Sunday, August 11, 2013

Picturing the War of 1812, ‘Rise of U.S. Navy’

Review by Bill Doughty

National Geographic’s gorgeous “The War of 1812 and the Rise of the U.S. Navy” is a coffee-table book that is literally a work of art.

The pages pop with high-resolution photographs of paintings, drawings and artifacts reminiscent of the great Dorling Kindersley DK Eyewitness Books (works of nonfiction from England for all ages, with sharp visual-bites of illustrations, information and insights) on topics of science, history and exploration.

Like some of the DK books, “The War of 1812 and the Rise of the U.S. Navy,” produced under the auspices of the Naval History and Heritage Command, is both nonlinear and linear; readers can open for a rewarding browse or follow events from 200 years ago in chronological order.  

For example, if you want to see what was happening 200 years ago this month, turn to page 140.  In August 1813, as Lt. Thomas MacDonough rebuilt a small force led by the sloops President, Commodore Preble and Montgomery, on Lake Champlain a British squadron attacked American facilities.

Meanwhile, British Commodore Sir James Lucas Yeo, aboard his flagship HMS Wolfe, played a cat-and-mouse game with Captain Isaac Chauncey while confronting storms on Lake Ontario, in which two armed schooners, Hamilton and Scourge were lost, along with more than 70 sailors.

“Neither commander, it seemed, had anything to spare for Lake Erie,” the authors write.

The book focuses on the events, equipment and personalities -- and drama -- of the war.  Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry is shown as an honorable leader facing the British at Lake Erie in August 2013 leading up to the inevitable confrontation.

“By August, a bad situation was made much worse when Perry's little flotilla effectively blockaded Barclay (in charge of the gunboat division on the St. Lawrence River before assuming command of the Provincial Marine squadron with HMS Detroit on Lake Erie under appointment by Commodore Yeo) in Amhertsburg.  The specter of starvation then reared its ugly head; it was critical that the water highway to the east be reopened.  The young Royal Navy lieutenant could no longer resist the pressure to give battle.  Off Malden, the Americans staked out his operation, finding him and his men hard at the task of making preparations for engagement.  Detroit was almost, but not quite, ready.  Some of Perry’s officers recommended striking them unawares, but Perry wouldn’t have it. ‘No,’ he said.  ‘I will take no dishonorable advantage of them, but wait until they get in readiness, and meet them fairly and openly on the lake.”

Perry moved on to Put-in-Bay the following month, leading to the Battle of Lake Erie in which Perry wrote, “We have met the enemy and they are ours...”
William Powell's painting of Oliver Hazard Perry and sailors: "Battle of Lake Erie"

Authors Mark Collins Jenkins and David A. Taylor present the history of the war from Boston Harbor to the Great Lakes, from Baltimore and D.C. to New Orleans, with a brief visit to the other side of the Atlantic.

The book features a personal and heartfelt foreward by Douglas Brinkley.  The preface by Hon. Ray Mabus, Secretary of the Navy, discusses the tradition of the Navy related to the War of 1812 and  puts in context not only in the lessons in leadership, commitment and sea-power but also lessons for the future:

“Much has changed in the past two hundred years,” writes Mabus.  “Britain, once our staunch foe, has become our strong friend.  Where we once depended upon the wooden walls of our sailing ships, we now sail ships of steel.  The smoothbore cannons of 1812 have become the modern naval guns, missiles, and torpedoes of today.  Wind power has given way consecutively to coal-fired steam power, then oil and nuclear power and now the fleet is on the cusp of another change to biofuel and renewable energy.  Situational awareness was once limited to the horizon, based on the eyesight of a keen lookout from a ship’s tops.  This has given way to instantaneous communications to any point on the globe, to submarines sailing the depths, to aircraft soaring the skies and rocketing into outer space, and to sailors on the cyber sea."

The book brings to mind CNO Adm. Greenert's tenets "warfighting first, operate forward and be ready." 

CNO Adm. Jon Greenert and SECNAV Mabus (second from right) kick off the War of 1812 Bicentennial.
Interestingly, the first introductory quote in this book is from Alfred Thayer Mahan from his “Sea Power in Its Relations to the War of 1812”

“Both parties to the War of 1812 being conspicuously maritime in disposition and occupation, while separated by three thousand miles of ocean, the sea and its navigable approaches became necessarily the most extensive scene of operations.”

