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Book Review: AMERICAN GUN: A History of the U.S. in Ten Firearms

image002 In every battle there is a moment when the combatants, and the world, seem to catch their breath. It is a fleeting moment, lost in the blink of an eye. But in that same blink, everything changes. Such moments are borne of desperation, of courage, of plain dumb luck. But they are pivotal – for what was before is forever changed afterwards. –Steeljaw Scribe, June 2007

I first wrote those words while analyzing the course of events that took place at Midway, some 65 years ago. Yet the sentiment may be applied across the board where the intersection of decisions made (or not) and actions taken (or not) collide and where a determined individual may be able to change the course of battle – and with it, history. It is a quintessentially American belief with examples woven into the warp and woof of American history.

In his opening chapter of American Gun, author Chris Kyle drops us squarely into a similar scenario – a war that was trending badly for the Colonists who were facing the arrayed might of the British Empire and found them at a crossroads in New York. Lose and the British Army would march to the coast, effectively splitting the northern colonies, the center of industry and mercantile efforts from the agricultural colonies in the south. Split in two, the secessionists could be defeated in detail and the Colonies retained. Win, and that march would be stopped and the French, until now hesitant to pitch in, would provide the necessary support (sea power especially) to ensure defeat for the British and an independent America. But that would turn on this battle.

With the Battle of Saratoga providing the canvas, we are introduced to Sergeant Timothy Murphy, a member of an elite brigade, Morgan’s Rifles, who were noteworthy long distant marksmen. Unlike the rank and file Redcoats or Continental Army (and associated militia) with their emphasis on close order drill and massed fire, Morgan’s group had a different focus and mission – attack the head of the serpent, namely the field leadership who gave the orders and executed close control of deployed ranks. The tool that gave Morgan’s men the ability to carryout this tactic was itself an American icon, the Kentucky long rifle. Descended from the Jaeger rifles of the Old World, but with a New World twist in rifled barrels, excellent balance and, for the time, amazingly light. Bringing to bear his own extensive experience as a SEAL in describing the rifle, its manufacture and employment, in the context of the tactics and effects desired, Kyle presents the reader with an effective and compelling illustration of the first of 10 firearms that are both a reflection of the American experience and emerged at a time of crisis to play a pivotal role in the expansion or protection of that experience.

Subsequent chapters follow in much the same manner – open with a story of someone in combat armed with the firearm of interest, segue to it’s evolutionary path, what effect it had on the conflict at hand and what, if any future generations it may have engendered. Reading American Gun is many respects, like joining a group of professionals sitting around the campfire or in the ready room swapping sea stories about their chosen profession of arms. There is at once an easy informality about it, but the discussion is anything but superficial. The challenge in such an approach, however, is ensuring that those outside the profession are made to feel as welcome as the inner circle – that one isn’t left in the dark outer circle puzzling out the jargon and insider knowledge that permeates these discussions. It is the mark of not just a writer or scribe, but a master storyteller that this is successfully accomplished. Chris Kyle is that kind of storyteller.

Quick Look
Title: American Gun: A History of the US in Ten Firearms
Author: Chris Kyle with William Doyle

Synopsis: Drawing from his unmatched firearms knowledge and combat experience, Kyle chose 10 guns that shaped American history.

Available: 4 Jun 2013 HarperCollins Publisher
Recommendation: Definite Buy – 4.5/5 ★’s 

To be sure, there are some rough spots, because Chris Kyle was taken from us – murdered by someone he was trying to help, back in February 2013 in the midst of writing American Gun. While his co-author, William Doyle, conducted the formal research and background verification, it was Chris’ style and voice, which painted the canvas. Clearly, the book was one that was at once deeply personal as he appears to be getting in touch with his own past and one that unblinkingly places the role of firearms in general and this group of ten most important ones in particular in context.

Completing a project such as that – where the author is deeply and personally enmeshed without being at the end to see through the editing process and ensure a singular voice remains as narrator is extremely difficult and had to have been a challenge to his widow, Taya Kyle. To her credit she understood the importance of this work to Chris and with the help of Jim DeFelice, Chris’ co-author on American Sniper and in concert with William Doyle, completed the book. With this effort though, there are some rough spots in the book where the narrative is repeated or seems to get out of synch and others that leave the reader longing for more. Nothing that would diminish the real value of the work, however and in light of the circumstances behind it, in fact enhances the work. And while I generally skip over introductions and acknowledgements, I strongly urge the reader to pause and reflect on Taya’s compelling Foreword and Chris’ Introduction.

