Category Archives: Theory

Home of Mahan, Corbett, and modern naval theory.

Being There Counts: Forward Naval Presence and a Theory of Influence

By Captain R. Robinson (Robby) Harris, USN (ret.)

Introduction

In his November 1997 Proceedings article, Admiral Jay Johnson, the Chief of Naval Operations, reflected on the landmark white papers …From the Sea, Forward…From the Sea, and the Navy Operating Concept and opined, “…the purpose of the United States Navy is to influence, directly and decisively, events ashore…from the sea, anywhere, and anytime.”1 Scratch nearly any thoughtful naval officer and one finds an intuitive belief that naval forces, particularly forward present naval forces, possess the capability to affect events ashore, indeed even to deter actions by other nations. But how does the ability to influence events ashore really work? What is the theoretical underpinning? Such questions normally leave us mumbling platitudes and surveying the dust on our shoes. This paper is intended to begin to build a theoretical understanding of influence, particularly how forward present naval forces influence events and actors ashore.

Why a Theory of Influence

Before considering “how” forward present naval forces support and foster U.S. influence, first, let us briefly consider why a theory of influence is necessary in the first place. Who needs it? 

First, a theory helps us understand patterns of behavior. It helps us explain why events occurred in the past in a particular way, and a theory also serves as an aid in predicting future events. This does not mean that a theory will enable us to predict with perfect clairvoyance events of the future. What theory can do, however, is to allow us to “…trace the different tendencies which are inherent in the situation and to point out the different conditions which make it more likely for one tendency to prevail than for another, and, finally, assess the probabilities for the different conditions and tendencies to prevail in actuality.”2 The role of theory, then, is not just to account for the past or to explain the present but to provide a preview of what is to come. A theory of influence may be beneficial in helping us understand how nations have influenced each other in the past and to predict how influence may be accomplished in the future. Lastly, understanding how nations influence each other may help us deal with the issue of forward naval presence and how carrier strike groups and amphibious ready groups affect influence.

A Definition of Influence

In the foreign policy arena, influence is an index of state power. Regarding power, it is often said that power is to foreign policy experts and practitioners what money is to economists: the medium via which transactions between states are measured and observed.3 Power, however, is a useful concept only in its relative sense. That is, absolute measures of military strength, gross domestic product, technological advancement, and others are helpful, but provide an incomplete gauge of power. Power cannot be adequately assessed until it is employed, and it is employed by nations engaged in the process of attempting to influence each other. Until one state attempts to influence another, we have no useful measure of power. Accordingly, the following definition is offered: influence is the ability of one state to secure a decision and/or an action or inaction by another state consistent with the former’s desires.4

Characteristics of Influence

Although not all inclusive, there are some important characteristics of influence.

All influence attempts are future-oriented. It is impossible to influence the past. Nor is it possible to influence the present unless a decision was made in the past to do so. Accordingly, all influence attempts are made to affect the anticipated future behavior of another state.

Influence does not necessarily imply a modification of another state’s behavior. There are situations in which one state (the influencee) is currently behaving and/or is predicted to behave as desired by another state (the influencer), but in which the influencer nevertheless attempts to increase the probability of continued favorable behavior. This type of influence activity on the part of the influencer is called reinforcement.5

Inter-nation influence is not dyadic in nature. For analytical or planning purposes, it is convenient to think only of the reciprocal influence of one pair of nations on each other, but clearly the international system is not a dyad. Many nations simultaneously influence many others, either directly or indirectly, intentionally or unintentionally. Intentional or deliberate influence is called direct influence.6 Not only is the system characterized by reciprocity, but by multiple reciprocity.

Purposes of Influence

Having defined influence and reviewed some salient characteristics, let us now consider the purposes for which influence is used. Remembering that all influence is future-oriented, the following proposition is offered: Nations attempt to influence other nations for one of two purposes7 including to modify the anticipated behavior of another nation, and/or to assure or increase the probability of the anticipated behavior of another nation.

One normally thinks of attempts to influence behavior within the context of behavioral modification. That is, one nation predicts that the behavior of another nation will be unfavorable and via various means and with various tools attempts to influence the nation in question to modify the anticipated unfavorable behavior. But as posited above, nations also attempt to influence other nations to assure or to increase the probability that the nation in question will continue to behave favorably.

Influence Objectives

Let us now examine the objectives for which states attempt to modify or maintain/assure the behavior of other states. The following proposition is offered: the objectives for which states attempt to modify or to maintain the behavior of other states are based on the acceptability of the influencee’s predicted behavior. If the predicted behavior is favorable, the influencer will use means to promote or to reinforce the predicted behavior. On the other hand, if the predicted behavior is unfavorable, the influencer’s objective will be to employ means to deter or to compel the other nation. This taxonomy is presented in Table One.

