23 May 2017

Broken and Unreadable: Our Unbearable Aversion to Doctrine

by Steve Leonard - Modern War Institute

In 2016, when the University of Kansas opened the doors to the new DeBruce Center, the main attraction was a display of two simple, yellowed pieces of paper, stored behind a pane of electrochromic glass. In 1891, when tasked with creating an indoor game that would occupy the young men of Springfield College during an especially bitter New England winter, Dr. James Naismith framed the rules of a game that would one day capture a nation (and increasingly, the world): basketball. In 1898, Naismith brought his game to the Heartland, where he planted the roots of the modern sport as the first coach of the Kansas Jayhawks.

Basketball has always been a part of my life. From summers on the concrete playground to winters in the gym, I long ago lost count of the hours spent playing the sport. I knew the language of the court. I understood the guiding principles—the fundamentals—that shape how we play the game. I knew every dimple in the leather of the ball and how to make it respond to my will. Yet, in all those years, I’d never once read those rules. Not once. But I knew them—every last one of them.

Basketball, it seems, has much in common with doctrine. We teach it. We talk about it. We profess its virtues. We just don’t read the rules. We’re often so proud of the fact we don’t read our own doctrine that we joke about it (“it’s only a lot of reading if you do it”), while at the same time mocking peers who admit to not reading doctrine as TOADs (“totally oblivious of all doctrine”). The problem with all of that? The costs associated with doctrinal ignorance are measured in blood and treasure. The time to admit that you don’t know the difference between ADCON and OPCON is not when your soldiers are going hungry in a remote outpost.

Only last year, Maj. John Spencer penned an illustrative exposition on doctrine, defining not just what it is, but why it’s so important to us as a profession. Within the margins of his narrative, he railed against those who cast doctrine in a negative light, using the words of Frederick the Great—“War is not an affair of chance. A great deal of knowledge, study, and meditation is necessary to conduct it well.”—as a rallying cry to embrace the intellectual pursuit of doctrine.

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