This August marks the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I. That “Great War” was many things, but it was most certainly a war of machines, of dreadnought battleships and “Big Bertha” artillery, of newfangled airplanes and tortoise-like tanks. Industrial juggernauts like Great Britain, France, and Germany succeeded more or less in mobilizing their economies fully for war; their reward was reaping the horrors of death-dealing machinery on a scale theretofore thought impossible.
In that summer of 1914, most experts expected a short war, so plans for sustaining machine-age warfare through economic mobilization were lacking. Confronted by trench warfare and stalemate on the Western Front which owed everything to modern industrialism and machinery, the “big three” antagonists strove to break that stalemate using the means that had produced it: weapons and munitions. Those empires caught up in the war that were still industrializing, e.g. Russia, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, found themselves at a serious disadvantage.
Together, Britain and France forged an industrial alliance that proved (with help from the U.S.) to be a war-winning “arsenal of democracy.” Yet this alliance contributed to an overvaluing of machines and munitions at the soldiers’ expense. For Entente leaders — even for old-school cavalry officers like Britain’s Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig — new artillery with massive stockpiles of shells promised to produce the elusive breakthrough and a return to mobile warfare and glorious victory.
Thus it was that at the Battle of the Somme that began on July 1, 1916, British soldiers were reduced to trained occupiers. Lengthy pre-battle artillery barrages, it was believed, would annihilate German defenders, leaving British troops to slog uncontested across no-man’s land to occupy the enemy’s shattered and empty trenches.
But those trenches were not empty. Germany’s defenses survived Britain’s storm of steel largely intact. And Britain’s soldiers paid the price of misplaced faith in machine warfare: nearly 20,000 dead on that first day, with a further 40,000 wounded.
The Somme is but one example of British and French commanders being overwhelmed by the conditions of machine warfare, so much so that they placed their faith in more machines and more munitions as the means to victory. After underestimating the impact of technology on the battlefield up to 1914, commanders quickly came to overestimate it. As a result, troops were inadequately trained and tactics inadequately developed.
As commanders consumed vast quantities of machinery and munitions, they became accustomed to expending lives on a similarly profligate scale. Bodies piled up even as more economic means were tapped. Meanwhile, the staggering sacrifices required by destructive industrialism drove nations to inflate strategic ends. Industrialized warfare that spat out lead and steel while consuming flesh and bone served only to inflame political demands, negating opportunities for compromise. Total victory became the only acceptable result for both sides.
In retrospect it’s remarkable how quickly leaders placed their faith in the machinery of war, so much so that military power revved uncontrollably, red-lined, then exploded in the faces of its creators. Industrialized destruction and mass slaughter were the predictable outcomes of a crisis whose resolution was driven by hardware — more weaponry, more machinery, more bodies. The minds of the men who drove events in that war could not sanction negotiation or compromise; those were forms of “weakness” that neither side could accept. Such murderous inflexibility was captured in the postwar observation of novelist Virginia Woolf that “It was a shock to see the faces of our rulers in the light of the shell fire. So ugly they looked — German, English, French — so stupid.” Note how she includes her own countrymen, the English, in the mix of the ugly and the stupid.
In World War I, Carl von Clausewitz’s dictum of war as an extreme form of politics became tragically twisted to war as the only means of politics, with industrialized mass destruction as the only means of war. The resulting failure to negotiate a lasting peace came as no surprise since the war had raced not only beyond politics, but beyond the minds of its military and political leaders.
The Great War had unleashed a virus, a dynamic of destruction, that would only be suppressed, and even then only imperfectly, by the wanton destruction of World War II. For what was Auschwitz but a factory of death, a center for mass destruction, a mechanized and murderous machine for efficient and impersonal slaughter, a culmination of the industrialized slaughter (to include mass gassing) of World War I?
The age of mass warfare and mass destruction was both catalyst for and byproduct of the age of machinery and mass production. Today’s age is less industrial but no less driven by machinery and mass consumption (which requires a form of mass destruction inflicted largely on the environment).
