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Dr. James Holmes: The Naval Diplomat - 19FortyFive

Don’t Depend on Miracles to Win a War

“Then a Miracle Occurs” is not a strategy to win anything. Not a good one, anyway, either in academe or in the world of practical affairs.

U.S. Army Rangers assigned to 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, fire off a AT-4 at a range on Camp Roberts, Calif., Jan 26, 2014. Rangers use a multitude of weaponry during their annual tactical training. (U.S. Army photo by Pfc. Rashene Mincy/ Not Reviewed)
U.S. Army Rangers assigned to 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, fire off a AT-4 at a range on Camp Roberts, Calif., Jan 26, 2014. Rangers use a multitude of weaponry during their annual tactical training. (U.S. Army photo by Pfc. Rashene Mincy/ Not Reviewed)

“Then a Miracle Occurs” is not a strategy. Not a good one, anyway, either in academe or in the world of practical affairs. An old joke circulates around university math departments depicting a graduate student scribbling equations on the left- and right-hand sides of a chalkboard before reaching what appears to be the right result. Between the two masses of gobbledygook, though, lies an interim step labeled then a miracle occurs. The professor critiquing the student’s board work reprimands him dryly: “I think you should be more explicit in step two.” 

Show your work, in other words. Prove that one step begets the next. Do not rely on supernatural help, luck, or other fudge factors. Anyone who’s struggled with upper-level math, sciences, or engineering knows firsthand how tempting it is to fudge when you can’t make one step lead to the next. But the sequence doesn’t work no matter how hard you try to force it. 

The same goes for martial endeavors. A military strategy is a theory of cause and effect along these lines: if I use my resources to take actions A, B, and C, I will bring about effect X, namely my strategic aim. That sounds straightforward. But even a cursory survey of diplomatic and military history reveals that it’s distressingly commonplace for makers and executors of strategy to gloss over parts of the causal chain. They might be guilty of inattention; they might have taken shortcuts under pressure to devise a strategy; they might have succumbed to wishful thinking. Whatever the case, woe betide those who skip a step in the process. 

Chains break when one link snaps. Show your work if you expect to connect your actions to desirable strategic effects. 

That mathematics jest came to me time and again while reading Colin Martin and Geoffrey Parker’s lush volume Armada: The Spanish Enterprise and England’s Deliverance in 1588, new out from Yale. If strategic myopia is bad, deliberately skipping a link in the chain connecting actions with their effects is worse. It’s delusional. It is unwise in the extreme for military overseers to appeal to vast impersonal forces such as divine intervention, Providence, Fate, or luck to make a venture go. If someone had shown that joke to King Philip II, he might have thought twice before launching his “Enterprise of England,” Spain’s ill-fated effort to transport an army across the English Channel to unseat the Protestant Queen Elizabeth and replace her with a Catholic ruler. 

Then again, King Philip might have gone ahead anyway. But at least he might have taken a more realistic approach to the venture, abjuring mysticism and control-freakism while heeding advice from his commanders. A more fatalistic attitude from the top would have bolstered the expedition’s prospects for success. 

While reading Martin and Parker’s chronicle I lost count of how many times Philip proclaimed that the Almighty would clear some impediment—chiefly adverse weather, troublesome command-and-control issues, or logistical woes—because He favored the Spanish cause. For example: in 1587 the king agreed to cancel an ill-conceived plan to have the Armada detour to Ireland before attacking England, but he was adamant that the fleet set sail that year regardless of the weather. 

Winter was coming by the time the fleet was ready to lift anchor. Royal counselors warned about the perils posed by the storm-tossed Channel in wintertime, and they noted that the fleet had no port of refuge along the continental coast should conditions turn foul. As they did. Yet the sovereign insisted the crossing proceed. As Martin and Parker tell it: “The king forbade objections to the new plan with his usual providential rhetoric. ‘It is clear that great risks are involved in moving a mighty Armada in winter, particularly in the Channel with no port secured,’ he conceded; but ‘God, whose cause this is, will give of His bounty suitable weather.’” 

Then a miracle occurs! 

