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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.

Capability and Intent in Developing Strategy

Robert Haddick argues early in his Fire on the Water that:

This book will make the case that with respect to China, U.S. policymakers will be wise to focus on China’s projected military capabilities and waste little effort attempting to discern the current or future intentions of China’s leaders. The reason is straightforward: intentions, and thus a country’s national security policies, can change suddenly. What matters for a leader’s calculations is whether the adversary has the instruments, including military capacity, to implement a revised policy. (p. 8)

This seems a reasonable proposition that simplifies the difficult problem of developing strategy. Intentions are fickle and subject to sudden change. Capabilities, by contrast, are relatively stable. They are the combined hardware, personnel, and doctrine that make up military forces. They have a substance to them which is countable and relatively certain. Defense analysts can be fairly certain that tanks will not suddenly transform into submarines. This stability makes it attractive to prioritize analyzing an opponent’s capabilities over identifying and analyzing their intent. It also tends towards the strategic shorthand of treating capability as intent. Unfortunately, ignoring intent or equating it with capability leads to flawed analysis for three reasons.

The first is that ignoring intent denies an opponent’s agency. War is a competitive endeavor between at least two opposing parties. If we are developing a strategy to achieve our goals it is because there is an opponent who would see our goals go unrealized. Our opponent can and will act in order to prevent us achieving our objectives. Our opponent will also act to achieve their own objectives, which are either diametrically opposed to ours, of a different nature, or somewhere in between. Ignoring intent is to argue that our opponent’s objectives are irrelevant to their behavior and that our opponent is simply an object to be acted upon. This never has and never will be the case in international relations. Opponents have the agency to act according to their own strategies in order to achieve their own objectives. To be clear, ignoring intent is not the same as saying an opponent’s intentions are difficult or impossible to comprehend. It is often difficult to identify an adversary’s true objectives, but it is always possible to propose a certain set of opponent intentions and assign a probability to each. It is also possible to discard a certain number of possible opponent goals, no matter how achievable. This thought experiment has the benefit of at least attempting to understand where our opponent is most likely to devote their finite resources and how they may develop their own strategy. Acknowledging an opponent’s agency ensures that we appreciate the inherently interactive nature of strategy as we seek to develop our own.

The second reason is that ignoring adversary intent prevents us from prioritizing our own limited resources. Looking at every enemy capability and asking how it will affect our strategy opens up a near infinite set of effects that must be considered and then countered if not moderated by a theory of most-likely adversary intentions. Take the following small example. Say Country A builds a squadron of advanced multi-role fighter aircraft capable of air defense, ground attack, and strike missions. Country B, a potential opponent, sees this and, ignoring Country A’s motives, determines these aircraft pose a threat to its own air, ground, and naval forces. It therefore develops countermeasures for its forces across all three domains, spending its resources to defeat Country A’s capability. Reasonable, no? But what if Country A had no intention of using these aircraft for the strike or ground attack roles? Country B wasted valuable, limited resources developing defenses against these capabilities. Or suppose Country A truly developed its military to defend against Country C. Country B’s resources were entirely wasted. A final case to consider is if Country B invested resources to build a military that never had any hope of matching Country A. In this case, assume that even if Country B devoted 100% of its gross domestic product to defense, Country A would still overmatch B’s military capabilities. Country B’s defense expenditure could be a total loss if the goal was to deter Country A. These are extremely simple examples, but history is rife with cases of wasted military expenditure designed to counter the wrong enemy or to deter the undeterrable. Focusing only on capabilities, the tendency is to expand threat horizons through well intentioned, but nearly infinite, what-ifs. These what-ifs demand answers, and answers cost money, time, and energy, all of which are limited. Again, strategy is interactive and we cannot consider opponent actions in a vacuum of their intentions.

