Learning War examines the U.S. Navy’s doctrinal development from
1898–1945 and explains why the Navy in that era was so successful
as an organization at fostering innovation. A revolutionary study of
one of history’s greatest success stories, this book draws profoundly
important conclusions that give new insight, not only into how the
Navy succeeded in becoming the best naval force in the world, but
also into how modern organizations can exploit today’s rapid
technological and social changes in their pursuit of success.
Trent Hone argues that the Navy created a sophisticated learning
system in the early years of the twentieth century that led to repeated
innovations in the development of surface warfare tactics and
doctrine. The conditions that allowed these innovations to emerge are
analyzed through a consideration of the Navy as a complex adaptive
system. Learning War is the first major work to apply this complex
learning approach to military history. This approach permits a richer
understanding of the mechanisms that enable human organizations to
evolve, innovate, and learn, and it offers new insights into the history
of the United States Navy.
Tell me a little bit about you book?
Learning War is the story of how the U.S. Navy of the early twentieth century harnessed new technologies and new techniques to expand the fleet’s fighting power. I argue that Navy was so successful at this because it created a sophisticated learning system that allowed naval officers to evolve their tactical doctrine, adapt faster than opponents, and successfully harness new technologies. The Navy’s experience has broad implications; I build off it to draw new and valuable insights for how organizations evolve, innovate, and learn. Those insights are just as relevant today as they were a century ago.
Adm. John Richardson, the former Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) agreed; he put Learning War on the CNO Reading List, in the section devoted to “high velocity outcomes.” I’m grateful that he and other officers have found value in my work. (https://www.navy.mil/ah_online/CNO-ReadingProgram/hvo.html)
Was there an experience that caused you to see a need for Learning War?
There are two threads that came together in Learning War. The first is my interest in Naval History, particularly the development of U.S. Navy tactics and doctrine. That began when I was very young, but the research that led to Learning War was triggered by a question from an internet message board in the late 1990s. Someone asked how the Navy would have fought a decisive battle in the Central Pacific in early 1942 if there had been no raid on Pearl Harbor. Although Edward Miller’s War Plan Orange presented Adm. Husband E. Kimmel’s high-level plans, there was no published material explaining how the Navy would fight a major fleet action. I discovered the tactics Kimmel would likely have used and first published my conclusions in the Journal of Military History in 2003. After that, I continued to research the development of the Navy’s surface warfare doctrine and published a series of articles about it. Learning War brings all that research together. It fills an important gap; most studies of innovation during the interwar period (1919-1939) have focused on carrier aviation. I’ve shown that the Navy’s approach to innovation was more extensive than that.
The other thread behind Learning War is my work as a management consultant. I am not a full-time historian. My daily work involves helping clients improve their performance, accelerate learning, and foster innovation. As I became more familiar with the Navy’s history, I realized that many of the techniques we see in successful organizations today were being used in the Navy a century ago. The terminology was different, but the approaches were very similar. I thought that perspective was extremely important, and I highlight it in Learning War.
Is there one short story from your book you would like to share?
The one that has provoked some of the strongest reactions is the origin of the Combat Information Center, the CIC. I won’t give away all the details, but when people discover that the original CIC instructions from Adm. Chester W. Nimitz specified what to do but not how to do it, they’re very surprised. Today, it’s shocking to learn that such a dramatic change in shipboard organization and command and control was left so open-ended, with each ship free to experiment and determine how best to meet the need. We’ve become far more accustomed to detailed instructions and “best practices” being presented to us. Seventy-five years ago, the Navy placed great trust in its commanding officers and embraced the concepts of “mission command” and “intent-based leadership.” The early development of the CIC is a great example of that.
What is the biggest takeaway that you hope a reader will take from your book?
In the 1930s, Navy officers stressed that the skill and capability of the officer corps was the Navy’s most valuable asset. I spend a lot of time in Learning War discussing organizational systems, exercises, and technologies, but I hope readers never lose sight of the fact that individuals brought all those things together and made them work. The people at the heart of the Navy’s systems provided the extensibility and adaptability that allowed ships, task forces, and fleets to perform their best in times of stress and crisis. I believe that was true then and I believe that is true today.
What are you reading now?
I always have a series of books going simultaneously. Some that I’ve enjoyed recently are Zachary Shore’s A Sense of the Enemy, Meir Finkel’s On Flexibility, and Richard Frank’s A Tower of Skulls. Shore argues that “strategic empathy” is essential for understanding an opponent’s perspective and making effective strategic decisions. He offers a series of case studies to prove the point and weaves in a lot of recent cognitive science literature. It’s a very interesting perspective. Finkel has an argument similar to mine in Learning War. He contends that the ability to adapt doctrine in the midst of a conflict is more important than getting it “correct” during peacetime, because the enemy is likely to have surprising and unanticipated capabilities. I quite like his argument; it resonates with the Navy’s experience in World War II. Frank’s most recent book is the first volume in his history of the Pacific War; it covers July 1937 through May 1942 and draws its title from the Imperial Japanese plan to remake Asia into a “co-prosperity sphere” through wartime conquest. As always with Frank’s work, it is well-researched and engrossing.
What books had the most impact on you and your development?
I was profoundly influenced by Wayne Hughes’s Fleet Tactics. I devoured the first edition when it came out in the 1980s and remember thinking that I wanted to write something similar. I thought it was really compelling; I’d never read anything like it before. I am glad it has been kept up to date over the years and I strongly recommend the most recent edition.
I also spent a great deal of time with the works of Norman Friedman, especially his ship design histories like U.S. Battleships and U.S. Cruisers. They gave me an appreciation for how naval tactics and doctrine don’t arise in isolation; there’s a strong connection to procurement processes and technological development. So many factors have to come together to make naval forces effective and it’s important to have a holistic view. Design histories can help provide that.
Why is reading important for our Military and/or the Nation?
I think reading is essential. It’s a way to explore new ideas and gain broader perspective. When he was president of the Naval War College, Alfred Thayer Mahan stressed the study of history. He believed it could help naval officers think more creatively. Mahan knew that historical examples had their limits, but officers who studied history could augment their own experience and gain access to a larger solution set. That could give them more options for solving new problems. Recent evidence reinforces the value of this perspective, and it’s not just true for history. Science fiction and other types of reading can help provide similar advantages.
What is Next for you?
The Naval Institute has offered me a new project, but I’m not ready to share all the details yet. Please check back in about eighteen months and I expect to have some exciting news about how I’ve built on Learning War.
Purchase Learning War Here
Trent Hone is an authority on the U.S. Navy of the early twentieth century and a leader in the application
of complexity science to organizational design. He studied religion and archaeology at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. He works as a consultant in Arlington, Virginia, helping a variety of organizations improve their processes and techniques. Mr. Hone writes and speaks about tactical doctrine, organizational
learning, and complexity.