Community, Culture, and of course, Competition: What We Learned from What You Read in 2019

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While I just joined the War on the Rocks staff in September of this year, I’ve been an avid reader almost since the beginning. With my longstanding fandom now coupled with a newfound ability to look under the hood, I wanted to take a moment to reflect on the articles you read most this year, and what those essays might say about what matters to the War on the Rocks community. As a recently reformed researcher, I feel bound to caveat this a bit: looking at page views over the course of a calendar year biases the data in favor of articles published earlier in the year (or sometimes not even in 2019). So, this jaunt through the recent past will take you thematically through the 15 most-read new articles of the year, as well as a few highly read articles that weren’t quite long enough in the tooth to qualify. A list of our 15 most-read articles follows at the bottom.

From Defining to Implementing Great-Power Competition

The most striking conclusion that I draw from your clicks is a concern with the profession of arms, over and above strategy and foreign policy. Nine out of our 15 most-read new articles of 2019 dealt in some way with problems of service identity and culture, or personnel and education issues, as did several older articles that remained highly read. A friend recently told me that a new favorite phrase inside the Pentagon is “great-service competition,” and this seems to be borne out by the most-read essays published this year in War on the Rocks.



In some sense, this is a shift to be expected. In 2019, our articles more commonly include phrases such as “with the return of great-power competition,” rather than full-throated arguments that it will return. With that acceptance, the national security community seems to be moving on to the next phase, trying to figure out how service strategies should relate to national strategy. To me, this is not unlike the U.S. Navy’s quest for relevance in the days after the Cold War. Evolutions in grand strategy pose follow-on dilemmas for the services that will carry them out. Sometimes these are limited to new concepts and doctrines, but sometimes they strike at the heart of a service’s identity. Perhaps no article embodied that struggle more than Leo Spaeder’s March 2019 article “Sir, Who am I?: An Open Letter to the Incoming Commandant of the Marine Corps.”

Over the months that followed Spaeder’s article, landmark essays, like Gen. David Berger’s “Notes on Designing the Marine Corps of the Future,” Mark Nostro’s “Discarding the Ptolemaic Model of the Marine Corps,” and Brian Kerg’s “Russell’s Century-Old Plea for the Marines Corps, Updated for 2019,” sought to answer that question, calling for a return to the service’s naval roots. Essays by Jake Yeager and an all-star team too big to list refined and rebutted those visions. And Dave Barno and Nora Bensahel’s article “A Striking New Vision for the Marines, and a Wakeup Call for the Other Services” used the commandant’s new planning guidance as a roadmap to help other services adjust to a new strategic age.

On Military Culture

But at times the debate over the future of the force seemed to go beyond service strategy-making. Several of our most widely read articles were deeply introspective about military service culture, and the social contracts between leaders and subordinates, the military and civilians. To me, these point to a somewhat troubling crisis of faith in leadership in the defense community, but also a welcome determination to remake the profession in a better image. Before he was “unmasked” on a Warcast, Col. Jason Lamb, aka “Ned Stark,” wrote poignantly about “Being or Doing in the Air Force,” the dilemma between careerism and effectiveness facing leaders. In the wake of systemic failures in the military services, Dave Barno and Nora Bensahel wrote “Loyalty and Dissent: Getting Flag Officers to Hear the Truth” to combat the pervasive lack of ground truth received by senior leaders. The killing of a soldier by fellow military servicemembers in Mali earlier this year prompted Andrew Milburn to ask “How to Fix a Broken Special Operations Culture,” and most recently, President Donald Trump’s commutations of the punishments of several servicemembers brought forth a pair of articles with different views on the significance of pardons for war crimes to the profession of arms and civil-military relations.

As the services flex to support a strategy of great-power competition, material and personnel concerns also formed key topics of discussion. Our most-read new article of the year addressed the nexus between future conflict and the military’s intellectual ability to prepare for it. That essay, James Lacey’s “How Does the Next Great Power Conflict Play Out? Lessons from a Wargame,” was one of a number of articles in War on The Rocks that debated the future of wargaming as an educational and analytic tool. Lacey argued that “wargaming works” as a powerful form of experiential learning. Another article took on the Air Force’s infamous pilot shortage — Mike Pietrucha and Jeremy Renken argued in “Unwarranted: Reconsidering the Air Force Warrant Officer” that implementing a warrant officer program for pilots could reduce shortfalls in trained pilots. And on the topic of personnel, the Army’s reforms to talent management sparked several highly read (or listened to) articles, though they were too recent to find their way to the most-read 15. First, Maj. Gen. J.P. McGee sat down with Ryan to discuss “The Army’s New Approach to People,” and then Gen. McConville and McGee wrote about upcoming changes to selection for battalion command in, “Battalion Commanders are the Seed Corn of the Army.”

