Groupthink Makes Navies Stupid

October 27, 2017 Topic: Security Region: Americas Tags: MilitaryTechnologyWarNavyNaval War College

Groupthink Makes Navies Stupid

"Want an intellectually inert U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard? Fine: stifle the free interplay of ideas and views on campus, and within the sea."


Groupthink makes navies stupid. Heck, groupthink makes any group of people stupid. Shame there’s such demand for it in U.S. Navy circles.

Or at least that’s the impression you’d get from the criticism flung Admiral Jeff Harley’s way in recent weeks. Admiral Harley, a surface-warfare officer now in his second year as president of the U.S. Naval War College, gave a recent interview with the Providence Journal touting his effort to make the College more like civilian universities.


Reporter G. Wayne Miller quotes Harley as saying: “We have to ensure that our academics have academic freedom to express . . . dissenting viewpoints, regardless of how painful sometimes that might be. You want the institution to look and feel like a civilian institution.” The bottom line, as Miller paraphrases it: “As such, Harley said, he expects the War College to more closely resemble schools such as Brown University or the University of Rhode Island.”

(For some reason the ace reporter uses your shy, retiring scribe as the poster boy for academic freedom—including, presumably, that bit about how painful hearing out the quarrelsome can be.)

The Journal story elicited an outburst from nattering nabobs in the press and on the internet. Former Naval War College military faculty member Colonel Gary Anderson held forth in the pages of the Washington Times, in a column sure to make you feel like the luckless patient in that old George Carlin joke. The pseudonymous navy blogger Commander Salamander piled on, joined by his commenters.

Alas and alack, this is not a one-off thing. Elements within the naval establishment have mounted a running effort to curb academic freedom—or “freedom,” as I like to call it—for years. This ten years’ war spans my current Newport life, but it’s a safe guess the onslaught commenced long before that. It is a mite distressing to see ex-seamen who ought to know better join the fray.

Generally speaking, the critiques fell into two categories: curriculum and academic freedom. The complainants took umbrage at the suggestion the Naval War College should be more like the University of Rhode Island (URI) or—gadzooks!—Brown. They appeared doubly vexed that a professional military-education institution would permit professors to criticize Big Navy or Big Pentagon from within. Still less should the College grant tenure—guaranteeing them the liberty to hold forth.

The first complaint is simply wrong. The second is a feature—not a bug—if you care about improving how the navy and Pentagon do business. Institutions that stand above criticism and debate are intellectual sluggards, prone to underperform.

Let’s take the complaints in turn. First, Colonel Anderson suggests Harley rename the College the “Naval University of Conflict Avoidance.” Witty. Commander Sal accuses him of trying to found “another university in New England with a self-preening Peace Studies program.”

Methinks the Brown Effect is at work here. Miller’s mention of famously left-leaning Brown University, our local Ivy League institution, seems to have waved a red flag in front of commentators. Invoking Brown has that effect on Newport oldtimers.

The Brown Effect has been a long time in the making. Once upon a time, in the early 1990s, I was a Naval War College student while Anderson toiled away in our research wing. At the time there was indeed a group, reputedly affiliated with Brown, pushing a zany scheme to rename the College and convert it into a peace-studies institute. The campaign made no headway—and never will. Time to let that one go.

Substitute “Providence College” or some other Rhode Island institute for “Brown,”and chances are the uproar over the story would have been more muted.

Be that as it may, both Anderson and Sal seem to assume reinventing the Naval War College to be more like the University of Rhode Island or Brown portends making the content of our coursework at NWC more like theirs. Not so. Harley’s “normalization” initiative, one pillar of his strategic plan, is mainly about making the professional climate in Newport friendlier to faculty research and publication. It’s not about remodeling our courses, still less demilitarizing them.

The initiative is long overdue. At present federal law forbids faculty to publish anything they write on company time under their own copyright. Meanwhile, their employment contracts demand they research and write for publication. Ergo, the words you’re reading were written in the evenings, on weekends, or on vacation. This arrangement endears professors to their families and friends. An enemy of faculty productivity could hardly design a better system to discourage it. This Kafkaesque system needs to be normalized into oblivion.

