James Holmes

The Naval Diplomat Turns 2

Today marks the 2nd anniversary since the Naval Diplomat flung out an “opening salvo” to announce the arrival of these pixels.

The Naval Diplomat Turns 2
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Today marks the second anniversary since the Naval Diplomat flung out an “opening salvo” to announce the arrival of these pixels. The editors and I started the Naval Diplomat as a lark. Now, circa 300 columns later, it’s hard to imagine life without it.

Browsing the archives brings to mind the astringent words of George Orwell, who during the dark days of World War II ventured some gallows humor at the expense of us military experts. (I never have been able to discover who defined an expert as a guy from the next town who wears a suit, but the joke is apt.) George warned pundits that predicting the future was folly. He also warned that too-confident words would come back to haunt them:

ONE way of feeling infallible is not to keep a diary. Looking back through the diary I kept in 1940 and 1941 I find that I was usually wrong when it was possible to be wrong. Yet I was not so wrong as the Military Experts. Experts of various schools were telling us in 1939 that the Maginot Line was impregnable, and that the Russo-German Pact had put an end to Hitler’s eastwards expansion; in early 1940 they were telling us that the days of tank warfare were over; in mid 1940 they were telling us that the Germans would invade Britain forthwith; in mid 1941 that the Red army would fold up in six weeks; in December 1941, that Japan would collapse after ninety days; in July 1942, that Egypt was lost and so on, more or less indefinitely.

Where now are the men who told us those things? Still on the job, drawing fat salaries. Instead of the unsinkable battleship we have the unsinkable Military Expert….

Well, I’m still waiting on the fat salary. Otherwise Orwell is spot on. Committing thoughts to print compels you to measure yourself against a yardstick, namely the words you once inscribed on the page in black and white. One wonders what Orwell would have made of the internet age, when people don’t just keep diaries but broadcast them to the world through blogs, Facebook, and Twitter — leaving behind a record that’s everlasting and inescapable.

One hopes we heed George’s counsel of humility. The purpose of this column remains the same as it always has been: not to prophesy but to put the vocabulary of strategic theory, history, philosophy, literature, and pop culture to work, helping us discern the dynamics coursing through complex human interactions. The best we can manage is to gaze through a glass darkly, catching sight of possible futures and shaping our actions accordingly.

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Like education, then, this enterprise is about how to think about big questions, not what to think about them. As that other swami of political punditry, Yogi Berra, notes: prediction is tough, especially when it involves the future. In that spirit, let us stride boldly — but not too boldly — into the coming year.