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.


Jeffrey said...

in 1887, he met and befriended A Rough rider named Theodore Roosevelt

Bill Doughty said...

Thanks for the comment, Jeffrey. Mahan was a recommended read on "Theodore Rex's" list of favorite authors, too: Mahan's "Types of Naval Officers." So was Aristotle, Lincoln, Mark Twain, Thucydides, Keats, Browning, Poe, Tennyson, Longfellow, Kipling and more than one hundred more... Not bad company.

John T. Kuehn said...

Okay, I'll bite. I think B.J. had done us all a great service, although Prospect and Retrospect have been mandatory reading at the Naval War College currently and on and off in the past. Another Naval War College faculty member said it best (and supports B.J.'s work here):

"If we wish to understand what Mahan himself meant by his emphasis upon the necessity of acquiring "command" we shall do better not to turn to his well known great historical works, but to those lesser studies which, almost completely forgotten today, offer an infinitely more illuminating insight into his thoughts than his more comprehensive publications." Herbert Rosinski, 1939.

John T. Kuehn
William Stofft Professor of Military History
U.S. Army Command and General Staff College
Fort Leavenworth, Kansas