The third reason is that even supposedly dispassionate capability analysis is subject to cognitive biases. The objects that define capabilities may be concrete, but that does not mean they are of necessity a firmer foundation for analysis. Ships are famously black boxes impervious to detailed peacetime analysis. Haze gray and underway, two nation’s destroyers appear roughly the same, and admirals assume they will operate the same way. But this may simply be mirror-imaging. Perhaps, unbounded by our mental shackles, our opponent has developed some new tactic, technique, or procedure or improved weapon system that generates new possibilities for employing their ship. Ignoring to what end our opponent would use their ships, we are left open to assuming our own tactical and operational art on our opponent. A focus on the technical aspects of adversary capabilities, often necessary in the naval context, can also hamper attempts to come to deeper understandings of operational employment. Mirror-imaging is also a criticism leveled at defense analysts attempting to understand Chinese strategy. The argument in the cited article is that American analysts believe China is pursuing an A2/AD strategy because that is what the U.S. would do if it was in the same position as China and had the same capabilities as the People’s Liberation Army. Ignoring Chinese intentions is exactly the logic that results in equating PLA military capability with Chinese national strategy. Continuing to foster analysis that does not engage with Beijing’s known or likely intentions is not likely to result in better analysis. Cognitive bias is possible in analyzing capabilities and in understanding adversary strategies more widely. Ignoring adversary intentions only serves to make the problem worse by discarding half the material available for understanding an opponent’s strategy.

Ultimately, strategy is competitive. It is crafted to deal with living, breathing, thinking opponents. In order to defeat an opponent we must understand them. This requires empathy, which means intimately understanding their thought processes, fears, and ultimately their intentions. If we focus only on their capabilities we run not only the risk of misunderstanding their capabilities, but also projecting our own intentions on our opponents, leading to incorrect strategic conclusions. Analyzing military capability is difficult, and adding intent to the mix only makes it more difficult to create sound strategy. But ignoring an opponent’s intentions in developing strategy is like navigating dangerous waters using a chart without soundings.

Ian Sundstrom is a surface warfare officer in the United States Navy. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect those of the United States Department of Defense.

Clausewitz and Corbett are Now Too Much

Carl von Clausewitz

The 20th century American strategist Rear Admiral J.C. Wylie said, “I believe deeply that strategy is everyone’s business.”1 The expansion of internet-based strategic commentary, and the greater distribution of traditional sources of strategic discussion like the U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, and The Naval War College Review have certainly played a role in achieving Admiral Wylie’s desire. The works of strategic theorists such as Carl von Clausewitz, Alfred Thayer Mahan, Sir Julian Corbett, and Wylie himself are discussed on a daily basis in multiple global mediums. Many would-be strategic thinkers are happy to drop comments from all four of these experts within their writings in support of the policy they advocate. These “hipster” strategists and their overly-familiar homilies to the teachings of “Uncle Carl” and “Sir Julian” (as if these long-dead strategists were their drinking companions) often obscure the backgrounds, geopolitical world views, and national goals of these noted military theorists. The world is rapidly leaving behind the period of the U.S. “unipolar moment” (1991-2008). It is now entering a new multipolar period of great power and non-state actor activity reminiscent of the period that ended in 1945 with the defeat of the Axis powers. While the works of all four have a role to play in determining the next U.S. military strategy, the writings of Mahan and Wylie have much more currency than those of Clausewitz and Corbett.  Their focus on operational vice strategic issues is a handicap in a new age when preliminary strategic decision rather than operational art is the key. While it is evident that both Clausewitz and Corbett were masters of the strategic geography and warfare methods in their own times, their applicability in the second decade of the 21st century is problematic at best. For these reasons, the U.S. should ignore the strategic “hipsters” and their plethora of Corbett and Clausewitz quotations and instead embrace the sound combination of strategic, operational, and tactical thinking found in the works of Admirals Alfred Thayer Mahan and J.C. Wylie.

The works of Carl von Clausewitz and Sir Julian Corbett are directly influenced by their backgrounds, associations, and by the geopolitical situations of their respective nations during their lives. Clausewitz wrote On War at a time when his nation was recovering from the wreckage of Napoleonic Europe, and just beginning to compete with the Austrian Empire for domination of the Confederation of German States that emerged from the final breakdown of the Holy Roman Empire. Since the re-emergence of the nation state in the late Middles Ages, state structures have been primarily geared for the making of war for offensive and defensive purposes. Well known Ohio State University military historian Geoffrey Parker noted that in the period from 1641-1815, “hardly a decade can be found in which at least one battle did not take place.”2 The rise of the bureaucratic European state from the Renaissance forward was primarily directed toward a nation’s army, which Clausewitz described as “the center of gravity” for leaders from Alexander the Great to Frederick the Great.3 It is perhaps no wonder then that a staff officer from a land-locked garrison state organized primarily for life and death military contests against similar European monarchical elements would determine that “war is merely the continuation of policy by other means.”4 While this key phrase has been mistranslated and Clausewitz clearly desired to subordinate the military to civilian authority, his ideas on conflict are firmly rooted in the Prussian military experience.5 The geography of the book is limited to operational and tactical discussion. Geographic locations, whether the Rhine River, the fortress of Olmutz, or the forests of Russia and Poland are treated as obstacles to an army’s tactical or operational movement rather than as strategic strong points to be taken or lost. The continued existence of the armed forces of the nation as an employable tool of the monarch, rather than the possession of any one or more key geographic locations is what matters. On War was written in German and intended for the use of other Prussian Staff Officers with world views analogous to that of Clausewitz. It is very much a product of an army-centric central European world view. Prussia had a known reputation as a warlike state. Napoleon Bonaparte said, “Prussia was hatched from a cannonball” and the French aristocrat and later revolutionary the Count of Mirabeau said, “War was Prussia’s national industry.”