If a nation predicts that another nation will behave favorably, clearly there would be no reason to attempt to modify that behavior. Similarly, if a nation predicts that another nation will behave unfavorably, there would be no reason to attempt to assure that behavior. On the other hand, if another nation’s predicted behavior is unfavorable, the influencer may elect to attempt to modify that behavior by attempting to deter the subject nation from taking a predicted unfavorable course of action. It should be noted that deterrence assumes that the influencee has not yet taken the unfavorable course of action. Compellence, conversely, assumes that the influencee has already taken an unfavorable course of action and must be influenced to rescind or withdraw from its unfavorable action.

If nations could predict with complete accuracy the behavior of other nations, efforts to promote or reinforce predicted favorable behavior would not be necessary. Because of the complexity of the international system and the poverty of intellectual disciplines involved, however, such predictability is not feasible. Accordingly, states attempt to increase the probability of anticipated favorable behavior by promoting behavior which is seen to be proceeding in a favorable direction and attempt to reinforce established favorable behavior.

Some examples of influence efforts to deter, compel, reinforce, and promote may be helpful:

  • Deterrence. The role of U.S. and Allied forces in Europe from 1945-1991 was to deter an attack by Soviet/Warsaw Pact forces. Similarly, Sixth Fleet forces in the Mediterranean were present to deter an attack on NATO’s southern flank.
  • Compellence. As Desert Shield/Storm coalition forces were mustered in Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf from August 1990 through January 1991, threats were made to Saddam Hussein to compel him to withdraw from Kuwait. Because these threats (attempts to influence) were unsuccessful, actual use of force (armed conflict) was required to compel withdrawal.
  • Reinforcement. Among other objectives, the presence of U.S. forces in western Europe in the post-Cold War era also serves principally to reassure European allies of continued U.S. interest in European matters and reinforces current European policies favorable to the U.S. The Navy and Marine Corps conduct manifold exercises every year with friends and allies around the world to reinforce positive relations.
  • Promotion. In addition to stemming the flow of illegal drugs into the U.S., U.S. engagement in Latin America today serves to promote the evolving change to democratic governments and market driven economies. The presence of the U.S. Seventh Fleet in the Western Pacific promotes and reinforces peaceful relations among the nations of Northeastern and Southeastern Asia.

Techniques of Influence

Relations between nations range from complete consensus on almost all issues (U.S.-U.K.) to total discord on nearly all issues (U.S.-Iran). The amount and type of influence required for the influencer to achieve desired behavior on the part of the influencee varies with the nature of the relationship between two nations and their level of shared interests.

For example, when dealing with the U.K., in many if not most instances, very little if any influence is required for the U.S. to achieve its desires. This is because of the high level of shared interests between the two English-speaking nations. The situation between the U.S. and U.K. is rather like a family situation when a brother approaches his sister to enlist her support in making arrangements to obtain medical care for an ill parent. Because both siblings share a common interest in the health and well-being of the parent, normally no influence is required by the brother to gain the sister’s cooperation – a simple request may be sufficient.

On the other hand, since the 1979 revolution, the U.S. and Iran have shared so few common interests that extraordinary leverage has been required for the U.S. to achieve its desires vis-a-vis Iran and vice versa. These have ranged from crippling economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation to the use of force against Iranian military assets during the Tanker Wars of the 1980s.

Most relations between nations lie somewhere between the U.S.-U.K. and the U.S.-Iran extremes. On those occasions when influence is required, two broad categories of techniques are available to the influencer.

Techniques of Influence

A threat is a communication to the influencee by the influencer that unless the influencee complies with the influencer’s desires, the influencer will act to punish the influencee. A promise is a communication to the influencee by the influencer that if the influencee complies with the influencer’s desires, the influencer will act to reward the influencee. Although not necessarily always the case, in most instances threats are used to deter and to compel and promises are used to reinforce and promote.

Tools of Influence

With respect to the tools of influence, states may use diplomatic, economic, military, and informational tools to punish and to reward targets of influence.

Military tools of influence may be used to achieve military goals as well as political and economic objectives. Similarly, political and economic tools may sometimes be useful in gaining military objectives. For example, a trade embargo or conversely promising most favored nation trade status could be effective in deterring a nation from the sale of weapons of mass destruction. However, as relations between nations worsen, as they share fewer common interests, objectives can become more militarily dominated and defined, thereby causing the effectiveness of military tools of influence to increase.

