IN REVIEW, Kevin D. McCranie, Mahan, Corbett, and the Foundations of Naval Strategic Thought (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2021).
A classic book is one that is read and discussed for generations after its initial publication. We continue to discover something intellectually stimulating in it, despite the passing of time and the changing of circumstances. A classic, that is, is timeless because it points to some enduring principles or truths and develops our prudential judgment by forcing us to consider how to apply them to our own circumstances. The writings of Alfred Thayer Mahan and Julian Corbett, two foundational thinkers of maritime strategy at the turn of the last century, are such classics in the field of naval strategic thought. And Kevin McCranie, professor of strategy at the U.S. Naval War College, does them justice in his new book in which he lays out their arguments and analyzes their influence.
The American Mahan and the British Corbett wrote with great abandon, producing voluminous literature on naval matters and establishing themselves as the most important theorists of seapower. The quantity of their writings presents two problems to any student: one, it is arduous to plow through all of them, and two, it is possible to find either too much agreement or fundamental disagreements between the two authors. McCranie has done a great job on both counts. Based on meticulous research, he presents both theorists’ arguments in great detail, going beyond their most famous bestsellers and explicating their thinking in a clear and well-organized way. On whether Mahan and Corbett agree more than they disagree, McCranie is more conflicted but presents a nuanced view. While the two theorists have more in common than often is understood and more than, in fact, they themselves may have been willing to accept, there are some deep differences. Both writers have established some principles of naval strategy and, perhaps more importantly, have anchored thinking about naval affairs in a study of history, establishing a solid tradition of maritime thought. But they wrote from very distinctive perspectives and were preoccupied with different maritime problems.
Throughout his book, McCranie stresses the origin of the divergence between Mahan and Corbett: their audiences. Mahan wrote for a large audience with the express purpose of promoting the importance of a nascent U.S. Navy to the American public. He is the “evangelist of sea power” (so named by Margaret Sprout in the 1940s), a relentless marketer of a rising power’s navy. He wrote, therefore, with pathos and, at times, with less regard for historical detail. The goal was not to discover new historical facts but to harness history to show how national success was tied to seapower. This is Mahan’s theory of national greatness.
Corbett, on the other hand, wrote for a smaller readership, mostly British naval officers, who certainly did not need to be persuaded of the necessity of a fleet. What they needed, however, was a more in-depth understanding of how to use the navy and of the challenges, and even limitations, of a seapower. Corbett, therefore, began his intellectual journey by examining history, from a study of the battle of Trafalgar to the development of British maritime influence over the Mediterranean and an examination of British naval operations during the Seven Years’ War. Only toward the end of his career did Corbett sum up his lessons learned in his most read book, Some Principles of Maritime Strategy.