Events conspired to delay the cross-channel expedition into 1588, but Philip kept micromanaging strategic, operational, and even tactical details from his palace in Lisbon. A taciturn sort, he also refused to meet with commanders in person to explain face-to-face how he expected the force to achieve certain critical milestones. You have to think he wanted to avoid hearing inconvenient realities. 

Chief among the quandaries was how the fleet was to rendezvous with the Duke of Parma’s army—the invasion force, and thus the key to completing the mission—along the Flemish coast. To describe joint army-navy coordination for the Armada campaign as sketchy would be generous. The state of sixteenth-century communications simply didn’t permit quick or smooth communication from a distance and across the seam between land and sea. And indeed, the Armada arrived at Calais intending to accompany Parma’s transport ships to England, only to discover that Parma had not yet given the word for the army to board. It would take days for troops to embark and set sail. That spelled delay. 

The Duke of Medina-Sidonia, commanding the Armada, had assumed that news of the fleet’s approach would have reached Parma before it arrived. But it hadn’t. Joint communications had gone silent at a critical juncture, leaving problems of land-sea coordination unaddressed. 

The fleet lay at anchor off Calais, a stationary and thus vulnerable target, while the army took ship. Meanwhile the English fleet lurked hard by, waiting for its chance to strike. English commanders ordered a preemptive fire-ship assault—a drone attack of the day, carried out by uncrewed ships set ablaze—on the Spanish foe. The Armada lost cohesion trying to escape the flaming hulks in its midst, yet it managed to stand out to sea for battle. There defeat befell it. Martin and Parker credit the superior sailing qualities of English men-of-war, their heavy gun armament relative to Armada ships, and English crews’ seamanship and gunnery with carrying the day for Queen Elizabeth’s navy. Moreover, the coauthors laud English mariners for their ability to adapt to the unexpected where their Spanish antagonists could not. 

Painstaking work, not piety, made such an outcome possible. The English navy had staged a revolution in naval affairs in recent decades, developing doctrine and designing ships to fight gunnery duels from a distance. For its part the Spanish navy and its royal overlord remained wedded to time-honored practice in naval warfare. Spanish tactical dogma was premised on closing with and boarding hostile vessels to wage what amounted to land battles on their decks. But boarding actions proved elusive when opposed by effective standoff gunfire. Closing the range now meant getting pummeled to smithereens. Time and the character of sea war had moved on, leaving the Armada behind. 

A miracle did not occur in 1588. Not on Spain’s behalf, and not even on England’s. But the former relied on one and the latter didn’t. 

It’s worth noting, as the coauthors do, that the triumphalist memory of fleet-of-foot English warships outmaneuvering their lumbering Spanish opposites exaggerates the Anglo-Spanish mismatch at sea. After the mêlée in the Channel the English fleet pursued the Armada northward, flushing it into the North Sea where it was unlikely to menace English shores again that year. Catastrophe awaited the Armada as it sought to circumnavigate the British Isles to the northwest to reach home. Crews shipwrecked along their voyage met a hard fate, either from the elements or at the hands of wrathful Irish, Scottish, or English. 

At the same time, though, Martin and Parker observe that the English victory was a closer-run thing than popular lore allows. The fleet was literally out of ammunition and vital stores—notably food for famished crews—by the time it broke off the engagement and turned for home. It could have done little had the Armada managed to come about and reenter the English Channel. As a consequence, lessons abounded from this uncertain triumph with regard to naval administration, logistics, and personnel policy. And yet you have to think the fact that the victors showed their work before and during the campaign, relying on themselves rather than trusting to fudge factors, gave them a decisive if hardly overbearing edge against Spain. 

For military folk everywhere: be explicit in step two. 

Author Expertise and Biography

 Dr. James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and a Nonresident Fellow at the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. The views voiced here are his alone. 

Written By

James Holmes holds the J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and served on the faculty of the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. A former U.S. Navy surface-warfare officer, he was the last gunnery officer in history to fire a battleship’s big guns in anger, during the first Gulf War in 1991. He earned the Naval War College Foundation Award in 1994, signifying the top graduate in his class. His books include Red Star over the Pacific, an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of 2010 and a fixture on the Navy Professional Reading List. General James Mattis deems him “troublesome.”