Wednesday, October 01, 2014

The USN and its History of Boatrocking

Intellectual churn. Creative destruction. Marketplace of ideas. Creative friction. Robust debate.

Is progress ever made in an organization whose leaders prescribe for others and have their own careers characterized by, "Shut up and color?"

Of course, the answer is and emphatic, "No." The lockstep and the yesman are characteristics of Soviets and late-period Ottomans - neither of which are a successful benchmark for success.

The members of the front porch are well aware that our modern Navy, with a few welcome exceptions, has not been the most open for debate - but I don't think there ever was a period that was a utopia of free thoughts. In many respects, free thought is not quite in line with the military mind - and depending on who owns paper on you and your career timing, trying to engage in a free discussion of ideas can end a career - but not always. That keeps many on the intellectual sidelines. It is getting better, but still too many remain in the shadows. 

As our friend LCDR BJ Armstrong, USN reminded us in the opening of his book 21st Century Mahan, it can work out for some;
“It is not the business of naval officers to write books.”
- Adm. F. M. Ramsey, USN in the 1893 FITREP of A.T. Mahan.
The last decade or so has been, at least from this blogg'r's perspective, a golden age for those interested in the free flow of idea and open debate on national security concerns. The Internet has not only open the doors to more voices, it has also allowed greater access to facts and ideas to the larger public and most importantly - has created a rather brutal but effective marketplace of idea where every concept, thought, theory, or claim is crowdsourced fact checked quickly and without quarter. 

This was enabled by technology, and the cycle time is very short - but is this something unique to our age? Are parallel efforts to the milblogosphere such as DEF et al something new, or just another iteration of a great tradition?

Our good friend Claude Berube points us in the direction to a great history of healthy debate in the latest edition of Naval History magazine, The Crucible of Enlightenment.
... an era of naval enlightenment blossomed during Andrew Jackson’s presidency from 1829 to 1837. This period of robust contemplation and debate is perhaps best embodied in the Naval Lyceum, an organization that would serve as a prototype for later naval intellectual forums.
The Naval Lyceum provided a home for naval reformers through a permanent, professional organization that could advance new concepts. 
This was not the first American attempt at a professional military organization. The U.S. Military Philosophical Society (1802–13) was established as the nation engaged in the First Barbary War. Its purpose was to collect and preserve military science from veterans of the American Revolution and share knowledge about warfare, primarily from an army perspective. The society’s members included the sitting president, Thomas Jefferson; Secretary of War Henry Dearborn; elected officials; and Army and Navy officers.
I don't think this point can be made too much - rocking the boat is exactly what our Navy's traditions demand; not mindless followership;
In the 1830s, publications began to be increasingly distributed to promote and share ideas. These platforms of free speech were integral to the officers’ reform movement. Until this time, articles about the Navy in journals—particularly by serving officers—appeared infrequently, and were usually simple accounts of naval actions or hagiographic biographical essays of early heroes. 

The rise of military-specific publications would change that. The Naval Lyceum published its own periodical, the Naval Magazine (1836–37), for two years. Others included The Military and Naval Magazine (1833­­–34), Army and Navy Chronicle (1835–44), and The Sailor’s Magazine (1829–1935). These publications would help stimulate intellectual debate about the Navy among officers and interested civilians. Secular journals also published a growing number of articles about the Navy and/or written by naval officers. 

These periodicals featured essays that covered topics as diverse as biography, emerging technologies, officer-penned travel notes about ports and countries, foreign naval capabilities, naval policies, and ideas for improving the Navy. In the Naval Magazine , for example, article titles included “Comparative Resources of the American Navy,” “A Pilot’s Story of a Shipwreck,” “History of Navigation,” “Hints on the Mineral Wealth of the United States, Suggested by the Recent Discovery of Diamonds,” “Malaria, Produced by Vegetable and Animal Putrefaction, as a Cause in Fever,” “Traits of the Mussulman,” “The Acropolis of Athens,” and “Remarks on Quarantine Systems.” 

Some debates on the subjects covered in these periodicals became extremely contentious, particularly when senior officers began to weigh in.
This final pull-quote is perhaps a bit self-serving - but as my email basket reflects - some "smart professionals" have no clue about their real historical heritage.

Anonoblogg'rs? Yes, it is old school;
These magazines provided junior officers a valuable opportunity to publicly engage with senior officers and citizens on topics they had begun to write about in their own private correspondence and journals. They typically did so under pen names (as did many civilians). This ensured that in the event of a contentious topic, the author’s privacy would be protected and the debate would be focused on the message rather than the messenger. Essays frequently appeared with the bylines of authors using only a letter: “C,” “D,” “M,” or “X,” for example. Others chose names or phrases such as “Coquille,” “Neptune,” “Candor,” or “A Friend of the Navy.” Had authors published under their own names, their naval careers could have suffered, and the public would have dismissed their concepts as those of inexperienced junior officers. When attributed to nameless, faceless entities, their messages could gain a wider audience. 

Pseudonyms were an effective means of challenging conventional thinking, but not all officers agreed with using them. One officer, ironically identified by the moniker “Writer,” wrote of the “odious system of anonymous communications. Fear of power originated it; fear of detection has continued it. . . . In the warfare of anonymous communications, we pierce the masque, without thought of the wound we inflict on him whom it conceals, but shelters not.”
Read it all.

So, in the likely event you find yourself working for someone who is a child of the Dark Ages and not the Enlightenment - perhaps keep your thoughts associated with your name close, but know this; you are in the right and fully in line with the "finest tradition of the naval service."

No comments: