BOOK REVIEW – Mahan, Corbett, and the Foundations of Naval Strategic Thought

Kevin D. McCranie, Mahan, Corbett, and the Foundations of Naval Strategic Thought. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2021. 320 pp

Review by Dr. Joseph Moretz, Ph D, FRHistS

Those writing on naval affairs will ever be indebted to Alfred Thayer Mahan and Julian Corbett, if not the first to put pen to paper and write about navies, then they remain of the first rank of those still cited owing to their breadth of treatment, originality of thought, and continuing influence. More than historians, though assuredly they remained that within the limits of Clio’s art in their time, both proved to be theorists of the first order making their histories breathe with a relevance not found in those written by their contemporaries. Of the two, Mahan established the greater renown being read and feted on both sides of the Atlantic and even further afield during his lifetime in a manner eluding Corbett. Why this proved to be the case, it can be ascribed to the Englishman’s initial lack of stature and the works of fiction and light biography which first appeared under his name. Time would correct the matter of stature and prove Corbett to be the sounder historian and, probably, the sounder theorist too. All this is grist for the mill for Kevin D. McCranie, the Philip A. Crowl Professor of Comparative Strategy at the U.S. Naval War College, who in Mahan, Corbett, and the Foundations of Naval Strategic Thought offers a well-researched, balanced and welcomed reassessment of these two titans of naval strategic discourse.

Many will recognize Mahan as the author of the groundbreaking work The Influence of Seapower Upon History 1660-1783. Appearing in 1890 just as the American West was closing, it seemingly codified the utility of navies while making the case for a revived United States Navy in furtherance of the nation’s “Manifest Destiny.” In truth, the Navy’s fortunes predated Mahan’s famed treatise, but that work did provide a ready rationale for the course now adopted. More importantly, it would be seized by others as they too embraced the period’s navalism. Conversely, and befitting a chronicler of Drake and his successors, Corbett did not have to convince compatriots of the centrality of the Royal Navy to Britain and its empire. Rather, he sought to inform its seagoing officers how that power was best understood and applied. Adopting a Clausewitzian approach in his analysis, his 1911 Some Principles of Maritime Strategy remains his best remembered work. Emphasizing the benefits of the joint application of naval and military power in war, Corbett stressed “a whole of government approach” with finance, diplomacy and allies playing their role alongside the traditional fighting services. 

As influential as these two works remain, McCranie reminds us of the greater literature both writers bequeathed. With the perspective, argument, and appreciation of both evolving over time, readers do themselves little benefit—and Mahan and Corbett a disservice—if all they sample are their most noted works. Typically seen as counterpoints to each other, the author posits that the differences separating the two are not nearly so dramatic when their output is viewed in toto. That is surely the case, but fundamental differences nevertheless remain and nowhere is this the case more than when discussing the place of battle in naval warfare. To Corbett, battle was but a means to an end while Mahan saw battle as the very linchpin to securing command of the sea. That Britain possessed that command already which others now aspired to acquire offers a key reason why both observers could disagree on such a vital precept. In all this, national perspective and the intended audiences of their output shaped the writings of both.     

Just as Mahan never actually defined seapower before making the case for its influence, Corbett likewise failed to specify all the principles governing maritime strategy. These weaknesses are perhaps more readily appreciated by their successors and serves as a caution that no treatise is ever truly definitive. Such shortcomings aside, both advanced our understanding of the role of navies and the maritime dimension in warfare where economic factors assumed an importance strangely unappreciated by earlier military commentators. This alone makes their continued reading an essential foundation for those engaged in strategic problems. 

Living in an age of science, both quite naturally sought to make the understanding of war more scientific while appreciating it would forever remain an art. The taxonomy of the day was one factor why this remained the case, though perhaps a more likely cause was simply the fact sometimes they spoke past each other in their failure to be clear which level of war they were addressing. Here, Mahan was at disadvantage as his schooling, notwithstanding his Naval Academy grounding, was essentially the sea. Meanwhile, fitting for a trained advocate of the bar courtesy of Trinity College, Cambridge, Corbett’s writings possess a logic and a precision often lacking with the American. As such, he refrained from employing the catchphrases commonly employed by his rival which tended to obscure as much as they revealed by their simplicity. 

At last ensconced as a lecturer at the Royal Naval War College in the immediate period before the World War, unteaching the baneful influence imparted by Mahan on British officers seemingly occupied Corbett’s time. Whether the latter’s influence had been similarly baneful when war at last arrived as posited by Lord Sydenham (George Clarke) following the fleet action at Jutland might have been considered by the author. In truth, the métier of both remained as historians of the past rather than as all-knowing seers of the future. This does not lessen the debt contemporary practitioners and strategists owe to each, but it does suggest the limits of their utility given the march of technology, the experience of successive conflicts and the collapse of the norms that governed their times. 

Illustrated with amplifying maps, diagrams and photographs while anchored in sound, thorough research based on primary sources and the secondary literature, Mahan, Corbett, and the Foundations of Naval Strategic Thought is a welcome addition to the literature of strategic studies and naval history in general and, as such, is warmly recommended to all.      

(Return to December 2022 Table of Contents) 

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