Aerial drones and cyber warfare are already providing disturbing evidence that the early 21st century may yet echo its predecessor in introducing yet another age of misplaced faith in the machinery of warfare. The commonality remains the vulnerability of human flesh to steel, as well as human minds to manipulation.
A century has passed, yet we’re still placing far too much faith in the machinery of war.
The Middle East of the early 21st century is looking more and more like the Thirty Years’ War of the early 17th century that tore apart the Germanic states of the Holy Roman Empire. Religious sectarianism? In the 17th century, Catholics and Protestants killed each other with gusto. Disunity? Yes, within and among the various Germanic states of the Holy Roman Empire. Great power intervention that made matters far worse? Yes, Protestant Sweden and Catholic France intervened in a big way, among a host of other lesser powers. Privatized, for-profit militaries that threw more fuel on the fire? Yes, Albrecht von Wallenstein, the greatest mercenary captain of the age, created his own empire until he was assassinated in 1634.
The war finally ended when it burnt itself out, and when European leaders realized the more they intervened, the more they risked the infection spreading to their own kingdoms. Thus came the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, but not before roughly eight million people, most of them civilians, died in and of the war.
When will conflicts in the Middle East finally burn themselves out? In 2048? When the oil is finally gone? (Sadly, water may replace oil as a major source of conflict.)
And when will great powers like the United States realize the more they intervene, the more the infection spreads elsewhere? Indeed, the more it comes home to endanger the United States?
Speaking of 30 years, when did the war for the greater Middle East truly begin? With the Iraq-Iran war of the 1980s? The creation of Israel in 1948? The end of World War I and the breakup of the Ottoman Empire in 1918? Biblical times?
The Thirty Years’ War worked to delay German unification until 1871, after which Germany, late to European power politics, decided to rattle its saber for a bigger seat at the table. World War I was the result.
What will be the long-term effects of constant warfare in the Middle East? Impossible to see, perhaps, but the short-term ones are before our eyes: more instability ahead, more innocents dead, more hatred spread.
When I was a kid, I was a big admirer of Israel. I saw Israel as being surrounded by implacable enemies bent on its destruction. Israel was the plucky underdog, David against Goliath, with Goliath being Arab countries like Egypt and Syria, having militaries trained and equipped by the Soviet Union, sworn enemy of the U.S. during the Cold War (or so my ten-year-old mind saw it). I recall keeping a scrapbook of articles on the Yom Kippur War of 1973. I cheered the Israeli “blitzkrieg” (What an odd term for a daring Jewish armored attack!) that crossed the Suez Canal and isolated the Egyptian Third Army, as well as the Israeli riposte on the Golan Heights against Syria.
That was 1973. Forty-one years later, Israel is engaged in yet another assault on Gaza and the Palestinians. Compared to the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), the Palestinian militants are undergunned and hopelessly outclassed. Organizations like Hamas rely on the traditional tactics of terrorists (or freedom-fighters, choose your loaded word): hit-and-run raids, random attacks (unguided rockets), war in the shadows (or in the tunnels). Who is David and who is Goliath now?
What hasn’t changed, of course, is the mainstream media in the U.S., which cheers the Israelis while condemning Hamas and any other Palestinians who choose resistance instead of compliance. Watching a snippet of CNN, I witnessed Wolf Blitzer, who poses as a disinterested journalist, demanding from his Palestinian interviewee an immediate stoppage in rocket attacks. Blitzer had nothing critical to say of Israeli air raids or the disproportionate casualties suffered by the Palestinians in this latest skirmish in a very long war.
What can be done? As one of my historian friends put it, the Middle East has “a massive legacy of entropy.” All I know is that more bloodshed, and more innocents killed, like those four young boys playing soccer on the beach, only adds to that entropy — and the legacy of hatred.
Perhaps one thing I’ve learned in four decades is that negotiations in good faith can’t occur when either side sees itself as a heroic David fighting against a glowering Goliath. Until Israelis and Palestinians see each other as fellow human beings, as equals rather than as monsters, wars will continue, innocents will suffer, and hopes will be left in the dust, slayed like so many Goliaths by self-anointed Davids.
