The Origins of Victory: How Disruptive Military Innovation Determines the Fates of Great Powers
Andrew F. Krepinevich Jr. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2023. 549 pp. Notes. Index. $40.
Reviewed by Admiral James Stavridis, U.S. Navy (Retired)
This is a brilliant book, rich with both historical and technological detail, that coherently and convincingly provides a key thesis for this emerging era of 21st-century great power competition: that militaries must pursue disruptive technologies to achieve the fundamental strategic goals of their respective nations. To fail in this mission will lead to national decline and defeat in the face of more aggressive competitors.
No one is better qualified to expound this thesis than Dr. Andrew Krepinevich. In addition to his significant military background (West Point class of 1972, returning with a Harvard PhD to teach at the Academy before retiring), his intellectual stamp is deeply etched into the late 20th-century military-technical revolution, which is colloquially known as the “Revolution in Military Affairs” (RMA).
But, as Krepinevich unpacks in The Origins of Victory, we have seen that movie many times in the history of warfare—the moment when a new and powerful disruptive technology is grasped and deployed to the immense advantage of the military that got there first. Quoting Voltaire, the author finds plenty of examples in military history that prove the heart of his thesis, that “God is not on the side of the big battalions, but on the side of those who can shoot best.”
Diving backward in history, Krepinevich provides examples from the 19th century, including the rise of railroads, rifled weapons, steam power, and telegraph communications. He nods emphatically to British Admiral Sir Jackie Fisher, applauding his ideas on the application of speed and acceleration over armor with the creation of the Dreadnought-class battleships in the run-up to World War I. He then moves briskly through the rise of submarines, aviation, and the impact of new sensors.
The remainder of part I details all that has unfolded since those military revolutions of about a century ago and projects the reader into the future of combat. In the second half of the volume, Krepinevich zeros in on the role of the military in driving the right technologies to create, as he puts it, “the origins of victory.”
He appropriately highlights Fisher’s work in not only creating the Dreadnought class, but also and more important, the submarine as a true weapon of war. He analyzes the challenges with which Fisher was forced to contend, most of which summon to the reader’s mind an alleged quote by Winston Churchill (an ally, most of the time) about the traditions of the Royal Navy: “Rum, buggery, and the lash.” Indeed, Fisher was forced to use a few figurative lashes over his decades of driving innovation and provides readers a case study of both the triumphs and pitfalls.
Turning to his personal métier of land warfare, Krepinevich is on equally firm footing studying the choices of army commanders, in the evocatively named chapter “Out of the Trenches.” Here, he examines the choices made by both sides in the wake of the Great War that laid the seeds of the far greater conflagration to come in World War II. The rise of faster, mobile, and more lethal ground forces—such as the German Panzer forces—are placed in a sensible historical context. The author then returns to sea in this lengthy section, unpacking the role of the interwar war colleges, notably the Navy’s views emanating from Newport. He concludes with a study of Air Force innovation under General Bill Creech.
Perhaps the best writing in the book reflects the time Krepinevich spent in the Pentagon as a staff officer and then a civilian at the Office of Net Assessment. One of the final chapters, “From Mass to Precision,” moves swiftly through advances stemming from the failed war in Vietnam, the rise of stealth and precision, effective command-and-control and data networks, and the roots of the RMA. He illustrates short, sharp episodes such as the 1973 Yom Kippur War alongside the 1986 Operation El Dorado Canyon, culminating with the First Gulf War in 1991.
The final two chapters pull together all the history with a look to the future. The author’s deep dive into Fisher’s Royal Navy, the German blitzkrieg doctrine of World War II, and modern lessons from the U.S. Navy and Air Force provide compelling lessons from that history.
As the final chapter unfolds, Krepinevich gives his assessment of where things stand today. While not overly encouraging, it does provide a roadmap for what the United States must do to create victory: embrace new and disruptive ideas; be patient in providing resources to them; practice and train to new doctrines; and build the organizational structures, from war colleges to the defense industrial base to combatant commands that will support visionary thinking and execution.