Consider, for example, ensuring Iran compliance with UN sanctions. Although diplomatic demarches (political tool) and trade sanctions (economic tool) had been employed as threats to influence Iranian behavior, arguably the most effective tool to condition Iran’s actions is the presence of military forces (military tool) on the ground in allied states and naval forces on station in the Arabian Gulf and Red Sea. Moreover, because the predominant concern of U.S. allies and friends in Middle East is one of military security (against an assertive Iran) military tools take on disproportionate influence for the U.S. in region.

The Effectiveness of Influence

Having derived a definition of influence, examined its characteristics, the purposes and objectives for which it is used, the techniques employed to achieve it, and the effect of shared interests on the requirements for the use of those techniques, let us now consider what makes influence effective.

Here we must examine the influencee’s decision calculus, and how the influencee weighs a range of outcomes of an influence situation. Two dimensions come into play: utility and probability.8 The degree to which the influencee likes or dislikes the prospect is called utility or disutility. The likelihood that the influencee assigns to the outcomes ever occurring is called probability. The influencee’s combined assessments of these two dimensions determines expectations and thus the influencee’s response to the influence attempt.

 Each nation has, either explicitly or implicitly, a continuum from good to bad along which it assesses outcomes of an influence attempt. The continuum is based on values systems and although values systems certainly are not uniform from nation to nation, there is some degree of similarity. Outcomes which tend to restrict a nation’s freedom of action are normally placed low on the utility scale (or high on the disutility scale). Conversely, outcomes which do not restrict freedom of action are placed high on the utility scale (low disutility score).

Nations do not, however, make decisions based solely on the attractiveness or unattractiveness of various potential outcomes. Nations also compare outcomes not only in terms of desirability, but also in terms of estimated likelihood. While some nations are more risk-prone than others, most nations are fairly conservative in foreign policy. They seldom commit resources and prestige to the pursuit of an outcome which seems improbable, regardless of how attractive the outcome may be.

Despite idiosyncrasies along one or the other dimension (utility/probability), nations combine both sets of considerations in responding to an influence attempt. The decision of how to respond to an influence attempt is the result of a utility and probability calculation.

Thus, for an influence attempt to be successful, the influencer must address something that the influencee considers valuable (high utility) and the influencer must persuade the influencee that the influencer will take action as threatened or promised (i.e., the influencer must be perceived as credible). Thus, the utility-probability calculus determines influencee response both to threats (deterrence/compellence) and promises (reinforcement/promotion).

Recent studies suggest that there is another important dimension to credibility, one not based solely on military capability or political will to use military force, but the speed with which military power (influence) can be employed.9 That is, the influencee’s knowledge that the influencer possesses the capability to act without delay seems to be a key component in the influencee’s decision calculus. This, of course, bolsters and helps to explain the argument advanced by the Navy and Marine Corps regarding the special “shaping” (influencing) role of forward present Navy and Marine Corps forces. Their nearly constant presence in the Mediterranean, Indian Ocean/Arabian Gulf, and western Pacific is a visible reminder to friend and foe alike of U. S. intent, capability, and perhaps more importantly, the ability to act swiftly.

Conclusion

So, what does all this discussion of a theory of influence add up to? Hopefully, it will help naval officers better understand what we tend to understand intuitively already: forward present naval forces play a special role in influencing (shaping) other nations.

These forces are able to fulfill both purposes of influence: Assure the continuation of anticipated positive behavior and modify anticipated negative behavior. They are able to achieve both objectives of influence: Promote/reinforce positive behavior, and deter anticipated negative behavior/compel reversal of negative faits accompli. They are able to convey both techniques of influence: promises of rewards for positive behavior and threats of punishment for negative behavior. They are able to affect the influencee’s decision calculus of utility and probability. Their diversity and breadth (from F-35s and F/A-18s, from LRASMs to Tomahawks, and to a Marine rifle company squad) and reach (to a thousand miles) permits them to reach out and touch something that matters (high utility) and their combat readiness gives them high credibility/probability of successful employment.

Being there counts. The ability to act without delay during the early days of a crisis or a potential crisis affects the influencee’s initial decision calculus in a special way. It precludes an opponent an early and easy fait accompli. It forces a rational opponent (influencee) to carefully evaluate carefully their courses of action. It tends to preclude impulsive behavior. It forces the influencee to conduct a utility/probability calculation. It buys us time to augment U. S. forces, if necessary. It gives us timely influence. And, at the end of the day, if the influence attempt is not timely, it is far less effective. Here in their forward presence lies the unique influence advantage of naval forces.