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Mahan Texts to 21st Century Readers

Review by Bill Doughty

Today, when people watch heroes in old horror movies trying to escape the monster they may ask, “Why don’t they just call or text for help?  Why don’t they just use their phone’s GPS?”  It’s hard to remember a world before cell phone technology, before the Internet, before globalization.  It’s even harder to imagine what the world will be like a generation from now.

One thinker who imagined the future more than a century ago was Alfred Thayer Mahan, known as one of the world’s greatest geostrategists, a formal naval officer, historian and biographer who influenced the way nations conceived of national defense on the world’s oceans.

The Naval Institute press offers a new book edited by Lt. Cmdr. Benjamin F. Armstrong presenting Mahan’s views on seapower in a globalized world: “21st Century Mahan: Sound Military Conclusions for the Modern Era.”  Collected from some of Mahan’s published work in periodicals such as Harper’s, McClure’s, and Britain’s National Review, the writing is more accessible than Mahan’s deeper and more comprehensive texts.

Armstrong brings reasoned, relevant and insightful advice -- both strategic and tactical -- from one of the U.S. Navy’s greatest thinkers.  With a deft hand, Armstrong puts the writing in context for today while acknowledging Mahan’s place-in-time viewpoints.  

The title of Mahan’s autobiography shows his orientation: “From Sail to Steam.”  Mahan (1840-1914) was rooted in the Industrial Revolution.  He fought for Lincoln in the Civil War, participating in the attack on Port Royal, South Carolina.  He was born 64 years after the birth of the United States in 1776, and he died during World War I, 101 years ago this year.

Armstrong shows us that despite some of Mahan’s old world views and contorted writing style, he remains relevant for what he says strategically about seapower in a globalized world -- something Mahan saw developing as steam power and telegraph technology created “an articulated whole,” or what Friedman would call “flattening” of the world.

In the second chapter of “21st Century Mahan,” “Globalization and the Fleet,” Mahan writes about China, Japan, Russia, Germany, Great Britain and the United States.  He evaluates the importance of the Mediterranean Sea to the world’s commerce, which brings to mind the discussion by Kaplan in “Monsoon” of the Indian Ocean and, on a larger scale, of the Pacific.

“It seems demonstrable,therefore, that as commerce is the engrossing and predominant interest of the world to-day, so, in consequence of its acquired expansion, oversea political acquisition, and maritime commercial routes are now the primary objects of external policy among nations.  The instrument for the maintenance of policy directed upon these objects is the Navy of the several States; for, whatever influence we attribute to moral ideas, which I have no wish to undervalue, it is certain that, while right resets upon them for its sanction, it depends upon force for adequate assertion against the too numerous, individuals or communities, who either disregard moral sanctions, or reason amiss concerning them.”

Mahan might have contemplated a future Maritime Strategy and a goal of cooperation and interoperability.  What would he think of a Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise that included Japan and China?  

Along with the strategic treasure trove, Mahan offers tactical advice to future generations.  Other chapters in “21st Century Mahan” discuss management, administration, training, leadership and the nature of command.

It’s worth picking up this book just for the leadership advice and insights Mahan offers to naval officers.  Interestingly, he values a study of the humanities -- English, history, tactics and foreign language -- over strict engineering classwork that can “promote caution unduly.”  In Mahan’s view, judgment is preferable to calculation; trust and confidence is better than formulaic cookie-cutter thinking.

He saw reading as an antidote to Sailors getting into trouble.

“It seems evident, on the one hand that the long periods of comparative idleness in port or even at sea, which are now too often the parents of discontent; which lead to desertion, gambling, quarrelling (sic), rum drinking, might be made less tedious if the seaman had acquired a taste for reading books connected with his profession, with the countries he visits, or any other healthful and interesting subjects ... As they will be much in foreign lands, lead them to such knowledge that they will no longer find the grog shop and the low dance house the most interesting features in a great city.  Arithmetic enough to keep their accounts is good; but beyond that, time were better spent in learning languages, reading books of travel, of natural history,in short, acquiring knowledge that will enable them to enter naturally, intelligently and with interest into the life they may find around them.  Devoted to a noble profession, they may find not only interest but a source of high aims and enthusiasm in naval biography and history."

Mahan undoubtedly couldn’t imagine Kindles, iPads, smart phones or social media.  He would be amazed (and impressed) by Global Positioning System satellites, Aegis systems, littoral combat ships, nuclear powered submarines, unmanned aerial vehicles and the concept of cyber warfare.  

The world has transformed from the industrial age to the information age, where ideas, symbols and words themselves can be weapons.  Mahan did, however, see the value of an educated and aware naval force able, ready and equipped to operate forward.