Hattendorf Prize Lecture (2018): History, Truth Decay, and the Naval Profession by Geoffrey Till, Ph.D

Why in this age of constant technological, economic, social, and political change should navies actively concern themselves with the naval past? Herein I will try to answer this question, one often asked by skeptics anxious to insert into the developing courses of professional military education (PME) material that seems so much more relevant to the contemporary problems they face. The result easily can lead to efforts to cut history out of the syllabus or, more insidiously, to reduce it to the level where it becomes little more than a means of socializing new entrants and developing team spirit, necessary and laudable though those aims might be. After all, it has been said, with some justice, that a navy that does not know its history has no soul. 1 I will start by reviewing some of the basic problems that today’s navies face. Then I will consider the contribution that naval history might make to dealing with those problems, first as a quarry of processed experience and second as an intellectual exercise. Finally, I will seek to show the particular value of history in developing naval professionalism in a challenging social media age. By way of conclusion, I will look at some of the responsibilities that all this lays on historians.


The basic point is that navies need to understand their function. 2 This isn’t easy, these days. The potential tasks of navies have expanded, have grown more complex, and increasingly are seen as relatively more important, as the burgeoning navies of the Asia-Pacific region so amply demonstrate. For the navies of the twenty-first century, it is no longer enough to understand the war-fighting and deterrent war-prevention roles, analyzed by the likes of Mahan and Corbett at the beginning of the last century, as they are affected by the international, technological, and social realities of this one. That is difficult enough.

Now we have to add a whole series of nontraditional, “postmodern” tasks associated with Maritime Security (with capital letters). These include the challenges presented by drug runners, trafficking in illegal migrants, international terrorism, humanitarian action, disaster relief, environmental protection, search and rescue, capacity building, security sector reform, and so on. In many cases, early and effective engagement in these so-called Phase 0 activities will head off the need to exercise traditional war-fighting skills later on. 3 But preparing for what the British military currently calls contingency is an inherently complicated business.

One problem in the pursuit of guidance for making unavoidably difficult decisions about relative operational priorities is that of having to “see through a glass darkly.” It is uniformly and intrinsically difficult for foreign ministries, treasuries, or defense and naval staffs to predict the future or to gauge its requirements. This difficulty is demonstrated by the problems that all navies face these days in getting their kit because the lead times normally required to produce sophisticated naval weapons, sensors, and platforms and their probable service lives are likely to be very long. A great many of the ships of the fleets of the 2030s are already at sea or at an advanced stage of design. This, together with rising costs and reduced budgets, makes the acquisition of naval matériel increasingly difficult. One set of victims of the procurement process (taking a leaf out of Jane Austen’s book) have remarked recently, “It is a truth universally acknowledged that defence equipment acquisition is one of the most challenging of human activities . . . a uniquely demanding bureaucratic morass littered with military, technological, economic, and political pitfalls.”

Future-oriented procurement strategies tend to suffer badly from the unpredictability of the future economic, budgetary, and strategic environments. All too frequently, this development risk produces cycles of boom and bust that make sustained planning over, say, a thirty-year period almost impossible for manufacturers and their customers. Typically, this will result in constant delays, cost increases, and iterative tinkering with original specifications—and eventually in the failure or chronic delay of the program in ways that mean that the navy tends to acquire new matériel in a piecemeal, opportunistic way rather than as part of an overall strategic plan. This manner of acquisition may undermine a navy’s capacity to perform its present roles, not to mention its future ones. No navy has shown itself immune to such pressures and constraints; all navies need to be encouraged to think about how best to get around, if not to overcome, such difficulties. Another problem is that, to some extent at least, the requirements of these possible contingency tasks conflict with those of the more familiar war-fighting ones. The funds expended on a carrier, for example, could generate any number of capable offshore patrol vessels. Again, the more sailors train for things such as the detection and apprehension of drug runners, the less they can train for antisubmarine operations. Given that resources, both human and material, are finite, choices have to be made.

Paradoxically, this is partly an unexpected product of success. Because of the fundamental flexibility of sea power, navies can deliver everything from bombs to babies, so they often are called on to do more or less everything at sea and quite often on land as well. Since the world’s navies thus have shown themselves to be of such utility across the full spectrum of possible maritime operations, their success has increased the painful matter of operational and strategic choice dramatically in the setting of priorities for which they prepare. This is not an entirely new problem for them, of course, since navies always have had to take on functions other than those of simply obliterating one another, but there is a strong argument for saying that their resulting dilemmas of choice are much greater now than they ever have been before.

Worse still, all these possible roles and requirements are in a state of constant change. A force at sea, even one already engaged in prosecuting its dedicated mission, can find itself also having to confront and respond to a whole host of different high- and low-intensity challenges across the spectrum, especially when, as they usually do, events combine to confound initial expectations about the nature and almost certainly the length of the original mission. As is so often said in such dynamic situations, it is unwise to assume your plan’s survival once contact with the problem is made. Thus when a number of Western powers thought they were intervening in the civil war in Libya in 2011 merely to avert a humanitarian crisis in Misrātah and elsewhere, the situation morphed into something much more demanding, which has yet to be resolved.

