#Monday Musings: Ryan Evans

"Monday Musings” are designed to get quick, insightful thoughts based around three questions from those interested in strategy, from the most experienced and lauded, to our newest thinkers/writers.

1. Who had the greatest impact on you intellectually (whether through writing, mentorship, etc.)?

John Allen “Jay” Williams, a retired Naval officer and professor at Loyola University Chicago, took me under his wing when I was an undergrad there. I took Jay’s class at the urging of the late Sam Sarkesian, one of the ultimate soldier-scholars. It was my final semester of college, but ended up being the most important for my intellectual and professional development. That semester and his mentorship in the years after, have helped me navigate and understand the world. Jay also taught me valuable lessons on humility and the value of civility in debates. Many of the decisions I made thereafter, from graduate education, to working as a deployed civilian in Afghanistan, to starting War on the Rocks have been a direct result of his influence. Jay was and remains to this day one of my closest friends. He is something closer to family. Jay actually just retired from Loyola after decades of profound impact on students. He is a serious and well-regarded scholar who has done important work on civil-military relations, but he has told me many times that he views his students as his greatest legacy. Still, I wish he would write more…how about it Jay?

2. What book (fiction, history, or academic) do you think best explains strategy?

I’m going to take this opportunity to make the case for the book that had the biggest impact on me in terms of understanding strategy and war: Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. War is a human activity and, as such, a very social one. No novel captures that better than Heller’s masterpiece. Those things that define the human element of war—trauma, destruction, loss, greed, avarice, sex, confusion, fear, cowardice, heroism, religion, and absurdity—pervade the book and are addressed brilliantly through a dark comic lens. Incidentally, God Knows is another book by Heller that touches on many of these same themes, but in the context of King David’s war-filled life, and it is too-often overlooked.

3. What do you want your legacy to be?

To the extent I’ll have a legacy, it will probably be concentrated in War on the Rocks. We just celebrated our third birthday on July 8. It’s been an intensely rewarding and frustrating journey. It’s also an accomplishment I cannot claim alone. Far from it, really. But it is very much a product of my belief that people who aim to make foreign and defense policy should have experience as practitioners or observers in the field—which will often require leaving Washington for an extended period of time—and engage in serious, prolonged study. Aspirants to the levers of power should spend time as close to the pointy end of the spear as possible, because it is there that our elegant ideas about how to fix things shatter against reality. I have noticed that a lack of these sorts of experiences among senior policymakers has correlated with poor strategic thought and execution. This certainly does not mean aspiring policymakers and strategists need to serve in uniform (I have not) and carry a gun on patrol. But it does demand, in my opinion, time spent out doing the hard work of getting to know a region, a country, or a functional area of expertise in some way. Disciplined academic study can be invaluable here too. It complements personal experience on the ground and provides a breadth and depth that keeps us from being trapped by our own anecdotes. This process should usually involve leaving Washington for a time to do unglamorous, hard work that doesn’t involve writing op-eds and speaking at think tanks. Those things are important too, but should come after experience has been earned. I see a lot of this same ethos present in outlets like The Strategy Bridge and efforts both old and new like the U.S. Naval Institute, the Military Writers Guild, and the Modern War Institute. So if part of my legacy includes pushing people in this direction, I’ll be content. 

Ryan Evans is the founder and editor-in-chief of War on the Rocks.

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