Command At Sea: Naval Command And Control Since The Sixteenth Century, by Michael A. Palmer
It is funny, and probably not coincidental, that even the books I read tend to reinforce my thinking and focus my attention on a small selection of continual areas of difficulty in my life–trust, initiative, communication, leadership, and uncertainty. In many ways, this book represents an expansion of the thoughts and general perspective of Martin van Crevald on the issue of command in war taken into the realm of naval warfare. This book pointedly issues into criticism of military thinkers who have been too ready to condemn whole eras of naval history for tactical folly regarding line tactics while neglecting more fundamental issues of leadership approach and philosophy and worldview. It would appear that some people even in the historical community focus too much attention on tactics and neglect larger issues of strategy and worldview in terms of explaining the results of actions. One can have a sound plan for battle, but in the inevitable confusion and ‘friction’ of battle, too many decisions must be made for centralized decision-making to be ideal, which is one of the main justifications of freedom of action in any realm of human endeavor.
The book itself, over 320 pages of main material, gives a very lengthy discussion of command at sea that starts with ancient history and the timid initial steps of mankind to develop sea power, initially tethered to more secure anchorages at land. Included are the early experiments with ear trumpets, the problem of hearing verbal commands over the sounds of battle, the problems with communicating nuanced orders over flag systems, the doubled-edged sword of wireless technology, and the difficulties in jointness faced by navies throughout human history. The author, aware that he is making a controversial case, marshals a great deal of evidence over a wide span of history to demonstrate that while encouraging initiative does not eliminate human error, it allows for the best solutions because what is done now is better than what could be perfectly done in minutes or hours. Where decision-making has to be done in a high-risk, high-pressure environment, it is absolutely essential for people on the spot to have the freedom to fail (or succeed) knowing they are trusted and supported by their fellows and their commanders.
Now only does this book have a lot of eloquent and pointed material to say about naval history, much of it which would be unknown to many readers as it covers a wide variety of material, but its lessons are applicable outside of naval history as well to other areas of leadership in high-pressure situations. Also of note is the fact that there has been a continual race between increased communication and increased demands and vulnerability. Finding the right balance between communicating doctrine and intent and allowing for initiative has been difficult. It is striking the degree two which people find it appealing to micromanage, and the way in which it requires a great deal of courage to trust people to do their best even though one knows they will be short of perfection, simply because the alternatives are far worse, and the amount of time it takes to communicate one’s will in the absence of information on the scene takes too long. The larger question is, how do we train and equip people to think on their feet and to get the support they need to do it right, and how do we avoid the temptation to micromanage and sabotage the abilities of those we lead?
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