Captain Harris commanded USS Conolly (DD-979) and Destroyer Squadron 32. Ashore he served as Executive Director of the CNO Executive Panel. He was a CNO Fellow in CNO Strategic Studies Group XII. It was during his stint as a CNO SSG Fellow that this article was first begun. Captain Harris is indebted to Mr. Dmitry Filipoff for his efforts in updating the draft, sharping the arguments, and greatly improving the readability.

References

1. Proceedings, U. S. Naval Institute, Annapolis, Maryland, November, 1997.

2. Hans J. Morgenthau, Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace (New York, Knopf, 1948), pp. 6-7.

3. This discussion of power is drawn from J. David Singer, “Inter-Nation Influence: A Formal Model,” American Political Science Review, 17, 1963.

4. This papers examines the use of forward presence as an instrument of US influence and, therefore, focuses on those actions taken prior to the actual use of force, i.e., armed conflict.

5. The term “reinforcement” is taken from Singer, Ibid.

6. Intentional or deliberate influence is called DIRECT influence. Unintentional influence is here labeled INDIRECT influence.

7. See Barry Blechman and Stephen Kaplan, Force Without War, Brookings, 1978, pp. 70-78.

8. The utility-probability concept is drawn from Singer, op. cit., pp. 424-426.

9. See, for example, Dr. Edward Rhodes, “Conventional Deterrence: Reivew of Empirical Literature unpublished paper for the Department of the Navy (N3/5) 1997.

Featured Image: Off the coast of Hawaii on 20 June 2000, the Abraham Lincoln Battle Group steams alongside one another for a Battle Group Photo during RIMPAC 2000. Ships involved are Tucson (SSN-770) & Cheyenne (SSN-773), Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72), Shiloh (CG-67), Bunker Hill (CG-52), Fletcher (DD-992), Paul Hamilton (DDG-60), Cromlin (FFG-37) and Camden (AOE-2). (USN photo by PH2 Gabriel Wilson)

Eight Good Questions Strategic Thinkers Should Ask

This article originally featured on The Bridge and is republished with permission. Read it in its original form here.

By Aaron Bazin

Strategic thinking can happen almostb anywhere: in a conference room, a university lecture hall, or in the dark basement of a military headquarters. If you think about it, really anyone can do it, from a president to an Army private, from a subject matter expert to an armchair general. Although anyone can do it at any time and in any place, doing it well is neither easy nor is it commonplace.

A variety of research projects have sought to uncover what it means to think strategically in the military context. In general, strategic thinkers act primarily in one of four roles: leader, advisor, practitioner, or planner. To function effectively in these roles require the skills of information gathering, learning, critical thinking, creative thinking, thinking in time, and systems thinking. Building upon these ideas, the purpose of this article is to explore some of the timeless questions that strategic thinkers can ask to help themselves and others think clearly about issues of strategic significance.

WHAT ARE THE FACTS, ASSUMPTIONS, AND LIMITATIONS?

"My belief is we will, in fact, be greeted as liberators." Vice President Dick Cheney on Meet The Press. (NBC)
“My belief is we will, in fact, be greeted as liberators.” Vice President Dick Cheney on Meet The Press. (NBC)

This question is so basic it is often forgotten or glossed over, but asking it is absolutely essential. In a strategic context, there are a tremendous number of facts to consider. The key is to identify the ones that really matter the most without going too far and reaching the point of paralysis by analysis. As for assumptions, if never surfaced and debated they represent a sizable gap in one’s logic. Many failures at the strategic level are due to people insufficiently discussing assumptions, or worse, dismissing them outright. One recent example that highlights the importance of good assumptions is when decision makers assumed that the troops that invaded Iraq in 2003 would be “greeted as liberators.”

While strategic thinkers always should try to think in an unconstrained manner, there always exist some physical, logistical, moral, or financial limits to what is possible. Failure to understand the parameters and limits of a strategic approach has led to many military overextensions throughout history (e.g., Napoleon in Russia, Soviet Union in Afghanistan, etc.). Much like the enemy, the real world always gets a vote. Understanding the limiting factors and developing a common understanding of the problem are supporting activities, which leads to the next question.

WHAT IS THE STRATEGIC PROBLEM AND DOES IT PRESENT ANY OPPORTUNITIES?

Uncovering a problem statement is also essential, but often overlooked. Many strategic thinkers immediately dive in and start describing what must be done. In a fast-paced environment, it can be very tempting to do this, but it should be avoided. Fundamentally, if you do not pause and take the time to identify the problem you are trying to solve, how can you ever hope to solve it?