Twenty-five years ago, I wrote the following paper for a class in the history of technology. Back then, chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and acid rain as well as global warming were issues highlighting the drawbacks of technology. CFCs were damaging the ozone layer, acid rain was poisoning our lakes and streams and damaging trees, with the buildup of greenhouse gases looming as a future threat. The future is now, of course, since we’ve done virtually nothing to address global warming. If anything, the debate in 1989 was far more sober, since back then there were no “climate change deniers.”
Written at the tail end of the Cold War, my paper from 1989 is colored by the threat of nuclear annihilation, another threat (like acid rain and CFCs) that has abated in the last two decades. Reason for hope, perhaps?
Yet in those 25 years, technology has only proliferated even as compassion for those less fortunate has declined. I wrote this paper before there was an Internet and World Wide Web, before cell phones and smart phones became ubiquitous, before we had so much conclusive evidence of the dangers of man-accelerated global warming. I was attempting to argue that scientists and engineers had an obligation to consider the larger impact of their work, to include the moral implications of their research.
I’ve made one major change to this paper as written 25 years ago. Back then, I concluded with the idea that an ethics based on Christianity needed to inform the work of scientists and engineers. Today, this argument seems far too parochial and limiting, so I have removed it.
Technology and the Role of Scientists and Engineers in Modern Society (1989)
What is the proper role of scientists and engineers in modern society? This question is especially relevant today, as can readily be confirmed by opening the September 1989 special issue of Scientific American entitled “Managing Planet Earth.” Technology, it seems, has spawned many monsters: chlorofluorocarbons that tear holes in our protective ozone shield, factory smoke that turns our rain acidic, carbon dioxide that threatens to convert our planet into one big greenhouse. The contributors to Scientific American assert that humanity must regain control over technology before its monsters inflict irreparable damage to the earth.
Defenders of technology, not surprisingly, advance the opposite thesis. Samuel Florman, an engineer and the author of Blaming Technology, counters that “technology is still very much under society’s control, that it is in fact an expression of our very human desires, fancies, and fears.” In Florman’s opinion, engineers should dedicate themselves to doing works for the good of society, but they should not try to define what is good for society. Their mission, Florman holds, is to achieve rather than to set society’s goals.
Florman does not exonerate engineers from all responsibility, however. He asserts that engineers must be guided by their individual consciences, but he also suggests that society should not expect any “special compassion” from its engineers. In fact he implies that society must resign itself to emotionally-detached engineers: “If we accept the single-minded dedication of ballet dancers and other artists,” Florman analogizes, “we should be able to accept, however regretfully, the same characteristic in a number of scientists and engineers.”
But a serious flaw lies at the heart of Florman’s plea for the sanctity of the engineering profession. He disregards the vastly different societal roles of artists versus scientists and engineers, as well as the serious dangers of a powerful technical elite. The philosopher Hannah Arendt noted these dangers in the context of atomic experimentation:
The simple fact that physicists split the atom without any hesitations … although they realized full well the enormous destructive potentialities … demonstrates that the scientist qua scientist does not even care about the survival of the human race on earth or, for that matter, about the survival of the planet itself.
Arendt makes an important point here. Scientists and engineers sometimes pursue their interests even when they threaten the survival of humanity (or themselves for that matter). Evidence from the Manhattan Project lends credibility to this argument. Most scientists who worked on the project were too caught up in the technical challenges of building the atomic bomb to entertain moral qualms about the bomb’s purpose. Robert R. Wilson, the leader of the cyclotron group during the Project, observed that he never considered quitting:
We were the heroes of our epic, and there was no turning back. We were working on a problem to which we were completely committed; there was little time to re-examine our moral position from day to day.
The atomic bomb was the grail for these knights of science; they focused on their pursuit and little else. Perhaps they believed they could wash their hands clean of the stains of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, for they neither made the decision to drop the bombs nor did they pilot the planes. Yet they could not deny that it was their expertise that brought humanity to the brink of its own destruction during the Cold War.
