The View From Olympus 24: The Navy Commits Intellectual Seppuku

The December, 2013 issue of the Naval Institute’s Proceedings contains an article, “Don’t Say Goodbye to Intellectual Diversity” by Lt. Alexander P. Smith, that should receive wide attention but probably won’t. It warns of a policy change in Navy officer recruiting that adds up to intellectual suicide. Lt. Smith writes, “Starting next year, the vast majority of all NROTC graduates will be STEM majors (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) with minimal studies in the humanities … As a result of the new policy, a high school senior’s best chance of obtaining a Navy scholarship is to apply for Tiers 1 and 2 (engineering, hard sciences, and math), since CNO guidance specifies that not less than 85 percent of incoming officers will come from this restricted pool.”

Lt. Smith rightly bemoans this loss of intellectual diversity, the only diversity that has real importance. But the problem is much worse than that. An armed service dominated by engineers and other science types will not be able to think militarily.

The engineering way of thinking and the military way of thinking are not merely different. They are opposites. Engineering, math, and other sciences depend on analysis of hard data. Before you make a decision, you are careful to gather all the facts, however long that may take. The facts are then carefully analyzed, again without much regard for the time required. Multiple actors check and re-check each others’ work. Lowest-common-denominator, committee-consensus decisions are usually the safest course. Anything that is not hard data is rejected. Hunches have no place in designing a bridge.

Making military decisions in time of war could not be more different. Intuition, educated guessing, hunches, and the like are major players. Hard facts are few; most information is incomplete and ambiguous, and part of it is always wrong, but the decision-maker cannot know how much or which parts. Creativity is more important than analysis. So is synthesis: putting parts together in new ways. Committee-consensus, lowest-common-denominator decisions are usually the worst options. Time is precious, and a less-than-optimal decision now often produces better results than a better decision later. Decisions made by one or two people are often preferable to those with many participants. There is good reason why Clausewitz warned against councils of war.

There is a direct correlation between the type of education an officer receives and his ability to think militarily. An education in the humanities, especially history and literature, is the best preparation for thinking militarily. An education in engineering, math, and hard science is the worst. Are there engineers who can think creatively? Yes. But there aren’t many.

The problem has yet another layer. Engineering, math, and science tend to draw certain types of people. Humanities draw different types. The first are inward-focused, rule-bound, risk-averse, and bureaucratic. The outward-focused, improvisational risk-takers who hate bureaucracy and embrace Verantwortungsfreudigkeit—joy in making decisions and taking responsibility—are usually drawn to the humanities. Von Moltke is only one of many historical examples. He painted, he wrote poetry, he was deeply interested in antiquities, touring the Middle East to see them, and, as the saying at the time went, he knew how to be silent in six languages.

An anecdote: In the 1970s, I had the privilege of having dinner with General Hermann Balck, a truly great commander, one of the few German generals who really had Fingerspitzengefuhl (the Allies had fewer). John Boyd was also at the dinner table. At one point, Boyd said to General Balck, “You know, General, with your very quick reactions, you would have been a great fighter pilot.” Balck’s instant response was “Ich bin kein Techniker”—“I am not a technician.” It was the only time I saw Boyd get shot down.

The navy has suffered for decades from too many technicians and too few tacticians (and strategists), thanks to Rickover’s baleful influence on the Naval Academy. He wanted nuclear engineers, so he made Annapolis into even more of an engineering school than it already was (all the service academies are biased toward engineering). This was counterbalanced by Naval ROTC graduates, more of whom came out of the humanities. Now, that pipeline will be shut.

The result will be a Navy that does splendidly in peacetime. It may be able to do well enough in war, so long as events unfold slowly and the enemy offers up few surprises. But if a U.S. Navy completely controlled by engineers ever faces a competent opponent, one who frequently does the unexpected and drives events at a rapid tempo, it will come apart, the same way the strong, technically skilled French Army of 1940 came apart. Like that French Army, the U.S. Navy will be revealed as militarily incompetent.

It won’t be necessary for China or anyone else to destroy our Navy some time in the future. It is committing intellectual seppuku now.