An Address delivered at the Opening of the Annual Session, September 6, 1892
LADIES AND GENTLEMEN: — It had been my hope, and I may say my expectation, that upon this occasion when, after a prolonged, and to some extent disastrous, interruption of its career of usefulness, the War College is about to resume its course under new auspices and with better hopes, the opening ceremonies would have been signalized by a formal address from the Assistant Secretary of the Navy. To him, under the Secretary himself, is mainly due that a start this year has been made at all. He has been in past years, and from the very origin of the College, closely connected with it, both, generally, by sympathy with its ideas and, especially, as a most able lecturer upon international law; and it is probable that some of those now among my hearers may have been so fortunate as to hear, at former sessions, his admirable exposition of its principles, with particular reference to the circumstances of naval officers, and the perplexities which they may encounter. This association of the past, together with his present official position, combined to indicate him pointedly as the most proper person to deliver this opening address; for, in addition to the strong personal reasons I have mentioned, his presence would have been the manifest token of the cordial interest now extended by the Navy Department, the want of which was keenly felt in the first strong and, I may boldly say, not unsuccessful effort to develop the art of naval war. The premature blight that fell upon our early endeavors did not wholly obliterate the recognition of the decisive advance made during our brief and checkered existence. Of this I have had the assurance, both directly by word and indirectly by action, from so many that attended the former courses, that no fond self-deception can account for the conviction I now express, of the results obtained by those of whom I was for most of the time the nominal head.
To my urgent and repeated requests the Assistant Secretary gave no more than a conditional promise; and I owe only to myself that I so far depended upon it as to have deferred to the last three days such hurried preparations as I have made, personally, to meet this audience, and, so far as in me lies, replace the loss which we have to regret. To the embarrassment of scanty time, for which I have to blame my want of prevision, is added in my case the fact that I have already, on a former opening, delivered an address in which I explained at some length the objects and aims of the College from my own point of view, which I may add was that of my then immediate superior, the Chief of the Bureau of Navigation, who to-day is with us as the commander of the Squadron of Evolution. Had that address then gone no further, it might now, after the lapse of four years, have been resurrected like the sermon from the proverbial barrel and done duty again; but having incautiously been allowed to pass into print, and somewhat widely distributed within the service, this resource is not now open to me.
Like all new departures, however, the College has to encounter not merely constructional difficulties, the friction which inevitably attends every effort to do something which has not been done before, and which formed the subject of my former address. It has to encounter the more formidable, because more discouraging, obstacles of direct objection, based often on reasonable grounds; more often, perhaps, on unconsidered prejudice. Of the former, the reasonable criticism, I shall now only say that I trust there will always be found in the College representatives an open and dispassionate mind, ready to receive, consider and profit by suggestions from whomsoever coming. I propose to-day to devote my remarks only to those objections which, while superficially plausible, are, I am convinced, due to the lack of reflection and to the tendency we all have to be influenced by words or phrases, without pausing to reflect that, in their true and commonly received meaning, they are not really applicable to the thing to which they are, for the moment, applied.
Take, for instance, the word "obsolete." I doubt if there is any one word in the language that has done so much harm to the U. S. navy as this little one in its misapplied, yet common use, during a period of years with which I and many of my hearers have been contemporary. The ship built to-day, it has been freely said, will be "obsolete" ten years hence; nay, we were fortunate if we escaped the stronger yet equally positive assertion that the ship laid down to-day will be "obsolete" by the time she can be launched. What was the result of this seemingly slight and harmless exaggeration of talk? Why, simply this: That with all the valuable services and prestige of the navy during the Civil War, with the popular favor still green, With Farragut scarcely yet in his grave, everything like naval advance was stopped because of the threat of obsolescence. "Of what use," asked the unprofessional citizen, safe in an immense professional jacking in the use of this word and its ideas, "of what use to build ships which are so soon to be obsolete? Let us wait until we have reached something that will not become obsolete." So we waited, with our hands and energies ironed by the little word "obsolete" until, less than ten years ago, the material of the American navy was the derision of the world and the mortification of our officers; and even now, despite the judicious and untiring efforts of recent secretaries, we have not and, for some years to come, will not have a navy commensurate with our national importance, or fitted to fulfil the fast growing sense of our proper sphere and influence in the world outside our borders. Within two years I have seen the American navy styled a phantom fleet by an English newspaper of the first rank.
