A Longshoreman's Guide to Military Innovation

A Longshoreman's Guide to Military Innovation

The secret to being innovative is to innovate. Make it routine.

Read the whole thing. One guy’s guesswork judging from The Ordeal of Change: Hoffer would advise the Navy leadership to make the climate within the institution as American as possible. And by that he meant nineteenth-century America, buoyed and driven by the pioneering spirit. “Only here,” he maintains, “were the common folk of the Old World given a chance to show what they could do without a master to push and order them about.” History “lifted by the nape of the neck lowly peasants, shopkeepers, laborers, paupers, jailbirds, and drunks from the midst of Europe, dumped them on a vast, virgin continent, and said: ‘Go to it; it is yours!’”

Hence Americans’ unbounded “faith in human regeneration… a faith founded on experience, not on some idealistic theory.” Hoffer recalls wondering who were the pioneers’ heirs in the Southwest of the 1930s. Not the comfortable—what incentive does someone living the good life have to shake things up? Hoffer concludes that the tramps he encountered on the road were the true pioneers. Misfits and losers tinker because they hate being weak. Tramps were the dregs of society, but they had autonomy. No one pushed or ordered them about, and they were possessed of a fiery desire to survive and thrive. Struggle steels character.

Lesson #2 comes from a longshoreman: resuscitate the pioneering ethos. The less authoritarian and bureaucratic the Navy’s campaign for innovation, the better. The more it empowers individual sailors to be themselves, the better. Let them be pioneers.

Hoffer also surveys human history, gazing back to the dawn of recorded time. His verdict: innovative ages are exuberant ages typified by a “playful mood.” Worthwhile inventions start out as playthings or follies, not concerted efforts to improve the private or public weal. Practical use is a byproduct of whimsy. “When we do find that a critical challenge has apparently evoked a marked creative response,” he writes, “there is always the possibility that the response came not from people cornered by a challenge but from people who in an exuberance of energy went out in search of a challenge.”

Classical Athens, the Renaissance, Elizabethan England and the Enlightenment, says Hoffer, were “buoyant and even frivolous” epochs that witnessed outbursts of learning and invention. Dour, pedantic, anti-individual eras, conversely, are seldom creative. Ideologues want dull conformity, not an enterprising counterculture. Lesson #3: don’t be a control freak. Do away with orthodoxy, keep things upbeat within the U.S. Navy and liberate sailors’ inquisitive natures in the process. Playfulness begets experimentation—and bolsters combat effectiveness in the bargain.

Two cents on military innovation from philosophy’s odd couple: change needn’t be an ordeal.

James Holmes is Professor of Strategy at the Naval War College and coauthor of Red Star over the Pacific. The views voiced here are his alone.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Navy