The Best Defense

'Once an Eagle' actually gets it right

By "Capt. B"

Best Defense guest book critic

Just read your re-run (I'm enjoying them tremendously) about Once an Eagle and was stunned at the premise: a seminal novel on officership has skewed and jaded an entire generation of officers against staff work. I kept reading hoping the piece would address the real message of the book, but it failed to even acknowledge it.

Arrogance, political scheming, and careerism displayed by Courtney are outward symptoms of personal selfishness and self-worship. Sam is the model of selflessness, loyalty to his men, and professional soldiering above personal advancement.

If the reader is in doubt, the novelist, Anton Myrer, brings this center stage when the two are stationed in the Philippines and Courtney offers Sam a position on his future staff, with the promise of exposure to D.C. circles and advancement. Courtney's purpose is to gain an ally, use Sam's talents, and hobble a future competitor. Sam's only consideration is whether the assignment will better prepare him to lead men in the coming war. Sam later learns of Courtney's trickery to change his orders to C&S College with shipping him away as an observer to the Chinese. Sam's reply is, "he's going where he wants, and I'm going to learn how to fight Japs, we both get what we want."

I have served as a platoon commander in combat, company XO in deployment preparation, and assistant operations officers for a battalion in combat. Staff work is valuable, as are good staff officers. If the modern officer is so shallow as to believe Myrer's work is a condemnation of "the staff" then he need only be instructed by the Prussian model. The issue at hand is one's character, not the capacity in which it is demonstrated. The most courageous officer I know was the S-3 who understood how to run a staff, stood up to the BN Cmdr when he was wrong, and guided a disgruntled 1stLt who was frustrated that he wasn't out "being a real Marine."

Character, selflessness, and love: these are the qualities of a leader, on either end of the radio, and in this classic work.

"Capt. B" is a Marine infantry officer who has both led men and served on staff in combat.

The Best Defense

Michael Horowitz's fine study of how and why military innovations are adopted

Best Defense is in summer re-runs. This item originally ran on January 3, 2014.

Over Christmas break I finally read Michael Horowitz's The Diffusion of Military Power, a terrific study of why some nations are able to innovate militarily, or imitate the innovations of others, while others are not.

Among his findings:

  • Quick technological change is hard, but sweeping organizational change is far harder. The thesis of the book is that "adoption capacity, the combination of financial intensity and organizational capital possessed by a state, influences the way states respond to major military innovations." Horowitz shows that is not just a theory but a brilliant diagnostic tool. You won't think the same way about Chinese aircraft carriers after reading this book.
  • Hence, "innovations requiring disruptive organizational transformations but relatively reasonable financial investments, like blitzkrieg ... will spread haltingly."
  • One danger is for a nation to be the incubator of change, but to fail to really adopt it. As you might expect, he cites the Royal Navy's failure with aircraft carriers. Aside from the Taranto raid of 1940, "the British never really utilized carrier forces for independent strike operations or centered their naval forces on carriers."
  • Carrier warfare is especially interesting because it such an extreme example of high financial costs and major organizational change. Many more countries have gotten out of the carrier business than are in it now, even though it is clear that sea control requires control of air over the sea.
  • The younger a terrorist organization is, the more likely it is to adopt the tactic of suicide bombings. This variable appears more important than whether or not an organization is religious in orientation -- though the odds are highest when an organization is both young and religiously motivated.

More to come focusing on the warnings this fine book offers to today's U.S. military.