How ready, all this time, the country really was to respond to an intelligent presentation of the necessities of a navy, has been shown by the liberal appropriations, and yet more by the liberal expressions of men of all parties and shades of opinion; despite this being a time, in which, until very lately, party divisions turned more on tradition than on living issues. What stopped advance was not the unwillingness of the country, but the cry of "obsolete." Yet in what other practical walk of life is advance thus conditioned? What technical calling refuses to make a step forward, because the ground it reaches to-day will be abandoned to-morrow? Who would ever dream of saying that iron rails are obsolete, in the sense that they are of no use at all, because steel rails are found to be better? And finally, before quitting the subject; what is the last, and, in my judgment, most rational, expression of foreign professional opinion concerning these so-called "obsolete" ships? Simply, yet most significantly, this: That the nation which, in the later stages of a war, be it long or short, when the newest ships have received their wear and undergone their hammering, the nation which then can put forward the largest reserve of ships of the older types, will win the struggle.
So much for "obsolete." Before passing, however, to the word upon whose erroneous application I desire chiefly to fix your attention, I want to-day to allude to an idea closely akin to "obsolete," which, though widely spread and accepted, has not, so far as I know, been formulated into a phrase with which to pass current. I allude to the view that naval history, in which is embodied the naval experience of past ages, has no present utility to us. When I was first ordered to the College, before even I had begun to develop the subjects intrusted to me, an officer, considerably my senior in rank, asked what I was going to undertake. On my naming naval history, he rejoined, "Well, you won't have much to say about that." The words, I fear, voiced a very general feeling, an impression of that vague and untested character which is ever to be deprecated when it is allowed to become a potent factor in determining action. It struck, I am free to confess, a chord in my own breast; nay, I am glad to avow that it did so, for whatever small value my own opinion may possess can lose nothing, but rather gain, by the admission that study and reflection have resulted in displacing that most powerful of resistant forces, an unintelligent prejudice. I am, however, happy to be able to support my own conclusions, which rest upon no proofs of personal capacity for the management of modern naval fleets, by that of one of the foremost admirals now living, belonging to the largest navy in the world. The name and repute of Admiral Phipps Hornby is known, I presume, to all naval officers; certainly in his own service, where he has commanded the most modern fleets with distinction, his opinions are quoted with respect not far removed from reverence. In a letter he was kind enough to write me on a published work of mine, which embodied the results of my lectures at this College, he said: "I am glad to see that, like the German army, you base your conclusions upon the history of the profession."
I come now to the matter upon which I wish more particularly to speak; and here again I will illustrate by one of those casual conversations, which, like straws, often show more clearly than deliberate utterances how the wind of professional prejudice is blowing. I was in Washington a few months ago and, coming out of one of the clubs, I met on the door steps a couple of naval officers. We stopped to talk, and one asked me: "Do you expect a session of the College this year?'' I replied that I hoped so. "Well," he said, "are you going to do anything practical?" I recognized my enemy at once in the noble word "practical," which has been dropped like an angel of light out of its proper sphere and significance, and made to do duty against its best friends, as a man's foes are often those of his own household. I endeavored to get out of the scrape, which would involve an extempore discussion of the true scope and meaning of the word practical, by resorting to the Socratic method, liberally practiced by the modern Irish, which would throw the burden of explanation upon nay questioner. "What do you mean by practical?" I said. The reply was a little hesitating, as is apt to be the case to a categorical question, and after a moment's pause he said: "Well, torpedo-boats and launches and that sort of thing."
