“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.”