Seldom has Alfred Thayer Mahan’s star shone more dimly than today. This is true even at the Naval War College (NWC), the institution over which he once presided and America’s foremost exponent of strategic thought about the sea. Assembled from Admiral Mahan’s lectures at Newport in the 1880s, his treatise The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660-1783 remains a mainstay of the curriculum a century hence. But few among NWC faculty or student body hold the U.S. Navy’s intellectual founder in much esteem. Post-course student critiques disdain The Influence of Sea Power upon History. And not long ago the Naval War College Review—a journal based at Mahan’s scholarly home, no less—referred to him as “Albert” in a published article.1 Trivial in itself, such a mistake hints at the slight regard now afforded Mahan and all his works.
It was not always so. Admiral Mahan once towered over the field of naval strategy, crafting sea-power theories that dominated the fin de siècle world he inhabited. Theodore Roosevelt’s 20-battleship Great White Fleet was precisely the size Mahan had prescribed.2 The U.S. naval establishment transcribed his precepts into strategy, doctrine, and bureaucratic routine. Indeed, it proved exceedingly difficult to dislodge Mahanian dogma from the Navy’s institutional culture, even when changing circumstances demanded it. Henry Stimson, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Secretary of War, poked fun at the “peculiar psychology” suffusing the “dim religious world” of the Navy Department. Declared Stimson: “Neptune was God, Mahan his prophet, and the United States Navy the only true church” for denizens of that strange planet.3
If the naval hierarchy held Mahan sacrosanct, rank-and-file Americans greeted his works tepidly. And he knew it, chafing at their indifference to nautical commerce and warfare. That The Influence of Sea Power upon History “filled a need,” he recalled ruefully, “was speedily evident by favorable reviews” of the book. But such reviews “were much more explicit and hearty in Europe, and especially in Great Britain, than in the United States.”4 The historian flattered Britons, whose Royal Navy ruled the world’s oceans, by portraying their nation as the archetypal sea power. Kaiser Wilhelm II reported trying to memorize The Influence of Sea Power upon History.5 And Japanese strategists proved even more enthusiastic than Europeans. Mahan recalled that “more of my works have been done into Japanese than into any other one tongue.”6 Vouchsafed Fleet Admiral Heihachir? T?g?, “Naval strategists of all nations are of one opinion that Admiral Mahan’s works will forever occupy the highest position as a worldwide authority in the study of military science.”7 High praise from the victor of Tsushima.
That was then. Does Mahan’s fall from his lofty perch matter? Well, yes. Neglect of sea-power theory in strategic discourses could impoverish the Navy’s intellectual development at a critical juncture, when its supremacy appears to be on the wane and strategic thought is at a premium. Navies are tactically minded, platform-centric services. Observed British Prime Minister Winston Churchill: “The seafaring and scientific technique of the naval profession makes such severe demands upon the training of naval men, that they have very rarely the time or opportunity to study military history and the art of war in general.”8
As mariners ascend the ranks, they must lift their gaze above everyday functions such as seamanship, tactics, and engineering, critical though those functions remain to combat readiness. This is precisely where great works like Mahan’s can make a difference. Unthinking fealty to Mahanian precepts was bad. Lurching to the opposite extreme is worse.
Rediscovering the Navy’s tradition of strategic thought can avert intellectual drift. But how? One reason Mahan’s works have fallen into disfavor is practical. No one, not even Mahan himself, would describe The Influence of Sea Power upon History as a page-turner. Reared during the Victorian Age, Mahan wrote in a roundabout, intricate, and wordy style. The book consequently makes tough going for NWC students already buried under mountains of assigned reading.9 Nor are modern audiences the first to fault Mahan as a wordsmith. In his memoir Mahan wryly recalls being the target of similar criticism in his own day. He blames it on his “morbid dread as to possibility of error.” Fear of being proved wrong impelled his “cautious mind” to “introduce between the same two periods every qualification.” His writings thus “often taxed attention as an author has no right to do.”10 In short, he piled phrases upon phrases and clauses upon clauses. As a result, his writing is often difficult to penetrate.
By his own admission, then, Mahan was responsible in part for the sag in his reputation. But there must be more to it than that. The works of Carl von Clausewitz and Mao Zedong are long, hard slogs as well, yet they seldom elicit the scorn reserved for The Influence of Sea Power upon History.
