21st Century Ellis: Operational Art and Strategic Prophecy for the Modern Era

  • Published

21st Century Ellis: Operational Art and Strategic Prophecy for the Modern Era edited by Benjamin A. Friedman, Naval Institute Press, 2015, 176 pp.

When 21st Century Ellis: Operational Art and Strategic Prophecy for the Modern Era was published, Benjamin Friedman was a captain of field artillery in the US Marine Corps pursuing a master’s degree in national security and strategic studies from the Naval War College. Since then, he has published On Tactics: A Theory of Victory in Battle, is a contributor for the Foreign Policy Research Institute, and is an associate editor for Strategy Bridge.

Friedman’s goal is to raise Marine lieutenant colonel Earl Hancock (Pete) Ellis’s profile to the level of other well-known theorists. He notes that while the Marine Corps lauds Ellis for creating the structure of the Corps as it exists today, and for his contribution to Plan Orange that led to the defeat of Japan in World War II, few are familiar with his published works. This book is an anthology of six of LTC Ellis’s essays organized into five chapters. The first four chapters encompass Ellis’s thoughts on counterinsurgency—drawn from his experiences in the Philippines, his thoughts on combined warfare—drawn from his Great War experience, his views on how to organize and modernize the Marine Corps—which is the genesis for the Corps’ organization today, and Ellis’s discussion on the strategic situation in the Pacific and the likelihood of war with Japan. The fifth chapter is Friedman’s analysis on the continuing relevance of Ellis’s ideas in the current era.

Friedman introduces his subject with a short biography, explaining in broad strokes LTC Pete Ellis’s career, education, and influence. Each subsequent chapter includes a short introductory section followed by Ellis’s published work on the topic. In this fashion, Friedman keeps Ellis’s ideas at the forefront of the book. Leaving the essays as close to their original form, Friedman’s only modifications were to make headings and format consistent throughout. The exception is that Friedman deleted sections concerning coaling of naval ships because they lacked relevance.

I was struck by the matter-of-fact directness of Ellis’s writing. His ideas are at once grasped and relatable to current doctrine and operations. The similarity in goals and methods in counterinsurgency operations and island campaigns emerged as I read Ellis’s essays on these topics. Key terrain in counterinsurgency is determined by finding those hubs of commercial activity and transportation. Controlling these areas is what grants a permanent foothold in a region and establishes forward operating bases for pushing further into contested areas. The space in between these areas is lower priority—basically an expanse to be crossed and patrolled with minimal expenditure of effort and resources. Similarly, in island campaigns, only islands that offer favorable hubs of transportation with good harbors and suitable locations for airfields need to be considered. These islands will also likely be centers of population and commercial activity. Other islands and the water in between offer lesser value to campaigning. Certainly, controlling the sea approaches to the islands makes seizing and retaining them possible, but it is controlling the island itself that lends permanency to the situation and allows the extension of operational reach toward the ultimate objects of the campaign.

In his analysis of Ellis’s work, Friedman most strongly emphasizes the essay “Advanced Base Operations in Micronesia” to make the case for Ellis’s enduring relevance. Friedman argues that if a campaign were required in the Pacific, the need to seize advanced bases is just as relevant now as it was during World War II simply because it is necessary to project power against the most likely potential adversary: China. While one can certainly imagine a scenario where this is true, the United States has allies—such as Japan, South Korea, Thailand, and the Philippines—throughout the Pacific region that would likely allow staging in the event of an existential Chinese threat. Because of this, one can also imagine scenarios where seizing advanced staging bases is totally unnecessary.

Friedman’s analysis in this chapter relies heavily on the Office of the Secretary of Defense report “Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Concerning the People’s Republic of China 2013.” This was the latest report available at the time the book was published, but because much has occurred to change the situation between then and today the analysis is dated. The dearth of other sources concerning Asia-Pacific security should caution the interested reader that this is only a book about Ellis’s ideas concerning military operations, not a primer on current concerns vis-à-vis China. Nevertheless, the report suffices to show that the Department of Defense is concerned enough about China’s threat that the capability to conduct amphibious operations is still a necessity.

The book is enhanced by photographs that depict many of the topics and people discussed in the essays. However, there are no maps. Including at least one map of the South Pacific showing the islands discussed in “Advanced Base Operations in Micronesia” would have facilitated following the discussion.

The bibliography is short, composed of only 12 entries. It includes the familiar works by notable theorists such as Carl von Clausewitz and Sir Julian Corbett but omits several authors, for instance, David Kilcullen, David Galula, T. H. Lawrence, and Colin Gray, that Friedman cited in his text. The chapter endnotes are much better for identifying sources for further reading. In fact, one has to consult the introduction to find the original source for Ellis’s essays.

21st Century Ellis assumes significant prior knowledge of strategic theorists’ ideas and lacks context for a casual reader or fan of popular history. The book is most suitable for at least a mid-grade military professional who has some experience with planning. It will add breadth and depth to knowledge already acquired by prior experience and study. In that category myself, I found the book rewarding.

Dr. Phillip G. Pattee, Commander, USN, Retired
Professor, US Army Command and General Staff College


"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."