Now, the Naval War College is a college of conflict avoidance to be sure—in George Washington’s sense that “to be prepared for war is one of the most effective means of preserving peace.” That’s the classic definition of deterrence and coercion. Constructing an insuperable military force, and making prospective foes believers in American martial prowess, represents the surest way to avoid conflict. If defeat is certain, a foe may well forego challenging the U.S. armed forces.

Peace through power. QED.

That will remain the guiding philosophy. The College is accountable to the Joint Chiefs of Staff for curricular matters, and the JCS has broadcast zero demand to soften the curriculum. The reverse, if anything: the rise of a maritime China, Russia’s awakening from its post-Cold War slumber, and Iranian and North Korean mischief-making have reinvigorated the military’s and U.S. Navy’s sense of purpose, and thus the College’s.

This year I oversaw revisions to the Strategy and War Course, one of our three core courses, and trust me: the course is well-named. Don’t believe me? Have a look.

Now, Admiral Harley’s strategic plan as a whole does pertain to curriculum: it’s about making the curriculum more operational in outlook while infusing new saltwater content into it. Hence the pillars he calls “operationalization” and “navalization.”

Operationalizing and navalizing is a matter of keeping up with the times as they change around us. NWC coursework, research, and wargaming took on a counterinsurgent cast after 9/11 because irregular warfare was what U.S. and coalition forces—our students—were doing in the real world. Now that the strategic center of gravity has shifted seaward, naval warfare is regaining its central place at the College. Mahan, not Laurence of Arabia, is the toast of Newport once again.

So much for transmuting the Naval War College into a self-preening Peace Studies program.

And second, Anderson and some of Sal’s commenters are peeved about academic freedom. Here’s how Anderson sums up the NWC strategic plan: “Adm. Harley wants to hire faculty who don’t necessarily agree with the Pentagon and bring in more foreign professors to internationalize the institution. He also wants to grant tenure so these progressive outside-the-box thinkers can be protected from retaliation by those who may believe that their ideas are loopy.”

Where to start? How about here: the “foreign professors” recruited to the College in recent years are retired commanders of foreign navies, including such close allies as the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force, Royal Norwegian Navy, and Colombian Navy, as well as friendly forces like the Indian Navy. They’re counterparts to Admiral John Richardson, our top uniformed naval officer. Japan’s navy, moreover, has taken to stationing a captain at the College to research, write, and keep up alliance relations.

Pretty radical stuff, this bid to “internationalize” the Naval War College by populating the faculty with furriners spouting their loopy furrin ideas.

Next, tenure. There’s a mix of pragmatic reasons for offering professional security. For one: like it or not, tenure remains the coin of the realm in academe. It’s an emblem that an ambitious young scholar has arrived in his or her chosen discipline. Naval War College has a hard time competing for and retaining top talent without it. If we’re lucky, youngsters may come to Newport for a few years to accumulate some experience. But then, all too often, they’re off to more hospitable professional climes.

Make it hard to recruit junior faculty and discourage them from publishing if they do come; it’s not hard to foretell the impact of misbegotten policies.

For another: the nabobs seem aghast at the prospect that professors would take issue with the navy or defense establishment about this or that. Reserve the right to fire them and they’re apt confine themselves to safe opinions about safe topics—or remain silent altogether. A college with a docile faculty must be a smoothly functioning college.

No controversy, no problem. Right?

Er, no. Suppressing controversy might project the comforting illusion of an ultracompetent institution, but that’s all it would be: an illusion. All hail to the U.S. Navy’s great and powerful leadership, but expecting one person or a small coterie of senior officers or officials to bequeath wisdom to everyone else is a loopy idea. The navy, like all groups of people, is capable of boneheaded decisions. Exempting it from critical scrutiny amounts to begging for more such decisions. It renders the service intellectually inert—much as it did the Soviet Navy. The defeated foe is not an example to emulate.