Reducing Sea Power to Battleships
Next, readers commonly reduce the whole of Mahanian theory to tactical matters, then discount him because certain platforms and tactical principles failed the test of time. The author again bears some of the blame. Drawing on British naval history, Mahan describes “command of the sea” as “that overbearing power on the sea, which drives the enemy’s flag from it, or allows it to appear only as a fugitive; and which, by controlling the great common, closes the highways by which commerce moves to and fro from the enemy’s shores.”11
Decisive battle between fleets of capital ships was his Holy Grail. His worship of Vice Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson, who commanded the Royal Navy fleet at Western history’s best-known sea fight, the Battle of Trafalgar, lends credence to claims that Mahan is all about battleships. Mahan dubbed Nelson “the embodiment of the sea power of Great Britain.”12 Since battleships are no more, NWC students sweep Mahan into the historical dustbin.
“Mahanian” has come to connote irrelevance at best, bloodlust at worst. But this verges on caricature. It’s rather like discounting Clausewitz or classical Chinese theorist Sun Tzu for devoting part of their great works to time-bound matters such as how to march an army across Napoleonic Europe or ancient China. Likewise, Mahan is about more than tactics. He examines not only the conduct of maritime war but the purposes that drive nations to the sea. In the words of historians Margaret and Harold Sprout, he sets forth not only a “theory of naval strategy and defense” but also a “philosophy” of sea power predicated on commerce, shipping, and bases. He dwells on such higher-order concerns as geopolitics and commercial, political, and military access to theaters like East Asia.13 This commends him to contemporary seafarers.
A False Choice between Theorists
NWC readers also assume a superior alternative is available, namely Mahan’s contemporary, Sir Julian Corbett. Depending on whether they are assigned to the NWC Intermediate Level Course or Senior Level Course, students read Corbett’s Some Principles of Maritime Strategy in the same week they are assigned The Influence of Sea Power upon History, or in consecutive weeks. Either way, the two books are in near-direct competition. Unlike Mahan, Corbett generally finds favor with students, and for understandable reasons. If The Influence of Sea Power plods, Some Principles moves along at a sprightly pace. Read strictly on the operational and tactical levels, furthermore, Some Principles contains actionable guidance for war-fighters. This endears Corbett to military readers.
If Mahan deems fleet actions the decisive factor in war, Corbett proclaims that the navy can never decide a trial of arms except—perhaps—by gradually choking off an antagonist’s seagoing commerce and thus his national life. Even if successful, such pressure would likely alienate allies and one’s own citizens by damaging their economic interests. Pure naval warfare could prove self-defeating.
Rather, Corbettian warfare is a joint enterprise in which the fleet supports land operations. People live on land, so that is where human conflicts are decided. For Corbett, maritime strategy is the art of determining “the mutual relations of your army and navy in a plan of war.”14 Covering itself in glory in a latter-day Trafalgar cannot be a navy’s chief—let alone its sole—purpose, even though Corbett conceded that battle was usually the surest route to victory. An avowed Clausewitzian, he saw battle as a means to strategic and political ends, not an end in itself.
In short, Julian Corbett fits well with today’s joint ethos, helping explain his appeal with contemporary audiences charged with prosecuting joint operations in theaters such as Afghanistan and Iraq. Two objections, though. That the Navy has exchanged Mahan for an alternative theorist appears doubtful. There’s little evidence that the Navy uses Corbett to shape the Fleet or conduct operations, any more than it does Mahan. Seldom does Corbett’s name appear in official documents or statements, the best window into how Navy leadership thinks. But even if we grant that the Navy establishment has embraced Corbett, renewing interest in Mahan’s works remains worthwhile. Corbett may have superseded some of Mahan’s operational and tactical grammar of sea combat, but the British theorist remains silent about the larger political and strategic logic of sea power. Mahan excels in this dimension of nautical affairs.
Mahan, then, pitches his works at the strategic level—the right level for senior officers and civilian officials. A renaissance in sea-power theory integrating the best of the sea-power theorists would do the Navy enormous good, helping it keep abreast of a geopolitical setting in perpetual flux.