Sir Julian Corbett

The writings of Sir Julian Corbett are equally reflective of the general mindset of the British Empire at the high noon of its existence in the late 19th and early 20th century. The Royal Navy (RN) had not faced a peer competitor in pitched battle at sea since Trafalgar in 1805. The Naval Defence Act of 1889 brought with it the” two power standard” measure of British naval superiority where the RN would maintain a number of battleships equal or superior to the next two ranking naval powers. France and Russia struggled to match the British in quality and quantity of warship construction, but largely failed in their endeavors to create equivalent fleets. The chief threats to imperial security were not from enemy battle fleets or direct attacks on the British Isles, but rather assaults on the vital imperial lines of communication and supply. The French in fact largely eschewed battleship construction for a time and instead concentrated in the construction of large commerce-raiding cruisers. The RN saw these ships as a direct threat to the security of the Empire. Protection of the lines of communication between London and Cairo, Delhi, and on to Singapore and Sidney was vital to commercial activity and provided the British the ability to rapidly reinforce beleaguered dominions threatened by external invasion. The problem of reinforcing India against a Russian invasion through Afghanistan in particular was a source of great concern to British statesmen and military leaders from the period of the Indian Mutiny of 1857 onward to the early 20th century.

It is perhaps no wonder that the writings of Corbett, and the opinions of his most significant interlocutor, First Sea Lord Admiral Sir John Fisher, focus on protecting these imperial lines of communication rather than in the engagement of enemy battle fleets in decisive combat. Corbett defined “command of the sea” as means nothing but the control of maritime communications, whether for commercial or military purposes. The object of naval warfare is the control of communications, and not, as in land warfare, the conquest of territory.”6 Corbett seldom references geography except as loci of communications. These “naval positions” he defines as “firstly, naval bases and, secondly, the terminals of the greater lines of communication or trade-routes and the focal areas where they tend to converge, as at Finisterre, Gibraltar, Suez, the Cape, Singapore, and many others.”7 Corbett’s rather loose reference to specific locations is explained by the fact that the principle audience of his book, British naval officers who sat in his War College courses, had no need of a strategic geography course. As Clausewitz’s lectures were written to inform Prussian military officers, so Corbett’s concepts of operational warfare were designed to be employed by the Royal Navy in defense of the far flung British Empire. The RN had spent the last 300 years striving to control key geographic positions around the world in order to isolate opponents and protect its own lines of communications. Admiral Fisher in 1904 said “five keys (Singapore, the Cape of Good Hope, the entrance to the Suez Canal, Gibraltar, and Dover at the entrance to the English Channel) lock up the world!”8 The radical new component of naval force structure Fisher proposed to defend these routes was the heavily armed, high speed battle cruiser.9 Corbett for his part emphasized the importance of “cruisers” and specifically labeled them as central to control of the routes communication.10 British statesmen of the period were equally well versed in the Empire’s strategic geography. It was the civilian First Lord of the Admiralty, Lord Selborne, who conceived of the masterful geographic re-balancing of the Royal Navy in reply to big geopolitical changes at the dawn of the 20th century.11 Even the average British citizen of the late 19th and early 20th century understood that the maintenance of the nation’s sea power was of vital importance to its national interest. One popular English music hall song of the period exclaimed, “We don’t want to fight but by Jingo if we do, we’ve got the ships, we’ve got the men, we’ve got the money too.” Working among such knowledgeable geopoliticians as Selborne and Fisher, Corbett could comfortably maintain focus on the operational aspects of “imperial” warfare.