So what does our nuclear heritage teach us? It teaches us that humanity needs a more humane technology and more humane engineers. In sum, we need a new purpose for technology, one that is inspired by social and humanitarian concerns.
Jules Verne captured the risk of failing to do so. “If men go on inventing machinery, they’ll end by being swallowed up by their own inventions,” Verne prophesized. There are still some people, however, who continue to believe that technological advances themselves will eliminate technology’s harms. Charles F. Kettering, a remarkably inventive General Motor’s executive and a quintessential company man, captured this idea. In Paul de Kruif’s words, Kettering felt that
You cannot put the brakes on any discovery … you’ve got to go on with it even if we’re all blown to hell with it. What you should do is step up the study of human nature, you may even find a chemical, a vitamin, a hormone, a simple pill to take the devil out of human nature….
Here one cannot help but be reminded of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, where another automotive engineer, Henry Ford, was god, morality was but a faint memory, and drugs were the panacea for human ills.
Elting Morison, in Men, Machines, and Modern Times (1984), suggests that since technology forces humanity into its categories, humanity has no choice but to create a new culture to accommodate it. He proposes that a series of small experiments be performed world-wide, with “man as the great criterion” (or, perhaps more accurately, the great guinea pig). Apparently, a successful experiment will be one in which humans thrive, while an unsuccessful one will be one where humans “break down.” Rather oddly, Morison believes the military provides us with the paradigm of how to proceed. In his words:
They [the military] have the nuclear weapon that has fulfilled the exaggerated extreme toward which the system always tends … But for practical purposes they have created around this extreme a whole arsenal of carefully graded instruments of limited destruction – old-fashioned armaments of lesser power and new weapons of modulated nuclear energy.
It’s shocking how Morison waxes nostalgic over those “old-fashioned” weapons, and his addition of “modulation” to atomic bombs makes them seem downright cozy. As George Orwell observed in his famous 1946 essay entitled Politics and the English Language, “such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.” Thus cluster bombs that send shrieking hunks of shrapnel through the air, napalm that sears lungs and burns human skin, and atomic artillery shells that annihilate armies (but not cities, we hope) become, for Morison, “modest examples of how to begin to proceed.”
A more pessimistic prospectus for the future of technology is held by Arnold Pacey in The Maze of Ingenuity (1980). For Pacey, history reveals that technology cannot “easily accommodate the broad aims and the mixture of human and technical factors which a socially-orientated direction of progress in technology … require[s]. Thus the efforts made to encourage a more directly social form of technical progress … have been relatively ineffective.”
Pacey attributes this failure to the dominance of the mechanical world view. Beginning with Galileo, Pacey maintains, scientists and engineers restricted their own view of the world, blinding themselves to the larger purposes of technology.
Pacey does more than lament, though. He offers several potential solutions, all of which seem flawed. He assumes that new, less destructive, technologies are needed to meet human needs, or to ease poverty, yet the world currently has enough resources to end poverty, and present technology could doubtless be used more constructively. Pacey also unconsciously undermines his argument by citing education and medical care as “examples of how continuous improvement is possible without any large accompanying drain on material resources.” Unfortunately for Pacey, both education and medical care are currently (and rightly) under siege in this country. Despite large sums of money spent and countless reform proposals, education remains mediocre, while medical care remains compassionless and costly.
No wonder Pacey despairs. He half-heartedly mentions other potential balms, e.g. critical science, which pursues “careful, rigorous researches into the relationship between technical innovation, nature and society,” and general systems theory, yet it is unclear from reading Pacey how critical science differs from general systems theory. In the end, Pacey supplies the reader with little in the way of hope, for he despondently observes that systems theory is corruptible.
In the end, we’re left with today’s dehumanizing technological imperative, as noted by Carlo Cipolla, a noted historian of technology, in this passage:
Each new machine … creates new needs, besides satisfying existing ones, and breeds newer machines. The new contrivances modify and shape our lives and our thoughts; they affect the arts and philosophy, and they intrude even into our spare time.