So is the book a buy? Absolutely. If you are a firearms collector and enthusiast like myself (and like myself, may find several of your collection making the list) the book is a compelling read and puts flesh and character to the dry historical guides we typically use when perusing the local gun show or ads in the back of Shotgun News. For those of use with particular leanings to lever rifles of the Winchester and Marlin stripe, the chapters on the Spencer Repeater and Winchester 1873 (widely remarked upon as “The Gun That Won the West”) are very worthwhile. Anyone who has served or had a relative serve can relate to the chapters on the M-1, M1911 and M16. For the non-collector or family historian the vignettes offered of personal struggle and heroism in the face of incredible odds is an uplifting one – and one underscored by some of his personal offerings contemporary and historical.

In Chris’ own words at the end, he writes that the guns were a product of their times – from the individually crafted Kentucky long rifle to the mass-produced M16. That they in and of themselves are no more than a tool used to a particular end and that yes, that end has been evil and good – but that in the end, while there were (and are) indeed terrible missteps and great struggle along the way, these same tools helped us endure and face down the worse evil of our times. And that it wasn’t the guns in and of themselves that did it – but the men and women who stood in the breech and held forth. The guns were the necessary and important part of that struggle.

I know every time now that I may lift my beloved Winchester 1892 to my shoulder or unholster my Korean War veteran father-in-law’s 1911A1 I will think a little more on the historical lineage of those arms and the role they and their relatives played in the founding and preservation of this nation. And each time I will thank Chris for enriching that memory with this work.

“You can get a little fancy talking about guns. You can become a bit starry-eyed about history. You can forget the rough spots. That’ not fair. Real life has been messy, bloody, complicated. Not a straight line.
That doesn’t mean it hasn’t been triumphant, victorious, glorious, and wonderful along the same way. Good has triumphed over evil; we have come to terms with our darker selves. America has won its freedom, preserved it and extended it to others. Guns are not perfect – no model in history has come to market fully finished without flaw. Neither have we. Man and gun have improved together, sometimes with ease, more often with great struggle and sacrifice.” – Chris Kyle, American Gun


Note: HarperCollins provided a pre-release version of American Gun that was used for this review.

Catching Up: The Latest on the ex-USS Ranger, Reviews and More…

Been a very busy winter and spring here in the Scribe’s household – between the demands of customer support during the Great Musudan Snipe Hunt and mom corporate’s demands for a tech writer, our days/nights/weekends have been filled with briefs, drafts (*not* of the liquid variety) and teleconferences measured in hours, not minutes; our time’s been pretty well soaked up. That said, it looks like a pause in the action has afforded itself with an opportunity to catch-up and provide some updates on earlier items.

Wither ex-USS Ranger (CVA/CV-61): When last mentioned here, the Navy had placed the Ranger (currently in storage at Bremerton) on the disposal/scrapping list, much to the dismay of the USS Ranger Foundation which has been striving mightily to get a carrier for a museum in the Northwest. However, a recent email from the Foundation’s president:

Last summer, the USS Ranger Foundation submitted a Phase II Donation Application. As you know, the Navy decided not to proceed with the donation of ex-USS Ranger to the Foundation. The Navy has since issued a ship-demolition RFP that includes Ranger.

What do we do next?

The Navy’s decision may have appeared to be an end to the effort. We did not believe it should be. In response to the Navy’s decision we reached out to our community and all those involved with the project to determine where to go from here.   The USS Ranger Foundation Board of Directors, at its most recent meeting, decided to continue investigating the possibility of having one of the two decommissioned Tarawa-class ships transferred to donation hold when it is released from Reserve-B status. Our preference is ex-USS Tarawa (LHA-1), the lead ship of the class. The Foundation’s intention at that time would be to prepare and submit a donation request based on the Fairview site which held so much promise as a future home for Ranger.

While the effort to preserve the Ranger herself may have failed, the Foundation nonetheless demonstrated a desire and following for an exhibit, centered on a large deck in the Northwest –

The efforts of the Foundation defined and focused a widely-felt need for such a ship-based memorial. A well-thought out proposal for a naval and community heritage site was developed. Widespread enthusiasm and support for such a project arose. Much effort was put into addressing the technical and logistical aspects attendant on a ship donation by the Navy. In the end, the challenges posed by the combination of ship size and barriers along the route to the inland site were not met to the satisfaction of the Navy.

The purpose behind the urge to preserve Ranger remains, and remains valid. It goes beyond the desire simply to preserve a vessel, and to the desire to commemorate what makes a vessel worth preserving. That purpose is the desire to acknowledge and honor and carry forward what those who served in her and fought in her and her sister ships through the years cherished and believed in: The freedoms and principles that are the foundations of this country, the freedoms and principles that inspire those who serve and strive to preserve and protect them for all.

There is substantial local and regional support for a community heritage project that includes an important historical naval asset as its centerpiece. The offer of land and riverfront as a site for the ship by Columbia-Edgewater, LLC was a significant show of support for the Ranger effort; that support still exists. Our many volunteers demonstrated a level of energy and enthusiasm that was an incalculable asset to the project; we believe that energy and enthusiasm still exists within the community.

And why Tarawa?

