Mars Adapting: Military Change During War

Mars Adapting: Military Change During War, by Frank G. Hoffman (Naval Institute Press, 2021, 368 pages)

As Clausewitz observed, “In war more than anywhere else, things do not turn out as we expect.” The essence of war is a competitive reciprocal relationship with an adversary. Commanders and institutional leaders must recognize shortfalls and resolve gaps rapidly in the middle of the fog of war. The side that reacts best (and absorbs faster) increases its chances of winning.

Mars Adapting examines what makes some military organizations better at this contest than others. The book explores the internal institutional factors that promote and enable military adaptation. It employs four cases, drawing upon one from each of the U.S. armed services. Each case was an extensive campaign, with several cycles of action/counteraction. In each case, the military institution entered the war with an existing mental model of the war they expected to fight.

The author establishes a theory called Organizational Learning Capacity that captures the transition of experience and knowledge from individuals into larger and higher levels of each military service through four major steps. The learning/change cycle is influenced, he argues, by four institutional attributes (leadership, organizational culture, learning mechanisms, and dissemination mechanisms). The dynamic interplay of these institutional enablers shaped their ability to perceive and change appropriately.

Summary

Frank G. Hoffman wrote Mars Adapting: Military Change During War with the intent to “determine what makes some military organizations better able to change than others.” The author looks at change through the lens of an Organizational Learning Cycle analytical framework to evaluate how an organization innovates and adapts during wartime. He also looks at how internal and external factors make an impact. The cycle comprises four steps:

  • Inquire: The organization collects information about a problem
  • Interpret: The organization tries to understand what the collected inputs mean
  • Investigate: The organization determines if changes are required
  • Integrate & Institutionalize: The organization creates and shares new competencies

The author proposes that the Learning Cycle is helped or hindered based on the organization’s Organizational Learning Capacity. This is the ability of a military unit to recognize and respond to challenges. These challenges comprise four institutional attributes or elements:

  • Credible leadership that encourages an open learning environment
  • Organizational culture that is open to change and innovation
  • Structured processes or mechanisms that support investigation and learning
  • Effective mechanisms that share innovations and lessons learned

The book includes four case studies looking at each U.S. military branch during a challenging period in its history. He explores the U.S. Navy in the Pacific theater during World War II, the U.S. Air force in Korea, the U.S Army in Vietnam, and the U.S. Marine Corps in Iraq.

The final chapter pulls everything together, compares the case studies, highlights key points, and discusses implications for the future.

Case Studies

In the first couple of chapters, the author explains his intent in writing this book. He developed the case of how Organizational Learning provides a useful theory to explore military innovation and details the approach he will take evaluating the case studies. Chapter 2 is very heavy on military change and innovation theories but is an important chapter that sets the stage for the rest of the book.

The case studies are used to illustrate the factors in his theory and each case is a fascinating read. His framework allows him to explain why each branch succeeded or failed based on how well they embodied the four institutional attributes of the Learning Capacity theory. Hoffman discusses the attributes at the end of each case; touching on what each organization did well and what could have been better.

The way the author featured all four branches of the military in four different eras is enjoyable. It allows the reader to compare the culture of each branch and how those various cultures impact adaptation during war.

Conclusion

In the final chapter, Hoffman writes, “Modern military forces need to better understand how to facilitate, if not accelerate, adaptation to increase their odds of success in future wars.” The intent of this book is to focus on military adaptation during warfare, but it also provides food for thought for leaders as they look to the future and posture their organizations for success.


Book review submitted by Stephen Lepper, who served 21 years on Active Duty with the U.S. Navy’s Civil Engineer Corps. A licensed Professional Engineer, he currently works for CACI International Inc as an advisor on Military Construction for an international shipbuilding program. He lives with his family in central Massachusetts and is always on the lookout for what to read next. You can connect with him on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/stephen-lepper

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any agency of the US government or other organization.

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