To Risk It All: Nine Conflicts and the Crucible of Decision
n 2021, after decades of searching, undersea explorers finally found the wreck of USS Johnston (DD-557), one of the most famous destroyers in US naval history. It sank in very deep water off the Philippine Islands, after the chaotic and heroic Battle off Samar on October 25, 1944. The warship lay at the bottom of the sea undisturbed for over seventy-five years in more than twenty thousand feet of water, making it the deepest shipwreck ever located and successfully surveyed. When it sank, it was under the command of Commander Ernest Evans, who would become the first Native American to be awarded a Medal of Honor. Ernest Evans was half Cherokee and a quarter Creek. As famed historian Rear Admiral Samuel Eliot Morison said in his iconic study of US naval operations in the Second World War, “In no engagement of its entire history has the United States Navy shown more gallantry, guts, and gumption than in those two morning hours between 0730 and 0930 off Samar.” Under the determined command of Ernest Evans, his destroyer led a seemingly suicidal charge against vastly superior Japanese warships to try to protect lightly armored carriers during the crucial moments of the Battle of Leyte Gulf. Of his crew of 329, Evans and 183 others perished in the battle or in the waters afterward.
I studied the battle many years ago as a young midshipman at Annapolis and have continued to read the many books and articles about Commander Evans and his gallant destroyer over the years. Born in 1908, Evans graduated from the Naval Academy in 1931 and commanded a destroyer for the first time early in the war: USS Alden. After successful Pacific combat operations in Alden, he was selected as the commissioning commander of the new Fletcher-class destroyer Johnston in 1943, and he subsequently deployed again to the Pacific at the height of the war.
In the fall of 1944, Johnston was part of a small flotilla of seven destroyers (including also USS Hoel and USS Samuel B. Roberts, which were likewise sunk in combat) assigned to protect light escort aircraft carriers at Leyte Gulf under the overall command of Admiral Bull Halsey. Due to Halsey’s impetuous decision to move the bulk of his Third Fleet north to chase what he thought was the main Japanese force, the small ships were all that remained between the carriers and a heavy Japanese surface force. General Douglas MacArthur’s ability to retake the Philippines and fulfill his storied pledge to return hung in the balance.
Facing twenty-three vastly larger Japanese battleships and heavy cruisers, the seven small destroyers charged to protect the flattops. The action is universally known as “the last stand of the tin can sailors,” a “tin can” being an affectionate Navy nickname for a destroyer. Despite being totally outgunned, Evans made the hardest of decisions in combat: to risk it all in accomplishing his mission. He laid a smoke screen and charged at flank speed directly at the Japanese to make a torpedo attack, telling his crew over the ship’s announcing system that the odds were stacked against them, but they would attack anyway to protect the rest of the force. For two hours, the tiny destroyer engaged in a series of gun battles with the much larger Japanese warships. Evans was badly wounded by Japanese shellfire, but his small ship continued the fight relentlessly. The heavy guns of the Japanese fleet—including the largest super battleship in their fleet, Yamato—eventually sank Johnston alongside several other destroyers.
The decision Evans made in the furious moments of combat off Samar—to charge a vastly stronger enemy—continues to be studied and revered in today’s Navy. Even the Japanese fleet rendered honors as the small ships sank before them, and treated the survivors they recovered with respect as they were taken prisoner. And because of the heroic actions of Johnston and the other destroyers, the carriers were able to escape. The Japanese admiral believed the destroyers would not have charged without heavier American forces in the vicinity and withdrew in confusion. MacArthur was able to successfully land his amphibious force and free the Philippines as he had promised.
It was the pivotal moment in the most consequential battle at sea of the Second World War. The US success rested on many factors, of course, but the decision Evans made to charge the enemy, a split-second choice when the battle surged around him, was at the heart of the US victory—although it cost him his life and his ship. As I contemplated that battle again and again in the course of a long Navy career—and think about it today—I ask myself two questions.
The first is simply, What was going through Evans’s mind as he gave the order to charge the Japanese fleet? Was he caught up in the bloodlust of the moment, or was he cool and serene as he maneuvered the ship and launched a spread of torpedoes? Did he think about his childhood or his family? Or was it all drowned out by the booming of the Japanese guns and the hissing rush of the water down the sides of his destroyer as it gained speed? Did he think he could get in, launch torpedoes, and somehow escape the heavy guns ahead of him? Or was it clear that his was indeed a “last stand,” and he made his hard choice and shut his mind to any chance of escape?
