21st Century X

July 2013


“History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”
– Mark Twain

In the introduction to his book 21st Century Mahan: Sound Military Conclusions for the Modern Era, LCDR BJ Armstrong, USN speaks to a problem with a lot of the foundational thinkers on the military art. Referring to modern policymakers, naval leaders, and analysts who do bring up Mahan, Armstrong states,

These writers and thinkers are mistaken. They focus solely on his most famous work and unthinkingly repeat the analysis taught by some academics. Few of these writers appear to have actually read the works of Alfred Thayer Mahan.

Bingo. Many people have a Cliff’s Notes thick understanding of Mahan because they have never been asked to, or made the independent effort to, read the primary source. As a result, many of them are reading modern commentary run through the intellectual grinders of deconstructionism and critical theory to the point that they aren’t even really reading about Mahan any more. They are reading one academic’s commentary on another academic who read a summary of Mahan.

The utility of Armstrong’s work is really rather simple; in each section he tees the ball up for a few pages and then steps away. He lets Mahan speak for himself in long form; not pull quotes or some temporally transposed mash-up of different works stitched together to make a post-modern point.

Some of the worst commentary on Mahan I have read has come from people who really should know better, and a lot of the fault lies in how we teach Mahan.

If you try to take a short cut about learning about a thinker by simply quoting what other people have said about them using a two-line pull quote followed by 55 pages of pontification – then are you really studying the thinker? Are we teaching from primary sources, or are we letting commentary and conjecture of lesser minds come to the fore?

Live by the gouge … be ignorant by the gouge.

Along those lines, there are other naval and military thinkers out there that most of us know about, but do we really know what they said – have we been provided the primary source in an easily digestible format like we see in 21st Century Mahan? As such, have we had a chance to see what can inform our decisions as we prepare for this century’s challenges?

Who would you like to see given a treatment like Mahan was given by Armstrong? Who should be next in line to be introduced anew?

Put your ideas in comments.

Posted by CDRSalamander in History, Innovation, Naval Institute, Navy
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  • Good post and good book (I’ve read two of the essays; working on the third).
    The reintroduction of J.C. Wylie’s Military Strategy would go a long way towards making strategic thought accessible. At less than 120 pages and easy unambiguous language, one would be hard pressed to find a better introduction to strategic thought.

  • Matthew Hipple

    I feel as though the one of the most “default-understood” thinkers out there is Sun Tzu.

    • Hi Matthew, Not sure I understand “default-understood” could you please clarify? Our force would be in better condition if more of our people had read and truly understood Sun Tzu—the opening verse/lines would be a good place to start (btw, I’m guessing you know this…)

      • Matthew Hipple

        What I mean by “default understood” is that people ASSUME that by reading some cool quotes that they’ve fully absorbed what’s going on. WIth the number of business books, personal books, and classes on Sun Tzu that have NO background on him, his context, or the questions of the book’s authorship… he is probably the one most seperated from his own text.

      • Concur. Many year ago, someone suggested reading The Art of War once a week until it got old. After a few months, it did—I switched translations. Sawyer’s background in The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China is the best I’ve found for proper context.

  • cgberube

    Although he didn’t leave an extensive body of work, I’d suggest someone different like Admiral Stepan Makarov. His “Discussions on Questions of Naval Tactics” and other articles are worth re-examining.

  • grandpabluewater

    The “Strategy of the Indirect Approach” by Capt Sir Basil Liddell-Hart deserves far more attention and explication than it currently receives, at least didactically.

    I suspect those who ginned up most of our successes in the last dozen years know it well.

    Clausewitz is quoted (out of context, all too often) far too much and studied far too little. Got the Germans in quite a bit of trouble in the previous century, that.

    I suspect many of our failures of the last dozen years are rooted in half baked Clausewitzian quotes from power point first slide headings, without reading the admittedly snooze inducing original…”On War”. Despite his popularity in some U.S. Army circles, Gen C. isn’t ALL bad (bring sustaining supplies, he’s a long trek)..

    • HMSLion

      True…but all you really need of Clausewitz are Books 1, 2, and maybe 8. The Howard/Paret translation is excellent. Read the commentaries, too…they put Clausewitz into perspective.

  • Mick536

    Julian Corbett: Some Principles of Maritime Strategy, the key being the principle of sea control.

    • Mark Munson

      Corbett is the obvious counterpoint/complement to Mahan (they were the two “naval strategists” discussed in the Navy War College Strategy & Policy course I took years ago).

      In terms of misuse of Mahan: 1) He wrote voluminously, and we tend to focus on his most famous book in which he formulated his theory, at the expense of his other work (we only listen to the Greatest Hits instead of the Deep Cuts); and 2) Current discussion of Mahan often tends to revolve around the influence of his work during the early 20th century, rather than the validity of his ideas or theory of seapower.

      I don’t necessarily disagree with anything CDR Salamander says here, but find it ironic that he beats up the modern reader for relying on secondary sources…look at the notes of the Influence of Seapower on History and they list mostly secondary sources. History is written very differently now (whether you think that’s good or bad), however, and I don’t hold that against Mahan.

    • HMSLion

      Yes! Particularly since Corbett presented strategic depth that Mahan didn’t. Mahan started with the Anglo-Dutch Wars, and it led him to an obsession with decisive battle. Corbett took a more fundamental approach that covered all the tasks of a navy…including what to do when either you or your opponent already HAD control of the sea.