• William Toti

Write: with Your Eyes Wide Open

Updated: Apr 20, 2020

To write or not to write while developing a military career? The rewards are usually worth the risks, but the risks are real.

Having just finished reading Admiral James Stavridis' article in the August 2008 issue of Proceedings, I felt compelled to follow his advice and write.1 Admiral Stavridis is a friend and a former mentor, so it won't be surprising to learn that I agree with him about the merits of publishing. His admonishment to think great thoughts and be bold enough to share them, is right on target.

Over the years I have written more than a dozen articles for Proceedings and have published more than 20 OpEd pieces in national and international periodicals. I've contributed to two books as well. And I've never regretted any of it.

However (and this is a big caveat), it is important that any prospective military author understand the very real risks associated with writing. It's a fact that the prospective author's military boss is still a human being, subject to the same human foibles as the rest of us.

Admiral Stavridis is certainly correct in pointing out that many prominent senior officers have written serious and provocative articles in their time. But except for the example of Stavridis himself, most of those he mentions wrote in the early 20th century. 

Candor Sometimes Goes Unrewarded

In today's military, boldness is rewarded only in battle, and sometimes not even then. It's a fact of human nature that leaders tend to promote subordinates who most emulate them.

The argument has been made that controversy among military officers should not be played out in public. Unfortunately, controversy played out in private usually dies a very quiet death. To give an idea life, sometimes the only effective way is to make it public, even when doing so might imperil one's career.

And there's the rub. I believe the real threat to serious and open debate has been a single-minded focus on careerism among some officers. This is destructive. In the final analysis, if you wish to advance the cause, you must be willing to put the good of the service over the good of your career (advice I gave to a young officer in "An Open Letter to Lt. Butler" and advice I tried to follow myself).

I received warnings from superior officers that it would be in my best interest to stop writing. Some of this criticism stemmed from the nature of the subject I had chosen to write about. Some of the blame belongs to editors who changed the meaning of the pieces by assigning them eye-catching but off-the-mark titles. The result was the same: intense pressure from a superior officer to stop writing.

Let me provide a few examples.

First, after earning a degree in space systems engineering from the Naval Postgraduate School, I was assigned to two separate Pentagon tours (happily interrupted by an XO tour at sea), where I provided oversight to military space systems development. In most cases, these programs were bloated, overrun on cost, way behind schedule, and late to the fight. After a while, it became apparent that the problem with space systems was that they weren't really space systems at all—they were actually communications systems, intelligence systems, and navigation systems that happened to be located in space (leading to the catch phrase "space is a place, not a mission"). Rather than being integrated as "space systems," they should be integrated across and managed by the functional mission they supported. Doing so would reduce cost and complexity, while improving integrated capability. I related these findings in my first feature for Proceedings, which I titled "Normalizing Space." Unfortunately, the article was published under the title "Who Needs Space Command?"5 The reaction from the space community was swift. I was warned by leaders within my own warfare community that, however accurate, the article would not help my career.

"You will be a commodore now. We expect you to lower your profile and prove you are a 'company man.' In other words, stop writing."

Second, while serving as a Federal Executive Fellow at the Brookings Institution, during a period of heightened tensions over China and Taiwan in the mid-1990s, I wrote an OpEd piece advancing the argument that the Clinton administration had silently changed the working interpretation of the 1978 Recognition Communiqué and that this subtle distinction was a reasonable explanation for the recent, more belligerent, Chinese behavior.6 My article laid no blame and assigned no malice. It was merely an investigation in Chinese motive and was consistent with the purpose of my fellowship at Brookings, research and writing. It was a simple piece of analysis, one that I believe has proved to be correct over time.7 Further, I followed proper Navy channels to clear the article prior to publication, submitting it to CHINFO for review. After it was published, I was called to the Pentagon and told, "You are an active-duty naval officer. Who are you to question administration policy?"

