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21st Century Knox

The Naval Institute’s 21st Century series on important military and naval figures seeks to review articles and writings of these figures and examine their relevance to the 21st Century.  Past volumes have examined the careers of Mahan, Patton, Soviet Admiral Gorshkov, Sims, Ellis, General Thomas Power, and Corbett. This latest book in the series examines the life, career and writings of Commodore Dudley Wright Knox.

21st Century Knox is a well written book that presents articles written by Knox throughout his career. Editor David Kohnen describes different phases of Knox’ career before presenting the articles. Note, Knox’s articles contain detailed discussions of naval operations throughout history, so if you do not know what Horatio Nelson did at the battle of Cape St. Vincent, or who Admiral Suffern was and when and where he fought you may want to keep Wikipedia handy.

Knox came from a distinguished Boston family with a long tradition of military service.  His father, Colonel Thomas T. Knox, was a close associate of Lt. Gen. Arthur MacArthur. Dudley himself was related by marriage to Douglas MacArhur, having married the sister of the wife of Arthur MacArthur II, Douglas’ Naval officer brother. This personal relationship to one of America’s most influential military families linked Dudley to the great strategic questions of the day.

By the turn of the 19th century Knox had served in a variety of assignments including combat in the Spanish-American War, the Boxer Rebellion and the Philippine Insurrection. At the start of America’s involvement in World War One Knox was assigned to London where, as a member of the American Expeditionary Forces staff, he focused on intelligence collaboration between allies.

Knox served at a unique time in the history of the Navy and of the United States. In the 1890’s, as the Navy expanded its primary focus from single ship and small flotilla operations in the Western hemisphere to major maritime operations over wider geographic areas. Knox and other Naval writers such as Sims, Luce and Mahan began to raise issues concerning world-wide national strategy and the naval strategy required to support it. As the roles and responsibilities of the Navy grew, Knox wrote in a series of articles about the need for a naval doctrine to support the new naval strategy, and for a mission command approach to leadership.

When the Navy operated as single ships, or in flotillas, operations and tactics could be developed quickly based upon standard practices and the commanders’ knowledge of one another through long association in a small navy and over the course of a cruise. Naval training emphasized technical competence and seamanship, as befitted a navy that operated in small detachments.

With the expansion of naval operations with new classes and types of ships, to include battleships, cruisers, motor torpedo boats and vessels designed to destroy motor torpedo boats, fleet operations became more complex. With the Navy expanding to fit a larger, world-wide role, Knox recognized the need for a written doctrine that would preclude the need for detailed written instructions that were appropriate for smaller detachments in specific circumstances. A larger Navy now operated in larger detachments, with many different classes of ships over larger areas and with a broader time horizon.  Detailed instructions that were days or even weeks old could not cover every circumstance. The potential for unforeseen situations now called for naval doctrine and practice that would allow officers to use initiative and operate independently to implement the commander’s intent. Knox emphasized repeatedly that the Navy was not training its officers to exercise initiative.

Following his retirement from the Navy in 1922, Knox worked with Franklin Roosevelt to publicize the role of the Navy to keep the peace and the importance of the Naval War College to provide uniform doctrine to the Navy as it expanded its maritime role. He collaborated with such naval luminaries as King, Leahy, Simms and FDR to prepare the Navy for the coming world war and then to transition the Navy to its role in the modern era.

After World War Two Knox supported the view that Unification risked focusing solely on the Air Force’s role in atomic warfare while downgrading the capabilities of other services, thus limiting the strategic flexibility of the nation to deal with problems that did not rise to the nuclear level.

21st Century Knox examines relevant modern issues such as Joint Operations, professionalism and command and control and is worth reading because it adds to the understanding of doctrinal issues that have evolved over the last century during a time of expanding commitment of the armed forces to a world-wide role.

21st Century Knox: Influence, Sea Power, and History for the Modern Era
Edited by David Kohnen, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD. (2016).

Reviewed by Jack Harris. Jack Harris is a systems architect in the Joint Staff J6. Mr. Harris also serves as an Adjunct Faculty member for the Joint Command, Control, Communications, computers, Intelligence and Cyber Student Orientation Course (JC4ICSOC) at the Joint Forces Staff College. He retired as a Lieutenant Colonel from the Marine Corps Reserve after 27 years in 2004.
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  1. Stephen Regan

    I had no intention of reading this book; but after reading this excellent review I have it on my Wish List.

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