Here is the promised article on the alternative theory to Julian Corbett. It is not an EXSUM of the book, but a quick overview with some notes for writers. You can find an EXSUM on my personal website, address at the bottom of this article. Sea power/maritime theory is the framework, but there is a much broader application as well.
Just as Julian Corbett was a surprise to the world of Maritime Theory because he was never a sailor, Alfred Thayer Mahan was a surprise because he wasn’t a very good sailor. In fact, Mahan was a dreadful ship’s Captain, responsible for a number of collisions and mishaps.
A poor sailor indeed, but also a man possessed of a brilliant and well-informed mind. In 1890, when he published the first edition of The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660-1783, it was the first major attempt at a unified theory of naval warfare. He was by some decades Corbett’s predecessor.
Perhaps Mahan was a poor sailor, because he only went to the Navy to spite his father, an Army officer who taught at West Point and exercised significant influence on Amy academics and doctrine at that time. Eschewing an appointment to West Point, Mahan attended Columbia University for two years, then transferred to the Naval Academy in defiance of his parent’s wishes.
After a brilliant academic career (but sub-par operational career) in the Navy, he died from heart failure in 1914, a few months after the outbreak of WWI. Though never a war hero, his books made him one of the most importnat naval historians and theorists in his period, and he remains influential today.
The tone and context of Influence indicates that Mahan wrote it, not just to inform academics, but to influence national policy. In 1890, the world was undergoing dramatic social, political, and technological change, and Mahan witnessed a contracting world with powerful states leveraging their navies in pursuit of economic and political control. Following the American Civil war, the US made an expedition to Korea (1871) where Japan made its own expedition a few years later. During this period, the French entangled themselves in their second war in Indochina (which would not be their last) and Britain worked furiously to quash rebellions throughout its empire. Control of the sea (which Mahan refers to as “Command of the sea”) was often the decisive factor. The industrial revolution of the previous century was bringing powerful new technologies to heavy industry, and by extension, to the rapidly evolving capabilities of warships. America, with her vast natural resources and industrious population, was a ripe plum that the great powers of Europe universally lusted after. America’s repulsion of Britain in 1812 was the real war of independence, and this great, but internationally unproven nation was just beginning to emerge as an international economic power, and potential military power.
Mahan considered all these things, and determined that his country would either have to step up and take control of its destiny, or be endlessly played and manipulated by European interests. He preferred the first alternative.
Now, before I begin a discussion of the content of his book, I wish to point out that, while Mahan ostensibly wrote Influence as a history, it presents itself as a highly prescriptive work of theory. Mahan did not draw lessons from history; he used historical examples to reinforce his preconceptions. The result was a work reminiscent of Jomini, detailing how naval forces should organize, operate, and fight. Mahan was adamant that the fundamental purpose of a navy was command of the sea, and promoted the navy’s role as the destruction of the enemy fleet through a decisive naval battle. Like many land war theorists before him (especially Jomini) he believed that naval strategy should center around seeking out the enemy’s center of gravity and destroying it. To Mahan, this was the enemy fleet.
Now, all this sounds perfectly reasonable and unsurprising. But you must remember that the money required to build the massive, modern fleet Mahan proposed would more than double the entire military budget. In fact, it would have dwarfed nearly all other government expenditures at the time. He was not proposing a new tactic, he was proposing a new America.
Mahan’s America would be a world power, flexing its muscles on every foreign shore, demonstrating might and looking for a fight. It would be the protector and facilitator of American mercantile dominance, as we began to export the products of our fields and the work of our hands to willing buyers around the world. Mahan was, in short, the man who drew the map for America’s future as the world’s greatest superpower.
This may seem like a stretch. If it is, it’s less stretch than you might think. Mahan’s vision, once realized, empowered American industry by opening world markets as never before. It would not be fully realized in his lifetime, at least not in America. The British embraced his model, and used it to obtain and maintain sea dominance over Europe and much of the world through WWII.
Japan attempted to use the decisive battle theory as well. They built the most powerful fleet in the Pacific prior to WWII, and used it to capture and control a huge percentage of the Asian Pacific.
Nonetheless, Mahan’s theory not necessarily a success story. Britain’s reliance on decisive battle theory left her terribly vulnerable to German U-boat attacks on her shipping (including the vast amount coming in from America) and nearly starved her out of the war. Japan’s reliance on decisive battle led to the destruction of the bulk of its fleet at Midway, and put Japan on the defensive for the rest of the war.
We cannot take away from Mahan’s brilliance, but neither should we lionize him as a savior. His principles are sound, when applied by a country willing to make the sacrifices of blood and treasure to make them work. But any country that cannot expect to be the biggest dog in the fight will only find his methods as the quickest route to ruin.
So, taking Corbett from last week and Mahan from this week, what are we to make of these two men?
They were both brilliant visionaries. Both were well regarded in their day. Both are read to this day by students of military theory. And, interestingly, one was a very poor seaman and one was not a seaman at all.
What can we make of this as writers?
First, it is a fascinating story in its own right. These two colorful and talented individuals, assessing the same set of conditions arrived at almost diametrically opposed conclusions. And yet historians and theorists still often side with one or the other. One is essentially and offense-first approach, and the other a defense-oriented approach. One focuses attacks the enemy’s resources, the other on their combat power.
Second, when world building, consider the issues that make war at sea. The sea is vast, and running into one another is unlikely, unless you are patrolling the places where ships have to go to resupply, etc. I do not know of a single episode where combatants saw each other out in the open ocean. And if you are at war, you really have two choices: mass your fleet for decisive battle or guard your own shipping (using convoys) and attack the enemy’s supply lines. You can’t defend very many places if you concentrate your forces for attack. You can either protect your Sea Lines of Communication, or you can hunt down the enemy’s fleet: you almost certainly can’t do both.
This same concept can, of course, be adapted to land warfare, and if you are really creative, to virtually any type of conflict. We continually choose whether we should go after our problems on the periphery while carefully building our resiliencies, or concentrate our efforts and try to attack head on (knowing that failure, in the second case, is potentially catastrophic.) This can be a great way of framing a key aspect of every character’s personality: how does she tend to solve conflict?
If you know how your character responds to conflict, you have come a long way in knowing your character.
In a forthcoming article, I will discuss my theory of war. It is not earth-shakingly new or unfathomably deep, but it is relatively comprehensive in scope and might be useful when you are developing large scale conflicts for your world.
If you would like to read a more detailed EXSUM of Mahan’s book, go to http://monstercorral.com/ and read the full article on A.T. Mahan.