‘The Wars We Are In’
A final reason Mahanian theory has fallen into disrepute is that it appears irrelevant to current operations. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates proclaims that the Pentagon’s priority must be “to win the wars we are in,” meaning ongoing land campaigns rather than some future, hypothetical naval war.15 In the marine realm, moreover, the 2007 U.S. maritime strategy elevates noncombat—and thus non-Mahanian—functions such as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief to “core capabilities” for the first time while downplaying the prospects for war at sea. It names no potential adversary. Only two passages in the document contemplate naval war. The first vows to stage “credible combat power” in the Western Pacific and South Asia for the immediate future. The second declares that the United States will impose local sea control wherever and whenever Washington sees fit—by itself if need be.16
If the framers of the maritime strategy downplay combat in favor of cooperative missions, warfighters may sensibly ask what help Mahan supplies with daily functions. But such questions are nothing new. In reality, Mahan’s writings started feeling outmoded soon after his death in 1914. The U.S. Navy rendered yeoman’s service in the Atlantic during World War I. It did so, however, not by going after the German battle fleet but by sinking German U-boats and escorting merchantmen and transports. Historian George Baer calls the first Battle of the Atlantic a “war without Mahan” for good reason.17 And while fleet-on-fleet battles were commonplace during World War II, that conflict saw carrier aviation and submarines replace the dreadnoughts—the behemoths that so entranced Mahan—as the primary implements of naval war.
The Navy fought its last major Fleet engagement at Leyte Gulf in 1944. Projecting power ashore constituted the service’s primary function in Cold War conflicts in Korea and Vietnam. Post-Cold War documents such as 1992’s . . . From the Sea and platforms like the Littoral Combat Ship tacitly assume American command of the sea, affirming that the Navy should—and can—operate off foreign shores with impunity. In short, nearly a century’s worth of events seemingly have relegated Mahan to a historical curiosity.
Rediscover Strategic Thought
However quaint or outdated Mahan’s grammar of combat between armored dreadnoughts may appear in this age of technological wizardry, his logic or philosophy of sea power remains as compelling as ever.18 Preserving commercial, political, and military access to vital regions such as Asia has lost none of its salience. And whatever the merits of Secretary Gates’ mandate to focus on the here and now, the U.S. Navy must look beyond current operations to explain why America needs a preponderant Fleet and how that Fleet should be used. Mahan’s writings can help service leaders take the long view, going beyond immediate concerns like hardware and numbers of ships. For that to happen, the service must rediscover Mahan’s body of work, examining the many works he published before and after The Influence of Sea Power upon History. A bibliography of Mahan’s works consumes nearly 100 pages.19 Geopolitically minded books such as The Problem of Asia and The Interest of America in Sea Power, among many others, are indispensable to a full understanding of Mahanian theory.
Accession training or in the Fleet are the logical times for mariners to reacquaint themselves with sea-power theory. Time constraints and competing requirements within the curriculum prevent NWC students from delving much deeper into the subject than they already do. Exposing Naval Academy, ROTC, and Officer Candidate School midshipmen to Mahan’s works would help. A working knowledge of sea-power theory could become a prerequisite for the surface warfare pin, submariners’ dolphins, and aviators’ wings. Incorporating sea-power theory into the curricula at service schools such as the Surface Warfare Officers School Command would be another logical step, especially in courses designed for executive and commanding officers. And finally, these works would make a worthy addition to professional reading lists. To crib a term from academia, the payoff from such a Navy-wide commitment to “lifelong learning” about the art of maritime strategy could be considerable.
There are other side benefits. The 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) and other statements of purpose suggest that the Obama administration inclines toward a maritime-oriented foreign policy. Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Michèle Flournoy, for example, wrote an essay in conjunction with the QDR that credited Mahan with fashioning the concept of the “commons.” Flournoy considers him the forefather of an offshore strategy aimed at commanding 21st-century seas and skies.20 Mahan, in short, could furnish a vocabulary of sea power intelligible to the Navy, the administration, and lawmakers.