With the assistance of the staffs of Senators Wyden and Merkley and Representative Blumenauer of Oregon, we worked during the winter to identify other Navy ships that would be suitable as the centerpiece for 1280px-US_Navy_071222-N-6597H-116_The_amphibious_assault_ship_USS_Tarawa_(LHA_1)_transits_through_the_Indian_Oceana community and naval heritage center. We believe we have found such a possibility in the ships of the Tarawa class.

Tarawa was the first of five ships in a new class of general-purpose amphibious assault ships, and combined in one ship type the functions previously performed by four different types: the amphibious assault ship (LPH), the amphibious transport dock (LPD), the amphibious cargo ship (LKA), and the dock landing ship (LSD). She was capable of landing elements of a Marine Corps battalion landing team and their supporting equipment by landing craft, by helicopters, or by a combination of both. USS Tarawa (LHA-1) is a United States Navy amphibious assault ship, the lead ship of her class, and the second ship to be named for the Battle of Tarawa during World War II. The first Tarawa was the USS Tarawa (CV-40). Tarawa was decommissioned 31 March 2009, at Naval Base San Diego.

We wish the Ranger Foundation every bit of success in this endeavor – the residents of the Northwest deserve and would support a major naval heritage site – doubly so in light of the area’s own history and role in supporting the Navy and naval operations across the Pacific. To be sure, working something along the lines of tacair and carrier aviation is important, and given the origin and efforts of the Foundation, to be supported. However, I sincerely hope the Ranger Foundation’s leadership looks at the opportunity to host a big-deck amphib as a means to also highlight the Gator Navy which frankly, outside of Little Creek and Coronado, pretty much stays off the radar of popular knowledge and enthusiasm. Preserving the Tarawa opens the doors to addressing that distressing shortcoming, offers the deckspace to host a variety of tailhookers and amphib-based air as well as offering an opportunity to engage another partner with deep reservoirs of enthusiasm and engagement – the Marines. Best wishes for success and watch this space for further developments….


WWATMD?: (What Would Alfred Thayer Mahan Do)  A Navy that finds itself shrinking in terms of ships and aircraft – but not Flag officers.  Sequestration.  Budgetary pressures and a strategic realignment to the Pacific.  And a country that is almost past a decade plus of two land wars in Central Asia and seems to be asking itself why we need a Navy (and if we do, what form should it take).  It’s enough to make a navalist ask “What would Mahan do?”  Author Naval Aviator and navalist in his own right, LCDR BJ Armstrong, has something to say on the subject, via the Naval Institute Press, and soon we’ll have a chance to see for ourselves when 21st CENTURY MAHAN: Sound Military Conclusions for the Modern Era arrives in the mail for review.  Also en route is the book former SEAL Chris Kyle was working on when he was so tragically murdered; AMERICAN GUN – A History of the U.S. in Ten Guns.  As a collector and firearms enthusiast (and historian), I am very much looking forward to reviewing this latest work from Harper Collins press.  Stay tuned…

Finally, today also represents something of a turning point as a truly gifted leader, thinker and exceptional naval officer, ADM James Stavridis closes out one career in service to this nation and soon, embarks on another as Dean of Tufts’ Fletcher School of Diplomacy and President of the USNI Board of Directors.  Fair winds and following seas Admiral and best wishes for you and your family as you chart a new course.


P.S.  Apropos the opening line:


Remember the aviator’s motto – “It didn’t happen if there isn’t a patch…”

Ave Atque Vale – +1 Year

(re-posted from last year)

I lost a friend today.

LexWe have lost a friend, a father, husband — a comrade in arms. Fellow aviator and blogger-at-arms, Neptunus Lex, was killed earlier today when the F-21 Kfir he was flying in support of Top Gun’s adversary squadron crashed at NAS Fallon. No word on the cause as yet. Prayers and thoughts go out to his family — please likewise keep them in your prayers in the days/weeks to come.

Lex would be the first to tell you, upon asking (or not), that he was a fighter pilot. And he was an accomplished one at that – having reached the pinnacle with command of a Hornet squadron and XO at TOPGUN (“not two words” he would say…). He was a sailor at heart with a love for the sea and those who set forth thereon in grey-hulled ships – befitting of one who wore the gold wings of a naval aviator. And he was a patriot in the truest and traditional sense with a deep love for this country and her people. Indeed, his last work in this life was training a new generation of fighters to defend this nation.

Even so, what really set Lex apart was his eloquence, obvious love of the classics and an ability to turn a phrase that would do his Irish ancestors proud. Anyone who has spent time in the air or at sea comes to appreciate the change in perspective those alluring mistresses offer and how they come to change you. It is the rare person, however, who is able to more than adequately express and convey that imagery, that perspective. Lex was one of those rare individuals and you could readily see it in his work – almost all of which he shared gratis online. Whether it was a semi-fictional account of a young aviator wrestling with carrier flight ops or surgical dissection of a controversial subject, his wit, grace and command of the language marked him as a finely honed rapier in a field cluttered with dull broadswords and broken battle axes. And it will be missed.

