Small Wars Journal

Broken and Unreadable: Our Unbearable Aversion to Doctrine

Broken and Unreadable: Our Unbearable Aversion to Doctrine by Steve Leonard - Modern War Institute

In 2016, when the University of Kansas opened the doors to the new DeBruce Center, the main attraction was a display of two simple, yellowed pieces of paper, stored behind a pane of electrochromic glass. In 1891, when tasked with creating an indoor game that would occupy the young men of Springfield College during an especially bitter New England winter, Dr. James Naismith framed the rules of a game that would one day capture a nation (and increasingly, the world): basketball. In 1898, Naismith brought his game to the Heartland, where he planted the roots of the modern sport as the first coach of the Kansas Jayhawks.

Basketball has always been a part of my life. From summers on the concrete playground to winters in the gym, I long ago lost count of the hours spent playing the sport. I knew the language of the court. I understood the guiding principles—the fundamentals—that shape how we play the game. I knew every dimple in the leather of the ball and how to make it respond to my will. Yet, in all those years, I’d never once read those rules. Not once. But I knew them—every last one of them.

Basketball, it seems, has much in common with doctrine. We teach it. We talk about it. We profess its virtues. We just don’t read the rules. We’re often so proud of the fact we don’t read our own doctrine that we joke about it (“it’s only a lot of reading if you do it”), while at the same time mocking peers who admit to not reading doctrine as TOADs (“totally oblivious of all doctrine”). The problem with all of that? The costs associated with doctrinal ignorance are measured in blood and treasure. The time to admit that you don’t know the difference between ADCON and OPCON is not when your soldiers are going hungry in a remote outpost.

Only last year, Maj. John Spencer penned an illustrative exposition on doctrine, defining not just what it is, but why it’s so important to us as a profession. Within the margins of his narrative, he railed against those who cast doctrine in a negative light, using the words of Frederick the Great—“War is not an affair of chance. A great deal of knowledge, study, and meditation is necessary to conduct it well.”—as a rallying cry to embrace the intellectual pursuit of doctrine.

Yet, still, we don’t read doctrine. Why? Well, it’s complicated…

Read on.


Dave Maxwell

Thu, 05/18/2017 - 8:27am

I am reminded of these quotes on doctrine from LTG John Cushman:

“A 1950 definition called doctrine ‘the compilation of principles and theories applicable to a subject, which have been developed through experience or by theory, that represent the best available thought and indicate and guide but do not bind in practice.’”

“Doctrine is basically a truth, a fact, or a theory that can be defended by reason.”

“Doctrine cannot replace clear thinking…under the circumstances prevailing.”2 LTG John Cushman ( 2 LTG (RET) John H. Cushman, “Thoughts for Joint Commanders,” (1993 Copyright John H. Cushman)

I also remember what an instructor at the Infantry School said to us as students more than 35 years ago now: "You cannot deviate from doctrine if you do not know it first."

Steve makes some important critiques.

A couple of them:

We also tend to over-define our terminology. Words in common usage since the days of Noah Webster can find new life—and new meaning—in Army doctrine. Several years ago, I endured an hours-long argument among a group of doctrine writers trying to define the term “asymmetric.” The suggestion—after three full hours of debate—that the group consult a dictionary was not well-received. One need only thumb through the digital pages of ADRP 1-02 to earn an appreciation for how common a practice this has become.

Finally, we come to the “logic maps.” At some point during the writing of ADP 3-0 (the Army’s capstone operations manual), the writing team introduced the idea of a diagram that would map the logic behind the central organizing theme of the doctrine—the operational concept. The logic map was a powerful teaching tool: a single graphic that “walks” the reader through the “big ideas” in the manual. The logic map, however, proved to be yet another impediment to doctrinal literacy. Why read the doctrine when you could just study the logic map? We speak lightheartedly about leaders who are only “PowerPoint deep” on certain topics; now we have people who are just “logic map deep” when it comes to doctrine. END QUOTE