Tags: Alfred Thayer Mahan
This 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.
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