ByMichael N. Pocalykoon November 3, 2014
Admiral James Stavridis is the finest naval officer of a generation and almost parenthetically a magnificently gifted writer. This memoir, his second, is an incredibly incisive book packed with meaning, history, and introspection. Published just after his retirement from active duty and taking the helm of The Fletcher School, THE ACCIDENTAL ADMIRAL is required reading for anyone seeking to understand the challenges and struggles of modern statecraft from a distinctly military vantage.
Stavridis employs a thematic rather than episodic structure, to highly effective advantage. His finest chapters are about Afghanistan and Libya, and he addresses frontally the US-NATO-Russia equation and enduring issues in the Balkans, Israel, and Syria—where he ventures boldly predictive and prescriptive. While probably not self-consciously intentional, the book’s style reflects Eisenhower’s CRUSADE IN EUROPE—quite fitting for a man who followed Ike by a few generations as Supreme Allied Commander, Europe.
What’s most interesting here is Stavridis’s voice, clearly bearing diplomatic tonalities. He shares a lot of level-headed detail about President Obama, Defense Secretaries Rumsfeld and Gates, and Generals Stan McChrystal, Dave Petraeus, and John Allen (his Annapolis classmate and 40-year friend). But he refrains from overtly criticizing any of them, drawing instead multi-dimensional character studies with thoughtful, graceful differences. Frank assessments—you have to think about what you’re reading and work for them—are contained within nuanced, measured language, which is also a pretty good summary of the book as a whole.
The chapter endings, including the chapters on leadership, communications, and planning, are remarkable in their outlines of strategy, where Stavridis becomes less of an author and more of a participating cultural historian of the post-9/11 age. He takes notable risks by defining himself variously (as I read him) as a pragmatist, unrepentant internationalist, collective action advocate, rational actor, and generally an involved interventionist. That perspective puts him in very good stead as the US military leader of NATO, but makes him something of a voice in the wilderness in the American political midlands of 2014. He certainly didn’t write this book with an eye on a career in partisan politics.
His admiral’s stars were anything but accidental. And while he’s correct about being an unusual choice for SHAPE/SACEUR, Stavridis demonstrates once again, with alacrity, extraordinary gifts of command and story. They combine to make THE ACCIDENTAL ADMIRAL essential reading.
Michael Pocalyko, author of THE NAVIGATOR (2013) from Macmillan/Forge, CEO of Monticello Capital, former Navy pilot and strategist.