The time will come when we will take position and give our formal farewells with appropriate ceremony. For now, I’ll leave with this thought from a fellow naval aviator and friend – part of a discourse from last night…

” We are, actually, pretty few, and we count our fellows as friends of a different sort.. And so when one of us leaves, it is noticed. It is one thing to fade, fade away. It is another to be taken by the mistress, to be here, and then gone. I thought she was done with leaving me to count. So I thought.”

I too thought my counting days finished – alas not so…

Fair winds Lex and God bless and uphold your family. We’ll meet you at the rendezvous point…on the other side at the Green.



Summertime Reading

Go ahead, admit it – the habit dies hard.  Before every summer you swear that you are finally going to read “—” and by golly, this is the summer to do it.  Well, Labor Day is a mere 20-days away and I’ll bet you’ve barely put a dent in the reading list.  Fear not however, YHS has been busily working his way through several books thoughtfully provided by their publishers and I’m about to expand your list going into the fall months. We have works of fiction and non-fiction, most of which (surprise!) have a naval/maritime theme.  Some have just hit the streets – others are coming to bookshelves, real and virtual in the very near future.  All come with a firm “thumbs-up” and “read” recommendation.  In no particular order:

The Admirals: Nimitz, Halsey, Leahy and King – The Five Star Admirals Who Won the War at Sea, by Walter R. Borneman (Little, Brown & Co.).  The book follows the paths of four Naval officers who rose to hold the highest rank in the US Navy at the end of the Second World War – the five-star rank of Fleet Admiral.  Borneman uses an interesting approach for this comparative biography, but in a manner different than what Larrabee took in his work (Commander in Chief: FDR His Lieutenants and Their War).  While Larrabee’s work bound several biographies together, Borneman instead follows all four of his subjects through the epochs that preceded the Navy’s involvement in WW2, an approach that works very well for gaining an understanding of the changes that brought the Navy from the Olympia at Manila Bay, to the massive Fleet extant in 1945, barely 47 years later.  With wide ranging backgrounds (Nimitz was born to German immigrants in Texas while Halsey hailed form a family of sailors) each had a particular style and means to accomplish their goals – and personalities to match.  Borneman carefully weaves the personal stories through the larger narrative of societal and technological changes in the world as seen through the Navy’s lens.  The faults and shortcomings of each are found alongside their triumphs as we follow the progression of their respective careers.  I am especially pleased at the inclusion of Leahy – an oversight I thought on Larrabee’s part.  Nimitz, Halsey and King have all been pretty well highlighted for their efforts during the war – especially the first two.  To a degree, that is expected given that those three were acting directly in the Service – from Halsey at the lead, Nimitz overseeing a vast theater and actions as disparate as fast carrier task group operations to amphibious landings, an active submarine war against the Japanese merchant fleet and the logistics to make it all work; and King in the dualist role of man/train/equip that is the CNO’s portfolio and balancing with the operational oversight of a Navy engaged in a global fight.  Leahy, retired and serving as Ambassador to France was recalled as FDR’s Chief of Staff and had the task, if not the formal title, of being the first Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, compelling the Navy, Army and Army Air Force to work the joint fight (not always successfully).  Another contribution of Leahy, highlighted in the book, was his insistence on including State in planning, especially for the post-war years.  An important aspect of historical works is their ability to provide insight and application in the here and now – otherwise it is merely an academic exercise.  One of the first observations of today’s reader would be that each of these individuals had one or more events or personality traits that would lead to early termination in today’s Service (to wit, the almost weekly detailing of CO firings found in Navy Times).  It is worth noting, however, the values and ethics these four shared remain relevant today – perseverance in the face of adversity, dedication to personal technical and warfighting competency, devotion to Service and those under your command, and personal accountability along with a certain openess to new ideas, new technology and different ways of doing business.  At the risk of using a word that is justifiably pilloried today, they nonetheless developed and implemented transformational plans, policies and operations  without transformation becoming an end unto itself.  Criticisms are few – I would, for example, have liked a bit more about King’s work in fighting the Battle of the Atlantic and there were a few editorial discontinuities to be expected in a pre-publication edition.  Overall – a very good work and one worth including on a list of professional reading.  On a scale of 1-5 stars I would rate it a 4.5 and definite buy.

