By Sam Cox (Rear Adm. USN, Ret.), Director, Naval History and Heritage Command
At the Navy League’s Sea Air Space Exposition this year, I was fortunate to sit on a panel with peers from the Coast Guard, Navy and Marine Corps.
The question was how today’s service men and women seize history’s lessons to tackle today’s leadership and technology challenges. With a little more than a year as the Director of the Naval History and Heritage Command and in my uniform life was an intel officer, it’s a subject on which I’ve given a lot of thought.
The answer is, to put it simply, todays Sailors, Marines, Airmen and Soldiers need balance between the two diverging paradigms: history versus present day and technology versus humanities.
History and the Present
In a world that is focused on the next “thing” on the horizon and in a Navy that is focused on operating forward, what role should our history play in our daily actions? To take a note from the CNO’s Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority, “As we get underway, we must first understand our history – how we got to where we are. Moving forward, we’ll respect that we won’t get it all right, and so we’ll monitor and assess ourselves and our surroundings as we go.”
When I would counsel junior officers I would always tell them, it’s really great to learn from your own mistakes, it’s even better to learn from the mistakes of others. This is particularly true when in your line of work, mistakes cost lives and lose battles. Those lessons, the lessons of our past, occur in all sectors of our Navy. And they occur constantly. The intel lessons learned at Pearl Harbor not only made victory at Midway possible, but also laid the ground work for how we capture and analyze intel today.
Technology and Humanities
This desire to be remembered is part of the warrior ethos. You can see its traces all the way back to the earliest records of warfare; this obligation to not forget.
The Navy is first a people business. And we have a moral obligation to remember the service of those who’ve gone before us. If you expect people to fight and die for your country, the least we can do as a Navy, and as a nation, is remember them. At every memorial service for a Sailor that falls in battle or is lost at sea, we make a promise to their family – that they will not be forgotten and in their memory, we will learn. Computers can’t do that. Data can’t do that. It’s our people that serve as our institutional memory. It’s the Chief whose sea stories share a lesson with their young Sailors; it’s the understanding of our history on which those Sailors are tested as they advance in rank, it’s the unit history captured in Command Operations Reports the fleet is tasked with creating; and it’s the myriad other ways we connect our past to our present that make it possible for us to meet that obligation – to remember.
Are we the most technologically advanced Navy in the world? Yes. Do we need to look forward, adopt the best, and often newest, weapon systems in order to fight and protect America? Of course. But it’s a balance between supporting the growth of technology, while also encouraging the lessons of our past that will maintain the Navy of the future.
So, when we teach our Sailors how to tackle the crises of tomorrow, we need to balance our approach. Instruct Sailors to adopt and use technology, but ground them in the lessons of our past.
That is how we have, and will remain, the cornerstone of American security and prosperity.