Of course, I knew in a general way what was coming, when I asked my question; nor did I in the least contest the application of the word practical to torpedo-boats or launches. Concerning the latter, in fact, it was a recommendation of my first report as president of the College, that such should be provided for practicing the far more delicate and difficult management of the ram in action—a problem with which, I am bold to say, the naval mind has not begun to deal. But, while willing to concede this positive meaning, given to the word practical, I do most decidedly object to the implied negative limitation, which confines it to the tangible utilitarian results, to that which can be touched, weighed, measured, handled, and refuses to concede the honor of "practical" to those antecedent processes of thought and reflection, upon which the results of rational human effort always depend, and without which they cannot be reached—unless, indeed, by the bungling, tedious and painful method which is called "butt end foremost." It is to this view of the matter, and to the full legitimate force of the word "practical" that I wish to-day to direct your attention; for the limitation so frequently imposed on it, and so generally accepted by thoughtless prejudice, is the great stumbling block in the way of the College, just as I have tried to show that the word "obsolete" so long held the United States navy in a state of suspended animation.
In discussing the word "practical," I do not of course propose to go into its etymology, for the sake of making a barren argument as to what it ought to mean. I intend to accept it in its common significance, as familiar to us in current speech; and I propose to maintain that, in that sense, it is just as applicable to the processes of thought which precede action as it is to the action which follows thought and reflection; the only difference being that, taking the whole process of thought and action together, the thought which dictates the action is more practical, is of a higher order of practicalness than the resultant action itself. Of this the old and common proverb "Look before you leap" is a vigorous presentment. The word "practical," however, has become so warped—not in its meaning, but in its application—that the practical man is he who disdains the theoretical process of looking—that is, who will have no study, no forethought, no reflection—but simply leaps- -that is, acts.
Of course, when you reach a reductio ad absurdum—if you do—the victim cries out: He never meant any such thing. Neither does the man who leaps without looking mean to reach the possibly uncomfortable berth in which he lands. But let it be observed, it is not man's nature to leap without looking; the irrational brute does not do that. Men leap without looking, because they have failed to prepare, because they have neglected the previous processes of thought and reflection, and so, when the sudden call for action comes, it is "leap at all hazards;" and so, to quote Holy Writ, while they are saying "peace and safety," "sudden destruction comes upon them like travail upon a woman with child, and they cannot escape." How often have we—I speak at least to men of my own time—been told that presence of mind consists largely—for the average man mainly—in preparation of mind. When you take the deck, think what you will do in any emergency likely to arise—a man falls overboard, a collision threatens from this or that quarter, land or reef may be unexpectedly sighted. Good. But is the thought, which is simply study without books, less practical than the resultant action? Is it less practical, even if no call for action arises?
Let us, for illustration, draw upon an art which has supplied many useful analogies to describe processes of gradual development—that of the architect. Before erecting a building, be it one of simple design and unpretentious appearance, like that in which we are now seated, or be it one of the complicated and elaborate designs which decorate the cliffs of Newport—what careful study, plotting and planning goes on in the offices of the architect! What calculations to ensure convenience, to economize space, to please the eye. It is pure student's work, beyond which lie, not merely the experience of the architect, but also 'years of patient study, devoted to mastering the principles of his art as embodied in the experience of his predecessors. Before a brick is laid, perhaps before the sod is turned, the complete design—the future house—exists upon paper!
Is all this prior labor of the architect in his office, and all the varied study that has enabled him to perform it not "practical," and does the "practical" work begin only when the carpenter and the bricklayer put their hands to it? If you think so, gather your mechanics and your hod carriers, provide your material of bricks and mortar, and then, setting to work without your designs and calculations, rejoice in the evidence of practical efficiency you have displayed to the world!