The second question is harder to answer: Would I have had the guts to make that hardest of choices? I’ve seen my share of combat operations, but never anything remotely like the bleak set of options Ernest Evans had before him on that fall day in the humid waters of Leyte Gulf. When I reflect back across the long years I spent at sea in command of warships, the days of the Cold War come back into focus in this regard. In those days, we faced a vast Soviet fleet that had powerful capabilities that could challenge the US in the long cruises where we faced each other in the Mediterranean Sea, the North Atlantic (the novel The Bedford Incident comes to mind), the Western Pacific around the Korean Peninsula, and the Caribbean off the coast of Cuba. It was The Hunt for Red October often, as our aircraft and destroyers worked together to track and often “hold down” Soviet nuclear submarines.
We did that at general quarters, with all hands at their battle stations, and we knew a miscalculation could lead not only to deadly events in our immediate sea space but enormous consequences for the world. For those Cold War years, we stood the watch forward deployed, hoping a war wouldn’t explode in front of us. In terms of risk, we knew the enemy had deadly capabilities in long-range cruise missiles, land-based attack aircraft, and submarines armed with nuclear torpedoes. We tried to keep a mindset of calm professionalism, knowing that we couldn’t afford the luxury of reacting in anger or frustration as we tracked a relentless enemy on the long night watches. The Falklands War showed us what a war at sea would look like, and the sight of multiple British warships sunk by land-based Argentine aircraft and conversely the sinking of Argentine cruiser Belgrano by a British nuclear submarine were indelible images. How to balance exhaustion, risk, and geopolitical impact was the coin of the realm in deep-ocean Cold War days.
In the latter half of my career, the Navy increasingly focused on operations in the littoral waters of the Arabian Gulf, the South China Sea, and the eastern Mediterranean. From those relatively shallow and constricted waters, we sank Iranian warships after their attempts to mine the Strait of Hormuz, conducted the massive strikes of Desert Storm against Iraq, and—after 9/11—found ourselves battling terrorists “from the sea.” I remember sailing through the Strait of Hormuz in the mid-1980s, watching Iranian missile sites flash their targeting radars and illuminate us with fire-control sensors. The temptation was always to strike first, but the rules of engagement dominated the decision-making process—while not required to wait for an actual missile launch to attack an enemy, the onus was on us to wait for appropriate provocation. The decision-making was excruciating, and again, the mindset had to be one part steady on the trigger, and the other part ready to lunge for the firing key. How do you balance those things?
For me, it was something I learned from the senior captains I worked for—forcing time to slow down. The best military decision-makers have an ability to swiftly synthesize sensor data from radars, sonars, and communication nets; mentally check it against intelligence received from the vast US surveillance system; correlate the threat; discern the intentions of the enemy; and act decisively either in suppressing fire or releasing batteries. You do that by being reasonably rested; clearing your mind of all the excess white noise (including your personal thoughts); breathing deeply and steadily; lowering your voice, never raising it; and constantly moving your field of view across the sensors and the members of the firing team arrayed in front of you. Decision-making is hard to begin with at sea—it’s vastly harder if you become emotionally cluttered. Over the years, I became better at deciding things under extreme stress, and spent more time learning about other sailors who had excelled in such settings, like Medal of Honor recipient Commander Ernest Evans. All of that led me to this book.
Broadly speaking, I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of how we make the decisions that shape our lives. If you stop and think about it, of course, we are literally deciding things almost every minute. They can range, as the saying goes, from the sublime to the ridiculous. In a sense, we are the sum of the decisions we make, both tactically and strategically. Most of the choices are largely unconscious reactions to whatever life has thrown before us that day. But occasionally, there are really big decisions in front of us—whom we choose to marry, whether to take one job over another, which university to attend, when to change careers. Those big, strategic decisions are generally made with plenty of time to gather information, ponder the impact of the decision personally, solicit advice from family and mentors, test the choices logically—all the standard techniques that are part of the way we choose the most important things in our lives.
