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Vol. 45, No. 9
Wholo No. 199
THE UNITED STATES NAVAL WAR COLLEGE
By REAR ADMIRAL WILLIAM S. SIMS, U. S. Navy
Let us at the reopening of the college course begin by making sure that we have a clear understanding of why we are here, and particularly a clear understanding of the nature of the Naval War College and its functions.
It is not a college at all in the ordinary sense of the term. It belongs to no religious denomination, It has no fixed policy. Neither its head nor its staff is permanent. They are fleet officers and are continually being replaced by other officers from the fleet. The college is, in effect, part of the fleet, and it exists solely for the fleet.
The students bring to the college their practical fleet knowledge and experience. They are asked to consider this practical knowledge and experience in connection with the principles of warfare. These principles of warfare are nothing but deductions from the accumulated experience of those who have gone before us, including of course the acknowledged masters of war.
The results of this combination of the experience of the present with that of the past will constitute the principles and methods in current use at the college, and which you fleet officers will help further to develop and to apply.
* Address delivered at the opening course for class of June, 1919.
When you finish your course you will carry these principles back to the fleet, and will, I trust, be guided by them.
Some of you will doubtless be assigned to the staff and will pass these principles on to newcomers, who, in their turn, will contribute their fresh fleet experience. And in this way the process of development will be carried on in actual continuous cooperation with the fleet and with the service.
You will thus recognize that this is not really a college. Perhaps it would have been better if it had never been so designated, for in reality this assemblage is nothing but a board of practical fleet officers brought together here to discuss and decide the extremely important question of how we would best conduct naval war under the various conditions that may arise.
You should think of this board as belonging to the fleet-as being what you might call a fleet board on strategy and tactics, frequently making reports to the fleet and the service upon these vital subjects.
You should never lose sight of the fact that we are all practical fleet officers; that we shall go back to the fleet and be replaced by others from the fleet; that our work is wholly practical, because we base our conclusions upon our own experience and upon that of those who have gone before us; and that therefore there can be nothing theoretical about the principles of fighting that we decide to be the correct ones, or about the methods we devise' for carrying them into effect.
Some officers complain that they do not understand the terms, the strange words, used by the college. I do not understand any of the strange words used by golfers, because I have never played the game, but I understand that some such words are necessary. They are equally necessary for the game of war. Every art must necessarily have its own rules, principles and methods, and these must have names if we are to talk about themand we cannot practice an art or play a game without talking about it.
The principles of the war game constitute the backbone of our profession. All other kinds of nautical knowledge and experience, for example, that required for handling ships, maneuvering fleets, etc., will avail us nothing when it comes to war if we have not learned the game, that is, if we do not know how to handle naval
forces, both strategically and tactically, at least as well as our opponents.
This game, like all other games, can be learned only by playing it. The mere study of the art of war, even though very thorough, will no more make you competent in the practice of strategy and tactics than book knowledge of golf and tennis will make you good players. It is for this reason that the college insists not only upon the study of the art of war, but also upon the practice of it in chart maneuvers and upon the tactical game board.
You will find that by playing these practical games you will gradually acquire confidence in your ability to estimate a situation correctly, reach a logical decision, and write orders that will insure the mission being carried out successfully.
When you can do this you will have accomplished that which it is the principal function of the college to teach. And having accomplished this, I hope you will not consider that you have thereby ceased to be practical officers. Also that you will not knowingly allow others to consider you “highbrows.
There has been wasted during this war a great deal of effort, much valuable material, and even many valuable lives because of the lack of training necessary to reach logical decisions based upon the well-known immutable principles of war. This is not the time or place to inform you of these incidents. But let it suffice for me to assure you that the constant prayer of those who bear great responsibility in time of war is that they may be spared the results of the decisions of the so-called practical officers who are ignorant of the art of war and who have not been trained to think straight—that is, who have not been trained to make a a logical estimate of a situation.
Though we are now beginning a new course, it should not be assumed that there is at present anything original about it. We are beginning where our predecessors left off. It would be presumptuous for us arbitrarily to make changes in the course in the absence of experience upon which to base such changes.
The essential results so far attained were due to a long process of development. Improvements were continuously made until the results demonstrated that the course and the manner of conducting it were accomplishing the college's true mission of turning out officers reasonably well instructed in the art of war and trained in its application.