The Aden Effect – A Connor Stark Novel, by Claude Berube (Naval Institute Press – Oct 2012 publication).  “Murder, politics, seapower, Middle East instability, and intrigue in the White House…” While that may describe the front page of the Washington Post these days, it is also the lead-in descriptor for the author’s first foray into fiction, set in the troubled waters off the Horn of Africa.  A Navy Reserve Officer who has deployed to the region, Berube draws deeply on his expertise in intelligence, history and surface warfare to set the stage and populate his work with a wide variety of characters – and I do emphasize characters.  The narrative flows well for a first fictional work and there are enough plot twists and sudden turns to keep you engaged and pressing deeper into the book.  I won’t delve into details the plot as the book is slated for release in October, but an overview is available at the pre-order site on the Naval Institute Press’ website.  I will point out that in order for the plot to work, the reader need not suspend all reality and disbelief as is the downfall of many works of fiction based on the real world.  Likewise, you won’t need a copy of Jane’s or the DICNAVAB at your side to follow the action.  The “stuff” of naval warfare – ships, aircraft, tactics and procedures, are nicely woven into the story, avoiding becoming the story themselves and allowing you to focus on the characters.  With reference to the characters – it would have been nice to see a little more development of the ancillary actors but that is understandable in the first take at fiction.

Is it a buy?  Certainly – coming out in October it is the perfect companion as you head up to the cabin for the weekend or off to the family reunion at Thanksgiving.  Overall I’d rate it at 4 on a scale of 1-5 stars and am looking forward to the next installment in the series.



PIRATE ALLEY: Commanding Task Force 151 Off Somalia, by RADM Terry McKnight, USN (Ret) and Michael Hirsh with a Foreward by Jim Miklaszewski (Naval Institute Press – October 2012 publication).  The reality of the ongoing scourge of piracy off the Horn of Africa is brought home in vivid detail in this volume co-written by a 31-year veteran of the sea service and a Vietnam War Army combat correspondent. Piracy is an industry that tallies almost $13B a year in worldwide economic impacts and in 2011, took some 1,000 seafarers into captivity.  It is not supported by a government – for in effect is no government in what has become a lawless territory and all that implies where International Law and the efforts to stop piracy are concerned. The first baby steps at confronting this scourge followed the MV Golden Nori incident (a Japanese-owned tanker carrying 40,000 tons of high;y explosive industrial benzene) in October 2007,  when in December 2008 the UN finally passed UNSCR 1846 which permitted actions in the territorial waters of Somalia for the express purpose of repressing acts of piracy through all means necessary – on the high seas and under international law.  The following month, January 2009, saw the stand-up of Combined Task Force 151 (CTF 151) in the Gulf of Aden with the express purpose of fighting piracy and RADM McKnight’s assignment as the first commander.  The narrative builds from there as we see the cumulative after-effects of previous actions and nonactions, distilled in the pirate’s business model, as illustrated by NAVCENT, VADM Gortney “They will not shoot at me.  I will get their money. And no one will arrest me.  It’s a good job.” And it had to be (a good job) in order to continue to attract recruits from the traditionally non-seafaring parts of the Somali back country and place them in  tiny skiffs, armed with AK-47’s and RPGs intent on capturing and holding hostage giant (to them) ships, their cargo and crew.  For millions.

The challenges of leading a CTF in that part of the world – the delicate politics of the situation, domestic and international; of dealing with a strategic messaging plan whose audience couldn’t possibly have been the pirates (“suspected pirates” – never “pirates” or terrorists” even when caught red-handed hundreds of miles offshore with weapons in their possession), of rules that said which nations could capture pirates and which could only “deter” piracy;  are all detailed here.  It is an interesting reading exercise in command judgement and innovation, well detailed by McKnight and Hirsh in examples that include several chapters on the capture/re-capture of the Maersk Alabama and freeing of her hostage captain.  It is also a work that serves to peel back the underlying layers of elements that support and contribute to piracy in the region in an attempt to better understand why it happens which in turn.  In a section titled Piracy 101, there is a conversation with an expert on the local area in general (Bosaso) and the pirates in particular in which he relates his surprise that whereas he thought he’d be interviewing pirates themselves, the first month or so of his investigation was spent talking to the businessmen who sprung up around the piracy and as he relates, gave him greater insight into piracy – there’s lots to like here and wealth of information in an easy and quick reading format.  I’ll be frank – I’ve always been interested in other aspects of naval matters and tended to read articles on piracy only out of a sense of obligation – not so here.  If there is just one book you read this fall on piracy, this should be it.  Overall – 4.5 stars on a scale of 1-5 and a must include on your professional reading list.

Thank you to the Naval Institute Press and Little, Brown & Co. for providing early/advanced copies of these books for review. – SJS

Flightdeck Friday – What Am I? Updated & Answered

A little something for the recce crowd out there:

1. What is it?
2. What is it used for?
3. What platform is it a part of?
Hint: You’ve read about it here before…look in here.

Update: What Am I? — dive brakes on the martin AM-1 Mauler:

USNI: Taking Back Our Institution – A Note From Norman Polmar

More from Norman Polmar on the USNI:


Dear Friends and Colleagues,

As you know, the Board of Directors–for now–has withdrawn the proposed change to the mission statement that would have made the Naval Institute an advocacy organization.