Potential U.S. application of both Clausewitz and Corbett in the 2nd decade of the 21st century is problematic at best. Clausewitz’s maxim that “war is a continuation of political action (mistranslated or not)” is, however, not a useful tool for nation not as centrally organized for war as was 19th century Prussia. Admiral Wylie said, “War for a non-aggressor nation is actually a nearly complete collapse of policy.”12 In the coming of war then, he says, “nearly all prewar policy is utterly invalid because the setting in which it was designed to function no longer corresponds with reality.”13 From Wylie it is fairly clear that the paranoid Prussian garrison state model has little relevance to a democratic government committed to the preservation of peace and active deterrence of war. Corbett’s operational concepts embodied in Some Principles of Maritime Strategy are more applicable to contemporary U.S. strategic issues. His notion of “Sea Control”, however, is more constrained by its focus on the maintenance of communication with other parts of the British Empire than contemporary U.S. requirements to police global common spaces. The most important of these imperial communication routes was that from Great Britain itself to India. British historians Ronald Robinson and John Gallagher wrote, “To all Victorian statesmen, India and the British Isles were the twin centres of their wealth and strength in the world as a whole”.14 They further noted that the principal reason for the establishment of British colonies in Africa was the preservation of the communication route to India from the British Isles.15 There is no U.S. equivalent of India as a focal point around which U.S. global communications must be constructed. U.S. strategic interests are global in nature, but more distributive than those of late 19th and early 20th century Britain. The wars of the past decade in Afghanistan and Iraq also seem to have discouraged many U.S. defense and foreign policy elites from contemplating similar efforts to influence events ashore through the deployment of ground forces. Accordingly, the concept of Sea Control, as defined by Corbett may not be of the same importance for naval forces for the foreseeable future.
Most importantly, both the writings of Clausewitz and Corbett both supported well-established strategies.

The United States, by contrast, has been in a kind of strategic drift since the end of the Cold War in 1991. It has been bereft until the past several years of a specific opponent or opponents around which to construct a replacement to the successive Cold War strategy of Containment. Defense reform efforts like the Goldwater Nichols Act of 1986 reduced the power of service chiefs who traditionally formulated strategy. In their place, a distributive combination of regional military commanders supported by joint and service elements from Washington D.C. created ad hoc operational solutions to regional issues. The first Gulf War of 1991, operations in the Balkans in the mid 1990’s and even the opening battles of the War on Terrorism in Afghanistan (2001) and Iraq (2003) represent this focus on regional operational issues that often neglected wider strategic concerns. It is perhaps not surprising that the rise of joint-enabled operational solutions to these problems of the last two decades coincided with a rise in the quotation of Clausewitz and Corbett as the touchstones for this effort. Military historian Williamson Murray labeled this result as “operational solutions to strategic problems” in his description of the military policy of the German Empire, but his further description of its use of an “infallible central planning role for a general staff” and embrace of “an unquestioned cult of the offensive” could also characterize U.S. action in the period from 1991-2008.16

Rear Admiral Wylie

While it is not necessary to entirely remove Clausewitz and Corbett from the War College curriculum, it is perhaps time to limit their use in favor of those theorists who speak in terms of long range strategy, and those more relevant to the current U.S. experience. Admirals Alfred Thayer Mahan and J.C. Wylie represent such a combination of strategic thought supported by a more recent experience than either Clausewitz or Corbett. The works of Alfred Thayer Mahan cover a wide field of concepts and disciplines, but a large number combine the disciplines of history and geography as the principal components of strategic thought. Mahan described the importance of history in strategic thinking through a quote from the esteemed French naval strategist Captain Rene Daveluy as:

“History, being the record of experience, if exhaustively studied, brings out all of the variable factors which enter war; because history, however imperfect, forgets none of them. History is photographic, where as the rational processes, that is, when a man having established a basis of truth, builds up his system without checking it by history, the rational processes tend to be selective. History in short gives you all of the qualifying factors; whereas reason, in love with its own refinements, is liable to overlook that which should refine them.”17

Alfred Thayer Mahan

Some of Mahan’s concepts are also rooted in the geostrategic situation that confronted the United States in his lifetime. His belief in the concentration of forces as vital to combat success was as much influenced by U.S. strategic geography and potential opponents as it was by the history of past British naval wars he imparted. In the years before the First World War the primary strategic threat to the U.S. homeland was expected to come in the form of a cross-Atlantic invasion by an aggressive European power such as the German Empire. Only through concentration of its battle fleet would the U.S. likely prevail against a cross Atlantic invasion force. Mahan’s greatest contribution according to Wylie was “his recognition of seapower as a basis of national power.”18
Admiral Wylie’s works represent a synthesis of work of Clausewitz, Corbett and Mahan, as well as that of 20th century air and guerilla warfare disciplines. Wylie’s work is remarkably enduring in that it acknowledges that “terrorism is not going to disappear tomorrow” in spite of the information revolution or other aspects of advanced technology.19 He respects and anticipates that advances in missile and guidance technology will make war at sea more challenging.20 Finally, Admiral Wylie’s thinking and associated analysis are firmly grounded in the American experience of war, an aspect of his work that Clausewitz and Corbett do not necessarily reflect. The Prussian officer and the British operational theorist still have a part to play in the War College classroom, but their role in the curriculum should be adjusted for current events.