All the world knows, gentlemen, that we are building a new navy—the process has begun, is going on, and its long continuance is an avowed purpose. We are to have a navy adequate to the sense of our needs;' and that sense is bound to expand as our people appreciate more and more, and as they are beginning to realize more and more, that a country's power and influence must depend upon her hold upon regions without her own borders, and to which the sea leads. The influence of the little British islands gives a lesson our people will surely learn. Well, when we get our navy, what are we going to do with it? Shall we, like the careless officer-of-the-deck, wait for the emergency to arise? If we do, we shall pretty surely leap without much looking. Or do you think that when the time of war comes you will find a vade mecum, a handy pocket manual, the result of other men's labors, which will tell you just what to do; much like one of those old seamanship problems: Riding to a single anchor and ebb tide, with the wind on the starboard bow and a shoal on the port quarter, get underway and stand out to sea. A remark to that effect was made by an officer, a commander now afloat, who I think is regarded by all as one of our most intelligent, as he certainly is one of our most advanced men. "I thought," he said, in discussing some naval problems, of the kind with which the College proposes to grapple, "that, the case arising, I could turn to some work where the dispositions of a fleet, of a convoy, and other various questions connected with maritime expeditions would be treated and their solution stated; but I find there is none, and I myself do not know." At present the matter is perhaps of little consequence; but will it not be unfortunate for the responsible officers to be in like plight, when the call for action arises?
It is a singular comment upon the line in which naval thought has long been running, that the reproach to the French navy, though it was then a very accomplished service, near 100 years ago, by one of its most thoughtful members, is equally applicable, perhaps even more applicable to the naval profession of all countries in our own day. "The art of war," said the writer, "is carried to a great degree of perfection on land, but it is far from being so at sea. It is the object of all naval tactics, but it is scarcely known among us except as a tradition. Many authors have written on the subject of naval tactics, but they have confined themselves to the manner of forming orders or passing from one order to another. They have entirely neglected to establish the principles for regulating conduct in the face of an enemy, for attacking or refusing action, for pursuit or retreat, according to position or according to the relative strength of the opposing forces."
This is painfully the case now. Not only during the time I was actually resident here, but in the four years that have since then elapsed, I have made a practice of sending for the catalogues of the leading military and naval booksellers, at home and abroad, and carefully scanning their lists. Whatever could be found bearing in any way on the art of naval war I have had ordered for the College library; with the result that a single one of the short book shelves you can see downstairs, contains all that we have to show, on the subject of naval tactics; and of that space nearly one-half is occupied with elaborate treatises upon the tactics of sailing ships, from Paul Hoste to Chopart. Of the remainder, none can be quoted as an authority; and it may be questioned if any rises to the dignity of a systematic, well-digested system. They are simple, short essays, more or less suggestive; but that they possess no great weight is evident from the fact that the authors' names suggest nothing to the hearer.
The significance of this fact, however, does not lie in the mere absence of treatises. Did such exist, had we the vade mecums, the pocket manuals, with their rules and standards, the work of some one or two masters in the art, their usefulness to the profession would be very doubtful if they did not provoke others to search for themselves—to devote time and thought to mastering the facts, and the principles upon which the supposed masters had based their own conclusions. War cannot be made a rule of thumb; and any attempt to make it so will result in disaster, grave in proportion to the gravity with which the issues of war are ever clothed.
No, the lamentable fact indicated by this meagre result is that the professional mind is not busying itself with the considerations and principles bearing upon the Conduct, or Art, of War. There is no demand, and therefore there is no supply. There is little or no interest, and consequently there are no results. In what other department of modern life is lively professional interest unaccompanied in this age by publication? In what other is there found a total neglect of the great medium of the press, by which men communicate their thoughts to others, and at the same time an active gathering and dissemination of results? Nay, in other branches of our own profession—in gun construction, in ship construction, in engine building, in navigation—there are treatises in plenty, indicating that interest is there, that there is life; but when we come to the waging of war there is silence, because there we meet sleep, if not death. It was said to me by some one: "If you want to attract officers to the College, give them something that will help them pass their next examination." But the test of war, when it comes, will be found a more searching trial of what is in a man than the verdict of several amiable gentlemen, disposed to give the benefit of every doubt. Then you will encounter men straining every faculty and every means to injure you. Shall we then, who prepare so anxiously for an examination, view as a "practical" proceeding, worthy of "practical" men, to postpone to the very moment of imperative action the consideration of how to act, how to do our fighting, either in the broader domain of strategy, or in the more limited field of tactics, whether of the single ship or of the fleet? Navies exist for war; and if so, the question presses for an answer: "Is this neglect to master the experience of the past, to elicit, formulate and absorb its principles, is it practical?" Is it "practical" to wait till the squall strikes you before shortening sail? If the object and aim of the College is to promote such study, to facilitate such results, to foster and disseminate such ideas, can it be reproached that its purpose is not "practical," even though its methods be at first tentative and its results imperfect?
