Surf When You Can: Lessons in Life, Loyalty, and Leadership from a Maverick Navy Captain
Captain Brett Crozier, U.S. Navy (Retired), with Michael Vlessides. New York: Atria Books, 2023. 240 pp. $28.
Reviewed By Lieutenant Kyle Cregge, U.S. Navy
In Surf When You Can, retired Navy Captain Brett Crozier offers readers an engaging and candid account of his 30-year naval career. The memoir dives deep into the life of a man who has flown helicopters and jets and commanded conventional- and nuclear-powered ships, all while circling the globe. Crozier’s writing is breezy and accessible, ensuring that even those without a naval operations background can appreciate his lessons on honor, leadership, and service.
Throughout the book, Crozier emphasizes the importance of relationships, which served him well in various situations. These include his time in Egypt during the Bright Star exercise over the Pyramids or working with NATO partners and his slow-grown commitment to sharing an espresso with those international officemates. Another notable anecdote involves time spent with Pakistani mariners, watching The Nutty Professor while riding a small ship back to port, as they navigated potential encounters with Iranian pirates who otherwise would have demanded “tariffs” in the absence of U.S. Navy ship presence.
Key themes of the book include the power of kindness, the importance of teamwork, and the value of standing up for what you believe in. Captain Crozier’s “Surf When You Can” lesson emphasizes finding balance in every aspect of one’s health and wellness. His love for surfing is a metaphor for finding personal fulfillment and balance in life. Everyone has something that is their “surfing”—and avoiding it in favor of work is far more likely to hurt you than to help.
The book also addresses the controversial events surrounding the 2020 COVID-19 outbreak on board the USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71), which ultimately led to Captain Crozier’s dismissal from command. Readers seeking a tell-all validation of either a too-soft captain overreacting to COVID-19 or a courageous captain standing up to an aloof and dismissive administration at the height of the pandemic may no doubt have their partisan confirmation bias fulfilled while completely missing the point. The success of Surf When You Can lies in the broader leadership lessons it imparts and the appreciation Crozier had and still has to have served in the Navy. Those lessons and his commitment extend far beyond the singular event that catapulted Captain Crozier to fame.
As a reader with personal experience on board the Theodore Roosevelt at the time, I can attest to Captain Crozier’s regular presence around the ship and his genuine concern for his sailors. The closing phrase of his many 1MC announcements and this book encapsulates his leadership style and commitment to his crew: “Keep your head on a swivel, your eye on a shipmate, and be ready for the fight when the day comes.”
Surf When You Can is a heartfelt and inspiring career memoir that, for all its talk of kindness, may seem out of place in military service. Far from it—empathy, communication, trust, and, yes, kindness, foster the tight-knit bonds of the best units, teams, companies, families, and individual relationships. There will always be a time for violence or hard choices, especially in the military. Compartmentalizing and drilling to your training are similarly critical, as when Crozier and his squadronmates were briefly forced to consider how to bring down any other potential hijacked commercial airliners inbound on the West Coast on 11 September 2001. Yet living a constant pure-mission life strains the bonds of connection between families and teammates, testing those bonds’ strength at the worst time, not the best. Any leader, of any rank, will be better for finding the personal balance and team cohesion that Captain Crozier calls us to.
Buy the book. And surf when you can.
Lieutenant Cregge is a surface warfare officer. He served on a destroyer, cruiser, and aircraft carrier as an air-defense liaison officer. He is the prospective operations officer for the USS Pinckney (DDG-91).
How Data Happened: A History from the Age of Reason to the Age of Algorithms
Chris Wiggins and Matthew L. Jones. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2023. 307 pp. Notes. Index. $20.
Reviewed by Captain Bill Bray, U.S. Navy (Retired)
It would be hard to find a leader in the past two decades who, when faced with a consequential decision of some sort, was never told to “trust the data.” In my years leading intelligence teams and commands, I was often dispensed this advice from some high priest of data science. But what I suspected then, and now well know, no less from reading this marvelous book, is that I was not trusting the data at all. I was trusting the algorithm writers, with all their biases and flawed understandings of the analytical problems with which we were grappling. Relying on data science, it turned out, required a lot of faith.
Data is made, not found. It does not float through the air on an early summer day like dandelion wisps or reside in the earth where it can be mined like manganese. As NYU professor and media historian Lisa Gitelman once noted, “Raw data is an oxymoron.” What passes as raw data has already been collected, curated, collated, and so forth, using intricate coding opaque to most data customers.
Chris Wiggins is an associate professor of applied mathematics and chief data scientist at the New York Times. Matthew Jones is a professor of history who specializes in the history of science. With this book they sought to answer the question, “How did the mathematical analysis of data about people and things come to be such a dominant way to understand and to control the world, to predict and prescribe?” They begin in the 18th century, at a point when the word “statistics” becomes commonly used, as sovereigns sought more scientific methods to manage their realms (the word derives from the Latin “status,” meaning political state or government).
What began as a rather rudimentary enterprise has become, three centuries later, so pervasive and sophisticated that one could be forgiven for assuming it is a superior form of knowing the truth about almost any subject. Data science is distinct from statistics because the former requires computational power to crunch the numbers, identify patterns, and make predictions. It can do what mere humans cannot. The current benefits and future potential of the discipline are well known and appreciated, if not always fully understood.
But, as Wiggins and Jones show, the historical record on data analysis is mixed at best. Data has been misused as much as it has been put to good purpose, perhaps more so. As the great Black sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois once observed, data the Prudential Insurance Company used to justify not insuring Black Americans (they died sooner, were less healthy, etc.) was proof they were victims of discrimination, not a justification for more of it. More recently, philosophers, sociologists, lawyers, and even data scientists themselves have been warning about the malignancies of the big data machine (see Cathy O’Neil’s Weapons of Math Destruction or Virginia Eubanks’ Automating Inequality, for example).
Data science, with all its accomplishments, does not float free of the need for ethical scrutiny and accountability. Nor is it some epistemological Nirvana. It is one path to knowing, but hardly the only one. When the commander of U.S. Fleet Forces Command recently announced the Navy is working on a data-informed decision-making process to determine which ships should be decommissioned, the promise of objective transparency rang with a familiar techno-piety that shall not be questioned. Would this finally free the Navy from the messy politics and subjective debating that accompany decommissioning decisions?
Perhaps, but do not count on it. Leaders should not look to data science to unshackle them from the burdens of ethical, subjective judgment. Good data science may help, but it will never set you free.
Captain Bray is a retired naval intelligence officer and the deputy editor-in-chief of Proceedings.
Backfire: How Sanctions Reshape the World Against U.S. Interests
Agathe Demarais. New York: Columbia University Press, 2022. Notes. Biblio. Index. $30.
Reviewed by Captain Eric Schuck, U.S. Navy Reserve
Precise, direct, and spare, yet with an engaging tone often bordering on the wry, Agathe Demarais’s Backfire: How Sanctions Reshape the World Against U.S. Interests is everything one would expect of a book written by the head of The Economist’s Intelligence Unit. It achieves the rare blend of being both informative and enjoyable. Make no mistake, though—while the tenor of the discussion may seem disarming, Demarais’s objective is to send a clear warning about the limits of economic sanctions as used by the United States.
Despite their increasing and increasingly varied application as a policy tool, U.S. sanctions run two primary risks. The first is that they will lose effectiveness through overuse. The second is more profound. Even when sanctions are successfully deployed, too often they create a range of consequences that distance the United States from its allies in ways counter to U.S. interests. The United States therefore must be far more mindful of when and how sanctions are employed, particularly when executed unilaterally.
Demarais’s guidance is offered neither as a polemic nor a jeremiad, but rather as a frank and honest appraisal of a highly popular national security policy tool whose future utility may be increasingly limited. She starts simply, explaining both the origins and evolution of modern economic sanctions from embargoes of goods through more complicated financial restrictions and individualized sanctions. Relying heavily on specific historical examples, Demarais lays out how sanctions came to be so widely used over the past 50 years. More critically, she also frames how increased use of various types of sanctions exposed certain limits. For example, cutting off North Korea from global financial markets is a very different task than closing off Iran. In addition, she offers concrete examples of the real—and potentially lethal—collateral damage of poorly designed or ineffectively implemented sanctions, such as those against Iraq or the Democratic Republic of Congo.
