Nothing Wrong with ‘Our System’

by LtCol F. G. Hoffman, USMCR

It’s a distinct pleasure to see Bill Lind’s incisive commentary in the Gazette once again. His review of Andrew Gordon’s The Rules of the Game (MCG, Jul99, pp. 81-82) adroitly pointed to many lessons offered by the Royal Navy’s failure at doctrinal reform at the turn of the century. I fully concur with his assessment that the Marine Corps has something to learn from Gordon’s massive study.

The primary lesson deals with leadership, the obligations that junior officers owe their superiors, and the corresponding duty of those superiors. Mr. Lind accurately notes that the Royal Navy and the Grand Fleet had lost the “Nelson touch” which was the moral and doctrinal equivalent of maneuver warfare in the early l9th century. VAdm Horatio Nelson nurtured a number of superior young captains into a cohesive band of brothers. They were completely indoctrinated in his philosophy of command, operating doctrine, and expectations once combat began. His intent was understood from the wardroom to the gundeck and could be intuitively followed or ignored as circumstances dictated once battle was joined.

Another part of the “Nelson touch” was the expectation-no, the demand-that a captain was expected to exercise his own judgment at all times. Captains were trusted to exercise this judgment, much as Nelson himself did at the Battle of St. Vincent when he pulled his own ship, the 74-gun Captain, out of the battle line on his own. This bold act was crucial to England’s decisive victory that day. Nelson evidenced the same discretion, bordering on insubordination, at Copenhagen when he literally turned a blind eye to his superior’s commands, under the presumption that he was in a better position to judge his force’s odds. The Admiralty subsequently supported his presumptuous initiative by removing his senior, something rarely seen in the Royal Navy (or here for that matter) since.

Andrew Gordon’s tome argues that the Royal Navy’s best chance to break out of the intellectual constipation that was blocking reform in the late l9th century rested on the shoulders of VAdm George Sir George Tryon, “the man most likely to succeed.” A close reading of The Rules of the Game actually suggests otherwise, for Tryon failed at generating the band of brothers spirit, the cohesion and the spirit of initiative that spurred Nelson’s captains at Trafalgar. He did try to train them in his new methods, but never overcame the stilting traditions and heavy fog of traditionalism that existed in the Grand Fleet in the Victorian Age.

Nelson faced the same challenges since the Fighting Instructions of his day were just as rigid. He succeeded, however, in instilling cohesion and trust whereas Tryon failed, and failed miserably, as Jutland demonstrates. Ultimately, on a training maneuver off Beirut in 1893, Tryon’s judgment failed him. He ordered a movement inconsistent with safe operating distances of battleships of the line. Both his fleet lieutenant and a staff aide immediately pointed this out to him, and he reissued his orders in writing. When the signal for this maneuver was run up, every ship in both divisions save one hauled up a crisp acknowledgment. Only one officer, the hapless RAdm Markham, delayed responding, frozen at the prospect of pointing out the danger of this directive and struggling to decipher the rationale for the movement. Only when Tryon flashed a curt “What are you waiting for?” did he run up the acknowledgment to his division. The rest is history. The flagship Victoria was rammed and sunk at the cost of more than 350 souls, including Tryon’s.

The record suggests Tryon was not open to suggestions or advice from his subordinates. He refused to note his junior staff had reservations about his proposed fleet exercise. He failed by creating a climate in which even the flag captains would hazard their primary responsibility, that of one of His Majesty’s ships and the hundreds of sailors that manned them, rather than question him. Although two junior officers were willing to speak up in the privacy of his cabin, not one captain of a dozen ships challenged an improper command. This evidence indicates that the cohesion, mutual understanding, and trust that lie at the heart of maneuver warfare were absent. Such a leadership climate strongly undercuts Gordon’s thesis, and reinforces Lind’s comment about “the lost Nelson touch.” Simply put, Tryon was no Nelson and no true reformer. Tryon might have destroyed the High Seas Fleet at Jutland, but he would not have succeeded in reforming the Royal Navy’s ossified command and control doctrine.

Next, Mr. Lind noted that the book has lessons about the role of technology and its centralizing tendency. The Royal Navy’s infatuation with excessive signaling produced the overly centralized fleet maneuvers and exercises that Lind accurately calls “vast, elaborate ballets.” This centralization and rigidity lay at the heart of the famous observation by Adm Beatty during Jutland that “There seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today.”

The Marine Corps has recognized the dangerous potential for centralization in an age of uncertainty and chaos. Its command and control doctrine, MCDP 6, notes that it is unreasonable to expect any command and control system to “provide precise, predictable, and mechanistic order to a complex undertaking like war.” The doctrine also places technology in its proper place, noting that:

High-quality equipment and advanced technology do not guarantee effective command and control. Effective command and control starts with qualified people and an effective guiding philosophy.

Nelson himself was aware of this. He had a crude Popham signaling system available to him and used it to signal his famous “England expects every man to do his duty” missive (no doubt more an attempt at entertaining than inspiring his beloved sailors). Yet, Nelson only issued three signals to direct Britain’s greatest naval victory. At Jutland, Great Britain’s Grand Fleet was managed by a signal issued every 67 seconds during daylight hours. The results speak for themselves. All in all, I think the Corps has a proper doctrine for command and control in the Information Age. Lind, who has a keen eye as an observer, suggests otherwise based on his experiences with field exercises held at the Marine expeditionary force level. This observation is troubling and should draw some comments and further discussion in these pages.

All in all, the review and the book amplify the new Commandant’s guidance, particularly his opening from Rudyard Kipling. Kipling was very familiar with the Nelson example, as was everyone in his day and age. Kipling knew that the wise wolf does not always direct the pack, sometimes the leader adjusts off the “recon pull” of the flank. Sometimes, the pack leader learns something from a younger pup. As Gen Jones’ guidance noted, sometimes the good ideas come from the bottom up. Pups are given some rope, time to roam, and chances to make errors. Sometimes, the pack succeeds, and other times it goes hungry. However, it always lives and fights together. As was demonstrated at Trafalgar, the strength of the Pack is the individual Wolf, and the Wolf’s strength comes from the Pack.

The ultimate lesson from this case study is that if we want to reform and ensure that maneuver warfare actually represents our warfighting doctrine, we will have to think about living in peace the way we want to fight in war. Maneuver warfare, and its underlying leadership philosophy, must be a part of our daily routines in both peace and war. Ultimately, we fight the way we live and train.