James Holmes

The Naval Diplomat’s Top 10 Books About the Sea

James Holmes gives us his top ten books on naval warfare and diplomacy.

James R. Holmes

A little birdie (bearing the not-very-ornithological name of Zach) requests a list of the ten works most likely to make you landlubbers as twisted educated about nautical affairs as the Naval Diplomat. I suspect this is a request for the secret works we mad scientists of the sea consult to shape our fiendishly clever analyses of strategy, tactics and hardware. That implies a list made up entirely of manuals about strategic theory, international relations, and science and technology.

J'refuse! Such works are represented here, but I've chosen to provide you with the ten books that have influenced me most, of whatever type, and that I reach for most often when thinking about marine endeavors. Fiction of the sea is fair game — indeed, essential — and is represented here. So with that roundabout introduction, here's my quixotic list of the Top 10 Books About the Sea, arranged in descending order of importance:

Carl von Clausewitz, On War. Clausewitz barely seems to understand that water, except for rivers, plays any part in international struggles. Nevertheless, this classic volume is the starting point of wisdom about diplomatic and military affairs — at sea as well as on shore. Sure, war at sea is different from war on land. But the fundamentals — clashing human wills, the attempt to impose rationality on an enterprise waged by "paradoxical logic," and so forth — apply to the briny deep as much as they do to fields of battle. Read it. Learn it. Live it.

Julian S. Corbett, Some Principles of Maritime Strategy. Speaking of which, Corbett takes Clausewitzian theory to sea. What's not to like? Pair up this dynamic duo and you elicit some deep insights into the operational and strategic levels. The author gets bonus points for jabbing a big, hidebound institution, the fin de siècle Royal Navy, in the eye. You've gotta like a guy upbraided for "sea heresies." (No battle for its own sake? He's a witch! Burn him!!!) The best work there is on the operational grammar of maritime undertakings.

John B. Hattendorf, ed., Mahan on Naval Strategy. Yep, I'm cheating here. But Mahan's great sin (apart from his leaden prose) was that he never did what fellow thinkers like Clausewitz, Corbett, and Machiavelli did: write a masterwork encapsulating his big thoughts, neatly and analytically, within one cover. So, you have to go beyond The Influence of Sea Power upon History to grasp Mahan's larger ideas about geography and foreign policy — his main contributions in my view. Hattendorf, a Naval Diplomat mentor from way back, kludges together some of Mahan's finest articles along with snippets from his books. There's no such thing as one-stop shopping with Mahan, but this book provides an excellent cross-section of his ideas. Alas, it's out of print. (Hint, hint, you fine young cannibals at the Naval Institute Press, its publisher.)

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Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, Strassler edition. This classic treatise about rowboats and spears could go to the top of the list. When I taught at Georgia, students used to look at me funny when I told them you can learn 90 percent of what you need to know about politics and war from Thucydides. I demote it here out of expediency. Maritime strategy falls among the remaining 10 percent. If you want to write about the making of strategy, Clausewitz & Co. are your go-to works. If you want big thoughts about armed strife pitting a land against a sea power, Thucydides is your guy. You pick.

John R. Hale, Lords of the Sea. This book spans the history of the Athenian navy, starting with its founder, Themistocles, and carrying the story through to the fall of Athens — its real fall at the hands of Alexander the Great, not the brief unpleasantness at Spartan hands — in 4th century B.C. Along the way Hale furnishes a wealth of details about naval warfare in classical antiquity. Lords of the Sea profiles Athens' seafaring culture fascinatingly, probing subjects on which Thucydides remains silent. An invaluable companion to History of the Peloponnesian War, and a rollicking read to boot.

Peter Padfield, Maritime Supremacy and the Opening of the Western Mind. I picked up a paperback copy of this work a few years ago in a used bookstore in that mecca of sea power, Athens, Georgia, home to the Middle Oconee River. Little-known on this side of the Atlantic — compared to the Geoff Tills or Jeremy Blacks, at any rate — Padfield is among the most original maritime historians writing today. Part of a trilogy, Maritime Supremacy examines the relationship between culture and sea power through the lens of European nautical history. He argues, in brief, that overseas trade empowers a mercantile class that demands transparent, accountable public finance and administration. Navies thrive under such circumstances. Padfield thus tries to explain why different European powers fared differently on the high seas rather than ascribing their fortunes to, say, Dutch tightfistedness, the sedentary predilections of Frenchmen, or other purported national traits the way Mahan does. Seaborne trade begets efficient government begets a seafaring culture. This is history with a purpose.

Walter McDougall, Let the Sea Make a Noise. This history of the North Pacific "from Magellan to MacArthur," as the subtitle puts it, is just plain fun. Rather than recount a linear narrative, McDougall makes each chapter a vignette set at some place in the Pacific basin at some important juncture in history. We learn, for instance, how rival sea powers jostled for control of the Hawaiian archipelago before the United States unseated the native monarchy and made the islands first into a territory, and ultimately into the 50th state of the Union. This sounds like a choppy approach to teaching history, but it works. An excellent primer on an oceanic theater known for its dynamism and strategic importance.

K. M. Panikkar, India and the Indian Ocean. I discovered Panikkar, perhaps India's finest geopolitical thinker, about a decade ago, and ended up making him a mainstay of a volume on Indian naval strategy. Panikkar surveys the geostrategic features of the Indian Ocean in much the same spirit as Mahan surveyed the Caribbean Sea, concluding that newly independent India must turn its gaze seaward to fend off threats to its sovereignty and prosperity. A short read packed with insight.

Samuel Eliot Morison, The Two-Ocean War. Morison, a Harvard professor turned naval officer and back again, condenses the essentials of his 15-volume History of United States Naval Operations in World War II into a single, highly readable overview. This was the text for my introductory military-history course at Vanderbilt, lo these many years ago, and remains an excellent guide to the U.S. Navy's Iliad.

Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim. Classic literature and poetry belongs in any library relating to maritime affairs. It provides a flavor of sea life, helping strategists understand this alien element. Just as important, it enlivens the topic. Ships and fleets do not make history; people do. Narrowing the field of candidates is the hard part. McKenna's The Sand Pebbles could go here (and gets extra credit for sketching a portrait of U.S. naval encounters with post-dynastic China), as could any number of other works. But something from Conrad, my all-time favorite novelist, has to make the list. Lord Jim has it all. It's not just a novel of the sea but a work of moral philosophy. Alternatively, check out Typhoon. Or Victory. Heck, can we change this entry to the Complete Works of Joseph Conrad — all 24 volumes?