Key point: Militaries do best when they study their defeats and learn from them.
It’s crucial to remember and learn from defeat. People and the institutions they comprise commonly tout past triumphs while soft pedaling setbacks. That’s natural, isn’t it? Winning is the hallmark of a successful team, losing a hateful thing. And yet debacles oftentimes have their uses. They supply a better reality check than victories. Defeat clears the mind, putting the institution on “death ground”—in other words, compelling it to either adapt or die. Nimble institutions prosper.
Winning, on the other hand, can dull the mind—reaffirming habits and methods that may prove ill-suited when the world changes around us. As philosophers say, past success and the timber of humanity predispose individuals and groups to keep doing what worked last time. Or as the old adage goes: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Problem is, we have a habit of discovering it is broke at the worst possible time—when fixing things gets dicey.
Despite its record of victory, the America’s navy is far from exempt from the universal proclivity to celebrate success. Failure? Fuggedaboutit. Now, we shouldn’t wallow in long-ago defeats: strategist Bernard Brodie cautions that major fleet duels are “few and far between even as centuries are reckoned.” When sample size = small, it’s best not to read too much into the results of any individual encounter. Change a variable or two and you may get an entirely different outcome.
Nevertheless, it’s important to remain mindful of the low points—if only to ward off hubris while reminding seafarers that institutions must keep up with changing times or find themselves irrelevant. In that spirit, what follows is my list of America’s Five Worst Naval Defeats. These being the dog days of summer, with the Narragansett Bay bathed in hazy sunshine, I’m casual about what constitutes defeat. Strategic, operational, tactical: all losses are fair game.