21st Century Mahan: Sound Military Conclusions for the Modern Era edited by Lt. Cmdr. Benjamin F. Armstrong. Published by Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Maryland. Paperback published in June 2013, 192 pages.
First, I commend Armstrong for his intellectual courage to share his ideas on an important figure to not only the heritage of the United States Navy, but also a world-class strategic thinker. If the modern U.S. Navy has a prophet, then the name of Capt. Alfred Thayer Mahan would top the list. He is best known for his famous book, “Influence of Seapower Upon History,” published in 1890. Mahan gave us the language and concepts such as seapower, sea lines of communication, and what we term today as maritime dominance and power projection. Armstrong bravely attempts to bring Mahan’s ideas into the 21st century, and this by no means is an easy feat. By the author’s own admission, Mahan wrote a dozen books and numerous articles and his book distills all these thousands of pages into chapters on management, leadership, globalization, command, and the use of history.
The book opens with a mocking quote by Mahan’s superior officer Adm. F. M. Ramsey who wrote in his 1893 fitness report, “It is not the business of naval officers to write books.” Mahan’s books and essays would be devoured not only by Theodore Roosevelt but was required reading for the Imperial Japanese Fleet, and it is said the German Kaiser had Mahan’s works at his bed-side. However, I do disagree with Armstrong’s observations on the modern treatment of Mahan, as he implies that it has become common for policymakers to discount the thinking and writing of Mahan. His observation may be a function of the circles the author and I serve in, for I have encountered officers at the National Defense University, the Naval War College Seminar and sub-cabinet level officials quite conversant on Mahan. While the book is critical of those who make light of Mahan’s ideas on the acquisition of territories to enable a fleet to project power globally as taking America towards a path of becoming a colonial power, I believe it is fair to highlight the bankrupt ideology of racial social Darwinism that was prevalent among Mahan and his peers. Finally, the author implies that Mahan is discounted by some because his technology of battleships had long past. While I agree with the author that this is a shallow understanding of Mahan, those who have read only two of his dozen books, in particular “Influence of Seapower Upon History,” come away appreciating the oceans as an important vital battle space.
Armstrong’s strength is his ability to force his readers to reexamine Mahan and his ability to synthesize the master’s ideas on the importance of Asia, preparing for conflict, and tensions between the fighter and the administrator. I hope the author will continue his writing and provoking fresh thought within our Navy. This is a fine read for those with an interest in maritime strategy generally, and Mahan specifically.
Editor’s Note: Cmdr. Aboul-Enein is the author of two books on the Middle East. His third book, “The Secret War for the Middle East,” will be published in October and is co-authored with his brother. Aboul-Enein teaches part time at the National Defense University and is a frequent guest speaker in the D.C. area Naval War College seminar.