Military Innovation and Military Culture

On October 3, 2016, the Center for Military and Diplomatic History hosted Williamson Murray in Quantico, Virginia, to discuss military innovation and military culture. The discussion ranged from the civil war, which is the subject of his new book (co-authored with Wayne Wei-Siang Hsieh) “A Savage War: A Military History of the Civil War,” to the period between the two world wars, of which Dr. Murray has long been a preeminent historian. Below is a summation of key points presented by Dr. Murray.

The culture of military organizations is a critical but often underappreciated factor in the effectiveness of those organizations. Despite the “jointness” of America’s armed services in the era of Goldwater-Nichols, the American armed services retain distinct cultures, and yet little is said about these cultures in discussions over strategy and policy. Senior military leaders guide the culture of military organizations, by appointing certain types of individuals and determining what types of behavior will be rewarded and punished. During the Civil War, when armed forces began from relatively small bases and were expanded by a small number of generals, individual leadership was preeminent.  Within the Army of Northern Virginia, Robert E. Lee fostered a culture of innovation and adaptation by selecting corps commanders who were audacious risk-takers. The leaders of the Army of the Potomac, by contrast, engendered a culture that discouraged the taking of risks and the breaking of established procedures, by promoting hidebound officers and undervaluing officers who thought outside the box. This culture became so ingrained in the upper ranks of the Army of the Potomac that Ulysses S. Grant could not undo it when he took command of the eastern theater in 1864.

In the western theater, the situation was reversed, with the Confederate Army beset by uninspired leadership and culture while the Union forces enjoyed the services of the only generals on either side who fully grasped the character of the war—Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman. Neither Grant nor Sherman began the war with such a commanding vision, but over time they came to see that technologies of the industrial revolution—most importantly railroads, steamships, and telegraphs—permitted the projection of power deep into the enemy’s rear in a manner heretofore unattainable in war. Their innovative use of these technologies permitted offensives from the western theater into Georgia, which spelled doom for the Confederacy. The fact that just two men in an army populated by more than two million perceived the opportunities for innovation highlights the scarcity of innovators within human society; the vast majority, then and now, prefer to do things as they have been done in the past.

As military organizations transition from war to peace, they tend to become more bureaucratic and more averse to risk. Concerns about mistakes or mishaps inhibit the adoption of innovative concepts. Yet in the period between the World Wars, the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps managed to develop revolutionary new strategies and tactics for naval aviation and amphibious warfare, making them models for peacetime military organizations. Senior leaders insisted that institutions of professional military education stand at the forefront of Navy and Marine Corps innovation, and sent many of the best officers to those schools to contemplate warfare of the future. Today the services tend not to assign their best officers to schools or to charge those schools with coming up with fresh thinking. The services should get back to using the war colleges and command and staff colleges as research hubs, devoting special attention to the very best students, who can be identified not only by their aptitude but by their willingness to volunteer for extra intellectual work.

During the interwar period, the Navy organized extensive wargaming in which to familiarize leaders with the strengths and weaknesses of the new technology and confront them with the types of decisions they would face in the real world. The games could not replicate naval combat in detail, but they did stimulate thought and exploration into matters of tactics, strategy, and logistics. Commanders who fared poorly in the war games were berated in front of others or fired. These exercises led the Navy to enter the war against Japan with concepts that would give them the upper hand at the tactical, operational, and strategic levels. For instance, the discovery of the paramount importance of massing friendly aircraft against enemy carriers to strike the first blow led to the monumental U.S. victory at Midway.

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