TOPGUN’s Top 10: Leadership Lessons from the Cockpit
Commander Guy M. Snodgrass, U.S. Navy (Retired). New York: Center Street, 2020. 192 pp. $22.
Reviewed by Commander Graham C. Scarbro, U.S. Navy
Navy pilot Guy “Bus” Snodgrass made waves last year with Holding the Line, a memoir of his time in the Pentagon working for former Defense Secretary James Mattis. Snodgrass’s take on the inner workings of the highest levels of power in the Defense Department was a revealing look at how a fighter pilot adjusted to the rough-and-tumble world of departmental politics. Throughout Holding the Line, Snodgrass contrasts the bureaucratic infighting at the Pentagon with the team spirit of life in naval aviation. Reading between the lines, one could almost sense Snodgrass’s desire to get out of the office and back to the jet.
In his new book, TOPGUN’s Top 10: Leadership Lessons from the Cockpit, Snodgrass returns home to the F/A-18 Hornet strike-fighter community to talk through the lessons he learned as a career fighter pilot. Written in an easy-to-read, accessible style, his lessons cover a range of topics, such as integrity, accountability, and the pursuit of (and elusive attainment of) perfection.
Aviators will recognize a dozen settings and situations that shaped Snodgrass’s experience, and the book reads like an afternoon in the ready room, sharing stories with squadron mates. Non-aviators and civilians will get a look at the fast-paced decision-making of the strike-fighter world, without the need for an ejection seat or two years of flight school.
His experiences as a speechwriter and author, born of time briefing and discussing tactics with squadron mates, lend the book a down-to-earth feel that avoids much of the complex jargon and inscrutable acronyms common to military writing. Snodgrass makes the world of fast jets, cutting-edge technology, and split-second choices available to all readers through an effective use of storytelling that all ready room members master.
Snodgrass’s boldfaced lessons are couched in quick vignettes that illustrate each one. “Always Have a Wingman” (lesson eight) includes a tale contrasting a memorable scene in the 1986 blockbuster film Top Gun with Snodgrass’s experience as a student at the famed Navy Fighter Weapons School, better known as TOPGUN (one word, all caps). “Don’t Confuse Activity with Progress” (lesson six, this reviewer’s personal favorite) details Snodgrass’s experiences as a junior member of the TOPGUN staff, trying to stay afloat in a new job while under pressure to deliver results. Lesson four, “Do the Right Thing, Even When No One Is Looking,” tells a story familiar to every aviator who has awoken in the middle of the night to a phone call from the squadron duty officer (followed by a quick trip back to base to use the shredder).
As with Dan “Yank” Pedersen’s memoir, TOPGUN: An American Story, readers looking for tales of clashing egos, hotshot antics, and shirtless volleyball will finish TOPGUN’s Top 10 disappointed. Snodgrass is careful to outline that in naval aviation, success is a team sport, and there is no room for egotism or selfishness in or out of the cockpit. Rather, his words highlight the importance of the reciprocal nature of teams and leaders: Better leadership makes better teams, and better teams make better leaders.
The book is a quick read, and the details of how naval aviation forces its officers and sailors to quickly adapt, mature, and collaborate for excellence come through like keys to success in a mission briefing. Snodgrass presents the bottom line up front (lesson nine), builds on that lesson with details and stories, and then underscores its importance with larger takeaways. The book reads like a flight debrief, a window into the soul of naval aviation.
Commander Scarbro is a naval flight officer assigned to Strike Fighter Wing Atlantic.
No Time for Spectators: The Lessons That Mattered Most From West Point To The West Wing
General Martin E. Dempsey, U.S. Army (Retired). New York: Missionday, 2020. 215 pp. $27.95.
Reviewed by Rear Admiral Paul Becker, U.S. Navy (Retired)
Writing leadership books is a growth industry. Thousands are published every year. What makes one memorable is a leader-author with credibility who teaches through storytelling, engages our emotions, and leaves a lasting impression to inspire follow-on improvement. General Martin Dempsey’s latest book has all that. His four decades of personal insights and vivid descriptions of short, meaningful conversations with characters ranging from a Humvee gunner in Iraq to the President in the White House comprise dozens of short stories that are relevant to those in the public and private sectors. And the ever-jocular Dempsey’s anecdotes contain a healthy amount of battlefield and boardroom humor, to boot.
The book’s title is Dempsey’s way of imparting the need for one to step off the sidelines of life and demonstrate character, teamwork, and toughness to overcome complex challenges. The book is organized into nine chapters, each with an emphasis on significant leadership attributes, which, when blended into a whole, help fashion a person of integrity.
There is an affluence of interesting, short narrative lessons from the life of Dempsey the young man, cadet, and junior officer, that underscores the pivotal first chapter’s title, “Learn to Follow First” (because the best leaders contribute to a team first by simply being present and modeling what right looks like). There are subsequent high-impact sections: “Character Matters” (that is how we succeed); “Be Passionately Curious” (we do not want to cede the competition of ideas to others); “Understand the Limits of Your Loyalty” (support has limits); “Don’t Hurry” (we should not rush to judgment or erroneous action); “Welcome Moments of Surprising Clarity” (some events are more important than others); “Sweat the Small Stuff” (mastering the fundamentals helps us prepare for the big stuff); “Exercise Sensible Skepticism” (because too many of us often default to confirming our beliefs in this age of what Dempsey calls “the digital echo”); and “Be Responsibly Rebellious” (most innovation and progress in bureaucracies begin this way).
Dempsey gives special attention to the qualities of “a felt life,” a phrase he first heard as a plebe at West Point that embraces taking advantage of opportunities to make a big impact. His passion for living a felt life is demonstrated by tales of bolstering the spirits of the bereaved at a funeral, triumphing over throat cancer, receiving 24-hour notice to take charge of the U.S. Central Command, or even taking on mundane tasks with zeal, such as overhauling a maintenance program in the 10th Cavalry. Each required a full commitment of mind, body, and soul. To succeed, passive observation from the periphery was not an option. Living a felt life leaves No Time for Spectators.
Highlighting the continuum between followership and leadership, Dempsey stresses, “This book is about doing what’s right for the right reasons, whether you are called upon to lead or follow,” with added emphasis on “[This is] what we should reasonably expect of our leaders and what our leaders should expect about us.” In this regard, No Time for Spectators is valuable to readers at any level in the hierarchy of our military, government, or business communities.
Rear Admiral Becker was the director of intelligence (J2) for the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 2013 to 2015, while General Dempsey was the Chairman. He is now president of The Becker T3 Group and teaches “Moral Reasoning for Naval Officers” at the U.S. Naval Academy.
Shields of the Republic: The Triumph and Peril of America’s Alliances
Mira Rapp-Hooper. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2020. 252 pp. Notes. Index. $27.95
Reviewed by Lieutenant Commander Ryan Hilger, U.S. Navy
In the past decade, the international political environment has been steadily crumbling. Russia, exploiting booming oil revenues, has modernized its military, lowered the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons, and carried out a number of hybrid warfare operations in its former satellite states. China’s growth exploded under Xi Jinping, a leader now on par with Mao Zedong, and the Chinese armed forces have consolidated their regional power and expanded global operations under the Belt and Road Initiative. Nations such as Iran, North Korea, and Syria have provided a multitude of challenges with which American statesmen must grapple. At home, the past few years have witnessed a rapid turn toward isolationist policies and antagonistic relationships with our strongest allies.
In Shields of the Republic, Mira Rapp-Hooper takes the reader on a tour of U.S. foreign policy from the perspective of its alliances, exploring how they have shaped the course of international events since the end of World War II. The postwar environment, with the looming Soviet threat, saw the introduction of permanent foreign alliances, something that most U.S. policymakers and statesmen have routinely shunned—repeatedly pointing to George Washington’s famous quip in his Farewell Address on the risks of permanent alliances.
In Shields of the Republic, Rapp-Hooper looks closely at the periods of movement in U.S. alliances: the Cold War, the rudderless, unipolar, post–Cold War era, and the rise of a new great power competition and its implications for U.S. security today. She acknowledges that international relations are notoriously difficult to analyze for the efficacy of different policies. There are no experiments with control groups and every situation is different. To overcome these limitations, she looks to the counterfactual, a rare technique in foreign policy analysis, as a way to explore what might have been, had U.S. alliances taken a different course.
Shields of the Republic offers the opportunity for leaders at all levels to further their critical thinking skills and understand that our actions are not linear and reductionist, as we are usually taught to believe. The book helps leaders understand that the international political arena is an exceptionally complex place, and that personnel from strategic corporals to commanding officers to diplomats have the potential to influence allies, and adversaries, for better or worse, through their actions.
With U.S. alliances shaken by the events of the past few years, the actions of Americans can either help further destroy these relationships or help to rebuild the goodwill needed to further both U.S. and collective security. Despite the recent rhetoric, as Rapp-Hooper suggests, U.S. security is fundamentally intertwined with that of our alliances—all 23 of them. From weaker, newer alliances to the special relationship with Great Britain to a North Atlantic Treaty Organization undergoing both an identity crisis and significant threats from within, the United States needs every alliance, and its allies need the United States to be the leader it has been.