Unfortunately, the battle is not over. The majority of the Board still seeks to establish an “advocacy institute” under the umbrella of the Naval Institute.

In addition, members of the Board are discussing the possibility of selling off the Naval Institute Press (it doesn’t make enough profit). I am also concerned about the future of the Proceedings and Naval History magazines because neither appears in the Board’s proposed new USNI structure. What does appear is a specific New York PR firm that will head the Naval Institute’s “advocacy group.”

This is not the Naval Institute that we have worked for and that we love and respect.

Thus, if at all possible, I urge you to attend the annual meeting scheduled for Friday/29 April, from 10 to 12 noon at the Georgetown University Conference Center.

Conference center: 3800 Reservoir Road NW, Washington, DC 20057;
tel… 202 687-3200. Parking is available.

And, encourage your friends and associates who believe in the Naval Institute and the open forum to attend this meeting. Whether you can attend the annual meeting or not, communicate to the Board of Directors in writing or by e-mail telling them what you think about the proposed changes to our Naval Institute.

A final point: While the majority of the Board seeks to radically change the Naval Institute, there is a minority, led by Dr. Jack London, that has steadfastly opposed such changes; other minority members are Mark Johnson, Ed Miller, and B.J. Penn. Seek them out at the meeting or contact them before to express your appreciation for their efforts.

Best wishes/Norman

Norman Polmar

Not much to add except to encourage you to register to either attend in person or via webinar (if possible though, please show up in person). 

Hope to see all of you there on the 29th. 

w/r, SJS

USNI: Taking Our Institute Back – Following the Numbers Salamander Style

There is a saying in politics that if you really want to find out what is going on, follow the money.
The current Chairman of the USNI Board of Directors has cited the need for the Institute to gain financial stability as the prime motivator behind their actions leading up to the mission change. Following the numbers though, surfaces a different perspective, and one CDR Salamander throughly dissects. As he summarizes – “Good people can disagree on what direction USNI should take, but this just smells funny.” Indeed, something is fishy and it isn’t the Severn at low tide…

USNI: Taking Back Our Institution — ‘You Are Cordially Invited’

Announcing the 137th Annual Meeting of the US Naval Institute:

More than ever we need you there, in person, at the meeting.  I’m going and have registered – registration is free (but required) for USNI members.  See you there.

w/r, SJS

P.S.  Don’t forget to vote – while the Board of Directors may have stated the intent to “delay any change in the Institute’s mission statement whatever the outcome of the balloting”, balloting nonetheless continues and it is important we follow through to help establish the grounds for the forthcoming “wide-ranging and fully open debate led by the membership.”  Vote here.

USNI: Taking Back Our Institution — The Fleet Speaks

Today’s post comes by way of AT1 Charles Berlemann, Jr. Currently assigned to VAQ-135 (World Famous Back Ravens), he enlisted in 1998 and has made five deployments (see “Postcards from Deployment”). Interested since 1995 (Charles calls himself an “unofficial member), he joined the Institute in 1999. We have maintained correspondence for a few years now and as a former VAW MO and CO, I would have moved heaven and earth to have had someone with his presence, leadership skills, technical acumen and, let’s call it what it really is, ethos in my squadron. He comes to this fora with eloquently expressed concerns about the current emphasis and projected direction for the Institute. If you are a member of the Board of Directors – stop, read and carefully consider what is written. Here is one of the bright lights in the Institute’s membership and someone with real vision for its future…someone you need to pay attention to.

I am writing today since you dear reader care just as deeply about the USNI as I care about our organization. We want to see this organization be a place where ideas can be allowed to ebb and flow. Our organization should be willing to help people generate their ideas and not suppress them. We also want to see our organization grow with membership; whether that member is a brand new sailor walking in a graduation ceremony at RTC Great Lakes or the retired master merchant mariner in his backyard. Our publishing arm is also, incredibly important to not only ourselves, but to our nation’s knowledge level. I feel that if we see a transition of our organization from an independent forum that fosters our current mission of advancing our professional, technical, scientific, and literary knowledge; over to an organization that becomes an advocacy group that we will be losing a uniquely different voice for the naval profession.

I was one of those rare geeky kids interested in USNI publications as a youngster. I have been an avid reader of both Proceedings since the mid 1980’s, starting when I was in the 3rd grade. My father, who has been a member since the late 1970’s, who use to leave his copy of “Proceedings” lying on his end table; I would borrow and attempt to read them. Initially I would just look at the photo captions and article titles. Even at that young age, I was asking questions about what those titles meant and why some of the articles had been included in the magazine. As I got older, I would dive into the book reviews and the letters to the editors. Every so often there would be an article which would peak my interest so I would read it in full and discuss it with my dad asking about why an article was written. I wanted to know “What is going on that led the author to ask this question?”

