Warfare is a violent, intellectual contest between thinking and adapting adversaries. Usually, the team that can think better and adapt faster will win. Today, as we prepare for operations and war with an increasingly complex set of potential adversaries, we must do more to sharpen our thinking, learn the lessons from history, and expand our minds. The margins of victory will be razor-thin—we cannot be complacent. What we do in peace will be decisive in war.
I want to revitalize the intellectual debate in our Navy. We all—officers, enlisted, and civilians—need to develop sound and long-term habits for reading and writing during the entire course of our careers. We must challenge our own assumptions, be informed by the facts, and be aware of the current context. We must commit to self-improvement, through formal schools and courses, and especially through self-education. I strongly encourage you to read, think, and write about our naval profession. Our Navy benefits from a vigorous intellectual debate.
No matter how busy you may think you are, you must find time for reading, or surrender yourself to self-chosen ignorance.
I realize that it takes dedication to devote time to reading, but it is fundamental to growth as a naval professional. As recently retired Marine General James Mattis, one of our best-read leaders, once wrote, “The problem with being too busy to read is that you learn by experience (or by your men’s experience)—i.e., the hard way.” If, through a lack of research, we relearn the lessons of history each time we go to war, we will needlessly pay the price in sunken ships and greater loss of life. We must all study voraciously to prepare ourselves for the ultimate responsibility of leadership in war.
Reading can teach us the fundamentals of our business. Thucydides, Clausewitz, Mahan, Corbett . . . these masters wrote works of the highest quality that have stood the test of time. As the challenges the naval service faces have multiplied, knowledge required to meet those challenges has also grown. This means that I cannot possibly dictate a comprehensive list of “the” books to read. Still, I will soon share with you what I consider to be a canon of classic works. I am also thinking of ways I can highlight other books that I have found interesting because they helped me to think through a problem or see things differently. I will make it easy to obtain these books through an e-book program that can be easily accessed through your personal electronic devices. Finally, I will open up a way for all of us to talk about what we are reading.
There is great value in testing conventional wisdom and exploring new ideas. A good idea will get better through this intellectual challenge. Newspapers, periodicals, and blogs can provide us different perspectives on issues of the day—and these contributors can also challenge our thinking. Focused forums such as the U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, the Naval War College Review, the Marine Corps Gazette, and more recently, online blogs, have hosted professional conversations. Thoughtful, well-researched articles can offer useful insights and, when needed, can help us change our minds.
As reading leads to broader thinking, writing leads to clearer thinking. If you have not written much, I urge you to get started. A sharp pen reflects a sharp mind. But writing is not for the weak. The writer must form and then expose his or her ideas to public scrutiny. That takes confidence. But an argument properly conceived and defended can be of great value to our profession.
It is not my purpose to offer writing lessons here, but in my experience, simple is better. Avoid acronyms or code. Be clear and concise. Keep in mind Mark Twain’s warning, “The more you explain it, the more I don’t understand it.” I also have found the advice below helpful.
Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon. . . .
But the secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components. Every word that serves no function, every long word that could be a short word, every adverb that carries the same meaning that’s already in the verb, every passive construction that leaves the reader unsure who is doing what—these are the thousand and one adulterants that weaken the strength of a sentence. And they usually occur in proportion to education and rank.
—William Zinsser, On Writing Well
If you are just getting started in the writing business, consider reaching out to senior mentors for feedback before you submit. They will help you to hone your arguments and keep you fair in the channel.
Finally, understand that you are accountable for your writing. You own what you write. So know your subject and the context surrounding your topic—do your research. Speak in your own voice. Be ready to defend your position. When you write, your ideas are going to be challenged and maybe harshly criticized. That is acceptable. Learn from it, and come back better.
To support a meaningful exchange, senior leaders must not confuse respectful debate with disloyalty. Sometimes the junior person in the conversation may have the best idea. Everybody likes out-of-the-box thinkers, until that person challenges their program—an event that may be distracting if not frustrating. But if we act to squelch that voice, it only takes one time to kill the entire climate of debate. We must be confident that our thinking will grow sharper by sustaining thoughtful challenges. In fact, we need to “protect” our best thinkers from a system that can be intolerant of challenge. Keep our eyes fixed on our mission: defending the nation. We must have vigorous and open debates with a relentless focus on being the best we can in that calling.
Just about everywhere we look, our problems are becoming more complex and challenging. It is imperative that we, individually and as a Navy, are ready—morally, physically, and mentally. The nation will call on us to get under way and, if necessary, fight.
By reading and writing now, we are improving ourselves and the Navy. We are preparing for when we are called into battle. Read and write professionally with that singular purpose: to confound our enemies and make our Navy more powerful. We must think hard and do better. It is time to break out the books and sharpen our pens.
Admiral Richardson is the Navy’s 31st Chief of Naval Operations.
Lieutenant O’Keefe is a surface warfare officer.