Mahan as MidshipmanThis is the first post in a weekly series about the writing and thinking of Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan, leading up to the release of “21st Century Mahan: Sound Military Conclusions for the Modern Era” by The Naval Institute Press.

This week is Commissioning Week at The U.S. Naval Academy. It’s an exciting time of ceremonies, balls, parties, and obelisk climbing. At this year’s ceremony the new Ensigns and Second Lieutenants will hear advice from many, including the CNO, SECNAV, Governor of Maryland, and the Commander-in-Chief. Ultimately much of it comes down to the central question: What are the skills, the requirements, the qualifications, of a good naval officer? Or to put it another way: What does it take to earn that “Special Trust and Confidence” from the President of the United States?

It is well known that the passage memorized by Plebes at the Academy entitled “The Qualifications of a Naval Officer” never actually flowed from the pen of Captain John Paul Jones. The story is well documented in an article from Naval History, debunked by a writing team of a Midshipman and an Academy Professor. However, the ideals listed in the passage are worth considering as a benchmark and sometimes we still see them in official Navy documents.

Alfred Thayer Mahan, as opposed to Jones, did write about what a naval officer should be capable of accomplishing. ATM served as the head of the Gunnery Department in Annapolis when he was a Commander (at one point he wrote a report chit on an upstart young Firstie for being disorderly, a future officer named William Sims). He wrote about the training of Midshipmen at the Academy in his essay “Naval Education.” The essay was the first thing that ATM, who became quite prolific, ever wrote for publication. It won third prize in the very first Naval Institute essay contest. The subject of the contest was, of course, “Naval Education” and ATM set out to redesign the curriculum at the Naval Academy, which was the only source of commissioned officers at the time.

The following passage outlines the things that he believed were the required skills and capabilities of a naval officer:

The organizing and disciplining of the crew, the management under all circumstances of the great machine which a ship is, call for a very high order of character, whether natural or acquired; capacity for governing men, for dealing with conflicting tempers and interests jarring in a most artificial mode of life; self possession and habit of command in danger, in sudden emergencies, in the tumult and probable horrors of a modern naval action; sound judgment which can take risks calmly, yet risk no more than is absolutely necessary; sagacity to divine the probable movements of an enemy, to provide against future wants, to avoid or compel action as may be wished; moral courage, to be shown in fearlessness of responsibility, in readiness to either act or not act, regardless of censure whether from above or below; quickness of eye and mind, the intuitive perception of danger or advantage, the ready instinct which seizes the proper means in either case: all these are faculties not born in every man, not perfected in any man save by the long training of habit—a fact to which the early history of all naval wars bears witness.

It’s a tall order, and a bit more specific than the ideals attributed to Jones. However, reading through the list each of us in the Service may see the attributes of some of our favorite superiors, or the things we determined others were missing.

More than just a strategic thinker who liked battleships and trans-isthmus canals, ATM has a good deal to offer in the leadership department as well. His suggestion, aimed at increasing the skills listed, was to reduce the heavy weight given to engineering and hard science at the Academy (and today in ROTC units) and to increase the required courses in history and the humanities is as valid today as it was almost a century and a half ago.

Posted by LCDR Benjamin "BJ" Armstrong in Navy

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  • Certainly ATM did not envision a world of basket-weaving undergraduates. I would argue that ATM would not disagree with Admiral Rickover’s demands to increase the physics and mathematics required to graduate. ATM would appreciate the ever growing technical nature of modern naval warfare, and would seek to place to onus on contious educational / professional development through personal reading and usage of the Naval War College, which he also presided over for years.

    • BJ Armstrong

      Nic, you give yourself away by referring to the study if history, the humanities, and foreign languages as “basket-weaving.” Napoleon , Alexander, Clausewitz, Machiavelli, all suggested the study of the engineering of their day, right…or was it the great captains and military history? I forget.

      In the 1870s & 80s when Mahan wrote this the us navy was going through a technical revolution. Steam power, props driving the ship, steel ships, advances in ordnance, were all new. The “everything is newer and harder and more revolutionary today, so things are different” modern hipster ideal is something Mahan would reject outright. He was writing in a time just as “new and unexplainable.” I suggest you check out more of Mahan’s actual writing because I think he and Rickover would have been hardened adversaries and believed in fundamentally different ideals. Chapter 3 of 21st Century Mahan has his essay “Naval Education” in it. The essay was written to discuss the very question which you raise.

  • Good post.

    This reminds me of a paragraph from Colin Gray’s late-80’s era book, War, Peace, and Victory. On page 36 of the paperback, he asserts:

    “…the relationship between strategy and tactics is reciprocal and continuous. By and large the profession of arms does not, nor does it need to, train a person to think strategically. Judgement on how war should be broadly conducted, or on how much latent force (or military power) a country should purchase in peacetime are matters of high policy for which military expertise functions only in an advisory role….”

    When I read the “to think strategically” sentence, my reflex was to disagree, however Gray is asserting 20+ years before Ambassador Charles Hill’s Grand Strategies the need for well-rounded/informed officers. Hill asserts, and I concur, that we’d do well to include rigorous education in history, literature, and the humanities. One thing these endeavors will reveal to a young mind is accuracy of the writer of the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes where he announces: “There is nothing new under the sun.” While we have new gadgets and technologies, human nature has remained consistent, and there is very little novelty human behavior. A well-educated officer will have examples to fall back on; to inform and enlighten.

    John Boyd famously said, “People, ideas, hardware—in that order!” The same could be used in the education and training or our officers. People fight wars, thus we need officers who know man and his history.

    • I’d add, someone recently reminded me of a book near-and-dear to this topic: Neustadt and May’s Thinking in Time, The Uses of History for Decision Makers.

      A very good primer on this very topic and recommended. I found a copy on the secondary market and it arrived today—time for a re-read.