A classic example I remember from that time period was the debate on the future of Naval Aviation post Op Prairie Fire and El Dorado Canyon. People were asking why those ops went “joint” when it could have been accomplished strictly via the assets 6th Fleet had on hand at the time. My dad and I discussed that topic for a full weekend. Over breakfast at the Oceana Officer’s club that weekend, we ran into one of my dad’s friends, a Commander, who had just completed a student tour at Newport. My dad told him we were talking about what he had just majored in, which was joint operations. This O-5 explained to me the effect that a piece of legislation was having on the whole Department of Defense, where that legislation came from and how this legislation created a major change in how the mission was planned compared to just a decade previously when he was an O-3 flying in Vietnam.

As I grew older, I read articles debating everything from what a disadvantage the Arsenal ship would be to the fleet to why we still need to maintain the E-2’s on the flight decks and not depend on the USAF AWACS program to provide eyes to the fleet. I also saw minor debates on the fringes (like in the classic “Nobody Asked me, but…” editorials) that would only become bigger issues by the time I joined the fleet in 1998. These debated ideas included topics like how the PRT program is failing our sailors or why the post-Cold War RIF/BRAC combo is going to bite us in the rear. I mention these because I see those types of articles lacking now in the magazine. Rather than seeing both sides of the issue given equal weight and consideration, there might be a flood of “letters to editors” advocating why an article is wrong or misguided if that article seems to go against conventional wisdom. When healthy debate is crushed or outright denied, it is a serious issue because we fail to learn from the experience of the old salts and the new ideas of the new sailors. Just because an article doesn’t toe the party line whether this party is OpNav/SecNav, ACME Industries, or even our older generation of naval sailors; this doesn’t mean an issue isn’t something we should review the pros and cons of. There is a feeling that our organization’s written arms seem unwilling to take on any sort of submissions because some of our current juniors feel they can’t write well enough.

Another major issue facing the USNI relates to communication and writing skills on a national scale. That is, the difficulty people have in translating their thought process into written words and making those written words effective in helping their position. I bring this issue up, because it has been discussed in the last two college English Composition classes that I have taken. It is important for an organization like ours to ask why people are afraid of writing. There are a number of issues in the structure of my own writing, grammar, and composition. I see it at nearly every paper that my mother has kept from my public schooling, I can see it with a posting I wrote for the blogger named Steeljaw Scribe for his Guadalcanal theme project a few years back, and even when I was attempting to compose a journal for some college classes as part of a side project. More than a few people I have talked to have mentioned some of the same or very similar issues. For a number of people they have grammar down pat but can’t logically organize a thought if the world’s survival depended on it. Others can craft a thought that can potentially make Jefferson or Paine cry in the beauty of that thought; however, the grammar makes them look like a 2 year old to the world. The USNI would benefit by being willing to take material full of good ideas and work with the authors on grammar and presentation issues as need to make their ideas ready for publishing. The board of directors could recognize that the judicial usage of editors in these submissions we will be expanding our influence in helping the next generation of writers. Since this next generation of writers are currently on the deck plates working within the systems and policies created by our seniors. By seeing what our younger generations having tickling their minds or even making the history that will be talked about by future generations; we maintain a usefulness to our services via our members.

If the USNI really wanted to expand their membership and keep the organization as a useful independent forum, then they need to appeal to all ranks. One way to do this would be to accept articles and submissions from all ranks, whether that is the Fireman Apprentice or the CNO. The editorial board should ask everyone to send them material because writing from all ranks will appeal broadly to readers of all ranks. At one time we used to have essay contests, including one for enlisted authors, which encouraged these submissions and published the best articles in Proceedings. These used to be announced in the fleet to all ranks via Plan of the Week or Plan of the Day notes. Currently, we have lost that voice. I would like the board to recognize that the editorial pages of the Navy Times, or other trade publications, should not be the only space where discussions and counter arguments can grow. This could create a revolution in our membership. Even more so we might be introduced to more folks who are writing our history as they working their jobs.

Right after I joined the US Navy in 1998, as a gift, my dad purchased for me my very own membership to the USNI. Since then, I have always managed my budget to pay for the 3 year renewal when I get close to expiring. There have been other magazines and organizations which at various times I have started and stopped but the Proceedings/Naval History combo has always been at the forefront. It is important to me because I see it as a window into how some policies get drafted. More than that though, the books that have the USNI publishing stamp on their spine were critical to my personal and professional development.

