#Reviewing Lessons from the Gun Doctor

21st Century Sims Innovation, Education, and Leadership for the Modern Era. Benjamin F. Armstrong, ed. Naval Institute Press, 2015.


When searching for input from some of the big military thinkers of our day, some may look towards the insights provided from Army Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster, retired Marine General James Mattis, retired Navy Admiral James Stavridis, and Air Force General Welsh. These are some of the most esteemed strategists of our modern profession of arms. When looking for some radical thoughts about the current status and future outlook on our military, there has been a growing repository of writers who are serving, have served, and those who have spent their young professional careers studying our current military capacity. Most of these rising strategic thinkers have been able to share their thoughts on military affairs in peer reviewed outlets such as War on the RocksCIMSECthe Leading Edge, and here on the Strategy Bridge. One of these new voices, Lieutenant Commander B.J. Armstrong, has been able to apply his love of history to the challenges of the future with his contributions to the Naval Institute Press’ 21st Century Foundations series.

In his latest edition, 21st Century Sims: Innovation, Education, and Leadership for the Modern Era, Armstrong is able to return a spotlight on Admiral William Sims, an innovative naval leader often overshadowed by the subject of Armstrong’s first book, Alfred Thayer Mahan. Armstrong shares the story of how a young Lieutenant redefined the Navy’s approach to warfare by applying lessons learned from others to his own crew and reporting the improved results up his chain of command and to anyone who would listen, including the President of the United States and naval enthusiast, Theodore Roosevelt.

President Roosevelt encouraged the debate and the two great minds conducted it on the pages of the Naval Institute’s Proceedings magazine.

After proving himself to his peers and to the President, Sims pushed for new innovations in large, fast, heavily gunned battleships that brought him in opposition with the Godfather of U.S. naval strategy, Admiral Mahan himself, who argued for a large number of smaller ships with a mix of guns. President Roosevelt encouraged the debate and the two great minds conducted it in the pages of the Naval Institute’s Proceedings magazine. The debate grew and became a topic of discussion beyond the U.S. Navy, spreading to Congress and even the general public. Sims won the debate and the country began to prepare for the coming Great War.

Sims’ rumination is just as applicable in our present day, given our recent wars, as it was in his time.

21st Century Sims, lives up to its subtitle by highlighting Sims’ thoughts on innovation, education, and leadership with Armstrong adding his reflections on the application of those lessons to modern challenges. The first excerpt from Sims is about how the challenges of leadership were not only for those in senior level positions but also, more importantly, the need to focus on junior officer and non-commissioned officer development. The challenge, laid out by Sims was to go beyond “one of the great fallacies of naval thinking…the belief [of] doing your job one day automatically prepared you for your next set of orders or responsibilities.”

   Admiral William Sims   Image from   The Life of Admiral Hahan  , Charles Carlisle Taylor, 1920, London.

Admiral William Sims Image from The Life of Admiral Hahan, Charles Carlisle Taylor, 1920, London.

Sims’ rumination is just as applicable in our present day, given our recent wars, as it was in his time. Armstrong shows how the 19th century concern over “bending the cost curve” applies to the present. Armstrong also shares Sims’ imperative that “our objective must not be ‘safety first’ in the sense of adherence to already tested practices and implements, but safety first in being the first to recognize, the first to experiment with, and the first to adopt improvements of distinct military value.” Continuing with post war reflections, Armstrong adds Sims’ “Naval Morale After War” highlighting the “depressing effect upon morale of such drastic reduction in our personnel and equipment as will preclude the carrying out of our training.”

“If there was anything affecting the Navy that Sims did not see before others it would be hard to name.”

Reminding us that most of the challenges we face today are not new, Armstrong is able to bring a hundred year old critic in Sims to the discussion on the officer promotion system, something today’s Navy is still trying to fix. Armstrong closes out 21st Century Sims with a memoriam from one of Sims’ mentored naval officers, Capt. Harry Baldridge, who shared the impact of Sims’ lessons for the Navy with the high compliment, “If there was anything affecting the Navy that Sims did not see before others it would be hard to name.”

Credit should be given to Armstrong for bringing Admiral Sims back to the forefront of today’s military thinkers. Like most critics of Armstrong’s work there is a desire to have more connections between the lessons of history to today’s challenges presented. But I will note the challenge of leadership is to take the lessons learned from others and apply them in your own time. Sims should be held as a model for all of today’s young military officers and national security experts. He certainly would be at home with the Military Writers Guild today, while also encouraging young leaders to question what the status quo provides for innovation. Finally, Sims would caution strategists with “The only shots that count are the shots that hit,” and might restate slightly today, for all the good ideas you have only success counts.


Leo Cruz, is a former U.S. Naval Officer who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom and a Partner with the Truman National Security Project. The views expressed here are the author’s alone and do not reflect those of the U.S. military or the Department of Defense.


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