One of the easiest and most effective ways to develop a problem statement is to spot the gap between the current conditions and the desired conditions (the “want-got” gap). What is almost magical about developing a problem statement is that if you get it about right, the answer should begin to reveal itself, even in the most difficult of situations. Of course, most strategic problems are complex or wicked and change over time. Therefore, it is important for the strategic thinker to not only ask this question early, but also ask it again and again as the strategic problem unfolds.

By their nature, military thinkers often tend to think about negative, worse–case scenarios and outcomes. To take a more optimistic approach, one may find it valuable to look for opportunities as well as problems. The idea here is this: if one can seize small opportunities over time, this can build irreversible momentum and eventually bring about positive change. Overall, this question helps focus time, effort, and resources in a coherent, positive, singular direction.

WHAT ENDURING INTERESTS ARE AT PLAY?

Many strategic thinkers seek to implement parrot the latest policy position they heard without fully thinking about the inherent interests at play. Some argue that interests such as prosperity, values, security, and legitimacy, will always be important despite which direction the political winds are blowing. The strategic thinker should try to understand how the political intent is tied to the enduring interests that will remain long after a political position has changed. This question helps one put the problem in context and reflect upon the deeper strategic meaning behind the problem and its possible solutions.

IN THE PAST, WHICH STRATEGIES WORKED, WHICH DIDN’T, AND WHY?

The lessons of the past are always there to school the strategic thinker if they are willing to listen. Of course, events will rarely unfold exactly the same way twice, but there are often important echoes from the past to be heard in the present. This question suggests that strategists would be well served by looking for practical advice from history and tying those lessons to prudent courses of action in the present. Neustadt and May’s Thinking in Time describes even more questions that help the strategic thinker make the most effective use of history. The benefits of this question are that it helps one reflect upon the past and generate possible options on what can be done today.

WHAT ARE THE OPTIONS (AND WHICH ONE IS THE LEAST WORST)?

In the past, policy makers may have been satisfied with being presented between one and three courses of action. Today, many policy makers demand strategic advice as a menu of options, where they can pick and choose what to implement and when to implement it. In these cases, the strategic thinker has to think divergently and come up with as many options as possible. As strategic problems rarely have solely military solutions, strategic thinkers should have the ability to develop options that include elements of national power beyond just the “M” in the Diplomatic, Informational, Military, and Economic (DIME) model. Of course, with wicked problems, there are often no good options, just a series of progressively bad ones.

HOW DOES THIS ALL END?

It is easy for a strategic thinker to become so engrossed with the minutiae of the problem that they can lose sight of their goal. Perhaps, at times, the goal shifts and the previously agreed upon destination is now a fool’s errand. That is why this question is so important. The strategic thinker must have the ability to take a break from the crisis of the day and take the long view. Because there is often so much uncertainty surrounding strategic problems, reflecting on the end state is often difficult. However, if you do not know where you really want to go, any road will take you there.

IS THIS WORKING?

When a policy is approved or a plan is signed, the thoughts captured on the document are frozen in time and begin their rapid descent into irrelevancy. This is a natural progression where a key concept’s idea is game-changing today, much less so in six-months, and barely remembered a year later. The key here for the strategic thinker is to not rest too much and remain in a state of continual assessment and advocate appropriate change as events unfold. As strategic problems are usually both quantitative and qualitative in nature, keeping an open mind to all types and sources of information is prudent.

WHAT’S NEXT?

Even the best strategic ideas are subject to failure if the follow through is lackluster, therefore, it is important to always ask what happens next. Every strategic choice comes with some degree of risk. These risks should be understood and, if possible, mitigated. In addition, with complex problems many issues remain unseen, and there is always the possibility of unintended consequences. Many strategic shortcomings are the result of taking prudent action in the present that results in future blowback that was unforeseen at the time.  An excellent example is the lack of U.S. follow through in Afghanistan following the withdrawal of the Soviet Union, popularized in the movie, Charlie Wilson’s War.

CONCLUSION

The level of responsibility placed on the shoulders of a strategic thinker can be daunting. The ability to think clearly is difficult in situations where time is of the essence, lives are on the line, or billions of dollars are on the table. It is precisely because of the high-stakes that good strategic thinkers need to ask good questions to uncover good answers. Of course, there are many questions that strategic thinkers should ask and this list is simply one starting point. In the end, the quality of one’s strategic thought will be directly proportional to the time and effort they put into the endeavor, no more and no less.

 Aaron Bazin is career Army officer with over 20 years of leadership and experience at the combatant command level, NATO, and the institutional Army.  Aaron was the lead-planner for four numbered contingency plans between 2009 and 2012, and has operational experience in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Bahrain, and UAE. He is the author of the new book, Think: Tools to Build Your Mind. The views expressed in this article are the authors and do not represent the views of the U.S. Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

Featured Image: A reporter raises his hand to ask a question as US Army Gen. Ray Odierno, Commander of US Forces-Iraq, delivers an operational update on the state of affairs in Iraq during a press briefing at the Pentagon, 4 June 2010. (Cherie Cullen/DoD Photo)

CALL FOR ARTICLES: Movie Re-Fights (Dec 14-20)

As Star Wars: The Force Awakens approaches, people are already arguing over what the nature of the new Empire, or how the Rebellion has evolved. Many are debating the nuance of how these fictional sides even fight their wars to begin with, a question that remains delightfully open ended for most fictional war movies. So, we decided to use opening week as an excuse to throw down the gauntlet!

For any film – Star Wars, Star Trek, Avatar, Aliens, Independence Day, Top Gun, Rambo II-IV, Battleship, Tears of the Sun, the Great Escape, Failsafe, Master & Commander  – we are looking for articles answering the time-old cinema debate: How would you have done things differently, and why? How would you have fought the battles, the firefights, executed the operations, or set your rules of engagement? How would you have negotiated the treaties or… betrayed them? Maybe you wouldn’t have done anything differently – which is another fine argument to make. Perhaps, like the insanely plausible idea that Jar-Jar is a sith lord, you have a conspiracy theory to share… no worries, we’re not picky.

There was a recent article that suggested Star Wars could “prove” an operational concept couldn’t work, but movies can’t “prove” anything. We can, however, use them as a proxy by wish to discuss our ideas on strategy, politics, and military operations.

Week Dates: 14-20 Dec 15
Articles Due: 6 Dec 15
Article Length: 500-1500 Words
Submit to: nextwar(at)cimsec(dot)org

God and The Great Naval Theorist

 

God and Seapower

God and Seapower: The Influence of Religion on Alfred Thayer Mahan by Suzanne Geissler.  USNI Press, October 15, 2015. 280pp. $39.95.

For many of us, Alfred Thayer Mahan is certainly no stranger. His theories and writings have been talked about and analyzed for years.  They have been savored by everyone from the President of the United States, the lowly Naval War College graduate, and many others around the world.  Thus, it is always refreshing to read something new and interesting about this well-known and often talked about historical figure. Suzanne Geissler has done just that.  Professor Geissler has delivered some fresh insights and probably stirred some debate with her new book, God and Seapower.  The book is a fascinating look into Mahan’s life by focusing on his religious beliefs. At 280 pages this book is a nice size; something that can be read in a week and yet she still manages to cover ATM’s life, from childhood to wise naval theorist, quite nicely.  Recently I had the opportunity to interview Professor Geissler about her new book.  What follows is the transcript of our interview which was conducted over e-mail.

Why Mahan and Religion?  Why did you want to write this book?

My specialty is American religious history, but I have always been interested in military and naval history, more as a hobby than a professional specialization.  Many years ago – I don’t remember why or in what context – I read that Mahan was an Episcopalian.  I’m an Episcopalian, too, so I just filed that away as an interesting factoid, but didn’t think much more about it.  Then some years later I read Robert Seager II’s biography of Mahan and came away disappointed in the book, but intrigued further about Mahan’s religious involvement.  I did a little digging and discovered that he wrote extensively about religion and church issues.  There was tons of stuff out there that no one had ever looked at in a serious way.  I thought there had to be a significant story here.

The book, in part, is a counter argument to one of Mahan’s most well-known biographers, Robert Seager II.  Readers will quickly realize that you disagree with many of Seager’s opinions.  Who was Seager and why do you disagree with him so strongly?