As someone who commanded such an organization as a one-star—the post-9/11 Navy think tank Deep Blue—I was rising out of my chair cheering on this methodical, superb merger of history, technology, and prescription. But I will close with a cautionary quote from Sir Jackie Fisher, who said, again and again, that the key to victory is simply making up “our minds how we are going to fight!” He goes on to ask, “Who has made up his mind?” and then closes with a chilling question: “How many of our admirals have got minds?”
Andy Krepinevich is a brilliant West Pointer and Army officer, but in essence, his book is a dramatic challenge to the Admiralty. Let us hope U.S. admirals take up the ideas in this smart, timely volume—and my money is on them to do so.
Admiral Stavridis is a retired four-star officer who led the NATO Alliance in global operations from 2009 to 2013 as Supreme Allied Commander with responsibility for Afghanistan, Libya, the Balkans, Syria, counterpiracy, and cybersecurity. He is Chair Emeritus of the U.S. Naval Institute Board, and his most recent book is To Risk It All: Nine Conflicts and the Crucible of Decision (Penguin Press, 2022).
Our Man in Tokyo: An American Ambassador and the Countdown to Pearl Harbor
Steve Kemper. New York: Maritime Books, 2022. 425 pp. Notes. Biblio. Index. $29.99.
Reviewed by Lieutenant Commander Ryan Hilger, U.S. Navy
Many curricula, books, and tales of the beginning of World War II are told from a U.S.-centric view. Recent scholarship has shed a new light on Japan’s brutal war against China, but little has been said about the intricate and dramatic diplomatic events in the decade before Pearl Harbor and what the U.S. ambassador to Japan, Joseph Grew, did during that turbulent time. Until now.
Author Steve Kemper draws on Grew’s extensive collection of papers, along with the archives of the State Department, to provide new insights into how the 1930s unfolded amid the slow march to war. In contrast to the stories that have been told, Kemper draws out the fractured relationship between Grew in Tokyo and State officials in Washington and how hardened attitudes and faulty assumptions from senior U.S. officials contributed to war.
Joseph Grew became one of the forefathers of the modern U.S. diplomatic service. Starting his career in 1905 as a private secretary to the Vice Consul in Cairo, Egypt—long before the State Department would professionalize the diplomatic corps—Grew passed through embassies in Mexico, Russia, Germany, and Austria before reaching ambassadorial rank and serving as the ambassador to Denmark, Switzerland, and Turkey, with a three-year stint as the Under Secretary of State in the mid-1920s. In June 1932, Grew and his wife, Alice, arrived in Tokyo to assume a post that would last nearly a decade and be the most challenging assignment of his career.
Grew launched himself into the duties of ambassador to Japan with rigor: meeting the Emperor, building relationships with Japanese officials and other ambassadors, speaking at the Japan America Society to build goodwill, throwing parties and luncheons, and being the representative of the United States to the Japanese government. The latter would prove most taxing, as the post of foreign minister became a revolving door with the rise and fall of successive cabinets from assassination, intransigence, extreme nationalism, and other causes. But through each, Grew demonstrated the value and necessity of building personal relationships with each of them. Those relationships were especially necessary as Grew brought lengthy reports of Japanese atrocities against Americans and their property in China, and the Japanese military did little to rein in the troops.
Not long after arriving, Grew began to see and report back on the cultural and political harbingers of future trouble. The Imperial Japanese military was outside the constitution and government—the prime minister had little control and could get nothing accomplished unless the army and navy approved. Japanese culture demanded that no one back down without a way to save face, even in a simple traffic standoff. It would have catastrophic consequences in the run-up to Pearl Harbor. His ability to build relationships led the other ambassadors and diplomatic missions in Tokyo to see Grew as the barometer of just how bad things were. If he still went golfing several days per week, the crisis likely was minimal and would blow over. But if he returned to Tokyo unexpectedly from his extended summer stay in Karuizawa, the mood would turn bleak.