The word "practical" has suffered and been debased by a misapprehension of that other word "theoretical," to which it is accurately and logically opposed. Theory is properly defined as a scheme of things which terminates in speculation, or contemplation, without a view to practice. The idea was amusingly expressed in the toast, said to have been drunk at a meeting of mathematicians, "Eternal perdition to the man who would degrade pure mathematics by applying it to any useful purpose." The word "theoretical" is, therefore, rightly and legitimately applied only to mental processes that end in themselves, that have no result in action; but it has, by a natural, yet most unfortunate, confusion of thought, come to be applied to all mental processes whatsoever, whether fruitful or not, and has transferred its stigma to them, while "practical" has walked off with all the honors of a utilitarian age.
If therefore the line of thought, study and reflection, which the War College seeks to promote, is justly liable to the reproach that it leads to no useful end, can result in no effective action, it falls justly under the condemnation of not being "practical." But it must be frankly and fearlessly said that the man who is prepared to apply this stigma to the line of the College effort must also be prepared to class as not "practical" men like Napoleon, like his distinguished opponent, the Austrian Archduke. Charles, and like Jomini, the profuse writer on military art and military history, whose works, if somewhat supplanted by newer digests, have lost little or none of their prestige as a profound study and exposition of the principles of warfare.
Jomini was not merely a military theorist, who saw war from the outside; he was a distinguished and thoughtful soldier, in the prime of life during the Napoleonic wars, and of a contemporary reputation such that, when he deserted the cause of the emperor, he was taken at once into a high position as a confidential adviser of the allied sovereigns. Yet what does he say of strategy? Strategy is to him the queen of military sciences; it underlies the fortunes of every campaign. As in a building, which, however fair and beautiful the superstructure, is radically marred and imperfect if the foundation be insecure—so, if the strategy be wrong, the skill of the general on the battlefield, the valor of the soldier, the brilliancy of victory, however otherwise decisive, fail of their effect. Yet how does he define strategy, whose effects, if thus far-reaching, must surely be esteemed "practical?" "Strategy," he said, "is the art of making war upon the map. It precedes the operations of the campaign, the clash of arms on the field. It is done in the cabinet, it is the work of the student, with his dividers in his hand and his information lying beside him." It originates, in other words, in a mental process, but it does not end there, therefore it is practical.
Most of us have heard an anecdote of the great Napoleon, which is nevertheless so apt to my purpose that I must risk the repetition. Having had no time to verify my reference, I must quote from memory, but of substantial accuracy I am sure. A few weeks before one of his early and most decisive campaigns, his secretary, Bourrienne, entered the office and found the general, as he then was, stretched on the floor with a large map before him. Scattered over the map, in what to Bourrienne was confusion, were a number of red and black pins. After a short silence the secretary, who was an old friend of school days, asked him what it all meant. The general laughed goodnaturedly, called him a fool, and said: "This set of pins represents the Austrians and this the French. On such a day shall leave Paris. My troops will then be in such positions. On a certain day, naming it, I shall be here, pointing, and my troops will have moved there. At such a time I shall cross the mountains, a few days later my army will be here, the Austrians will have done thus and so; and at a certain date I will beat them here," placing a pin. Bourrienne said nothing, perhaps he may have thought the matter not "practical;" but a few weeks later, after, the battle (Marengo, I think) had been fought, he was seated by the general's side in his military traveling carriage. The programme had been carried out, and he recalled the incident to Bonaparte's mind. The latter himself smiled at the singular accuracy of his predictions in the particular instance.
The question I would like to pose will, in the light of such an incident, receive of course but one answer. Was the work the general was engaged on in his private office, this work of a student, was it "practical?" Or can it by any reasonable method be so divorced from what followed, that the word "practical" only applies farther on. Did he only begin to be practical when he got into his carriage to drive from the Tuileries, or did the practical begin when he joined the army, or when the first gun of the campaign was fired? Or, on the other hand, if he had passed that time, given to studying the campaign, in arranging for a new development of the material of war, and so gone with his plans undeveloped, would he not have done a thing very far from "practical?"
But we must push our inquiry a little farther back to get the full significance of Bourrienne's story. Whence came the facility and precision with which Bonaparte planned the great campaign of Marengo? Partly, unquestionably, from a native genius rarely paralleled; partly, but not by any means wholly. Hear his own prescription: "If any man will be a great general, let him study." Study what? "Study history. Study the campaigns of the great generals—Alexander, Hannibal, Caesar," (who never smelt gunpowder, nor dreamed of ironclads) "as well as those of Turenne, Frederick and myself, Napoleon." Had Bonaparte entered his cabinet to plan the campaign of Marengo, with no other preparation than his genius, without the mental equipment and the ripened experience that came from knowledge of the past, acquired by study, he would have come unprepared. Were, then, his previous study and reflection, for which the time of action had not come, were they not "practical," because they did not result in immediate action? Would they even have been not "practical" had the time for action never come to him?
As the wise man said, "There is a time for everything under the sun," and the time for one thing cannot be used as the time for another. That there is time for action, all concede; few consider duly that there is also a time for preparation. To use the time of preparation for preparation, whatever the method, is practical; to postpone preparation to the time for action is not practical. Our new navy is preparing now; it can scarcely be said, as regards its material, to he yet ready. The day of grace is still with us—or with those who shall be the future captains and admirals. There is time yet for study; there is time to imbibe the experience of the past, to become imbued, steeped in the eternal principles of war, by the study of its history and of the maxims of its masters. But the time of preparation will pass—some day the time of action will come. Can an admiral sit down and re-enforce his intellectual grasp of the problem before him by a study of history, which is simply a .study of past experience? Not so; the time of action is upon him, and he must trust to his horse sense. The mere administration and correspondence of a fleet leaves all too little time. Even with captains, the administration of a single ship of the modern type makes demands that leave little time for the preparation of study. Farragut bewailed this burden; and Napoleon himself admitted, in his later days, that he never did better work than in his first campaign, to which he brought preparation indeed, but the, preparation rather of the student than that which is commonly called "practical." The explanation he gave was this: That in the first, though inexperienced, he had more time for thought, more time maturely to consider and apply the knowledge he possessed, and which he then owed, not to what is called "practical work," but to the habits of study. Ten years later he had had much more practice, but he did not excel the early work, for which his chief preparation lay in a course of action what is now commonly damned as "theoretical." At the later day the burden of administration lay too heavy, but he had so used his time of preparation that, though he did not improve, he was able to bear it.
Bonapartes, doubtless, are rare—for which very reason, perhaps, that which he found necessary cannot be inexpedient for lesser men—and even below the rank of great genius few can expect to attain the highest degree of excellence; but we all look forward to command, in one way or another, and command in our profession means liability to be called on for action, of a rare and exceptional type, for which preparation by previous action may not, probably will not, have been afforded. To each and all of us that test may come, and according to our previous preparation it may be opportunity, or it may prove to be ruin. Let us not deceive ourselves by the unquestionable excellence that our service has attained in the common and peaceful line of its daily duties. That it has so done has been due to two causes: first, the admirable preparatory study of the Naval Academy; second, the opportunity for putting in practice what is there learned. But neither in study previous, nor in practice, is any provision being made for the stern test of war; nor do the occupations of peace provide other than a part, and that the smaller part, of the equipment there needed. The College has been founded with a view to supply the preparation, by antecedent study, and by formulation of the principles and methods by which war may be carried on to the best advantage. That this purpose is "practical," seems scarcely open to question. That success may be attained only after many mistakes and long effort, is merely to say that it shares the lot of all human undertakings.