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Navy Strategic Culture: Why the Navy Thinks Differently

Navy Strategic Culture: Why the Navy Thinks Differently by Roger W. Barnett. Naval Institute Press, 2009, 256 pp.

In Navy Strategic Culture, Roger Barnett argues that the Navy has a superior strategic mind-set that comes from a unique strategic culture. This culture includes an appreciation of technology as a force multiplier and the intense male bonding produced by the isolation of naval service in the uniquely hostile oceanic environment. This combination produces an aggressive Navy that establishes sea control and power projection through a focus on expeditionary operations (pp. 59–73).

In addition to establishing a clear and provocative thesis, Barnett does a good job of presenting the Navy’s operational philosophy toward warfare. He provides a concise, comprehensive, and informative outline of the legal, political, social, economic, and environmental context in which the Navy operates. The best part of his work addresses the unique relationship between the Sailor and the open seas; he paints a vivid picture of how the precarious and isolated nature of naval service is essential to the Navy’s cultural makeup (pp. 13–17).

Ultimately, however, the author fails to make the case that the Navy’s strategic culture is unique to the service or that it creates an organization with a broader, more nuanced strategic mind-set than any other group in the United States. In fact, the Navy’s solitary, insular operations stand as an obstacle to broad strategic thought—far more so than the operations of any other service. Strategy requires a holistic appreciation of the larger geopolitical context—an understanding of the relationship between achieving the higher political object with the means at one’s disposal. It is hard to see how Barnett’s hermit-like Navy could develop a finer appreciation for the broader social, political, and economic contexts that frame the conditions under which military force must be hammered into an instrument that can realize specific geopolitical goals. Naval strategic culture appears predisposed to nourish a narrow parochial perspective. That is precisely the book Barnett gives us. His emphasis on the distinctive role of technology in naval culture is also suspect. The Navy’s technical focus is not a specific cultural virtue of that service but a value that comes from American society and extends to the entire military.

At one point the author asserts that, given the Navy’s self-sufficiency, it is perfectly acceptable for that service to take a lax attitude toward jointness. Indeed, he believes that apathy may actually be a good thing if jointness leads to the homogenization of naval strategic culture (pp. 107–8). In reality, knowing the requirements for winning the war and attaining political objectives is of primary importance. Since the Persian Gulf War, the Navy has had the principal role of serving as a facilitator of other services that bear the brunt of actual fighting. In light of the fact that Marines have conducted sustained operations inland and Air Force aircraft have flown the overwhelming majority of combat missions since 1991, winning demands a level of jointness transcending parochialism.

When Barnett observes that the Navy is best attuned to understanding the Iraqi insurgency because its nonlinear nature reflects “the migration over land of many of the characteristics of contemporary naval warfare” (p. 41), he makes the classic mistake of arguing that this conflict and terrorism represent a new form of warfare. Such a contention ignores a rich and storied history extending from the experiences of Alexander the Great through Vietnam—actions that represent the most overwhelmingly common form of conflict in the latter half of the twentieth century, consuming millions of lives.

Barnett’s work assumes that a single way of war or “seek[ing] to use the maximum force permissible so that the conflict can be won as quickly as possible with the least amount of destruction and carnage” (emphasis in original) (p. 104) is most appropriate for all forms of conflict. However, insurgencies and low intensity conflicts are tactically indecisive, protracted, and frustrating, featuring no silver bullet. The author claims that Christian morality has led to restraint in the Iraq war and the war on terror; in reality, such constraints offer the best response to warfare involving an alien population as the center of gravity (pp. 112–16). He complains about the so-called pottery barn rule, maintaining that it unduly restricts the flexible application of military force (ibid.). However, given Iraq’s position as a leading supplier of petroleum reserves and the dangers of this state collapsing or becoming an Iranian client state, the United States had to impose order. The book also voices the misguided belief that in warfare one should always imprison many innocents if doing so captures even a handful of combatants. This practice, though, has consistently produced disastrous results throughout the history of unconventional warfare (pp. 104–6, 112–16). Widespread sweeps of all military-age males in Iraqi neighborhoods and their treatment at Abu Ghraib created numerous additional enemies for America. Strategic discrimination may help explain why the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has outlasted the unrestrained Soviets in Afghanistan at a fraction of the cost in casualties.

Of particular note is Barnett’s approval of the Iraq war as a means of striking at the source of terrorism and its alleged state sponsors; he points to this action as an instance of agreement between government policy and naval strategic culture (pp. 104–6). However, we have known for many years that Saddam Hussein neither allied with nor supported al-Qaeda, that his program for producing weapons of mass destruction (WMD) had become moribund, that his regime was rotting away, and that he had no involvement in the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001. From the perspective of striking at the source of the danger represented by terrorists armed with WMDs, attacking Iraq distracted from the war in Afghanistan and fuelled extremism. Finally, there is something fundamentally wrong with a book that addresses naval strategy but never mentions China—a book which spills considerable ink on the grossly exaggerated premise that placing women on warships constitutes an irreversible disaster that will “feminize” and thus doom the Navy (pp. 116–21, 127–29).

Toby Lauterbach

Purdue University–West Lafayette

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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