But there are times when we must decide really important things now, often before all the facts are at our fingertips, acting on a combination of sketchy information, historical analogy, and imperfect measurements of risk versus reward. A sudden and time-sensitive opportunity to take a chance on a new job that offers less security but more potential reward, an investment prospect to sell or purchase a particular stock or bond in a highly volatile market, a relationship resolution of the most intensely personal type when an ultimatum is delivered, or a wrenching medical choice in the small hours of the morning standing over a relative’s hospital bed—all require fast decisions. The hardest are those that must be made quickly in moments of stress and crisis. That certainly happens at sea routinely, often in combat, and even in peacetime under highly stressful but noncombat conditions. Examining that process—truly hard choices made in the crucible of high stress—is the aim of this book.
US naval history is full of those hard choices as the story of Commander Ernest Evans illustrates. From Captain John Paul Jones at sea in the days before the American Revolution to Admiral Bull Halsey deep in the Western Pacific in the Second World War to Captain Brett Crozier of USS Theodore Roosevelt off the coast of Guam leading a ship infested with coronavirus in 2020, in today’s Navy, we ask our naval leaders to grapple with unimaginably difficult decisions, often in the crucible of battle. Some of those decisions affect not only the lone sailors standing watch on a warship but the entire ethos of the US Navy. Over time, some of these hard choices have made significant ripples in how the Navy views itself and have impacted the most fundamental standards that underpin the entire service. There is much to learn from such choices.
This book draws on my own experiences in facing hard choices. For example, twenty years ago, a sudden surprise attack on the United States by Al Qaeda changed everything in the Pentagon, where I was assigned as a newly selected one-star rear admiral. The US Department of Defense had to reinvent itself from a lumbering, Cold War–oriented behemoth to a nimble counterterrorism war-fighting organization. It was a period of wrenching change. Narrowly missing being killed myself by the plane that hit the Pentagon, I was suddenly thrust into a newly created role as the head of the Navy’s “start-up,” a combat and innovation cell, code-named “Deep Blue.” As a very junior member of what the British Royal Navy would call “the admiralty,” I helped shepherd the efforts to change the Navy in real time, even as we launched immediate combat operations. I faced similarly difficult choices throughout my thirty-seven-year career, including as head of all military forces in Latin America and later as Supreme Allied Commander of NATO. All of that informs the book.
Most readers of this book will never have the honor, privilege, or challenge of serving as naval officers. But the sea can serve as a laboratory that can inform critical decision-making ashore. By studying the naval hard choices in this book, readers can study and learn the general rules of the road in terms of decision-making in stressful situations.
Of note, these decisions demonstrate that organizations are always shaped by important choices. How has the ethos of the US Navy changed over time, what has been the impact of these hard choices on the broader service, and what can decision-makers in any endeavor learn from these experiences about how to handle the hard choices life presents us? It is important to understand how decision-makers process information, weigh alternatives, connect “ends, ways, and means,” and make their choices. How does the “furious pressure of combat” cause decision-makers to function differently than they do in more measured times, and what can we all learn from these stories about how we make choices in our own lives? Indeed, the Navy is in many ways a reflection of the country. In addition to what we might learn about the Navy and its evolution from these nine decisions, how have such choices reflected the nation’s sense of accountability, risk, and honor more broadly?
Another important element of all this is understanding specifically what tools help those making decisions—and what tools often fail decision-makers. I have been struck again and again by the way faulty decision-making often flows from misreading or misunderstanding history. More important than immediately grasping for a past analog to a given situation is simply to begin by understanding the problem—is there a crisis? Or rather are we facing a long-term, slowly evolving pattern of failure or challenge? Being clear-eyed in evaluating where you start is key. Closely associated with this, of course, is understanding assumptions. When I worked for Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld as his senior military assistant, I would often watch him grind a briefer into dust by questioning the difference between facts—what we unquestionably know—and the mere assumptions of the case. Hence the title of his memoir of that turbulent time, Known and Unknown. So often, what are deemed to be facts at the beginning of any high-speed decision process can, and often do, reveal themselves to be only assumptions as the plan evolves—often to our dismay. By the way, the best of those briefers—whom we finally found after a lot of candidates failed—was a burly Army colonel named Mark Milley. He was promoted general soon after and fought very successfully under my command in Afghanistan. He was someone who could make time slow down, both in a briefing room with a very aggressive secretary of defense and in the dusty valleys of Afghanistan. As I write these words, four-star general Mark Milley is the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Another aspect of making these life-or-death choices is how you then take action. The execution of the decision is crucial, and it will happen in real time in stressful circumstances, of course. General George S. Patton said a less than perfect plan, violently executed, will often succeed, while General Dwight Eisenhower observed that no plan survives contact with the enemy. In my experience, both were right, and finding the balance in avoiding allowing the “desire for perfect to become the enemy of good enough” is fundamental to the art of decision-making. Associated with this, of course, is measuring the outcome of a given choice—monitoring and metrics—which is vital. What matters and what does not must be clearly understood, and good decision-makers must avoid the seductive appeal and ultimate failure of false metrics.
