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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, former Naval War College instructor and retired Navy captain Roger Barnett explores the careers and lives of naval officers and what makes them different from members of the other services. He examines how the Navy does business, why its officers are in step with their thinking, and how they got that way. Of special interest to readers is the critical and creative thinking that the Navy emphasizes during the early development of its officers.

The author describes Navy culture as steeped in tradition, going back hundreds of years to the days of wooden ships and sails. The Navy’s reverence for its history, which becomes part of its members’ lifelong training and education, sets it apart from the other services. (The same holds true of the Marine Corps, another naval service steeped in tradition.)

Barnett also examines how a naval officer approaches a challenge or decides to promote a new idea in the organization, specifically by speaking creatively in terms of concepts rather than definitions, which tend to constrict and confine. The notion of lifting both virtual and self-imposed boundaries by dealing in concepts is reminiscent of retired Navy captain D. Michael Abrashoff’s book It’s Your Ship: Management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy (Warner Books, 2002), which examines unique ways to solve problems.

In Navy Strategic Culture, readers will encounter real-world sailors, young and old, from all walks of life, who find themselves either below, on, or above the sea. Several chapters address how life at sea encourages esprit de corps and teamwork. Unlike their counterparts in sister services, Navy officers deployed on ships or submarines don’t have the option returning to a forward operating base at the end of their day or landing on a long runway and checking into a hotel in town. Even when they are off duty, they remain at work. After all, the dangers of sailing the open sea—inclement weather, rough waves, pirates, human error, fire, and so forth—as well as the necessity of living in very close quarters produce a military culture unlike any other. Deployed at sea, the Navy’s men and women have not always had the luxury of calling higher headquarters for guidance, a situation that, over the years, has shaped a cadre of confident, professional officers capable of making independent decisions. (Mark Moyar, a professor of national security affairs at Marine Corps University, also examines this penchant for creativity, flexibility and initiative in “An Officer and a Creative Man,” which appeared in the New York Times on 20 December 2009.) Barnett also observes that, in some ways the Navy was “joint” ahead of its time, having worked closely with the Marine Corps for many years, well before passage of the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986.

I highly recommend Navy Strategic Culture. It offers readers insight into how the Navy’s rich traditions and history, dating back to the 1700s, have created a unique bond among all naval personnel. Perhaps more effectively than any other organization, the Navy cultivates its greatest asset: its people.

Maj Lawrence A. Colby, USAFR

National Capitol Region


"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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