21st Century Knox

21st Century Knox

Influence, Sea Power, and History for the Modern Era

Edited by David Kohnen

Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Maryland, 2016, 176 pages

Book Review published on: June 23, 2017

Naval historian David Kohnen’s edited collection of naval officer and historian Dudley Wright Knox’s essays is among the latest in the Naval Institute Press’s 21st Century series that attempts to leverage the writing of past military professionals. It also addresses application of their ideas for the challenges of today. It is a worthy companion to similar anthologies about A. T. Mahan, William Sims, and marine Earl “Pete” Ellis. These studies have the virtue of being rather short, published in smaller paperback format, and written by leading scholars. They should not be read by just naval (that is Marine and Navy) audiences. This is particularly true of the Knox-Kohnen collection here.

The structure of the book is very useful and provides a chronological approach that allows Kohnen to capture all the essential biographical context. There are seven essays by Knox: “Trained Initiative and Unity of Action” (1913), “The Role of Doctrine in Naval Warfare” (1915), “The Elements of Leadership” (1920), “Our Vanishing History and Traditions” (1926), “Naval Power as a Preserver of Neutrality and Peace” (1937), “Association with Franklin D. Roosevelt” (1948), and “The Development of Unification” (1950). The book is a “two for one” in that it is biography and a collection of essays; the biography provides context for the essays that Kohnen finds most relevant to twenty-first century problems. For example, Kohnen emphasizes that one of Knox’s major themes in all his historical writing centered on the fact that “… navies provided the means ‘not to make war but to preserve peace … to shield the free development of commerce, not to unsettle the world but to stabilize it through the promotion of law and order.’” This is Kohnen’s way to emphasize that Knox was both a naval historian and a public intellectual trying to influence policy. The particular application the twenty-first century is obvious when one considers that the U.S. Navy’s mission of policing the “global commons” as reflected in its 2015 Maritime Strategy is in alignment with Knox’s writing.

Kohnen also highlights Knox’s relationships with more famous naval leaders and politicians of his day, especially his very close and long relationships with Ernest King and Franklin Roosevelt. King later became the commander in chief and chief of naval operations for the Navy in World War II, and he brought Knox out of retirement in that war to serve in various capacities. Knox was also part of the famous “band of brothers” who served under Adm. William Sims and joined the officers while he was in command of U.S. Naval Forces in 1917 during World War I. Knox became part of what we would call a “red team” today for Sims as they struggled with the huge challenge of fighting the German submarine threat. Most fascinating of all is Kohnen’s explication that Knox was extremely well-read in the history and ideas of the Prusso-German military culture (i.e., Clausewitz and Moltke); his references to his Prussian sources litter his first essay.

Kohnen’s choices for the first two essays should be of particular interest to readers of Military Review because they deal extensively with what is called mission command. Both won the Naval Institute prize essays for the year they were written. The title of the first essay indicates as much: “Trained Initiative and Unity of Action: The True Bases of Military Efficiency.” Knox argues that the U.S. Navy was not giving its junior officers enough education or opportunity to exercise initiative and then recommended, among other things, the difference between orders and “instructions”—the latter being equivalent to the mission type orders found in U.S. Army mission command doctrine. “‘Instructions’ express in general terms only, the commander’s wishes or ‘will’ … they acquaint a subordinate with his mission, and he is responsible for the detailed manner of their execution as well as for the result of his work, as weighed against the difficulties encountered.” Similarly, the second essay on doctrine essential argues for a naval general staff along the lines of the German general staff and a doctrine that supports the mission command philosophy, explicitly referencing the German model, with a view that Germany was probably going to be the U.S. Navy’s next adversary in war.

There are five more essays, with the final one, from 1950, deserving further mention as it was a critique of the system created by the 1947 National Security Act, which Knox labeled “unification.” Again, this essay was written in criticism of a system that Knox thought too highly centralized, and it resonates well with those who might consider the success of defense reform after World War II. In other words, Knox’s essay here might be used as a template to ask “how are we doing” today.

There is much more, but the purpose of the review is not to recount in detail all Knox’s arguments and their context but to highlight the value this seemingly “naval” anthology might have for military professionals in general. That value is great, and this book deserves as broad a readership as possible (and not just by military personnel) for its insights on leadership and officer professionalism as much as for its arguments on behalf of history and sea power.

Book Review written by: Cdr. John T. Kuehn, U.S. Navy, Retired, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas