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Sunday Book Review: 21st Century Mahan


21st Century Mahan: Sound Military Conclusions for the Modern Era is a collection of five essays by Alfred Thayer Mahan, chosen and introduced by LCDR Benjamin Armstrong, USN. The book is intended to highlight lesser-known aspects of Mahan’s thought on military affairs, and breadth and some depth to Mahan’s popular (?) profile. While The Influence of Sea Power Upon History 1660-1783 made Mahan famous, he continued to write prodigiously almost until his death, contributing to a variety of policy and popular venues. Included are essays on fleet positioning, education at the Naval Academy, Nelson, naval administration, and Royal Navy Admiral Edward Pellew.

The essays themselves are… uneven in readability.  I struggled through the essay on fleet positioning, although it did hold some enduring insights into the relationship between force effectiveness and distant basing. The essay on naval administration was interesting insofar as it discussed the comparative advantages of different administrative strategies, although the relevance of the argument to modern administrative problems is uncertain.

Part of the difficulty in working through these essays is Mahan’s prose, which often becomes florid as he begins to discuss abstractions. Another difficulty is that Mahan resists summarizing the central points of his arguments in a way that facilitates generalization; the post on education is interesting, exceedingly detailed, and contains buried within a set of insights about the skills that a modern naval officer might need, insights which Mahan has little interest in highlighting.

Similarly, the essay on Nelson is both interesting and a bit of a struggle, as Mahan indulges in some exceedingly dull discussion of the field of biography on the way to some useful insights into Nelson’s character, and the value of Nelson’s leadership.  The sharpest writing in the entire book comes in the Pellew essay when Mahan describes the Battle of Lake Champlain, both at the preparation stage and in the actual fight.  When discussing operations, Mahan seems to pick up speed, becoming more economical with prose in order to pack in as much relevant detail as possible. I don’t actually think it’s surprising that The Influence of Sea Power Upon History did well, as it plays to Mahan’s best characteristic as a writer. Concentrating his attention, I daresay, seems to have the same appeal for Mahan as concentrating a battlefleet. Dispersing his attention tends to lead to disaster.

And yet, despite the difficulty of his prose, Mahan was a remarkably popular author in his time. 21st Century Mahan is an important effort. Mahan produced an enormous amount of literature in the second half of his life, and because Mahan’s prose can be so difficult, and because of his unwillingness to organize and set forth his arguments with clarity, a “greatest hits” album is a must. In terms of the essays chosen I might have liked something that was a bit more reflective of how Mahan’s ideas developed over time, but with only five snapshots that’s difficult to do.  I would also have preferred BJ to expand a touch on the essay introductions, in order to better situate the arguments in context both of the arguments Mahan was participating in, and in his professional career. Altogether, however, it’s a useful volume, especially when read alongside The Influence of Sea Power Upon History and a scholarly treatment, such as Jon Sumida’s Inventing Grand Strategy and Teaching Command.

See also James Holmes and Galrahn.

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