James Holmes

Debating Mahan in the 21st Century

A new edited volume of Mahan’s work will hopefully revive a discussion on the naval theorist’s continued relevance.

James R. Holmes

Lieutenant Commander B. J. Armstrong has taken on a thankless task: broadening Alfred Thayer Mahan’s appeal to twenty-first-century audiences. Maybe B. J. can become my Sancho Panza as I tilt against the same windmill.

Anyway. Armstrong just came out with an edited volume of Mahan’s essays titled 21st-Century Mahan. He deploys the essays, and the few pages of commentary he presents before each, to serve twin purposes. One, he wants to restore some luster to Mahan’s reputation among policymakers and practitioners. He observes, for instance, that many people read about Mahan but few read his writings firsthand. And few among those few venture beyond his most influential treatise, The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660-1783. (Bear in mind that a complete bibliography of his body of work is itself a book. Folks say the darnedest things about him under such circumstances.

Exposing them to the best of Mahan’s corpus could help dispel false notions. At the same time, though, there’s little cause for hero worship here. Time, technology, and changes in world politics have clearly overtaken certain aspects of Mahanian theory. But we no longer concern ourselves with Sun Tzu’s teachings about the cost of marching an army across China in antiquity. No one holds Clausewitz’s equally time-bound observations about land warfare in the ages of Frederick the Great and Napoleon against him. Thucydides wrote about rowboats ramming one another. So why fault Mahan for relating the age of sail to the age of the battleship, the premier weapon of sea combat for his day? He was a man of his time, like all of the masters. There’s no reason to hold him to a loftier standard.

And two, Armstrong sees genuine value in Mahan’s writings, even though the sea-power pundit shuffled off his mortal coil nearly a century ago. He wrote during a globalized era, and thus we have an essay on how the United States should assure itself of commercial, political, and military access to important theaters in an interconnected world. Far from being a figure from a Gilbert and Sullivan musical, obsessed with battleships and Trafalgar-like clashes, Mahan saw Sir Edward Pellew — a frigate captain, for heaven’s sake, not a Nelson bestriding the quarterdeck of HMS Victory — as an archetype of naval leadership. You get the idea. The essays both rebut misinterpretations of Mahanian theory and proffer a guide to strategy-making.

I would take Sancho to task for a grave oversight, though. Where’s the geography? Geopolitics is central to Mahan’s work. His 1897 Harper’s article on “The Strategic Features of the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea” provides a yardstick for measuring the worth of sites for naval stations, figuring out which straits and narrow seas are useful and which can be safely ignored, and the like. He advised U.S. leaders on which islands and seaports would empower the U.S. Navy to defend the approaches to the Panama Canal against all comers. A Mahanian America could make itself the big kahuna in nearby waters even while it remained a power of second rank. This is a work of enduring value.

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Will Commander Armstrong’s project succeed? Can Mahan be rehabilitated in the eyes of detractors, or brought to a wider audience? I have my doubts. His biggest fault is simple yet irremediable. As Raymond Pritchett observes in one of his grumpier entries over at Information Dissemination, no one has ever accused Mahan of being a master wordsmith. He ‘fessed up to his literary shortcomings in his memoir. It’s tough to build a fan base among readers when, as Mahan admitted, he tried to pack every phrase, clause, and qualifier he could between two periods. Such convoluted writing can be a slog.

If we keep battering away at that windmill, nevertheless, we may eventually pound it into submission. Read the whole thing.