Seager was a former merchant mariner who had become an academic historian.  A few years prior to his biography coming out he, along with Doris Maguire, had co-edited Mahan’s papers.  He used that as the raw material for his biography of him.  The problem with the book, as I think is readily apparent after only reading a few pages, is that Seager thoroughly disliked Mahan.  Now I’m not saying that a biographer has to like his subject, but there needs to be at least an attempt to be fair and look at the sources in an impartial manner.  But Seager so disliked Mahan – as though he knew him personally and couldn’t stand the guy – that it colored the entire book.  Everything Mahan did throughout his whole life, from the trivial to the monumental, is presented in the worst possible light.  Also, the whole book is written in a sarcastic tone – what today we would call snarky – that becomes really tiresome after a while.  My biggest beef with Seager is that he loathes – and I don’t think that’s too strong a word – Mahan’s religious devotion and piety and thinks it is the root of all that makes Mahan so – and these are Seager’s words – arrogant, egotistical, racist, to name a few.  Seager is entitled to his own opinion, of course, but the more I got into the sources, Mahan’s own letters and writings, the more I saw that Seager had no interest in being fair or even attempting to understand Mahan in the context of his own time.  My other complaint about Seager is that on numerous occasions he either disregarded what a source clearly said or twisted it out of context in order to present Mahan in a bad light.

On what points do you agree with Seager on Mahan?

The only thing I agree with Seager on is his statement that Mahan wrote the most influential book by an American in the nineteenth century.

You mention Mahan’s father and uncle were two of the biggest religious influences in his life.  How so?

Mahan’s father, Dennis Hart Mahan, was a former Army officer and professor of engineering at West Point for almost fifty years.  He was a monumental figure at West Point and in the Army officer corps.  In those days the field of military engineering included strategy, tactics, and military history.  So Alfred had a role model of exceptional brilliance whom Army officers – including people such as Grant and Sherman – held in awe.  Alfred got his introduction to military history through his father.  But Dennis was also a devout Christian and Episcopalian who modeled those attributes to his son.  Dennis epitomized the 19th– century ideal of a “Christian gentleman” but in a way that was genuine, not superficial.  Milo Mahan, Dennis’s younger half-brother, was an Episcopal priest and professor of church history at General Theological Seminary, the Episcopal seminary in New York City.  Alfred lived with him for two years (when Alfred was fourteen – fifteen and attending Columbia University), a period which imbued him with Milo’s High Church piety.  For the next fourteen years or so, Milo was Alfred’s main theological mentor.  They had an extensive correspondence and Milo provided Alfred with reading lists of theological works which Alfred read on long sea voyages.  As Alfred told his fiancée, Milo was the man he went to with any biblical or theological questions.  All that reading, under Milo’s guidance, in effect gave Alfred the equivalent of a seminary education. 

Mahan’s father, I didn’t realize, was well-known in political and military circles in the 19th century.  When did Mahan step out of his father’s shadow?

One of my favorite anecdotes occurs in the waning days of the Civil War.  Alfred is on Admiral Dahlgren’s staff stationed off Savannah when the victorious General William Tecumseh Sherman arrives in the city.  Alfred goes ashore to see Sherman bearing a congratulatory telegram from his father.  Sherman greets him by saying “What, the son of old Dennis?”  Certainly, for more than half of his active duty career Alfred was best known for being Dennis’s son.  He doesn’t really emerge from his father’s shadow until the publication of his first book The Gulf and Inland Waters in 1883 when he’s forty-three.  This book leads to his appointment at the Naval War College which in turn leads to the publication of his lectures as The Influence of Sea Power Upon History. 

Mahan loved his dog, Jomini. And as you quote, Mahan believed his dog would go to heaven when he died.  Was this belief, that  a dog’s soul goes to heaven, abnormal for an Episcopalian at this time?  

Mahan never expounds on the reasons that he believes his dogs, Jomini and Rovie, went to heaven, so I have to extrapolate based on what I know about this issue and Mahan’s own beliefs. 

Alfred Thayer Mahan's dog, Jomini. Courtesy of USNI Press.
Alfred Thayer Mahan’s dog, Jomini. Courtesy of USNI Press.

As I understand it, the Roman Catholic Church teaches that animals don’t go to heaven because they don’t have souls.  Most Protestants, though, considered the “soul” issue irrelevant and based their view – that we will see our beloved pets in heaven – on the fact that animals clearly are part of creation and God has promised that all creation will be redeemed (Romans 8:21).  Mahan knew his Bible thoroughly so I’m willing to bet that he would have based his view on this scripture rather than abstract speculation on whether animals have souls or not.

One of your more, shall we say, contentious statements, is that Mahan’s  The Influence of Sea Power Upon History was inspired by God.  Could you expand on this?  

Well, I don’t claim that, but Mahan certainly did.  In his autobiography, From Sail to Steam, he made reference to his “special call” to be a naval historian, or, more specifically, to be the expositor of the importance of sea power on the course of history.  He never claimed that he discovered the concept.  He was always generous in crediting previous historians whose thought influenced his.  But he claimed that “in the fullness of time” – a biblical expression — the call was given to him to be the one who explained it and drew the correct implications from it.