A notable naval history conference held at the Naval War College in September 1992 declared “Mahan is not Enough” and rightly suggested that the works of Corbett, and British Admiral turned historian Sir Herbert Richmond had been unfairly ignored in the study of 20th century naval history and strategy. The message was also a warning that the United States did not focus enough on operational art in the achievement of its military and national objectives. The brief period of the American “hyper power moment”, however, ended in the period 2008-2010. The rise of new competitors, the return of old challengers, and increasing disorder throughout the globe calls for an emphasis on historical strategic thinkers like Mahan and Wylie rather than operational artists like Clausewitz and Corbett. The strategic hipsters would do well to remember that “Uncle Carl” and “Sir Julian” could not have developed in the absence of underlying strategy that supported their operational theories. Rather than be concerned about numbers of strategists trained, the War Colleges would do better to improve the strategic curriculum in order to train a new generation of Mahans and Wylies to confront the nation’s present strategic challenges.

Steve Wills is a retired surface warfare officer and a PhD student in military history at Ohio University. His focus areas are modern U.S. naval and military reorganization efforts and British naval strategy and policy from 1889-1941. He posts here at CIMSEC, and at under the pen name of “Lazarus”.

1.  J.C. Wylie, Maritime Strategy, A General Theory of Power Control, Annapolis, MD, Naval Institute Press, 1989, p. 1.
2.  Geoffrey Parker, The Military Revolution, Military Innovation and the Rise of the West, 1500-1800, Cambridge, UK, Cambridge University Press, 1996, p. 1.
3.  Parker, p. 168.
4.  Carl von Clausewitz, edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret, On War, Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 1976, p. 87.
5.  Wylie, p. 67.
6.  Sir Julian Corbett, Some Principles of Maritime Strategy, Project Gutenberg E-Book, released 16 February 2005, p. 94.
7.  Corbett, p. 106.
8.  Peter Kemp, ed, The Papers of Admiral Sir John Fisher, Volume 1, London, NRS, 1960, p. 161.
9.  Nicholas A. Lambert, Sir John Fisher’s Naval Revolution, Columbia, SC, University of South Carolina Press, 199, p. 93.
10.  Corbett, pp 114, 115.
11.  Aaron l. Friedberg, The Weary Titan, Britain and the Experience of Relative Decline, 1895-1905, Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 1988, p. 135.
12.  Wylie, pp. 67-68.
13.  Wylie, p 68.
14.  Ronald Robinson and John Gallagher, Africa and the Victorians, The Official Mind of Imperialism, London, Palgrave Macmillan, 1978, p. 17.
15.  Robinson and Gallagher, Africa and the Victorians, p. 464.
16.  Williamson Murray, McGregor Knox, and Alan Bernstein, eds. The Making of Strategy, Rulers, States, and War, 1996, Cambridge, UK, Cambridge University Press, 1996, p. 80.
17.  Alfred Thayer Mahan, Naval Strategy, Compared and Contrasted with the Principles and Practices of Military Operations on Land, London, Sampson, Low, Marston, and Co., 1911, p. 16.
18.  Wylie, p. 34.
19.  Wylie, p. 106.
10.  Wylie, p. 102.

Stumbling on Peace: The exposition of strategic misstep

This article is part of a series hosted by The Strategy Bridge and CIMSEC, entitled #Shakespeare and Strategy. See all of the entries at the Asides blog of the Shakespeare Theatre Company. Thanks to the Young Professionals Consortium for setting up the series.

