BOOK REVIEW – 21st Century Mahan: Sound Military Conclusions for the Modern Era

Benjamin F. Armstrong, Editor, 21st Century Mahan:  Sound Military Conclusions for the Modern Era.  Annapolis:  Naval Institute Press, 2013. Notes, 179 pp.

Review by John J. Abbatiello, PhD
Monument, Colorado

1914 was a momentous year for naval affairs.  One hundred years later, we remember the opening of the Panama Canal, the American occupation of Veracruz, and the start of the Great War.  On 13 March 1914, Edward “Butch” O’Hare was born; he would become the US Navy’s first carrier ace and naval Medal of Honor recipient of World War Two.  And on 1 December 1914, Alfred Thayer Mahan—American naval officer, educator, historian, and strategist—died of heart failure in our Nation’s capital at the age of 74.

Readers of IJNH will not require a review of Mahan’s considerable influence on strategic thinking from the 1890s to present.  Suffice it to say—and regardless of his perceived relevance today—he remains one of the most important strategists America has ever produced.  It is a pity that most of us derive our understanding of Mahan’s strategic thought from perhaps one or two of his books and a handful of interpretive volumes about his written work.  He has so much more to offer.

In 21st Century Mahan, Benjamin Armstrong makes available five of Mahan’s lesser-known works to serve as a corrective to common misperceptions about this key naval theorist.   The editor selected these five essays to show Mahan’s “readability and relevance” to current audiences and to demonstrate that he examined more than Jominian theories of naval warfare focusing on battleship-heavy combat fleets.  On the contrary, Mahan was a keen student of naval leadership, administration, and education.

In Armstrong’s first selection, entitled “The Principles of Naval Administration,” the editor demonstrates Mahan’s capacity to tackle important questions of organization and support of the fleet.  The 1903 article, originally published in the National Review, provides the reader with an interesting comparison between the British and American systems of civilian and naval leadership.  Mahan discusses civilian heads or secretaries, the American Bureau system, and the Royal Navy’s “Sea Lords.”  The focus of the piece is that administration should be efficient with accountability clearly defined and exercised.  And at all times, military and naval considerations “must necessarily continue supreme.”  The editor lauds Mahan’s conclusions and reminds the reader that in times of tight budgets Mahan’s focus on combat capability versus swollen staffs should serve as a warning to a peacetime US Navy.

The second piece, a 1902 essay entitled “Consideration Governing the Disposition of Navies,” examines the interaction of maritime interests, geography, trade, and naval forces.  Yes, it is true—Mahan actually thought about cruisers and the importance of positioning the battlefleet to protect trade routes.  As Armstrong points out in his introduction to the essay, Mahan’s discussion of cruisers equipped with wireless telegraphy and how they should be positioned is an unexpected topic for most readers today.  We should pay attention to Mahan’s thoughts on forward-deployed assets and overseas bases as a foundation for strategic agility.

In “Naval Education” Armstrong exposes readers to Mahan’s thoughts on how to educate and train naval officers and sailors.  The editor shares the interesting origin of this essay; Mahan wrote it for an essay contest sponsored by the US Naval Institute in 1879.  He happened to be President of the Institute at the time, but the essay placed third.  The piece appeared in the The Record, forerunner of Proceedings, and was Mahan’s first written work to be published.

At a time when the Naval Academy was the only source of commissioned officers for the US Navy, Mahan suggests a detailed course of study, class by class, semester by semester, and includes divergent tracks for line officers and engineering and ordnance specialists.  Mahan’s bottom line was that his selection of subjects provided three things required of a naval officer:  “moral power” (i.e., leadership and command ability), “physical vigor,” and knowledge necessary to carry out assigned duties.   Disappointingly, neither Mahan nor Armstrong address a key question about the Naval Academy, and service academies in general:  should they focus on producing competent junior officers or future flag officers?  The two objectives are not necessarily compatible.

The last two essays are about leadership.  In both cases Mahan highlights Royal Navy admirals from the Age of Sail, his favorite naval era, providing rich examples of how to lead a ship’s crew and a sailing battlefleet.  Originally written as a 1905 speech to Boston’s Victorian Club and later published in 1908, “The Strength of Nelson” focuses on the Victor of Trafalgar’s “peculiar sense of duty” and “conviction” the he could trust his subordinates and his own decisions and instincts.  His example, in Mahan’s reverent view, was a gift not only to Britain but to the entire world.  In “Pellew:  The Frigate Captain and Partisan Officer,” Mahan applauds the career of Edward Pellew, later Lord Exmouth.  Taken from a collection of naval biographies published as Types of Naval Officers:  Drawn from the History of the British Navy, this final essay curiously focuses on a frigate sailor, and Armstrong takes the opportunity to point out that Mahan was able to appreciate a naval officer not associated with ships of the line.  The historical piece guides the reader from Pellew’s early career during the American Revolution, through the wars with France, and closes with an account of his successful command of the 1816 expedition against Algiers.  Mahan points out Pellew’s superb seamanship, decision-making, and strategic thinking—principles important for all naval leaders.  Armstrong includes this essay to show today’s sailors that service “outside the main battlefleet” is both valuable and “vital to naval success.”

Overall, this is a superb collection of essays that succeeds in demonstrating Mahan’s lesser-known naval thought, addressing topics that are as relevant today as they were at the turn of the last century.   As the editor points out, today’s strategic environment is not too different from the one Mahan lived in.  Critics might haggle over the choice of essays, absence of illustrations, or lack of discussion of Mahan’s years at the Naval War College, but these are minor issues.  Benjamin Armstrong—naval aviator, helicopter pilot, Naval Institute Editorial Board member and frequent contributor to current naval affairs—gives us a glimpse of Mahan that is both valuable and pertinent.  We should look forward to the next volume!

(Return to July 2015 Table of Contents)

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