What did Mahan think of Catholics?  Other Christians?  Other religions?

I’m simplifying a lot here, but, basically, Mahan had a kind of layered view of religious categories.  Christianity was better than other, i.e. non-Christian, religions (though Judaism was in a special category as Christianity’s older brother, so to speak).  Within Christianity, Protestantism was best, and within Protestantism, Anglicanism was best.  Having said that, I should point out that the groupings within Christianity related mainly to polity (types of church governance), liturgy (forms of worship), and history.  Mahan clearly had his preferences, but he never claimed that, for example, there was only one true church.  For him the most important thing was to be a Christian.  If you loved Jesus and accepted him as Lord and Savior, it did not matter what denomination you belonged to.  In a similar vein, Mahan once stated that he would cooperate with any Christian group in evangelistic or missions work as long as such a group did not include Unitarians.  He did not consider them Christians since they did not recognize the divinity of Jesus.  One of the things that makes Mahan so fascinating to me is that he’s not easily pigeon-holed into conventional religious categories.  On the one hand he’s very much a High Church Episcopalian, but he’s also very much a born-again evangelical. 

Was Mahan able to separate his writing?  That is, did he keep naval theory separate from his religious writing?  It seems like he was able to live in two different worlds on the page, yet his religious life infused everything he did.

Mahan was actually quite sophisticated in his historical methodology.  He understood that history and theology were two different fields, each with its own ways of interpreting events.  As a Christian he believed that God was the sovereign creator and ruler of the universe and God’s decrees always came to pass.  However, he understood that God operated through what theologians called “secondary causes,” that is the choices made by human beings and their resultant actions.  A historian deals with secondary causes.  It was extremely rare for Mahan to speculate on God’s purposes in his naval history writings. 

US Naval Academy Chapel circa 1850s. Courtesy of USNI Press.
US Naval Academy Chapel circa 1850s. Courtesy of USNI Press.

For those readers that wish to read a book on Mahan after they read your book, what do you recommend? 

I recommend Jon T. Sumida’s Inventing Grand Strategy and Teaching Command: The Classic Works of Alfred Thayer Mahan Reconsidered.  This is a fascinating book full of original insights on Mahan. 

Are there other historians working today that do not have a theology background, yet pay serious consideration to their subject’s religious belief?  Specifically, military biographies?

This is difficult for me to answer since I don’t really know who is working on what topics, especially in military biography.  But the two naval historians who were most helpful and encouraging to me when I undertook this project, Jon Sumida and John Hattendorf, are both very interested in religion and the role it plays in people’s lives.  And they both have a positive view of it rather than a negative one.  Hattendorf, particularly, is very knowledgeable about the Episcopal Church.  In his editing of the writings of Admiral Stephen B. Luce he does incorporate a discussion of Luce’s piety. 

Why do you think religion so often takes a back seat when we discuss historical figures — past or present? Or does it?

As I mentioned, my field is religious history, so for most of the people I read and study about, by definition, religion is important.  However, you’re right, in other historical sub-fields religion is usually ignored or misunderstood.  For example, Martin Luther King, Jr. comes to mind.  Even in a case such as that, where you would think the religious angle would be obvious – his being a clergyman and pastor — there are some writers who have downplayed that and made his story one of “social justice” and politics, completely ignoring the biblical roots of his thought, not to mention his dramatic conversion experience.  I don’t like to generalize about historians, but in order to answer your question, I’ll do it anyway!  Most present day historians are either indifferent or hostile to religion, especially the notion of an individual having a personal encounter with God, or believing that God has called that person to a specific task in life.  Some writers see this sort of thing as just an eccentricity, not necessarily bad, but of no real significance.  Others take a more negative view and see religious faith as a personality defect that could have pernicious consequences.  One thinks of all the historians who have blamed the defects of the Versailles Treaty on Woodrow Wilson’s Presbyterian piety. 

Suzanne Geissler received her Ph.D. in history from Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs.  She also holds a Master of Theological Studies degree in church history from Drew University.  She is professor of history at William Paterson University in Wayne, NJ.  Her previous books include Jonathan Edwards to Aaron Burr Jr., Lutheranism and Anglicanism in Colonial New Jersey, and “A Widening Sphere of Usefulness”: Newark Academy 1774-1993.

Lieutenant Commander Christopher Nelson is a US naval intelligence officer and recent graduate of the US Naval War College and the Maritime Advanced Warfighting School in Newport, Rhode Island.  The opinions above do not necessarily reflect those of the US Department of Defense or the US Navy.