Siward confronts GruachDavid Greig’s Dunsinane, while set in the centuries-ago land of Scotland, offers a modern perspective on the nature of war, peace, language, and politics. The events of the production explore the interplay between Siward, commander of English forces in Scotland, Malcolm, the English-installed King of Scotland, and Gruach, formerly both Lady Macbeth and queen of Scotland. Through several rounds and layers of intrigue, Gruach sows enough discord and mayhem to keep English forces at bay. Malcolm, for his part, does his best to engage with Siward in an attempt to illustrate that the use of overwhelming force is not always tenable. After a betrayal late in the first act, the second act functions as an extended denouement, with less action and less emotion. Indeed, the conclusion of the play, with a wandering Siward numbly stumbling out of the scene, parallels the endings to French and U.S. operations in Vietnam, Russian and ISAF campaigns in Afghanistan, UN experiences in Somalia, and the US adventure in Iraq.1

Nuanced allegiances come to the fore in the first act when Siward and Malcolm discuss their own perceived strengths. Siward wishes for Malcolm to act forcefully and seriously, rather than be thought of as a drunken playboy. Malcolm’s subsequent lecture on the desirability of being perceived as weak while operating from a position of strength mirrors current discussions on the rise of Chinese power in the Pacific, echoing Sun Tzu’s exhortation to “appear weak when you are strong.”

The arbiter of the legitimate exercise of violence in Scotland owes more effort than simply appreciating Gaelic songs and lilts.

That Malcolm channels Sun Tzu is not an accident — throughout the play, Malcolm uses a longer, strategic vision of conflict, whereas Siward focuses on the operational level. Siward initially senses that, having “ended” the fighting through the regime change at the end of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, peace is nigh for Scotland and its clans. Throughout the play, Siward’s lack of vision and misunderstanding of the country that he now occupies enables Gruach and the Scottish clan leaders to undermine the English vision for peace. Gruach’s admonition at the end of the play — “you’ve been in Scotland a year, and you still don’t know the language!” — drives home the point that Siward, as the arbiter of the legitimate exercise of violence in Scotland, owes more effort than simply appreciating Gaelic songs and lilts.

Siward’s lieutenant, the tactical supervisor, has no appreciation for Scotland beyond its resources and his survival. He realizes through collaboration with his ostensible foes along with exploitation of war trophies that he has no investment in Scotland, and indeed survives through tactical fits of inaction. His inaction comes back to haunt him at the end of the first act, when, after witnessing a brutally treacherous and suicidal act, he helplessly cries out “we have got to get the fuck out of here,” an exclamation that could be heard on any of a dozen fields of quagmire.2

The slower, more deliberate second act has a scene with the line

“We win because if we don’t win – we lose – and if we lose – then what?”

Here again the play foreshadows discourse about assumptions of a zero-sum world of power. In instances such as China’s increasing influence in the Pacific and the adventures of Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, there exists a tendency to leave alternatives to military-centric actions on the table. This unexamined default course of action leads to a path dependency wherein strategic leaders are stuck; they cannot simply withdraw, nor can they simply win. Strategic leaders in those situations, as Malcolm remarks about the English in Scotland, are committed to an extended dance of saving face. In this case — as well with Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, et al — peace operations entail vastly increased losses of materiel, personnel, and treasure.

Greig acknowledges the creeping existential dread that has accompanied interventions since Korea.

Put another way, assumptions of power as a zero-sum game are increasingly outmoded.3 Dunsinane anticipates requirements for transitioning towards alternative concepts of power and peace. Interestingly, through Siward’s downward spiral, Greig acknowledges the creeping existential dread that has accompanied interventions since Korea. In doing so, he makes the case that hard, coercive methods may only have existed as an effective means of exerting power and making peace for a narrow slice of the early 20th century.

Dunsinane’s last and most vivid impression — that of the formerly upright and powerful Siward stumbling around a frozen loch, trying to “find a new country” — conjures images of Africa, Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent in the mid 20th century, with former powers retreating from far-flung lands and their subsequent search for a new identity. At the same time, Siward’s search for “a new country” calls to mind Hamlet’s “undiscovered country” of a life after death. Judging from Grieg’s narrative, newly post-colonial countries may indeed have to undergo a rebirth if their Siwards are to find peace.

LT Vic Allen serves at the U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command and serves as CIMSEC’s Director of Social Media. He can be followed at Medium here. All posts contain the authors’ opinions alone and do not represent any of the military services or the Department of Defense.

1. Ramberg, B. (2009). The Precedents for Withdrawal: From Vietnam to Iraq. Foreign Affairs, 88, 2.

2. The mostly civilian audience laughed at this line, which struck me as oddly incongruent with the sad and violent end of the first act.

3. Read, J. H. (2012). Is Power Zero-sum or Variable-sum? Old Arguments and New Beginnings. Journal of Political Power, 5(1), 5-31. Retrieved from