While the Marine Corps sought to reshape itself through a new identity and concepts, others focused on the platforms and technology required for the next fight. One of our most-read articles was Mike Benitez’s “F-15EX: The Strategic Blind Spot in the Air Force’s Fighter Debate,” which argued for the platform in the context of favoring ready adaptation over distant possibilities of innovation. More recently, “The Case for a Three-Tanker Air Force” by Stewart Welch and David LeRoy also argued for the continuing value of technology that may not be the most vanguard. On the other hand, another of our most-read essays, Ryan Hilger’s, “Red Sky in Morning: Naval Combat at the Dawn of Hypersonics” maintained that bleeding edge technology is absolutely necessary for the Navy to save lives and retain its military edge.

Of course, it wouldn’t be War on the Rocks without some great strategy reading, and four essays stood out to you this year. First, Shahryar Pasandideh’s essay, “Under the Radar, Iran’s Cruise Missile Capabilities Advance,” was important, not just because it provided valuable information about Iranian capabilities, but also because it gave insight into Iranian decision-making. In a similar vein, though on a different challenge, Dean Cheng’s essay, “The Perfect Storm Confronting Xi Jinping” provided a window into the changes in China’s policymaking as Xi has consolidated power. You also enjoyed Justin Lynch’s article on “The Myth of American Military Dominance,” which came at the king of defense policy assumptions by questioning the idea of American military supremacy. Finally, to round out our most-read 15+ list, our number 10 article is something of an outlier. Ryan Gingeras’ essay, “How the Deep State Came to America: A History” told the fascinating and little-known Turkish origins of one of the most fraught terms in American politics today.

Beyond the Beltway

If this list sounds somewhat U.S.-centric, it is. Most of our readers and writers are based in America. But, though none of them made our most-read fifteen list, I was proud that War on The Rocks ran important articles by authors based outside the United States. Anit Mukherjee’s essay on the fork in India’s defense road, Vuk Vuksanovic’s work on Chinese influence in Serbia, and Liana Fix and Bastian Giegerich’s article on NATO without the United States, are three such examples that were widely shared outside the U.S. defense community.

So there you have it, a year when the defense community was seemingly quite introspective. My thanks go out to all of our authors, without whom we wouldn’t exist, and to our members, who are the engine of all that we do. War on the Rocks is at its best when it plays host to the debates you are having inside the national security community. This year we’ve debated the future of the Marine Corps, Army talent management, wargaming, and the Arctic, to name a few. But there are many more issues to discuss and assumptions to challenge. We are so glad you have written for us, read us, and listened to us this year. We’ve had a great time interacting with you in the War Hall and on Twitter. We are grateful you’ve shared your best ideas with War on the Rocks, and we hope you will continue to do so in 2020.


Most-Read 15 New Articles of 2019, in Order:

  1. How Does the Next Great Power Conflict Play Out? Lessons from a Wargame by James Lacey
  2. Sir, Who am I?: An Open Letter to the Incoming Commandant of the Marine Corps by Leo Spaeder
  3. F-15EX: The Strategic Blind Spot in the Air Force’s Fighter Debate by Mike Benitez
  4. Discarding the Ptolemaic Model of the Marine Corps by Mark Nostro
  5. Being or Doing in the Air Force by Jason Lamb, aka “Ned Stark”
  6. A Striking New Vision for the Marines, and a Wakeup Call for the Other Services by Dave Barno and Nora Bensahel
  7. Under the Radar, Iran’s Cruise Missile Capabilities Advance by Shahryar Pasandideh
  8. The Myth of American Military Dominance by Justin Lynch
  9. Red Sky in Morning: Naval Combat at the Dawn of Hypersonics by Ryan Hilger
  10. The Perfect Storm Confronting Xi Jinping by Dean Cheng
  11. How the Deep State Came to America: A History by Ryan Gingeras
  12. Loyalty and Dissent: Getting Flag Officers to Hear the Truth by Dave Barno and Nora Bensahel
  13. Russell’s Century-Old Plea for the Marines Corps, Updated for 2019 by Brian Kerg
  14. How to Fix a Broken Special Operations Culture by Andrew Milburn
  15. Unwarranted: Reconsidering the Air Force Warrant Officer by Mike Pietrucha and Jeremy Renken



Rebecca Zimmerman is editor-in-chief of War on the Rocks.

Image: Flickr/brianjobson

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