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Learning War

The Evolution of Fighting Doctrine in the U.S. Navy, 1898-1945


Trent Hone


Studies in Naval History and Sea Power

Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2018

Hardcover. xx+403 p. ISBN 978-1682472934. $34.95


Reviewed by Robert T. Jones

US Army Command & General Staff College

Fort Gordon, Georgia


The first half of the twentieth century marked the United States’ transformation from an isolationist nation to a global super-power. Similarly, during the same time period the U.S. Navy grew and changed in parallel to the nation it served. Learning War : The Evolution of Fighting Doctrine in the U.S. Navy, 1898-1945 tracks the U.S. Navy’s transition from a traditional institution to a modern, professional organization [xiv]. The author, Trent Hone, is a noted naval historian and consultant on organizational design. Learning War is the author’s second book and this work is included in the U.S. Naval Institute’s book series “Studies in Naval History and Sea Power.”(1) As the title indicates, this is a military history using doctrinal development as its over-arching theme. The author’s central argument is that the success of the U.S. Navy during World War II may be attributed to its ability to foster evolutionary changes in doctrine to keep pace with a dynamic technological environment [xv]. In keeping with his background in organizational design, Hone describes the navy as a “complex adaptive system (CAS),” a theme he maintains throughout the book. The scope of the book is limited in several respects. In terms of naval systems, the author focuses almost exclusively on surface combatants.(2) Submarines are not addressed while the role of the aircraft carrier is not assessed until near the end of the book. Additionally, the author limits his study to the Pacific theater, where the navy faced a credible enemy surface fleet, the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN). The author uses a CAS approach to explain the evolution of the navy’s warfighting doctrine. The main body of the book is organized into seven topical chapters with separate epilogue and conclusion sections at the end.

The first chapter examines the navy’s officer corps and the foundational changes that made the navy an adaptive learning organization during the interwar period. Chapter 1 tracks the evolution of the navy’s personnel and promotion policies that transitioned the service from the era of sailing vessels to modern warships. The establishment of the Naval War College, naval boards and bureaus, and the reform of officer promotion policies marked important changes in the professionalization of the navy. Chapter 2 on naval gunnery is of central importance to support the author’s position of the navy as a complex adaptive system. The complexities of delivering accurate naval surface gunfire are described in layman’s terms, easily understood by the non-naval reader. The book’s emphasis on gunnery readily illustrates the navy’s ability to adapt in an environment marked by rapid technological change. The author maintains that during the interwar period the development of improved fire control systems was “arguably the most important technological development in the evolution of the navy’s surface-warfare doctrine” [56]. Chapters 3 and 4 address “Plans and Doctrine” and the “Interwar Learning System” respectively. These chapters summarize a range of institutional approaches adopted by the navy during the interwar period including fleet tactics, training exercises, and the growing role of doctrine within the service. It is here that the author analyzes the navy’s emphasis on two heuristics: aggressive action and effective gunfire [138-145].(3) Chapter 5 is a case study of the campaign for Guadalcanal, the first major campaign of the Pacific war. Hone applies the twin heuristics of aggressive action and gunfire to his analysis of the campaign. The author challenges the traditional historical narrative identifying Midway as the turning point of the war in the Pacific. Instead, he argues that Guadalcanal was the decisive turning point where the IJN lost the initiative. It was here that the navy recovered from defeats early in the campaign and were able to adapt and refine techniques that ultimately proved successful. The author emphasizes the victory at Guadalcanal is attributable to the navy’s two heuristics developed and inculcated before the war [201]. Chapters 6 and 7 complete the book. Chapter 6 is concerned with the development of the Combat Information Center (CIC) as a means to track and make sense of volumes of information generated in a naval battle. Hone describes the CIC as a “revolutionary solution” [209]. The final chapter is a further analysis of the Pacific campaign post-Guadalcanal. By late war, the navy was a modular, complex adaptive system that simply outclassed its Japanese adversary. Hone asserts that the U.S. Navy was unlike any naval force the world had ever seen, able to sustain rapid operations, quickly disseminate lessons learned, and reconfigure itself to meet new challenges [299].

Learning War is a valuable addition to the naval literature of World War II, especially as it provides additional scholarship in the area of surface warfare. Trent Hone deftly blends a traditional historical narrative with a study of doctrinal development as seen through the lens of modern complexity theory. This work will be of interest to naval historians, naval professionals, and anyone with an interest in organizational development and innovation.


(1) Mr. Hone is also the author of Battle Line: The United States Navy, 1919-1939 (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2006).

(2) U.S. Navy surface combatants during the Second World War were destroyers, cruisers, and battleships.

(3) Heuristics are simply an approach to problem-solving.



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