While these are all informative, Demarais’s most concerning observations relate to how the targets of sanctions react and what this means for the future. Increasingly, countries evade the effects of sanctions by moving beyond the reach of U.S. economic policy tools, whether through using currencies other than the U.S. dollar (including digital currencies) or by realigning trade away from the United States and its allies. In nearly every example, the clearest beneficiary of evasion efforts is China, often in ways that erode not only U.S. power and influence, but its moral standing as well—especially when unilateral sanctions misfire. Given this, if the United States intends to continue to use sanctions as a primary policy response, it will do so in an increasingly multipolar world in which targets of sanctions can find a convenient escape through support from China. In such situations, the value of allies increases in direct, if not greater, proportion to the erosion of U.S. economic power. Only through cooperation and coordination with economic partners can the United States maintain the relevance and efficacy of sanctions. Absent synchronization, as Demarais succinctly notes, “the United States will find itself fighting a losing battle if it sanctions alone.” It is a worthy reminder that coalitions have value in economics as well as in warfare.
Captain Schuck is the commanding officer of Navy Reserve Fleet Logistics Center Pearl Harbor Headquarters. He holds a PhD from Washington State University and is the Dean David Hansen Professor of Economics at Linfield University.
All the War They Want: Special Operations Techniques for Winning in Cyber Warfare, Business, and Life
Jeffrey J. Engle. Austin, TX: Greanleaf Book Group, 2023. 176 pp. Appx. $22.44.
Reviewed by Dustin League
Jeffrey Engle has amassed a wealth of experience in high-intensity and demanding fields. From a childhood of poverty and a broken family to an early career in the Army to building a cybersecurity business, Engle’s bona fides are clearly established. The application of his background in unconventional warfare as a lens through which to view the current state of cyber warfare promised to be ad engaging read. Unfortunately, All the War They Want failed to live up to its promise, instead delivering a competent, rather than compelling, blend of personal anecdotes and leadership advice.
All the War They Want is Engle’s publishing debut. A former Army special forces operator and current chair and president of the cybersecurity firm Conquest Cyber, he tries to tackle several topics in his book. Where the book is most successful is in providing lessons in team building and team leadership. Engle serves up several conventional rules in business operations—from “Buy the best-of-breed technologies” to “Acknowledging people’s efforts builds morale”—and provides counters to each, drawing on experiences in special operations training and warfighting. His depictions of the chaos of combat and the difficulty of special operations selection and training are highlights in the book. Each gives readers a direct, visceral connection to key moments in Engle’s life and showcases his talent for storytelling.
Engle uses these snapshots of experience as teaching points on the building and cultivation of elite teams to tackle difficult and crucial missions. His employment of the unconventional approach to business and life focuses on results over efforts, seeking ways to eliminate cumbersome or ineffective processes that hinder progress. The arguments he delivers are well crafted, though they tend to stop short of fully explaining how these methods can be implemented more widely. He establishes how and why an approach worked for him and his business, but more examples of deploying these tactics to a wider set of business problems would have been welcome.
Where the book is less successful is in providing an informative and compelling look at the current state of cyber warfare. Engle is emphatic about the importance of cyber warfare and the need for the United States to treat competition and conflict in this domain with the same degree of rigor as it treats them in more physical domains. Stressing these points is laudable, but he fails to bring the same clarity and specificity to this discussion as he does to recounting his lived experience in special operations. What Engle instead provides is a general overview of cyber warfare and the risks we are exposed to without any of the details that make for engaging reading. This is unfortunate not just because it slows down the book, but also because there is a lack of good literature on the current state of cyber warfare. A reader will finish these sections of the book convinced of Engle’s passion for cybersecurity but without any clear understanding of how that translates into real world actions.
All the War They Want is an uneven experience that promises more than it delivers. It is well-written and shines in moments when Engle brings the reader into his personal experiences of war and special operations. As a primer in organizing, developing, and leading elite teams, it provides strong reasons for what rules can and should be broken. It falters, though, in giving readers anything new and compelling about the state of cyber warfare and U.S. security challenges.
Mr. League is a military operations analyst and former U.S. Navy submarine officer. He studies submarine warfare issues for the U.S. and Australian navies.