To prevent this dominance of the machine, science and technology need to serve social and humanitarian needs more directly. In “Thinking about Human Extinction,” George Kateb holds that individuals must attach themselves first and foremost to existence. This attachment “cannot be cultivated by way of a theology that bestows [from the outside] meaning or worth on existence,” and it must be able to withstand “all temptations to go along with policies that may lead to human and natural extinction.”
Existence is justified by a sense of beauty; specifically, Martin Heidegger’s wonderment at the very indefiniteness of existence. For Kateb, “because there could have been earthly nothingness … one must finally attach oneself to earthly existence, whatever it is, and act to preserve it … [To this end] persons must be schooled in beauty to acquire the disposition to sustain wonder that there is earthly existence rather than none.” In sum, we must learn to revel in the very fact of humanity’s existence against the longest of cosmic odds.
In a world that grows ever more fragile with each passing day, an appreciation for the fragility of our existence, as well as an abiding compassion for humanity, is exactly what we need from our scientists and engineers.
Sources in order of citation
Samuel C. Florman, Blaming Technology: The Irrational Search for Scapegoats (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1981).
Hannah Arendt, “A Symposium on Space: Has Man’s Conquest of Space Increased or Diminished his Stature?”, The Great Ideas Today 1963 (Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 1963).
Robert R. Wilson, “The Scientists who Made the Atom Bomb,” Science, Conflict and Society (San Francisco: W.H. Freeman, 1969).
Jules Verne, Five Weeks in a Balloon (1862), quoted in James R. Newman, “The History and Present State of Science Fiction,” Science, Conflict and Society (San Francisco: W.H. Freeman, 1969).
Paul de Kruif, Life Among the Doctors (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1949), p. 445, quoted in William Leslie, Boss Kettering (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983).
Elting E. Morison, Men, Machines, and Modern Times (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1966, 1984).
Arnold Pacey, The Maze of Ingenuity: Ideas and Idealism in the Development of Technology (New York: Holmes/Meier, 1974, 1980).
Carlo M. Cipolla, Clocks and Culture 1300-1700 (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1978).
George Kateb, “Thinking about Human Extinction: (I) Nietzsche and Heidegger,” Raritan (Fall 1986), pp. 1-28.
The U.S. military today openly boasts of global reach, global power. Full spectrum dominance is the goal, with that spectrum encompassing land, sea, and air operations, but also extending to space (“the shining stars, and beyond,” one Air Force advertisement claimed) and cyberspace.
The desire for global dominance has deep roots in American strategic thought. In American strategic circles the foremost proponent of this vision was Alfred Thayer Mahan. More than a century ago, Mahan promoted a vision of American dominance achieved through naval power, in those days big-gunned battleships. Mahan believed America was the successor to England and was destined to build a great empire.
Mahan’s imperial vision was occasionally superseded by American tendencies toward isolationism, in which case the U.S. Navy sold its fleet as America’s best defender. (This is also how early airpower proponents sold bombers in the 1920s; even though airpower enthusiasts embraced the offensive, they could spin on a dime to promote bombers as being more cost effective than naval ships and army coastal artillery in defending America’s coasts when isolationism held sway.)
Today’s U.S. military is inherently Mahanian. Even though most Americans think of our military as defensive (after all, it’s advertised as the Department of Defense), our military is obviously structured to take the fight to the enemy. America’s “warriors” are forever leaning forward in the foxhole, forever on alert, forever ready for the next exercise in global reach, global power.
In part, we can thank Mahan and England’s boisterous imperialism for this. What follows is an essay I wrote in 1992 for a Strategic Studies Seminar. Perhaps it’s still worth reading, at least as a precis on how we became a country that openly sought (and brazenly exercised) global power. It all started with Mahan and the navy, today’s “global force for good.”
