Inventing Grand Strategy and Teaching Command—currently reading

[by J. Scott Shipman]

Inventing Grand Strategy and Teaching Command, by Jon Tetsuro Sumida

This monograph piqued my interest several weeks ago, as I consider whether or not to re-read Alfred Thayer Mahan‘s classic The Influence of Sea Power on History, 1660-1783. I’m about twenty years removed from my original reading, and honestly wasn’t ready for it when I did read it, so much of what I remember remains a blur at best.

Professor Sumida leads with a Preface entitled, Musical Performance, Zen Enlightenment, and Naval Command. Sumida draws parallels between the performance of music and the artistry inherent in sound leadership during war. Boyd’s ideas with respect to harmony came to mind. Sumida also draws parallels between Mahan’s ideas and Zen and offers:

“Mahan’s writing about the art and science of command resembles Zen in three major respects — a pedagogy that attempts to teach that which cannot be directly described in words, the absence of doctrinal ends, and a recognition of the limitations of ratiocination as the basis of action under conditions of rapid and unpredictable change.”

After finishing the first chapter of Professor Sumida’s work, I was struck by how relevant Mahan’s ideas with respect to leadership development seem to be in harmony with ideas advanced of late regarding the need for disruptive thinkers (this links to Mark’s excellent summary). Sumida portrays Mahan as man convinced of the need for naval executive education that goes beyond the scientific and mechanical, and focused rather on the “deep knowledge” and “truths” found only in history (I agree). He writes:

Mahan “was convinced that constant and rapid mechanical innovation had upset planning and education to the detriment of command confidence and authority. He feared the consequences of a navy led by indecisive men, bred by bureaucratic routine—or worse, subservience to corrupt civilian officialdom—to follow rules or act politically.”

At only 116 pages, Sumida’s monograph would normally be a quick read, but I plan to savor every word—and probably read more Mahan.

More to come.

Cross posted at To Be or To Do.

3 comments on this post.
  1. zen:

    Great post Scott,

    .
    ” Mahan “was convinced that constant and rapid mechanical innovation had upset planning and education to the detriment of command confidence and authority.”

    .
    It sounds like the pre-Mahanian Navy was, in terms of culture, where land armies were circa 1790’s -1860’s, under the mechanistic and mathematical spell of Descartes, Newton and Jomini, as a result of rapidly improving gunnery/ballistics and logistical requirements of larger armies/longer campaigns
    .
    Isn’t Sumida the same guy who wrote Decoding Clausewitz? 

  2. J. Scott Shipman:

    Hi Zen,
    .
    Sumida did write Decoding Clausewitz, but I haven’t read it. His writing style takes a little getting used to; sort of half narrative, half academic. There is no doubt he has reviewed Mahan’s writings and provides a reasonable synthesis. 

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