Inventing Grand Strategy and Teaching Command, The Classic Works of Alfred Thayer Mahan Reconsidered, a review

[by J. Scott Shipman]

Inventing Grand Strategy and Teaching Command, by Jon Tetsuro Sumida

As of August 2012 this is the best non-fiction book I’ve read this year. Professor Sumida brings a potentially dry topic to life making Alfred Thayer Mahan relevant in the process; as indeed, he should. At a mere 117 pages of moderately footnoted text, Sumida provides the reader a grand tour of Mahan’s life work, not just The Influence of Sea Power 1660-1983. Sumida includes the major works of Alfred Thayer Mahan’s (ATM) father Dennis Hart Mahan, as he introduces ATM’s major works, lesser works, biographies, essays, and criticisms.

Sumida begins his chapters with quotes, and weaves his recounting of ATM’s work with musical performance, Zen enlightenment, and naval command; which is quite a combination, but convincing. Of ATM’s “approach to naval grand strategy” he writes:

Mahan believed the security of a large and expanding system of international trade in the twentieth century would depend upon the creation of a transnational consortium of naval power. His handling of the art and science of command, on the other hand, was difficult, complex, and elusive. It is helpful, therefore, to achieve an introductory sense of its liminal character by means of analogy.

This is where musical performance and Zen enlightenment become relevant and instructive. Sumida writes on musical performance:

Teaching musical performance…poses three challenges: improving art, developing technique, and attending to their interaction.

Sumida goes on to illustrate the parallels between learning musical performance and naval command/strategy and the common thread is performing or, “doing it.” He writes that most musical instruction is through the understudy watching demonstrations by the master, but the higher purpose of replicating the master’s work is “to gain a sense of the expressive nature of an act that represents authentically a human persona.” In other words, the development of relevant tacit knowledge, or as I have come to refer to this as “tacit insight.”

Sumida continues with six short chapters that pack a powerful punch and a good introduction to the trajectory of Mahan’s work from the beginning to end. My favorite was Chapter Six, The Uses of History and Theory. In this chapter Sumida deals with complexity, contingency, change, and contradiction, naval supremacy in the Twentieth Century, Jomini, Clausewitz, and command and history. Quite a line-up, but a convincing inventory of Mahan’s influences and how his work remains relevant today. Sumida writes:

Mahan’s role as a pioneer and extender of the work of others has been widely misunderstood and thus either ignored or misused. The general failure to engage his thought accurately is in large part attributable to the complexity of his exposition, the difficulties inherent in his methods of dealing with several forms of contingency, changes in his position on certain major issues, and his contradictory predictions about the future and application of strategic principles…His chief goal, however, was to address difficult questions that were not susceptible to convincing elucidation through simple reasoning by analogy. He thus viewed history less as a ready-made instructor than a medium that had to be worked by the appropriate intellectual tools.. Mahan’s analytical instruments of choice were five kinds of argument: political, political-economic, governmental, strategic, and professional.

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