Third, in response to a Brookings Institution article published in Foreign Affairs magazine that criticized the scale of U.S. defense spending by comparing it to the aggregated spending in the rest of the world, I wrote another OpEd piece arguing that since we intended to fight our wars on the other side of two great oceans, we needed a globally dominant Navy, an expeditionary Marine Corps, and a global Air Force.8 No other nation required a similarly global force. I pointed out that the increase in cost for this global force was nonlinear. Hence, any comparison between what the United States spent on defense and what other nations spent was inappropriate and specious. I called the piece "The Cost of the Oceans," but again, an editor retitled it "What Does Brookings Know about Defense?" The reaction from Brookings was predictable. A call was made to the Secretary of Defense accusing me of an ad hominem attack and asking that I be removed from my position as a Brookings Fellow. Happily, then-CNO Admiral Mike Boorda came forward in support of the article and indicated that my career was safe. Nevertheless, the CNO's message diverged significantly from the advice from other flag officers, who had more direct influence over my career. They warned that I had again become a lightning rod for criticism. These warnings fell just short of an order to remain silent. (Being young and idealistic, I still didn't listen.)

Finally, between 1999 and 2000, at the height of the "Revolution in Military Affairs" pandemic, I wrote a series of four pieces advancing the opinion that while the high-tech systems—mostly space-based and network-centric—pursued by RMA advocates would be worthwhile pursuits if we could select our future wars, what we really needed was more mundane: more ground troops; tactical-level intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance; and focused command and control. In other words, the unsexy stuff that would make a difference in the brutal and bloody wars that we were likely to fight. One of the articles won me the Proceedings Author of the Year award.9 Unfortunately, although they had been read and blessed prior to publication by my boss, then-Vice Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Pilling, I was still called on the carpet by another senior leader in the warfare community for challenging what amounted to articles of faith for OSD's senior civilian staff.

In fact, I've been admonished by a flag officer after every piece I've written, usually by a member of my own warfare community. An article analyzing the sinking of the World War II cruiser USS Indianapolis was criticized as an "attempt to change history." Finally, as I approached major command, I was warned by a superior, "You will be a commodore now. We expect you to lower your profile and prove you are a 'company man.' In other words, stop writing."

A Temporary Silence

This officer clearly believed he was giving me advice for the benefit of my career. In response, I did stop writing, and published nothing else until I retired.

Did my writing ever actually hurt my career?

I don't know.

On one hand, many flag officers encouraged me to write, including Admiral Stavridis. I still have copies of letters from flag officers of every service asking me to write for them personally, or to publish for their cause or interest. I have several notes indicating that some flag officers believed I was contributing a great deal to the debate.

And from the career standpoint, I served through major operational command. I retired on my terms while receiving encouragement to stick it out to see if I would make flag. I decided to leave the Navy, not because I thought my career was at an end or because I felt intimidated by my detractors, but because it was the right thing to do for my family and me. I retired at the point in a career I refer to as the "transition sweet spot"—senior enough to have commanded large organizations but young enough for a company to be willing to invest in my future.

I was often told that I was successful in my career in spite of my writing, and that I would be even more successful if I kept a "lower profile."

I don't believe for a moment that this anti-intellectual position is condoned at the highest levels in the military. These opinions belonged to a small number of relatively junior flag officers. Unfortunately, even junior flag officers can have a pretty significant impact on one's career. Hence, if this perception is ever going to change, it will take direct action and intervention between the CNO and all Navy flag officers.

Looking back, would I have done anything differently?

Absolutely not.

Along with command at sea, my writing is still one of my greatest sources of pride. Many people know me only from what I've written. And on the whole, I am comfortable that my words have withstood the test of time.

But I did not write haphazardly. I wrote only when I thought I could add to the debate and when I thought the work could enlighten or entertain. I wrote when I thought the organizational gain was worth the personal risk.

In other words, I always wrote with my eyes wide open to the very real risks associated with being a public servant and active-duty officer expressing himself in a very public manner.

The path I chose was definitely "the one less travelled by." And Robert Frost was right: that has made all the difference.

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