Alfred Thayer Mahan, Julian Corbett, and Naval Strategy before World War I (Written in 1992)
Prior to World War I, an uncritical demand for naval power, or Navalism, led to the greatest warship building boom in history. Nations built great battle fleets to help establish and protect colonial empires whether they could afford them or not. As Chancellor Bulow of Germany declared, “The question is not whether we want to colonize or not, but that we must
colonize, whether we want it or not.”
The rapid growth of England’s empire provided the justification for Navalism. In 1800 the British Empire had 20 million subjects, spread over 1.5 million square miles. In 1900 she had 390 million subjects, spread over 11 million square miles. Explaining England’s success was one mission of Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan, United States Navy (USN). In his Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783, published in 1890, Mahan plainly stated England dominated the world because of her holy naval trinity of merchant shipping, colonies, and, most importantly, her navy. He observed “a country’s power and influence must depend upon her hold upon regions without her own borders, and to which the sea leads. The influence of the little British islands gives a lesson our people will surely learn.” Mahan’s primary purpose in Influence was rhetorical: to persuade Americans that a large USN built around battleships was essential for their wealth and security, and to move them to support, with their votes and purses, such a navy.
This rhetorical subtext drove Mahan’s writings on naval strategy. Of the three traditional naval strategies — superior fleet, fleet in being, guerre de course — Mahan heaped scorn on the latter two while brazenly proclaiming the superiority of the former. “It is not the taking of individual ships or convoys…that strikes down the money power of a nation,” Mahan observed; “it is the possession of that overbearing power on the sea which drives the enemy’s flag from it, or allows it to appear only as a fugitive; and which, by controlling the great common, closes the highways by which commerce moves… This overbearing power can only be exercised by great navies.”
Mahan further drove home his lesson that superior fleets bring command of the sea and its subsequent benefits of national growth, prosperity, and security by using examples from history. He warned Americans they were “being led, by a like [that is, like France’s] redundancy of home wealth, into the same neglect of that great instrument [a navy].” France’s “false policy of continental extension swallowed up the resources of the country,” asserted Mahan, “expos[ing] the greatest source of [her] wealth [commerce and colonies] to be cut off, as in fact happened.” The one instance the French got it right was during the American Revolution. The French rebuilt their navy and got temporary control of the seas, partly due to blunders by the Royal Navy. To support his call for a larger USN, Mahan cleverly quoted George Washington on the decisive role the revitalized French fleet played at Yorktown.
To understand Mahan’s fixation on the superior fleet strategy, we need to study the distinctly American context in which he wrote. Mark Shulman showed in The Journal of Military History that there was an influential movement in America in the 1880s to reinterpret the War of 1812 between the United States and England. This movement played up the role of the USN at the expense of the Army, and emphasized the need for a powerful navy to protect America and to project American power abroad. Theodore Roosevelt’s The Naval War of 1812, published in 1882, was a prime example of the revisionist literature of this group. Mahan’s book is only the best known polemic of an American Navalist movement which sought to revitalize a USN struggling through fifteen years of post-bellum neglect.
Neglect there was. Elting Morison, a leading naval historian, has said that for about twenty years after the Civil War, “In [US naval] strategy the highest thought was that you existed to protect the coastline. You went out on station if there was a war and waited for the enemy to come to you. You then went close to her and at very short ranges either boarded or rammed or poured broadsides into her.” Mahan would have agreed with Morison; in his words, there was no formulated naval policy after the Civil War, only “apathetic drift,” a period of “decadence.” And while some pointed to the stunning successes won by the USN pursuing guerre de course in the War of 1812 as a possible future strategy, Mahan stressed our dismal failure to command the seas, which allowed the nasty Britons to burn our capital, stop our commerce, and threaten our national existence.
Mahan’s vision was a USN that would at least rival the Royal Navy. He thus unashamedly simplified naval strategy to mean battleship building, as when he stated “Naval strategy has indeed for its end to found, support, and increase, as well in peace as in war, the sea power of a country.” The USN needed to grow, and a superior fleet strategy provided the most room for the USN’s future growth.
