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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.

The first three were used in grand naval strategy, the latter two with the “art and science of command.” The section of Command and History is particularly relevant given two recent posts, one at the USNI Blog, The Wisdom of a King, by CDR Salamander, and the other in a September 2012 Proceedings article by LCDR B.J.Armstrong, Leadership & Command. Here’s why: Sumida quotes Admiral Arleigh Burke, who latter became Chief of Naval Operations, during WWII. Of “Decentraliztion,” Burke wrote:

…means we offer officers the opportunity to rise to positions of responsibility, of decision, of identity and stature—if they want it, and as soon as they can take it.

We believe in command, not staff. We believe we have “real” things to do. The Navy believes in putting a man in a position with a job to do, and let him do it—give him hell if he does not perform—but be a man in his own name. We decentralize and capitalize on the capabilities of our individual people rather than centralize and make automatons of them. This builds that essential element of pride of service and sense of accomplishment.

The U.S. Navy could do worse than return to this “father” of naval strategy and give his ideas more attention; Professor Sumida’s little book would be a good place to start.

Strongest recommendation—particularly to active duty Navy personnel.

Cross-posted at To Be or To Do.

10 Responses to “Inventing Grand Strategy and Teaching Command, The Classic Works of Alfred Thayer Mahan Reconsidered, a review”

  1. Justin Boland Says:

    Has “Drift into Failure” registered on your radar screen yet?
    I picked it up this evening based on stumbling past it in the warehouse and the first chapter has been simply awesome.

  2. J.ScottShipman Says:

    Hi Justin,
    Nope, but I’m not surprised at your assessment. Sumida does a fine job of synthesizing ATM and making his work accessible. Let us know what you think after finishing. 

  3. Justin Boland Says:

    “Drift into Failure” is actually by one Sidney Dekker, but conceptually, all bound up in the same ball of yarn.
    Just ordered the Sumida — safe to say it never would have come up otherwise, since all my strategy wonk friends are overseas these days. Hugely appreciate it.

  4. J.ScottShipman Says:

    You won’t be disappointed. I’m working through Sumida’s book DeCoding Clausewitz—same high quality. 

  5. deichmans Says:

    While I admire Mahan, I think Sir Julian Corbett was a better pioneer for the naval innovations of the 20th century. Personally I found Mahan almost a mirror of Clausewitz, but without the depth. And I sincerely believe it was my disdain of Mahan in favor of Corbett that led US Naval Institute (aka the Mahan Hagiography Society) to buy rights to an article I wrote in 1991 — then promptly bury it in their vault, never to see the light of print.
    That was my first purchased work….

  6. J.ScottShipman Says:

    Hi Shane,
    Perhaps in the day the USNI was “the Mahan Hagiography Society.” Today, technology seems to trump all. BTW, you could probably get your article back, given the time passed… 

  7. Themurr Says:

    In school I enjoyed the contrasts made between Mahan and Corbett, Big Decisive Battle, Sea Lanes of Communication (known as slocs I think) and then drawing parallels to war in space.  Then I read them in full, and unlike Jomini and Clausewitz who are vastly different, I always had the impression that Corbett wasn’t particularly disagreeing with Mahan, he was simply taking Mahan’s arguments to their natural conclusion (any inferior navy won’t risk the big decisive battle because they know fighting it is the quickest way to win or lose, and they’d likely lose, so what else can we do?).  I think you need both of them to build a complete picture.  At the very least both seminal works are relatively easy to read, instead of thinking On War isn’t so bad simply because Jomini’s Art of War is excruciating (Clausewitz is interesting and intellectually challenging, but if someone here thinks his works are fun, they are a better man than I).  Not sure this is terribly relevant, but I read these after I would’ve had the opportunity to point out my professors’ oversimplifications in my Military Studies classes.

  8. J.ScottShipman Says:

    Hi Themurr,
    Concur on your characterization of Mahan and Corbett. I found Corbett more accessible, and read The Influence of Seapower on History in the 80’s—much too long ago.
    Sumida does a nice job of explaining the intersection of Clausewitz and Mahan; a good enough case I decided to read his book on Clausewitz, DeCoding Clausewitz. I’m about half way through and it is a more difficult read. 
    On War is a beast; LtGen Paul Van Riper recommends one having a mentor when reading Clausewitz. In lieu of a mentor, he recommended Hew Strachan’s “biography” of On War—he was right, a very good read. I have Antulio Echevarriah’s Clausewitz & Contemporary War, and Hugh Smith’s, On Clausewitz on the pile as a follow-up. 
    The navy has drifted away from Mahan, focusing too much on technology. One virtue of Sumida’s work is he demonstrates how Mahan’s ideas evolved through his professional life and his influences. Our navy could do worse than use a rigorous study of history to better prepare her officers (Mahan advocated this course.)
    LCDR BJ Armstrong has a new book on Mahan due out next year. 

  9. BJ Armstrong Says:


    The supposed competition between Corbett and Mahan is commonly taught, but a bit of a red hering.  They wrote for significantly different audiences.  The reason that many today identify more with Corbett’s writing is because he was writing for an audience made up of the global naval hegemon.  He wasn’t talking about what it took to create seapower, or establish command of the sea, he was writing more about what you do with it once you’re there.  Mahan, on the other hand, was writing for an audience that was a bit player on the world’s oceans when he began.  His focus was more on establishing what seapower meant, and what it took to establish or gain command of the sea.  Mahan himself wrote that he believed that his writing and Corbett’s weren’t in compteition, but instead complimented each other because Corbett’s ideas were for a fleet that was building on the foundation laid out by Mahan.

    As Scott points out, there’s also a practical reason that many people say “Corbett is better,” and that’s because his writing was a lot better than Mahan’s.  Mahan’s own son once said that his father was in desperate need of an editor, and Mahan admited in his autobiography that in his books he tended to want to include every caveat and every exception, or point of discussion, that he good in the interest of being turough, and he realized later that it made much of his stuff damn hard to read.

    Also, Mahan wrote about Grand Strategy at a level that far beyond anything that Clausewitz approached.  Clausewitz approached things from a Continental mindset (which is probably a big part of the reason he didn’t take off in England after the first translations).  His competition was going to be with the guy next door.  Mahan’s writing (and I’m talking about more than just The Influence, which is only the starting point) approaches globalization and international relations on a level that was different than most strategic discussions that had been written previously.

    As for USNI…having worked with them extensively, your fear of the grand Mahan Conspiracy sounds a lot like 9/11 Truthers.  Trust me, the organization is not near homogenous enough, or under the spell of some evil genius, to have buried your article in order to hide criticism of Mahan.  Administrative error and editorial organization are the more likely culprits.

    Then again, I am a self-professed Mahanian student and an active member of USNI, so take what I say with a grain of salt.

  10. J.ScottShipman Says:

    Hi BJ,
    The density of Mahan’s writing is exemplified by Sumida’s comment in the Introduction:

    “It remains to be seen whether readers exist with the mind and will to accept his guidance on what necessarily is an arduous intellectual and moral voyage into the realm of war and politics.” (emphasis added)

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