U.S. Naval War College,
Newport, R.I., November 27, 1888.
To the Secretary of the Naval Institute.
Sir:—On several occasions there has been urged upon me the wish that the text of the lectures given at the Naval War College should be published; and the opinion has been expressed that, by using the pages of the Naval Institute as a vehicle for such publication, a much larger audience would be reached than can be expected to assemble from year to year at the College. I have therefore thought it well to commit to writing the general considerations which have indisposed me to adopt such policy as a rule, however willing to accede to occasional exceptions.
Assuming, for the sake of argument, that the material accumulated in the lectures is valuable, and that the general line of thought to which they have been devoted is, as I think, one far too little worked in the Navy, it follows of course that the greater the number whose attention and interest can be attracted, the greater the benefit of the College to the service. But does it also follow that that attention and interest will be most widely and strongly secured by publication in any form? To maintain this position, it must be assumed that the large majority of officers are students, that they have the leisure and the will to inform themselves, that they do not yield to the delusive feeling that they can "read that" at any time, and so indefinitely postpone their reading. All know that objects of interest which strangers from afar make great efforts to visit, are neglected and often never even seen by those born and living near by.
Sea-officers of our Navy are divided under two leading heads: those at sea and those on shore duty. It is proverbial that the sea life is not favorable to habits of study, and each passing year now adds its share to the burden of miscellaneous duties by which time is there occupied. On shore duty, many of us remember a time when there was too much of leisure, but it is rarely so now. The manifold advance of the day, the introduction of more active, systematic and ambitious effort, have made shore duty anything but a place tor loungers.
It follows that the majority of officers, if they will extend their interest beyond the duties with which they are immediately charged, must do so at the expense of their hours of recreation. They must not only give up enjoyment, but must in many cases bring to the new pursuit minds already jaded and attentions wearied by work in itself sufficient for the day's ordinary stint. Yet if the outside professional interest is worth their attention at all, it is worthy of their best powers.
I suppose we have all admitted to ourselves by this time that we can no longer hope to be abreast of the advance in all matters of professional interest. The complex development of the present day has reconciled us to specialties, and to being ourselves non-specialists in some, perhaps in many, of the necessary factors that make up a modern war-ship. If there be, however, any one branch in which we should have clear views, a wide and deep knowledge, not only of the truths, but of the reasons and arguments by which those truths are established, it is the conduct of war, or art of war, the systematic development and exposition of which is the object of the War College, and the reason for its existence.
I have already drawn attention, in a paper which has been published in the Proceedings of the Institute, to the fact that the naval officer, sympathizing therein with the tendency of the age, is interesting himself far more in the development of material than in the art of fighting, which is nevertheless his proper business. It is therefore unnecessary now to say about this evident truth more than this: that if the instruction of the War College is printed in the Proceedings on an equal footing, as of course it must be, with the mass of matter dealing with all sorts of mechanical and physical problems, it will be swamped by them—it will receive rare and desultory attention. It is now thought, practically, more important for a naval officer to know how to build a gun, to design a ship, to understand the strength of materials, to observe the stars through a telescope, to be wise in chemistry and electricity, than to have ingrained in him the knowledge of the laws of war, to understand the tactical handling of his weapons, to be expert in questions of naval policy, strategy, and tactics. This is, I think, all wrong; but it can be set right, not by printing our work, however good it be, among a lot of papers on matters considered more important, but only by an organized effort of the Government to create and disseminate a system of naval war. The College is such an organized attempt.
Such being a skeleton of the arguments against printing, what are the advantages conceived to belong to the College system of lectures; to which is hoped to be added, when we are permitted, a quiet existence without daily fear of death, carefully directed investigation and discussion, both in and out of the lecture-room?
At its annual session the College receives a number of officers, the greater part of whom, probably, are not students, nor would, if left to themselves, initiate any independent study of the principles and art of war. They have orders to listen, and they do listen with the readiness of men who are accustomed to obey orders. I am encouraged to believe that in the greater part of what they have so far heard they have found interest and instruction, and the more so that, having no other present duty, they bring to this, at the best part of the day, minds fresh and without pre-occupation. The subjects are treated not in a single paper, but in extenso, consecutively and from day to day; in time, kindred subjects will be brought into closer connection, and the whole series invested with an importance which, though justly its due, is not to be attained except by isolating it for awhile from other matters of professional interest.
To all this must be added, that when a lecturer is master of his business, nothing in the way of reading can equal such instruction. The correct emphasis and division of sentences adds much to clearness; the teacher feels when he fails to interest, or when he is obscure, and, either by judicious enlargement or judicious curtailing, remedies on the spot faults which he may not have appreciated in the solitude of his study.
The effect upon those who attend the course, though more widely diffused, is, however, the least part of the benefit of the College. It is a commonplace of education that nothing teaches like the duty of teaching others. To a very large extent the lecturers at the College have begun to study their subject with a view to teaching. They from the first contemplate facing a critical audience of the very high average of our naval officers. They are not to appear, as the essayists of the Institute may, responsible to no one, at liberty to express their opinions and consider them as good as another's. They come, with whatever admissions of imperfection, as men who claim to have some mastery—some right to speak because they have knowledge. What one prints may not have to be debated; but it is unpleasant to stand and talk, knowing of weak places in your armor, and that the eyes about are sharp enough to detect them. All this constitutes a stimulus to do one's best, which is freely felt and acknowledged. When it is realized, as it must be after a moment's thought, that we have no Art of Naval War as yet, it will be admitted that the audience at the War College, by its effect upon the lecturers, must be a potent factor in building up that art.
All these advantages will be sacrificed by free and indiscriminate publication. "Why should I go to the College? I can read that which is taught there." When will he read? When he feels like it. When will he feel like it? Who can tell? When will the lecturer write? When he feels in the mood. What shall take the place of that fixed time and that expectant audience, some of whom at least will see through him if he is a sham? How far is it the habit of the essayists of the Institute to pursue consecutively some line of thought, paper after paper? What stimulus do they find in the thought of eager readers? Do they believe in their existence as a large body?
The College ensures an audience. It ensures the dissemination of such results as the lecturers obtain. It invests the whole with the sanction of superior authority, the weight of which with naval officers is indisputable. If it publish, the incentives are lost; most will be unwilling to make the sacrifices necessary to attend, and it is known that some at least cannot be compelled. The uncertainties of the last year have taught me that when the audience is insecure, the lecturers feel indifference. The result would be a cessation of production; publication would cease because there was nothing to publish, and the College itself would come to an end because it no longer justified its existence. Yet without some such governmental care as is implied by an organized institution, it is vain to hope for the development of the art of naval war.
It is for these reasons, and not from any illiberal wish to monopolize advantages, that the publication of the lectures of the College has, as a rule, been discouraged.
Very respectfully, your obedient servant,
A. T. Mahan, Captain, U.S.N.,
President, War College.