Dr. McCranie in Austin

In physics, ‘exceptional points’ are specific system parameters leading to the commonality of two different solutions that can only exist in systems with losses.

For those with a scientific, rather than a naval history background, that is a fine approach to this important book by Dr. Kevin D. McCranie. He is Professor of Comparative Strategy at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. He was in Austin a few days ago, at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, to explain the fruits of his research into the two founding fathers of naval strategic thought.

Alfred Mahan (1840-1914) in the United States, and Julian Corbett (1854-1922) in England arrived together at an exceptional point. Even though their approaches to naval strategy were in some ways diametrically opposed, they came to a commonality in their studies that has shaped naval strategy to this day.

And what of the ‘losses’ in my physics analogy? Even during peacetime ships are retired. With the increasingly rapid pace of technological change in the 20th century, a ship even 20 years old (while still seaworthy) could be considered outdated. But in wartime the losses were many orders of magnitude greater. Even the most powerful and newest ships could be sunk in minutes by air power or submarines.

“Mahan started writing a decade earlier than Corbett,” said McCranie, “but they never met one another.” Even though Mahan was American, his work appealed to the British. “He employed a very seductive message as he uses British sea power as his prime example. Mahan is most known today for one of the first books he wrote, The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660-1783.” Four years after its publication in 1890 (when he was 50), The Times of London called Mahan “the greatest living writer on naval history.” It was a reputation that was something of a bitter pill, as “he was always trying to compete with himself to get up there again.”

While Mahan was trying to ‘sell’ the United States on the merits of sea power, Corbett was writing for a British audience that already knew from centuries of experience how important it was. “What Corbett was getting at is that wars and major events of the world very rarely happen at sea” (The Anglo-Dutch wars of the 17th century are about the only exception that comes to mind, Corbett stated.) Corbett wrote “Where great empires are concerned wars cannot be concluded upon the sea.” Corbett’s tack, said McCranie, was to “translate what goes on at sea to what happens on land.”

Corbett neatly encapsulated his idea of what major strategy meant. “Major strategy in its broadest sense has also to deal with the whole resources of the nation for war. It is a branch of statesmanship. It regards the Army and Navy as parts of one force, to be handled together; they are instruments of war. But it also has to keep in view constantly the politico-diplomatic position of the country…, and its commercial and financial position.” Corbett’s key text, Some Principles of Maritime Strategy, was published in 1911.

For Mahan, naval strategy interplays with other things: sea power is a combination of elements. These are six in number: geographical position, physical conformation, extent of territory, number of population, character of the people, character of the government. One person was paying close attention to the writings of both men. In the time leading up to World War I in 1914, the First Lord of the Admiralty in Great Britain was Winston Churchill. He wrote “The standard work on Sea Power was written by an American Admiral. The best accounts of British sea fighting and naval strategy were compiled by an English civilian.”

McCranie said explaining (in chapter 2 of his book) how Mahan and Corbett created their theoretical frameworks “was the hardest thing I’ve ever written.” Corbett, he said “has a deep appreciation of history. Adopting an inductive approach, he finds a mass of historical examples to see where it leads. He almost has a man-crush on Carl von Clausewitz (a Prussian military theorist; 1780-1831). The real underlying foundation of Clausewitz’s ideas is what he is interested in.”

Mahan, by contrast, “is a big picture guy. He adopts a deductive approach. The concept of sea power just jumped off the page for him. Mahan’s story starts in peacetime, when you can make more money. Maritime trade is critical as it provides wealth. On the naval side, it allows peaceful movement of commerce. Navies are great for deterrence – projecting force at a distance. Control of the sea is critical for Mahan: you can defeat an opponent by wearing them down economically.”

Corbett’s theory “is to speed that process up,” explained McCranie. “Their big difference is that Corbett sees the ‘wearing down’ process as too protracted. Corbett writes a lot more about exercising command of the sea than Mahan does. For him land and diplomatic efforts are more important to ending a war than Mahan believed, but more often than not they agree on naval strategy.”

In the U.S., Mahan’s work was closely read by President Theodore Roosevelt. “There are a great deal of parallels between their writing,” McCranie said in Austin. “Both are firm believers in naval preparedness, the importance of building out the United States navy, the importance that the United States needs to look outside of its borders for wealth. They actually feed off of one another.”

What they wrote more than a century ago still has resonance today. “If a maritime strategy is not clearly set in national political objectives (the available instruments of power that a state has or expects to be able to have in the near future), the maritime strategy starts to sit on an island. It becomes frankly a fantasy at that point, because it can’t work in the real world. What Corbett is particularly grappling with is how to wage war. He wrote the first three volumes of Britain’s official naval history of World War I. He sees in this that as the war is playing out there is a divorce in Britain. The navy is fighting its own war and the army seems to be fighting its own war largely in France and they’re not working with each other. They were fighting in parallel. He was terribly aghast: Britain is not maximizing its instruments of power to greatest effect by using them together. This is something we can read today as a cautionary example.”

The key point in the war was the 1916 Dardanelles campaign, whose failure led to Churchill’s resignation from the government. “Corbett and Churchill, at least at the time of the Dardanelles, fall into a group one could loosely call Easterners, who believed the salvation for Britain lies on some sort of attack on eastern Mediterranean. The dreadful outcome of the Dardanelles, in Churchill’s mind and also in Corbett’s mind, drives towards the parallel wars.”

Ultimately, McCranie said, what Corbett and Mahan did was “give us questions that you can ask. They gave us frameworks to conceptualise something. If you can keep that in mind, I think these theorists have a great deal of value today because they’ve tread along a lot of things and help us conceptualise things so we don’t have to start at ground zero.”

The book concludes with McCranie linking the naval situation today to that of their era. “Both Mahan and Corbett wrote in a world that had not seen a great-power naval war for nearly a century,” alluding here to the Battle of Trafalgar and other naval engagements between England and France. “In the intervening years, technological change had transformed navies. Given today’s international and naval environments, we have again arrived at such a moment.”

McCranie’s 320-page book has 40 pages of notes and an extensive bibliography.  A welcome use of flowcharts nicely illuminates the concepts of their theories of sea power, economic strategies, and political results. A challenging book, not only for naval historians but more broadly for historians of the 20th century and current policy makers dealing with geostrategic issues of the 21st century, including the naval defense of Taiwan.

Mahan, Corbett, and the Foundations of Naval Strategic Thought is by Naval Institute Press.  It is $42.95.

Photo by C Cunningham

Dr. McCranie in Austin


By Dr. Cliff Cunningham

Dr. Cliff Cunningham is a planetary scientist, the acknowledged expert on the 19th century study of asteroids. He is a Research Fellow at the University of Southern Queensland in Australia. He serves as Editor of the History & Cultural Astronomy book series published by Springer; and Associate Editor of the Journal of Astronomical History & Heritage. Asteroid 4276 in space was named in his honour by the International Astronomical Union based in the recommendation of the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Dr. Cunningham has written or edited 15 books. His PhD is in the History of Astronomy, and he also holds a BA in Classical Studies.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *