“The study of history lies at the foundation of all sound military conclusions and practice.”
– CAPT Alfred Thayer Mahan

The quote above is one of the most commonly repeated statements from the writings of Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan. It comes not from his classic “The Influence of Seapower Upon History” but instead from the less well known book “Armaments and Arbitration: The Place of Force in the International Relations of States ,” published in 1912 (page 206). More than policy or naval strategy, Mahan believed in teaching officers the best ways to approach the challenges of command. He saw his job as a Naval War College plankowner in those terms, about teaching command, and to do so he turned to history. But, it wasn’t just senior officers who needed grounding in our naval past. He wrote in his very first published article, winning third place in “Proceedings” annual essay contest, that history was also a key foundation for learning at the Naval Academy.

When he said that history “lies at the foundation,” it wasn’t just a convenient turn of phrase. He believed that before subjects like gunnery, engineering, or even cyber-warfare, could be taught a Midshipman needed to know why he was learning them. Why did any of it matter? The best way to show a student why hitting the target in gunnery class was important was to teach him the history that showed what happened when crews weren’t drilled properly. Perhaps he would teach the Midshipman about Captain James Lawrence sailing Chesapeake out of Boston harbor with a green and undrilled crew in 1813 to face HMS Shannon, a short time later uttering his final command, “Don’t give up the ship” just before he succumbed to his wounds and the British boarding party swarmed aboard in victory. Maybe the Midshipman would recognize the words…from the battle flag bearing the phrase in Memorial Hall that was flown at the Battle of Lake Erie. Mahan felt that once a Midshipman understood the importance of mastering the craft, of studying their trade, a subject like weapons systems engineering would become important even to the lowly humanities major.

The second part of Mahan’s statement is also important, “all sound military conclusions and practices.” In our age of checklist leadership and officers educated as engineers there is a desire to approach leadership challenges as equations where certain inputs are guaranteed to give you the desired results. But Mahan doesn’t say all “correct” military conclusions and practices, he says “sound.”

Mahan recognized that both naval strategy (conclusions) and combat leadership (practices) were art, not science. In his book “Naval Strategy: Compared and Contrasted with the Principles and Practice of Military Operations on Land,” published in 1911, Mahan compared naval officers to artists. He wrote that artists had to learn certain techniques, mediums and certain skills, but that wasn’t what made their artwork great. In the end “art, out of materials which it finds about, creates new forms in endless variety,” artists take those foundation basics and then mix and match them based on inspiration and experience to create a masterpiece. History helps us understand that frequently there are no right answers to military questions of strategy or leadership. There are only “sound conclusions,” which are drawn from understanding basics and history. Demonstrating this great truth to Midshipman early in their education, say as a Plebe before they have taken three years worth of engineering classes that teach them there is always an equation and a correct answer, is much more valuable than having them learn it after years of service.

A well designed training plan, whether it is on the deckplates by the Damage Control Training Team or in an Annapolis classroom by a defined core curriculum, is not simply a matter of plugging course titles in time slots. It must involve thought, understanding, and above all recognition of the end goal of that plan for the Midshipman …”to imbue them with the highest ideals of duty, honor and loyalty.” The movement of HH104 from the Plebe year at the United States Naval Academy is not “in keeping with the highest ideals” of the greatest military thinkers of the past. It ignores the teachings of not just the intellectual godfather of the United States Navy but also Napoleon, Clausewitz, Corbett, as well as less well known Americans as Casper Goodrich or Fox Conner.

Taking a fresh look at the curriculum in Annapolis, as West Point has done (removing some hard science and engineering from the core in order to add history, strategy, and counterinsurgency courses that Cadets will use in 21st century), is valuable. However, it must be a holistic approach and it must keep its final purposes at the forefront. When you ask yourself “What would Alfred Thayer Mahan Do?” we can answer it easily, knowing that he believed that “The study of history lies at the foundation of all sound military conclusions and practice.”

Posted by LCDR Benjamin "BJ" Armstrong in History, Marine Corps, Navy

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  • Byron

    Well said,LCDR!

  • +2 to the author.

  • Marine6


    How do you teach someone to become a warrior if you do not first teach him what being a warrior is all about? How do you make someone proud to be a part of the institution if you do not first teach them what is special about the institution?

    History is the bonding agent that makes what we teach, and what we train for, fit into an organized structure that gives value to our profession.

  • The Usual Suspect

    History is a great foundation. BZ

  • Jerry

    We have forgotten who we are, on purpose. Nice contribution BJ.

  • Benjamin Walthrop

    Good argument for re-organizing the curriculum to put HH104 earlier in the experience continuum for Midshipmen. That said, you seem to approach the debate between the value of history vs. the value of engineering from a perspective that more closely resembles a zero sum game than I feel comfortable entirely endorsing. Like it or not, the exercise of military power, and leading in that environment, show very strong aspects of both art and science. My perception of engineering is similar. Your write up indicates that you believe that engineering is a strictly technical discipline where the answers to problems are pre-ordained by the physics behind them. This may be how we teach engineering in the United States, but that is a mistake that speaks more to the weakness of the engineering curriculum being discussed than the reality of engineering in “the real world.” Your suggestion to review of the curriculum at USNA, if done correctly, might identify weakness like this if they exist.

    As a student of history, a topic that might interest you would be a study of the US Army’s recent performance in Iraq and Afghanistan in the area of electronic warfare and how it can (and FINALLY was) used to counter the IED threats. I think that it is the story of an organization (the Army) that made short sighted decisions to ignore the technology impacts of the art and science of war to their early detriment. The IED problem did not begin to be contained until the USN stepped in and fielded the electronic warfare systems required for that kind of fight.

    Bottom line is that war is both an art and a science, and a careful reading of history will bear this out.


    B. Walthrop

  • U.S. Naval Academy Public Affairs

    A recent posting about a change in the U.S. Naval Academy curriculum was inaccurate. The posting did not completely characterize the deliberate and thoughtful deliberations of the faculty who were involved in recommending how the USNA curriculum could be reorganized to accommodate an introductory cyber warfare course that USNA leadership, with Navy’s support, feels is necessary to prepare USNA midshipmen for anticipated, future warfare challenges. The following are facts in the USNA decision-making process:

    • The current proposal shows American Naval History (presently labeled HH104) moving into the 2/C year, not the 1/C year as was claimed in the blog. However, the exact placement of HH104 will depend on the precise course sequencing in each academic major (for 23 majors total), and so some variations may have HH104 in either the 1/C or even the 3/C year. It is expected that HH104 will be in the 2/C year in most cases.

    • American Naval History has not been solely a plebe course. It has been offered in many different slots in the curriculum including 1/C, 2/C, 3/C, and plebe year. Its placement in the curriculum has often been a matter of convenience. For instance, its most immediate location prior to now was in 3/C year; it was shifted to plebe year when U.S. Government and Constitutional Development (presently labeled FP130) was mandated as a plebe course and Naval History was assigned as its counterpart to attain symmetry as half the class took one course while the other half took the other course. Currently, HH104 is not always taken in the plebe year; for example, midshipmen who plan to major in Arabic or Chinese take HH104 in the 3/C year.

    • In the conversations and planning about bringing cyber content into the curriculum, USNA leadership did not consider dropping Naval History from the curriculum. USNA leadership continues to recognize the importance of this course to the development of future naval officers.

    • Shifting FP130 into a later year was considered to make room for Cyber-1 in the plebe curriculum. However FP130 was determined to not be a good candidate for the move because it is a prerequisite for nearly every other upper level course in political science. Moving HH104 was determined to have the least impact as it is a prerequisite for exactly one other course, and that course is an elective in history.

    • The potential shift of HH104 was proposed – initiated – as an option by one of the history faculty, and was supported by the History Department chair. It was then presented to the History Department faculty at a meeting of the entire department on Oct. 14, 2010. At that time there was no significant objection to the move, and a number of instructors voiced strong enthusiasm. Subsequently (on Oct. 18, 2010) four instructors did express concerns (along the lines that the content is foundational) in an email poll of the entire department. An additional five instructors responded affirmatively to the proposed move. All others made no response. A “straw vote” of the history faculty taken on Feb. 14, 2011 resulted in 16-6 in favor of the move of HH104.

    • The group that developed the current proposal, which includes the shift of HH104 as just one part of a much larger and more complex plan, consisted of the three divisional senior professors (representing the departments of History, Mechanical Engineering, and Mathematics) in consultation with the five division directors (Humanities/Social Sciences; Engineering & Weapons; Mathematics & Science; Leadership, Ethics and Law; and Professional Development) and several department chairs (Computer Science; Electrical and Computer Engineering; Seamanship & Navigation; and History). The president (from the English Department) and the vice president (from the Math Department) of the faculty senate were updated at several times (during regular standing meetings with the Academic Dean) during the fall semester. The development of the proposal was led by the three senior professors with wide ranging consultation of faculty and department chairs, the process for which began in May 2010.

    • The Faculty Senate Curriculum Committees (led by Chemistry faculty member) charged with formally reviewing such proposals was informed of the general nature of the proposal on Nov. 16, 2010.

    • The origin of the idea for a core course on cyber came from an ad hoc committee of academy faculty working during the summer of 2009. Faculty representing the following departments were part of that group: Computer Science; Electrical and Computer Engineering; Leadership, Ethics and Law; History; Political Science; Physics; Weapons and Systems Engineering; and Seamanship & Navigation. Additional members represented Information Technology, Public Works, and Finance. The result of that committee’s work formed the basis of nearly all of the developments that USNA has pursued regarding cyber, including the introduction of a core course.

  • Benjamin Walthrop

    That’s certainly a different perspective.


    B. Walthrop

  • A. Limon

    You can use this idea for creating a good Senior NCO and Junior NCO Corps for all five services, Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, and Coast Guard.