Mahan turned to Jomini when he dealt with the specifics of naval strategy. He quoted with approval Jomini’s definition of strategy as deciding where to act. Under “strategy” he listed such issues as the selection of the theater of war, the paramount importance of securing lines of communication, the role of military ports, and the choice of the objective and how to achieve it. Like Jomini, he stressed the geometry of strategy and the value of concentration, warning the USN must never divide the fleet into Atlantic and Pacific squadrons.
Mahan helped speed-up naval modernization in the US, and his efforts appeared justified by the Spanish-American War of 1898. But Mahan’s influence went far beyond American shores, and for several reasons. First, Mahan, imitating Jomini, searched for scientific or timeless principles of naval warfare. His Influence is a practical handbook enlivened by history, not a Hegelian tome obscured by dialectic like Clausewitz’s On War. Second, Mahan writes well. I hesitate to quote once again his melodramatic depiction of Nelson’s navy, “those far-distant, storm-beaten ships, upon which Napoleon’s soldiers never looked, [that] stood between them and the conquest of the world.” Nonetheless, it is worth quoting to demonstrate Mahan’s popular appeal. One can’t imagine Kaiser Wilhelm committing every word of Clausewitz to memory, good Prussian though he was. Third, and perhaps most importantly, Mahan wrote the perfect book for the time. England had already voted for the Two Power Standard in 1889, which Mahan’s book seemed to verify as wise. His most attentive audience, however, was in Germany, where the Kaiser and Admiral Tirpitz seized upon his work to justify their naval buildup in pursuit of Germany’s place in the sun and world-power status.
Mahan’s drawbacks are well-known and many: he overestimated the decisiveness of navies in warfare, subordinating history to his “artistic” (as he termed it) vision of a powerful USN ruling the seas, and he almost completely ignored land-sea cooperation. Although he paid homage to the political dimensions of war, he preached almost exclusively that “victory goes to the side with the bigger fleets,” in effect reducing naval strategy to naval shipbuilding.
While it is true Mahan neglected such traditional naval functions as amphibious operations, he probably did so so as to not water down his argument for a powerful, blue water navy. His heavy-handed dismissal of guerre de course and fleet-in-being as viable strategies can be seen in a similar light. With respect to the former, Mahan admitted the importance of commerce raiding as a secondary naval operation, but he stressed “the great object of naval warfare” was first to get command of the sea through decisive fleet actions. The side commanding the seas, Mahan predicted, could severely restrict an enemy’s commerce-raiders (mostly cruisers at this time) by capturing their coaling stations. He did not foresee the rise of submarines as commerce-raiders, but this is hardly surprising, given the primitive state
of submarine technology. He did remark, based on second-hand knowledge of the Russo-Japanese War, that submarines, because they lay so low in the water, had a limited horizon and thus had difficulty locating ships.
He also criticized the fleet-in-being strategy, saying its utility had “been much overstated” and that the superior fleet would always sink or otherwise neutralize the inferior. Events in the Russo-Japanese War seemed to support his ideas. The Russian fleet in being at Port Arthur proved of little value, Mahan wrote, and the Japanese simply “masked” it by blockade. He did observe that if one was stuck with an inferior fleet, the proper strategy was to divide the enemy’s superior fleet by some tactic, then crush it in detail. He termed this the “defensive-offensive,” and here he spoke highly of the Dutch Admiral De Ruyter’s efforts against the Royal Navy during the Anglo-Dutch wars of the 17th century.
Mahan exerted a powerful influence over naval strategy in the United States, Japan, and Germany. In America, the USN became a top-heavy force of mainly battleships, serving as the nation’s “first line of defense.” Mahan’s dictum of “Never divide the fleet!” remained gospel up until World War II. In Japan, Mahan’s Influence was adopted as a text in all her naval and military colleges. In Germany, the Kaiser had it translated and boasted that all his naval officers were reading it. But while the United States and Japan prospered by following his teachings, Germany embarked on a dangerous and costly naval arms race with the Royal Navy. In building dreadnoughts to win command of the sea, the Germans created a cold war between themselves and the British while wasting valuable resources that could have been devoted to land warfare.