Shields of the Republic is short, concise, and easily read. It should be required reading in professional military education courses and on U.S. military leaders’ professional reading lists. In a renewed era of great power competition, leaders at all levels must understand how our actions—port calls, partner security capacity building, freedom of navigation operations, etc.—affect the security of the United States and the billions of people around the world. They are counting on us.
Lieutenant Commander Hilger is an engineering duty officer stationed in Washington, D.C.
Save Your Ammo: Working Across Cultures For National Security
Louise Rasmussen and Winston Sieck. Yellow Springs, OH: Global Cognition, 2019. 255 pp. $16.95.
Reviewed by Major Diana Moga, U.S. Marine Corps
When two cognitive psychologists set out to uncover the key to building relationships in stressful environments, the result is this book by scientists Louise Rasmussen and Winston Sieck, Save Your Ammo: Working across Cultures for National Security. Here, the authors have leavened the hard-won lessons of dozens of military personnel with experiences as diverse as the uniformed service itself. The result is a framework of guiding principles for how to handle the misunderstandings, mistrust, and misinterpretations that exist in the abstract chasm known as culture. But this book is not about understanding culture for the sake of it; all its guiding principles build to one purpose: mission accomplishment.
Through scores of interviews with subject-matter experts, Rasmussen and Sieck have distilled a pattern of behaviors, attitudes, and beliefs seen across a range of culture-based interactions, regardless of geography or the personal attributes of the people involved. They have organized these data points into a framework of 12 cultural competencies called adaptive readiness for culture. Each chapter explores one of the 12 cultural skills, with three or four key points at the end.
Though Save Your Ammo serves as a vehicle for the adaptive readiness for culture framework, service members up and down the military hierarchy need not feel intimidated by its content or style of writing. Rasmussen and Sieck strike a conversational tone in their book, steering clear of academic prose. They write to bring the reader as close to the stories as possible. These true stories, drawn from many interviews, lay the foundation for illustrating each point in the 12 cultural competencies.
Each chapter uses personal stories to illustrate how service members are confronted with a cultural conflict, and how the cultural competency helped improve the problem and clear a path to accomplishing the mission. The first chapter, “Accomplish Your Mission by Building Relationships,” uses a Marine Corps sergeant’s experience on a military training team. The sergeant, tasked with establishing an Iraqi Army division intelligence section, describes how finding common ground and establishing rapport early in his deployment made his job smoother. Because he developed a relationship with the Iraqi soldiers, they were open to learning from him about best practices for handling sensitive information and taking corrective action on poor practices.
Another chapter, “How to Handle Puzzling Behavior,” tells the story of a Marine Corps lieutenant colonel who spent eight months in Iraq as an advisor to an Iraqi infantry brigade. When confronted with an Iraqi colonel who “hates Americans,” the lieutenant colonel took an interest in learning about him. By understanding why the colonel had a negative attitude toward Americans, the lieutenant colonel was able to build the relationship and gain more cooperation from the colonel to accomplish his mission.
Many of the lessons in this book boil down to truths about relationships that mature professionals already know and understand. It is a no-brainer that having empathy for others and establishing acquaintances in any work environment help solve all sorts of problems, from getting approved for additional funding on a pet project to squeezing time in with the boss when her schedule is full. But when working across cultures, these truths can become lost in a sea of new and often perplexing information. Add to the mix high stakes, life-and-death situations, or merely the stressors of overseas work, and the question of how to relate to other human beings becomes a challenge all its own.
Rasmussen and Sieck wrangle myriad situations to deliver the point that when all the information is new and perplexing, the truths about relationships remain the same. For service members heading off to a first or even second overseas deployment, this book will help them accomplish the mission, primarily if the mission hinges on relationships. Save Your Ammo serves as proof that even under intense and challenging cultural situations, the basics about relationships remain relevant.
Major Diana Moga is a Marine Corps civil affairs officer with a degree in international relations from the U.S. Naval Academy.
Cyber Strategy: The Evolving Character of Power and Coercion
Brandon Valeriano, Benjamin Jensen, and Ryan C. Maness. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018. 320 pp. Appxs. Notes. Biblio. Index. $36.95.
Reviewed by Lieutenant (junior grade) W. Kirk Wolff, U.S. Navy
As a surface warfare officer who studied political science in college, I can hardly claim to be an expert on cyber warfare, although I have read books and essays on the topic for my professional development and personal interest. I will not let you in on my cyber grades at the Academy, but they certainly were not As.