Advocating and communicating the decision is often as important as generating it—understanding what just happened, developing the plan, and applying the resources smoothly and appropriately are all crucial. Part of this is knowing how a decision-maker ultimately declares success. Learning how to telegraph success, using optimism as a force multiplier in decision-making, and knowing when to “find the exit” are all key themes that echo through these choices.
Not all decisions are successful, of course. Recognizing when failure is inevitable is likewise a part of decision-making. As we say in North Florida where I am from, “sometimes you gotta know the difference between quitting and getting beat,” meaning there are times when the smart decision is to fold your cards and walk—or even run—in the other direction. Another way to think about this is simply that all decisions have consequences, and almost always the hardest of choices involve the highest of risks, but also potentially the most deeply satisfying outcomes. Perspective and balance are crucial in evaluating the choices we make—and in getting the hardest decisions to come out right. That is equally true on the deck of a warship heading into combat as it is in the boardroom of a corporation or the operating room of a hospital.
To Risk It All is a historical meditation on the nature of decision-making under stress, an examination of the evolution of the US Navy over the course of its 250-year voyage, and a resource for any reader who must make hard decisions in his or her work and life. It is also a chance for you to come to know nine extraordinary sailors, each of whom was placed in the crucible of decision.
Why nine choices in the book, you may ask? While there’s no definitive answer to that question, I did have an image in mind, consistent with the theme that decision-making can be hard and painful: in the nautical world of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and indeed into the nineteenth, the corporal punishment administered at sea—when someone made a bad decision, so to speak—was flogging. And flogging was done with “the cat” or the cat-o’-nine-tails. Each of nine long lashes also had knots tied into its length and occasionally something hard and unyielding (bone or metal) attached at the end, to make the experience as painful as possible. A typical punishment might be a dozen strokes, as much more than that did sometimes permanent damage to a man’s back. This punishment was given for offenses ranging from striking an officer to extreme drunkenness. Very occasionally, longer bouts of flogging were administered, perhaps for mutiny or sodomy, and the outcomes were always very painful and sometimes fatal. So, as I thought about a number of cases to include, the idea of the cat was in the back of my mind—with its nine fateful tails. Hopefully, your decisions will be well made and there will not be a painful outcome—but at times there will be. Accepting that decisions have real consequences is, at the end, the essence of decision itself.
These nine sailors made the hard decisions that shaped their own lives and careers, resulted in a wide range of operational outcomes, and shifted the way our Navy looks at itself. They also provide a vivid tapestry of skills and instincts that comprise the essence of decision-making. All of us will face hard choices in the voyage of our lives—some in important and public ways, others in the quiet hours around the kitchen table. Business, finance, medicine, education, public policy, and a thousand other fields of endeavor all require the ability to decide quickly and well. I hope and believe that by spending some time with these nine sailors, your ability to make the hard choices in the crucible of life—whatever the circumstances—will improve.
Let’s get underway.
CHAPTER ONE The Power of “No”
Captain John Paul Jones, Continental Navy
CHAPTER TWO A Young Man’s Game
Lieutenant Stephen Decatur, United States Navy
CHAPTER THREE Risky Business
Rear Admiral David Farragut, United States Navy
CHAPTER FOUR Cool Hand George
Commodore George Dewey, United States Navy
CHAPTER FIVE The Protector
Cook Third Class Doris “Dorie” Miller, United States Navy
CHAPTER SIX The World Wonders
Admiral William “Bull” Halsey, United States Navy
CHAPTER SEVEN No Way Out
Lieutenant Commander Lloyd M. Bucher, United States Navy
CHAPTER EIGHT Pirates of the Gulf of Aden
Rear Admiral Michelle Howard, United States Navy
CHAPTER NINE The Red Flare
Captain Brett Crozier, United States Navy
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