The U.S. Naval Institute On Naval Command. Thomas J. Cutler, ed. Naval Institute Press, 2015.
Continuing its series of Wheel Books, USNI recently released Naval Command, and in light of many contemporary debates surrounding the title topic, it could not have come at a better time. Lieutenant Commander Thomas Cutler, USN (ret), a prolific author and accomplished Naval Officer with small-craft command experience in Vietnam, has assembled a collection of fourteen essays and book excerpts that effectively balances prescriptive recommendations with more philosophical reflections. Authors featured in Naval Command include Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King, USN; Admiral James Stavridis, USN (ret); and Rear Admiral James A. Winnefeld Sr., USN (ret). These officers add tremendous senior level insight; however, Cutler also wisely included essays by officers who were more junior at the time their writings were originally published. Of particular note in this category are the contributions of Commander Robert E. Mumford, USN, and Major E.J. Markham, USMC.
Naval Command is clearly aimed at officers who aspire to or are preparing to assume command. However, it can also serve as a valuable resource for junior officers who wish to better understand the lens through which their commanding officers view their own responsibilities. In several instances, Cutler distilled lengthy contributions down to tightly presented summaries of the salient details. This skillful editing yields a 194-page book that is neither intimidating in scope nor size. While Naval Command can be read cover to cover, it may be best used in the traditional “wheel book” sense — a professional reference manual that an officer can return to time and again for insight and guidance.
Several themes recur throughout, including cogent discussions about the relationship between responsibility, accountability, and authority. Perhaps the best offering in this regard comes from Admiral Stavridis’s seminal Command at Sea. Of note, Stavridis offers,
“The enormous significance of this responsibility and accountability for the lives and careers of others — and often the outcome of greater issues as well — is the reason for the liberality of orders to officers commanding ships of the U.S. Navy. The inexperienced officer may erroneously take this liberality to reflect vagueness or indecision on the part of superiors. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is provided to give the commander the flexibility necessary to carry out his or her orders.”
Admiral Stavridis follows this statement with another that foreshadows subsequent discussions directly challenging the idea of “liberality of orders:”
“In recent years, however, this traditional independence has been modified in practice. The issue today is not too much liberality, but rather a growing tendency of high command to exercise control in great detail.”
In some capacity, nearly every other essay in Naval Command touches on the oft-debated ideas of centralized versus de-centralized control and command independence.
Perhaps the greatest challenge to the idea of “liberality of orders” comes from then-Commander Robert E. Mumford’s August 1977 Proceedings article, titled “Get Off My Back, Sir!” Mumford convincingly argues that “excessive rudder orders are being issued, seniors telling juniors not only what they are expected to achieve, but how to reach that goal.” Mumford goes on to suggest that this phenomenon of “Big Brotherism” — as he describes it — led many top-performing junior and mid-grade officers to refuse command. One of Mumford’s most poignant suggestions:
“We have created a gap between the image with which we recruit officers and the reality of their existence. The romantic image is of a man who goes to sea, leads other men, exercises discretion and power — an independent thinker and doer, and individual in an era of massive organizations. In reality, he is closer to a colorless cipher, conforming to countless paper requirements in order to survive.”
In the spirit of what is old is new again, it was interesting and somewhat troubling to realize that while these words were written in 1977, they could just as easily have been pulled from any number of current essays, blogs, or survey results. In some capacity, nearly every other essay in Naval Commandtouches on the oft-debated ideas of centralized versus de-centralized control and command independence.
While prescriptive “do this, don’t do that” checklists are rarely viewed as the best source of guidance for prospective or sitting commanding officers, Major E.J. Markham Jr., USMC, a Korean War Marine ground officer, provides just such an essay in chapter five of Naval Command. It is perhaps one of the best chapters of the book. When considering the prerequisites for command, Markham suggests,
“The one characteristic he must have above all else is the ability to distinguish between the important and the unimportant.”
Reflecting on the potential failings of the new commander, Markham provides nine personality caricatures and asks the reader if they self-identify with any. Answering yes, in Markham’s opinion, is a harbinger of difficulties ahead. This essay concludes with Markham asking a final question: how do you command? The answer comes in the form of his Commander’s Checklist and includes twenty actions that a successful commanding officer should undertake. Spanning from study and set standards to lay your career on the line, stay out from behind your desk, and retain your sense of humor, Markham offers each action with an accompanying description that further answers how and why.
My only criticisms of Naval Command are that much of the material is oriented toward the surface Navy, and that a few of the essays focus less on operational O-5 or O-6 command issues, instead approaching concerns more related to “high” command and strategy. Neither of these criticisms prevents the book as a whole from meeting the USNI’s stated objective for the Wheel Book series, which is to “provide supplemental information, pragmatic advice, and analysis on topics important to all naval professions.”
Naval Command has a place on every officer’s reference shelf; moreover, it should be issued to all prospective executive and commanding officers as part of their Command Leadership School reading list. As a prospective commanding officer myself, I intend to keep copies of this book, as well as additional volumes from the Wheel Book series, on the shelves of my Ready Room. Beyond offering individual guidance and ideas for the reader to reflect on, Naval Command (or any other book from the Wheel Book series) can also provide a spark for engaging conversation, debate, and leader development.
Jack Curtis is a Naval Aviator who graduated from the University of Florida and the Naval War College. He is a proud member of the Tailhook Association as well as the Military Writers Guild. Views contained in this post do not represent the United States Navy, the Department of the Navy, or the Department of Defense.
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