Lastly, knowing Mahan helps the U.S. Navy know how rising sea powers may conduct business. Even if Americans find Mahan’s brand of offensive sea power passé, foreign navies may disagree. Strategists in China, the most likely red team, read his works avidly. They routinely cite him as the authority for a blue-water, offensive-minded fleet. Indeed, influential Chinese scholars maintain that Chinese Mahanians now hold the upper hand in policy debates.21 Knowledgeable commentators prophesy that India may turn to Mahan as it devises an oceangoing navy of its own.22 Seagoing nations, then, look to Mahan for guidance. By revisiting its past, the U.S. Navy can hone its own thinking while glimpsing the future of Asia, America’s strategic center of gravity.
Make it so.
2. The 20-ship figure appears in Secretary of the Navy Benjamin F. Tracy’s annual report for 1889, but Harold and Margaret Sprout proclaim that “the ideas were indubitably Mahan’s.” He may have even drafted the relevant passages. Harold and Margaret Sprout, The Rise of American Naval Power, 1776-1918 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1944), p. 207.
3. Philip A. Crowl, “Alfred Thayer Mahan: The Naval Historian,” in Peter Paret, Gordon A. Craig, and Felix Gilbert, Makers of Modern Strategy: From Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986), p. 444.
4. Alfred Thayer Mahan, From Sail to Steam: Recollections of Naval Life (1907; repr., New York: Da Capo, 1968), pp. 302-303.
5. Robert K. Massie, Dreadnought: Britain, Germany, and the Coming of the Great War (New York: Random House, 1991), pp. xxiii-xxiv.
6. Mahan, From Sail to Steam, pp. 302-303.
7. Sadao Asada, From Mahan to Pearl Harbor: The Imperial Japanese Navy and the United States (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2006), p. 26.
8. Geoffrey Till, Seapower, 2nd ed. (London and New York: Routledge, 2009), p. 39.
9. His style improved in later works like The Problem of Asia and The Interest of America in Sea Power, many of which were spliced together from articles in magazines like the Atlantic Monthly. Written for a popular audiences, they are more accessible to the general reader.
10. Mahan, From Sail to Steam, pp. 288-289.
11. Alfred Thayer Mahan, The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660-1783 (1890; repr., New York: Dover, 1987), p. 138.
12. Alfred Thayer Mahan, The Life of Nelson, the Embodiment of the Sea Power of Great Britain (1897; repr., Boston: Little, Brown, 1918).
13. Sprout, Rise of American Naval Power, pp. 203, 217-222. See also James R. Holmes and Toshi Yoshihara, “Mahan’s Lingering Ghost,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 135, no. 12 (December 2009): pp. 40-45.
14. Julian S. Corbett, Some Principles of Maritime Strategy, intro Eric J. Grove (1911; repr., Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1988), p. 16.
15. Donna Miles, “Budget, Defense Reviews Key on Current Wars,” Defense.gov, 1 February 2010, <http://www.defense.gov/news/newsarticle.aspx?id=57814>.
16. U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard, A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower, October 2007, U.S. Navy website, <http://www.navy.mil/maritime/Maritimestrategy.pdf>.
17. George W. Baer, One Hundred Years of Sea Power: The U.S. Navy, 1890-1990 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994), p. 64.
18. James R. Holmes and Toshi Yoshihara, “Mahan’s Lingering Ghost,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, December 2009, <http://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/story.asp?STORY_ID=2123>.
19. John B. Hattendorf and Lynn C. Hattendorf, eds., A Bibliography of the Works of Alfred Thayer Mahan (Newport: Naval War College Press, 1986).
20. Michèle Flournoy and Shawn Brimley, “The Contested Commons,” U.S. Department of Defense Website, <http://www.defense.gov/qdr/flournoy-article.html>. See also U.S. Office of the Secretary of Defense, Quadrennial Defense Review Report, February 2010, U.S. Department of Defense Website, <http://www.defense.gov/qdr/QDR%20as%20of%2029JAN10%201600.pdf>.
21. For a glimpse of China’s internal debate over sea and land power, see Michael Crisp, “The Great Chinese Sea Power Debate: A Review Essay,” Journal of Contemporary China 19, no. 63 (2010): pp. 201-212.
22. “Chasing Ghosts,” The Economist, 11 June 2009, <http://http://www.economist.com/world/asia/displaystory.cfm?story_id=13825154>. See also C. Raja Mohan, “Maritime Power: India and China Turn to Mahan,” Institute of South Asian Studies Working Paper no. 71, National University of Singapore, 7 July 2009.