Thus, when I began reading Cyber Strategy: The Evolving Character and Power of Coercion, I was a bit intimidated, to say the least. Despite my apprehension, I found this book to be enlightening. In fact, I would say this is the best text I have read on the subject, for these reasons:
1. It is academic yet eminently readable, without inundating the reader with jargon.
2. It holds the reader’s attention by analyzing novel concepts of strategy and power related to cyber warfare.
3. It does not overstate the strength of cyber as a tool to coerce nations.
The text places the spectrum of cyber actions into proper context using empirical analysis and case studies, all of which will leave readers with a solid grasp of the true efficacy of cyber strategies. Rather than focusing on the technical aspect of cyber operations, it traces the geopolitical impact and effectiveness of actions in the cyber realm.
While the book’s content is understandable to someone who is not deeply educated in cyber warfare, it also is a tour de force of analysis and would be appreciated by experts. The authors systematically examine the effectiveness of varying cyber strategies, such as disruption and espionage, in achieving the desired ends of nation-states.
The main question of the book is, “How do states use cyber strategies to influence their rivals?” The authors effectively answer this by proving that states influence rivals using cyber strategies in concert with other coercive methods, rather than employing cyber warfare alone. The authors use empirical analysis to test three hypotheses regarding cyber warfare. The book includes three case studies of Russian, U.S., and Chinese cyber strategies that illustrate the history and approaches of the three major actors in the cyber arena.
This text would be useful for policymakers and Department of Defense decision-makers who must determine effective blends of cyber strategies and tools of statecraft, or anyone who is interested in grand strategy and cyber warfare.
Lieutenant (jg) Wolff is a surface warfare officer who has deployed to the Fifth and Seventh Fleets. He is a 2018 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and is currently serving on board the USS Paul Hamilton (DDG-60).
Enduring Vietnam: An American Generation and Its War
James Wright. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2020. 464 pp. Maps. Notes. Index. $29.95.
Reviewed by Master Chief David Mattingly, U.S. Navy (Retired)
Vietnam. A word that excites a range of emotions in Americans, even though the Vietnam War ended for the United States more than 44 years ago. Since the fall of Saigon in 1975, there has been a plethora of books written about the war. They range from personal accounts of those who served in Vietnam, to point-to-point histories of the conflict, to the strategic assessments of the decisions made by the nation’s political and military leaders of the era. James Wright, a Marine Corps veteran and noted historian, approaches the subject of the Vietnam War by analyzing how the ideals built on the victories of World War II affected the way a nation sent a generation to fight, and how the war influenced that generation.
Wright uses interviews and personal accounts very effectively to tell the stories and make the book interesting while keeping it historically accurate. The stories he tells, however, are told through the optics of the U.S. Army and Marine Corps ground war in the Republic of Vietnam, and not the broader war fought in the air, rivers, and coastal seas. Wright breaks the span of the Vietnam War into three periods. The advisory years of 1961–65, when the war was fought by noncommissioned officers and officers acting as advisors or in combat support roles. The Americanization period of 1965–69, when the number of U.S. troops in-country reached its peak. And last, the Vietnamization period of 1969–73, in which U.S. forces tried to survive and turn the war over to the military of South Vietnam.
The U.S. draft became synonymous with the Vietnam War. Without the mobilization of the National Guard and reserves, a large draft was required to provide the troops needed to meet President Lyndon B. Johnson’s escalation of the war and General William Westmoreland’s demand for more troops. The draft also divided American society. The sons of World War II veterans and others either enlisted to better their assignment, were drafted and did their duty, resisted the draft through education or medical deferments, refused service and were sentenced to prison, or fled to Canada.
Wright quoted Vietnam veteran and author Phillip Caputo, who wrote, “War is always attractive to young men who know nothing about it.” Many, when faced with the draft, opted to enlist. Wright points out the draft motivated many young men to enlist in the Navy or Air Force rather than serve in the Army, and an enlistment in the reserves or national guard almost certainly equaled a “pass” on deployment to Vietnam. In whatever way they decided to serve, nearly 9 million enlisted and more than 2 million were drafted, and they came home to a country that did not fully appreciate their service.
Enduring Vietnam provides a unique view of the Vietnam War. Its mix of personal accounts with the historical account of operations make it an enjoyable read. It is highly recommended for both students of U.S. military history and those who want to understand the motivations of U.S. leaders, why some Americans chose to fight and possibly die, and why others risked arrest or fled to Canada. The books is not all-encompassing, but is a worthwhile addition to a war historian’s bookshelf.
Master Chief Mattingly served as a Navy intelligence specialist and is a Vietnam War veteran. He continues to serve as a senior analyst in the U.S. intelligence community.