What Was Mahan Really Saying?

John T Kuehn's picture

 

November 2019 Handgrenade

 

What was Mahan really saying?

By

John T. Kuehn, US Army Command and General Staff College

 

If we wish to understand what Mahan himself meant by his emphasis upon the necessity of acquiring “command” [of the sea] we shall do better not to turn to his well known great historical works, but to those lesser studies which, almost completely forgotten to-day, offer an infinitely more illuminating insight into his thoughts than his more comprehensive publication.[1]

 Herbert Rosinki, 1939, Newport Rhode Island

 

Despite this rather startling statement by a noted German naval theorist of sea power,  we will indeed turn to one of A.T. Mahan’s  “well known great historical works” to understand what it has to offer those interested in Mahan’s approach to what has come to be called “grand strategy” and,  secondly, how his first work relates to professional military education—in his own day and in ours. In any event, Mahan is misunderstood.  Thankfully, historian Jon Tetsuro Sumida has revisited the pervasive misunderstanding of Mahan’s strategic thinking.  This understanding had been promulgated for years by a variety of interpreters and historians.[2]  According to Sumida this “seriously flawed” view attributes to Mahan:

 

…that naval supremacy was the prerequisite to economic prosperity and international political preeminence.  The second [argument] was that naval supremacy could be achieved only through the possession of large numbers of battleships, which were always to be kept together in order to be able to contain or destroy enemy battleship fleets.[3]

 

Sumida instead argues that Mahan’s works represent two distinct lines of strategic thinking—one that had to do with grand strategy and the other that had more to do with the relationship of the study of history to the development of strategic leadership.[4] For the purposes of this handgrenade the term “grand strategy” is defined as that level of strategy formulated at the highest political levels of the state and that addresses strategic application of all the elements of national power.  One must investigate Mahan on his own merits--in his own words--regarding grand strategy from the first chapter of his most famous book The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783

 

For the remainder of my argument H-Warriors are directed to the published version of this essay (public domain) here:

http://www.usmhg.org/u-s-military-history-review

One more thing,  one must understand that the view of Mahan that became popular in the mid-20th Century was shaped by Mahan’s biographer and co-organizer of his published papers by the Naval Institute Press,  Robert Seager, II.   Never was an individual more poorly served by a biographer, it would be as if Jesus Christ’s biography was written by the High Priest Caiaphas.

            Fortunately Suzanne Geissler has corrected the great injustices (plural) that Seager committed against Mahan, killing him after he was dead as it were, in her excellent book on Mahan, God and Seapower, which I commend to anyone who is really serious about understanding Mahan.

The edited anthology by Commander B. J. Armstrong,   21st Century Mahan, is also a very useful work to avoid the thin, zero-dimensional understandings that pass for “knowing” about Mahan as well.[5]

 

John T. Kuehn

 

 

 

[1] Herbert Rosinski, The Developments of Naval Thought:  essays by Herbert Rosinski, ed. B. Mitchell Simpson, III  (Newport R.I.:  Naval War College Press, 1977), 1.

[2] Philip A. Crowl, Alfred Thayer Mahan:  The Naval Historian,” in Makers of Modern Strategy ed. Peter Paret (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), 444 – 447.  Crowl’s essay is perhaps the most ubiquitous “standard” interpretation of Mahan.  For a more recent critique of Mahan that is sympathetic to the standard interpretation see H.P. Willmott, The Battle of Leyte Gulf (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005), 1-2.  Willmott condemns Mahan’s influence on naval officers as “pernicious.”

[3] Jon Tetsuro Sumida, “Geography, Technology, and British Naval Strategy in the Dreadnought Era,” Naval War College Review 59  No. 3 (Summer 2006), 89.  For Sumida’s interpretation of the critical elements of Mahan’s thought see Jon Tetsuro Sumida, Inventing Grand Strategy and Teaching Command: The Classic Works of Alfred Thayer Mahan Reconsidered (Washington, D.C.: Woodrow Wilson Center Press/Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1997);  (Washington, D.C.: Woodrow Wilson Center Press/Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1997).

[4] Sumida, 7.

[5] Suzanne Geissler,  God and Seapower:  The Influence of Religion on Alfred Thayer Mahan (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2015);  B. J. Armstrong, editor, 21st Century Mahan: Sound Military Conclusions for the Modern Era (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2013).

 

My take on the utter silence here is as follows. Silence is consent. On behalf of Mahan's legacy, I thank you.

vr, John T. Kuehn

Hmmm. Can we set aside what a "proper reading" of Mahan would look like, and ask instead whether the traditional ("wrong") reading was nevertheless influential in German, British, American, and Japanese navies? Was that the case?

Wayne, At last, a worthy query.
I think Rosinski applies:
"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.

As well as Suzanne Geissler and the thesis of the untold damage of Robert Seager, II (the II always put me off) and Philip Crowl in MoMS 2nd edition:
Here is what I wrote in a book review of Suzanne Geissler's examination of Mahan--God and Sea Power: The Influence of Religion on Alfred Thayer Mahan
Suzanne Geissler, Annapolis, MD, Naval Institute Press, 2015:
"Geissler’s painstaking dissection of the flaws in Seager’s (and others) work reflects her complete familiarity with the archival and other primary sources. The scholarship here is peerless—the manuscript having been reviewed by two of the most esteemed naval scholars writing today, Jon T. Sumida and John Hattendorf. (xi) There are moments in the second to last chapter on Mahan as a “Public Christian” that lapse into dense theological analyses, but they further buttress Geissler’s argument about the criticality of Mahan’s faith to his ideas about sea power and international geopolitics. This book is highly recommended for all audiences, but especially those wanting “one stop shopping” as they begin to try and understand the phenomenon of A.T. Mahan."

In short, the problem is that too few folks actually know much about Mahan or his writings, they rely on secondary, biased, sources rather than reading the rather large corpus before making up the mind to accept tropes like Mahan is the Jomini of the sea.
best, John T Kuehn