it to fight rather than the counterinsurgent war actually raging in Southeast Asia. Rather than conform to the nature of the war, the leadership tried to fit the war to its preferred mode of fighting.

That seldom works out well. But Sixties-era groundpounders were far from unique in being enculturated into orthodox ways of thinking and acting. The U.S. Navy operates not on dry land but on the featureless saltwater plain that is the sea. It remains susceptible to Komer’s diagnosis nevertheless, despite the drastically different operating medium.

Some of the greats testify to it. Franklin Roosevelt, who served as Woodrow Wilson’s assistant secretary of the navy, wisecracked that the sea service was like bedding: “To change anything in the Na-a-vy is like punching a feather bed. You punch it with your right and you punch it with your left until you are finally exhausted, and then you find the damn bed just as it was before you started punching.”

The organization springs back to the same shape, unperturbed by efforts to institute change.

Not to be outdone, FDR’s secretary of war, Henry Stimson, portrayed the Navy Department as “a dim religious world in which Neptune was God, Mahan his prophet, and the United States Navy the only true Church.” Religions change slowly. If indeed there’s a religious character to navy culture, and if the goal is to make the navy agile and adaptable, then the task before navy leaders is to nurture a culture in which agility and adaptability are the institutional religion.

That way the leadership can turn fixed habits of mind to advantage. It can conscript the logic of bureaucratic culture to combat dogmatism.