It is within the context of an England threatened by Germany’s naval program that we need to place Julian Corbett and his book Some Principles of Maritime Strategy, published in 1911. Two obvious differences — the time and the country in which he’s writing — separate his work from Mahan’s. Corbett had little need to convince his fellow Britons of the importance of a navy, nor did he need or want to win over a world audience already enthralled by Mahan. War loomed, and Corbett wanted to ensure the Royal Navy had given the matter some thought. His book is a sophisticated reading of Clausewitz and how the Prussian’s ideas can be applied to naval warfare.
Corbett, who taught naval history at the Royal Navy college at Greenwich, defined maritime strategy as the mutual relations of navy and army in a plan for war. War itself he defined in Clausewitzian terms as the continuation of policy by other means. Corbett’s strategic theory is more modern sounding than Mahan’s precisely because of his use of Clausewitz, but also because he believed that through close cooperation, armies and navies could produce a synergistic effect. While he should be applauded for his lack of service parochialism, Corbett was reasserting the critical role the navy played in strategy at a time when the British Army was controlling the terms of strategic debate in England.
Corbett defined naval strategy in relation to maritime strategy. Naval strategy was the movement and actions of the fleet which best advanced the maritime strategy. While this might involve attacking the enemy fleet and gaining command of the seas, it might also involve amphibious operations. The strategy adopted would depend on the circumstances of the conflict. Reading the circumstances and taking the proper actions, Corbett believed, were skills enhanced by the study of history and strategic theory. Most commonly, gaining command of the sea was the primary object of naval warfare. Once command was gained, either through battle or blockade, one could then control the all-important lines of communication or trade routes. Command was best gained by battleships, whereas control was best exercised by cruisers which could protect one’s own trade while interdicting the enemy’s.
Corbett’s distinction between gaining command of the sea and exercising that command was crucial to his thinking. His approach to naval strategy was thoughtful and descriptive, rather than prescriptive. He recognized a fleet-in-being could dispute control of local communication lines and prevent a superior fleet from gaining positive results, as the German High Seas fleet did to some extent during World War I. Like Mahan, though, he rejected guerre de course as a viable strategy. Commerce raiders would have limited range, and he thought improvements in technology such as wireless radios favored the defense. He saw submarines working in concert with fleets-in-being to threaten superior fleets, but he overlooked their potential as commerce raiders.
Keeping the German fleet firmly in mind, Corbett cautioned the Royal Navy and the Fisher school against reckless attacks to obtain an immediate decision by fleet action. If the Germans refused to sail, Corbett recommended a blockade, distinguishing between its naval and commercial functions. Through a blockade, which most likely had to be “open” or “loose” because new technologies such as torpedoes made close blockades too risky, the Royal Navy could prevent the Germans from putting to sea, thereby effectively gaining command of the sea. With command won, the navy would mount a commercial blockade to control trade. The ultimate target was Germany’s will and her finances. This is essentially the strategy the Grand Fleet and Admirals Jellicoe and Beatty followed against Germany during the Great War. It was exhausting sea duty lacking in glory, but it worked.
To conclude, Mahan charted the dimensions of naval strategy, while Corbett plumbed its depths. Both of their strategies must be understood in their context. Mahan developed a strategy for a navy adrift and in need of ideas. At a time when strategic naval thought was arguably neglected in England, Corbett forced his navy to think more deeply about their rich tradition and come up with strategies which fit the crisis at hand. Both men repay reading, although Corbett, like his mentor Clausewitz, is more thought-provoking.
It’s good to have a day like the Fourth of July, a day to celebrate the promise of our country, and a day to reflect on our blessings. It should be an apolitical day, a day to be with loved ones, and a day to remember how lucky we are, even if it’s not always good times for everyone.
I took a few photos at dusk the other day on Cape Cod. They’re a reminder to me of the blessings of nature, and also that we share our land in common: that this land is your land, my land, for you and me. Let’s share it together.