Mahan and Corbett do not seem to have much guidance to offer on such matters, because the focus of their thought was largely on higher-intensity operations, although they were perfectly well aware of the requirement for, and the potential challenge of, lower-intensity ones. They assumed that once a navy’s major high-end tasks were dealt with satisfactorily, the rest could look after itself. But now the “rest” quite often has become the major focus of concern.

This is because today’s situation has become more volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA, for short!), partly because some of today’s leading states want it to be, and so pursue “a multidimensional and multidisciplinary strategy that consciously blurs the classical distinctions between warriors and non-combatants, front and rear, peace and war, state and proxies, and fact and fiction; and which employs a variety of tools—military technology and operations, information and cyber, economic pressure, ethnic bridgeheads and sensitivities—in order to manipulate both rival societies and [the states’] own.” 7 Although such techniques are certainly not new, the extra attention they warrant today creates an ambiguous, confusing, and, frankly, potentially demoralizing situation. But if understood, they provide opportunities as well as challenges. So how can the study of past events in naval history, as part of a well-rounded package of PME, possibly help navies prepare for the issues they will face? We will look at this from two different angles: naval history as a quarry of potentially relevant data and—arguably more important, especially these days—naval history as an intellectual process.


History is processed experience. Naval history is a source of innumerable examples of the way things have been done in the past. For all the historians’ reluctance to think of the lessons of history, or even their norms, the past is a source of previous experience that might well help present practitioners in comparable but not identical situations to understand their problems better and to think through what they should do to solve them. 8 Although, as frequently has been said, history does not repeat itself—it rhymes. As Michael Howard reminded us back in 1962, there are patterns: “Wars still resemble each other more than they resemble any other human activity.”

Naval professionals, arguably, should know those patterns, but in their search for what the Russians call the “norms” of military experience, or what they generally should expect, it is vital that they also should spot the differences as well as the similarities between their situation and perhaps only superficially similar ones in the processed past. Looking at something such as the sinking of the Royal Navy’s Prince of Wales and Repulse off Malaya by Japanese aircraft in December 1941, for example, teaches us all sorts of things about the need for interservice cooperation, sustainable balances between resources and commitments, not underestimating your adversary, and so on. For all its dangers, not least the evident danger of mythmaking, there is much to be said for the simple notion of seeing the past as providing previous examples of the problems of the present and future. 11 Such historical case studies are also ideal means for advancing understanding by way of counterfactual questions: What would have happened, for example, if the British in the autumn of 1941 had sent hundreds of tanks and aircraft to Singapore instead of to Russia? Why didn’t they?12 The point also can be exemplified by reverting to the problems of naval procurement already discussed. While the past is indeed another country, today’s planners in the defense procurement field are facing problems and issues that are not that dissimilar from those faced by their predecessors. Those responsible for the design and procurement of today’s Queen Elizabeth–class aircraft carriers in the United Kingdom hardly can fail to have been aware of the demoralizing experience of their predecessors in the 1960s. This second time around, at the broadest level, the needs to be sufficiently clear about the projected roles of the ship, to keep unavoidable interservice competition down to manageable limits, and not to get too far away from what would seem to be financially viable in the circumstances of the time all seem to have been hoisted in. 13 The difficulty of their task, though, clearly provides an incentive for growing the smart customer, and it is hard to avoid the conclusion that study of the way in which such difficulties were handled in the past will provide at least some guidance for the present and the future.

Another area in which history as processed experience—a source of example—can be argued to have something to offer is in leadership. Leadership, of course, varies enormously in its character and its function. On the face of it, the kind of leadership required to command in battle is not necessarily the same as that required to lead a design team in a submarine-acquisition project or to run a shore establishment. But is that true? Again, looking at past examples of these kinds of leadership at the very least should encourage discussion and increase understanding of this otherwise very slippery concept. 14 In short, looking at previous examples of a campaign, problem, or issue enables people at least to ask the right questions and so to develop a broader understanding. It cannot be said too often that the dissimilarities between the past and present cases are likely to be at least as important as the similarities in this process.

One of the reasons for this is the crucial role of the broader context in determining outcomes. For this reason, Michael Howard emphasizes the importance of studying history in context as well as in width and depth. 15 Naval history can be a powerful way of reminding professionals of the importance of context, so it should be designed to encourage them to take a wider view of the impact of the international, technological, social, and financial backgrounds to their operations. “Was the Gallipoli campaign of 1915 lost on the beaches of the peninsula or around the conference table in London?” is the sort of question that, as historians, we should be getting students to think about if they are to understand not only the purpose, planning, and conduct of operations but the management of defense more widely. Getting people to look above the parapet and not to be focused exclusively on the all-too-demanding problems of their part of the ship (to meld a few analogies, in the spirit of jointness) is, or should be, an essential objective of PME …

Continue reading online at: digital-commons.usnwc.edu/nwc-review/vol72/iss4/3/

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