When I get that book catalog twice a year, I go through circling books that sound interesting or exciting. This is a tradition I have maintained since childhood. Right now on my book case there are twenty to thirty books that have a USNI publishing house stamp on the spine. I have even passed on books to others who thought they might not enjoy a book on a topic but end up loving the copy that I gave them simply because it was different then what they typically could find in the name brand book stores. It was a book about a subject you didn’t always see covered. When I talk with others about USNI membership, I tell them the best part of the membership is access to the books the USNI publishes. The USNI gave folks like Tom Clancy and Stephen Coonts their start in writing. They have also been a source of publishing for great technical or historical writers like Norman Friedman, Dr. Milan Vego, Dr. John Lundstrom, and many others. There are USNI books I use weekly if not daily on the job. I keep my issued copy of “The Blue Jackets Manual,” 23rd edition, plus a copy of “The Guide to Naval Writing” on my desk at work. This organization publishes books that might never get a chance to see the light of day otherwise. Think about the loss that would create to not only our own internal education, but also to our national education on the naval services. I also can’t stress enough what this organization’s “Classics of Naval Literature” series has done to save books from all but being lost forever because they have fallen out of favor with the general populace. Books like “Run Silent, Run Deep”, “Mister Roberts”, “The Quiet Warrior: Biography of Raymond Spruance”, “Away All Boats”, and “Ned Meyers or Life before the Mast” would be out of print. Though there is other groups such as, The Library of America, they aren’t publishing these books deemed to be from an unprofitable niche. Our membership would be harmed in a change in the USNI mission lead to us dropping our publishing house. Yes, it is it OUR publishing house and they are helping to not only tell our story, but also communicate the technical and scientific ways of doing our jobs. Having these books offered at discounted prices to members is a great advantage for our newest sailors.

If USNI board cared, they should have a kiosk set up at Great Lakes as well as Annapolis. They should be actively trying to solicit the membership of the kid from Smallville, Kansas who is now a Seaman Recruit getting ready to head across the street to learn how to become a Bosun or the kid from North Pole, Alaska who is going to become a Hospitalman; just as much as that kid from the Bronx who is going to be part of the graduating class of 20XX at the trade school or the student from Mayberry, North Carolina who just received his commission via ROTC. The board should be at Great Lakes looking to show the advantages of membership; everything from the magazines which offer just as much insight as Navy Times if not more, the numerous books we publish year in and year out, to even the discounts on travel from membership. There should be talk from the sales reps of a discounted membership to our newest sailor just like the ones that are currently being offered to the brand new Ensign or 2nd Lt in our services.

However, just like the way our sailors view programs inside the Navy like NMCRS, they view the USNI as being full of stuffed shirts that either have articles that are written above the sailor’s perceived education level or the articles are written by ghosts who work for those stuffed shirts to advocate a specific policy change. This is the issue too when it appears the only people who have Proceedings spread on the table in the ready room or the wardroom usually starts with the LCDR or above. I can’t tell you how many times I got queer looks and questions from my JO’s while standing the in port ASDO or ADDO why I was reading a Proceedings that also had my name on it. The classic line of, “I read it for the articles”, didn’t seem to go over well with a few until time in the Sandbox and a few beers led to discussing things in the fleet. They realized I had a pretty good grasp on things. This is an issue when more sailors are willing to debate things in Navy Times and its editorial pages rather than in a place which has as its mission statement the idea of being a totally independent forum to advance the professional, scientific, and literary knowledge of the naval professions.

USNI missed an opportunity to become more relevant to a wider audience when discussions around the repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” were reported first in JFQ and not in Proceedings. More opportunities for constructive debates relevant to sailors of all ranks were missed over such topics as the LCS program, the F-35 JSF and its second engine, negative results due to over-dependence on computer based training, if UAV/UCAV’s are really something we should be betting the farm on, and even the topic of how foreign policy decisions affect our naval profession. I think that some of this shift away from our organization being a place for healthy debate started between 1993 and 1994, when we saw a huge argument from the editorial staff about whether or not to publish an anonymous article on Anthrax vaccine safety. The question was whether or not someone should publish anonymously or if they should only be published if they have the guts to put their name to what they wrote. As I remember it, this debate ran for the better part of 18 months and took an interesting tangent. Readers began to question whether folks were only writing articles to the USNI as a way to score bonus points on an Eval/FitRep. They also began asking if senior leadership was stifling debate over what was being published in an attempt to “control the message”. As more than a few organizations and even governments have learned, controlling the message can bite them in the backside.

These are just some of the issues that I have seen in the last few years with the USNI. I have expressed these concerns to the USNI staff in person at places like the annual warfare expo. I wrote this essay because I feel that the changes being proposed by this organization’s board requires me to, nay, demands that I write this essay to support what our organization stands for. I believe we will lose all the unique benefits and advantages if they board changes the mission to one of advocacy instead of being an independent forum, as our current mission states. I hope that the board considers these ideas and thoughts on how to strengthen what we have before they completely abandon our origins and convert this great institution into something 180 degrees out of phase from what this organization stood for when it was founded in 1880.
I tack this essay onto the church door as Martin Luther did on the Church in Wittenburg as a way to foster debate about our organization. I hope that this will prevent us from going down the well paved road of good intentions.

To borrow phrase, I am AT1 (AW) Charles Harold Berlemann, Jr. and I am the United States Naval Institute!