Kemper delivers a candid portrait of Grew and his family working through a turbulent decade, but the revelations of how the State Department responded to him shattered many of the common narratives of U.S. diplomatic efforts in the time before World War II. Kemper expertly reveals, through Grew’s correspondence, the challenges with his superiors in Washington. His immediate superior, Stanley Hornbeck, was practically Grew’s opposite. He had never been to Japan and harbored cynical and nearly racist thoughts about the Japanese. The Secretary of State, Cordell Hull, though normally aloof, seemed to never listen or respond to any of Grew’s telegrams, nor keep Grew and the U.S. mission informed. Rarely told in U.S. history classes, this aspect reveals that the United States was far more complicit in the start of war with Japan than we are normally led to believe.
Kemper’s book portrays just how important diplomatic efforts and relationships are in defusing crises. Our Man in Tokyo should be required reading for national security leaders everywhere as we face growing challenges with China and Russia.
Lieutenant Commander Hilger is an engineering duty officer stationed in Cape Canaveral, Florida.
Danger Close!: A Vietnam Memoir
Phil Gioia. Latham, MD: Stackpole Books, 2022. 335 pp. Maps. Photos. Coda. $29.95.
Reviewed by Colonel John McKay, U.S. Marine Corps (Retired)
Danger Close! is an arresting, traditional memoir concluded by a short, nine-page coda. The two are implicitly linked yet separate entities. A 1967 Virginia Military Institute graduate, Phil Gioia served two combat tours in Vietnam and was twice wounded and recognized for valor. He holds a master’s degree in foreign service from Georgetown University and an MBA from Stanford.
Long before the United States washed its hands of Vietnam in 1975, events of lasting regional consequences materialized in the last phases of World War II. In March 1945, Japanese occupying forces in Vietnam affected a coup deposing the French puppet regime. In July 1945, the United States parachuted Office of Strategic Services team “Deer” north of Hanoi to train and arm Hồ Chí Minh’s Vietminh against the Japanese. According to Gioia, team Deer saved a very ill Hồ Chí Minh from death. Dedication, gallantry, and idealism notwithstanding, these young men were hampered by wobbly policy, a curse bedeviling U.S. involvement in Vietnam through 1975.
Georges Clemenceau, French prime minister (1906–09, 1917–20), remarked, “War is too serious a matter to entrust to military men.” The U.S. scoreboard from Vietnam onward is one of a paucity of “wins.” A salutary corollary to Clemenceau’s would be, “War is too serious a matter to entrust to neophyte politicians, elected or otherwise.”
While the memoir portion of Danger Close! is informative and crisply told, it is a nostalgic paean to the past. Gioia masterfully gives modern-day readers something to gnaw on in the coda. It is not a series of “what ifs,” but rather an intelligently themed “what can we do better?” The assassination of President John F. Kennedy on 22 November 1963 precluded the implementation of National Security Action Memorandum (NASM) 263. It “directed that the first one thousand advisers were to be withdrawn from Vietnam by the end of 1963, with all U.S. advisers withdrawn by 1965.” President Lyndon B. Johnson withdrew NSAM 263 two days after Kennedy was killed. Two days later, Johnson issued NSAM 273, directing “increased covert actions” against North Vietnam.” Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution on 7 August 1964.
Bearing Clemenceau’s dictum in mind, only General David M. Shoup, 22nd Commandant of the Marine Corps, spoke out against the nation’s entry into and prosecution of the Vietnam War.
Danger Close! reflects intellectual vigor, mature writing, and professional demeanor. The publisher would have done well to include an index in Gioia’s excellent memoir.
Colonel McKay enlisted in the Marine Corps at age 17 and received an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy in 1964. A twice wounded combat veteran, he is an Olmsted Scholar and holds master’s degrees from Georgetown University and the National War College. He is writing his memoirs.