Air University Review, March-April 1986

The Classic Approach

Mahan's Classical View and The
Profession of Arms

Dr. Donald D. Chipman

In 1914, two years before Lieutenants Carl Spaatz and Benjamin Foulois flew America's first combat mission during the Mexican intervention, Alfred T. Mahan died. Thus one may ask, what could Mahan contribute to our modern understanding of war and leadership? Yet an investigation of Mahan's nearly 100 books and articles reveals numerous combat lessons which were true during his time and remain so today. These are the perennial warfare lessons found in the classical works of Mahan, Clausewitz, Sun Tzu, and others. While these concepts are not panaceas, at the very least they provide questions to investigate. As a classical military theorist, Mahan attempted to analyze war's nature in the maritime environment.

More specifically, like Clausewitz, Mahan investigated the Seven Years' War and the Napoleonic Wars. From this analysis, he wrote two classics: The Influence of Sea Power upon History and The Influence of Sea Power upon the French Revolution and Empire,1793-1812.In 1890, with the publication of the first book, Mahan became the preeminent sea power historian and a classical theorist of naval warfare.

Mahan's writing career gained momentum when he joined the Naval War College faculty in 1885. There he was challenged to develop sea power principles as Jomini had produced land power principles. Thus he set to work describing how the British Royal Navy successfully defeated the French and others through sea power. Ironically, by the time he amplified these principles, ships were no longer powered by sail, and many of his ideas became outdated. Yet in his sea power doctrine, there were specific, recurring leadership themes and concepts of war that even today remain relevant. As an instructor and, later, as Naval War College president, Mahan insisted that officers ought to study war. He agreed with Clausewitz that war was basically a human conflict of courage, honor, fear, and duty. However, in Mahan's time, few naval officers realized the importance of this human element. For most officers, war was some type of managerial exercise, a mathematical equation, or an engineering principle. Therefore, war studies were considered nonessential. According to Mahan, a typical naval officer believed that it was more important to

know how to build a gun, to design a ship, to understand the strength of materials, to observe the stars through a telescope, to be wise in chemistry and electricity, than to have ingrained in him the knowledge of the laws of war, to understand the tactical handling of his weapons, to be expert in questions of naval policy, strategy, and tactics.1

Mahan said that this military education was totally wrong, and he decided to require his fellow officers to study war. Because in those days, just as now, officers were busy handling many daily problems, Mahan assumed a neverending task. "The complex developments of the present day have reconciled us to specialists," he remarked.2

Wherever Mahan looked, he found naval officers more concerned with their careers than with anything else. One officer told him that since the Naval War College needed more students, the school should teach only practical lessons from the "real Navy." When Mahan asked what type, the officer commented: "If you want to attract officers to the college, give them something that will help them pass their next examinations."3

Mahan found that most officers wanted slick, quick answers to the world's most complex events: wars. Indeed, many believed that war was essentially a technical problem which could be harnessed by mechanical means. Mahan blamed this mentality on the U.S. Navy's approach to war, which, like the modern-day view, tended to glorify the technical aspects and underplay the human elements. If someone asked who was a gun authority or a navigational expert, noted Mahan, this specialist was easily named. The military journals were full of technical articles, he continued, yet seldom were there essays on the art of war. And what wonder then, stated Mahan,

that we find our noble calling undervalued in this day? Have we not ourselves much to blame for it in this exclusive devotion to the mechanical matters? Do we not hear, within and without, the scornful cry of disparagement that everything is done by machinery in these days, and that we are waxing old and decaying, ready to vanish away? Everything done by machinery! as if the subtlest and most comprehensive mind that ever wrought on this planet could devise a machine to meet the innumerable incidents of sea and naval war.4

Mahan pleaded with officers to study war. He claimed that the best time for this activity was between wars. During peacetime, he continued, officers ought to study war's complicated aspects because attempts to classify war by hasty, simple rules would result in a "disaster of grave proportion."5 Before the squall strikes, he claimed,

there is time yet for study; there is time to imbibe the experience of the past, to become imbued, steeped in the external principles of war, by the study of its history and of the maxims of its masters. But the time of preparation will pass—someday the time of action will come. Can an admiral sit down and re-enforce his intellectual grasp of the problem before him by a study of history, which is simply a study of past experience? Not so; the time of action is upon him, and he must trust his horse sense.6

After developing his case for the study of war, Mahan described how leadership was essential. He would agree today with Martin van Creveld's statement, "The time has now come to examine a constituent of fighting power that, perhaps more than any other, decides the outcome of war: leadership."7 Indeed, Mahan's sea power doctrine depended on talented, aggressive leadership. Mahan defined sea power in terms of a navy capable of finding the enemy, defeating them, and gaining command of the sea. For Mahan, the eighteenth-century Royal Navy fulfilled his criteria of sea power. The English were victorious primarily because of the dynamic leadership of Admirals Sir Edward Hawke, George Anson, Richard Howe, John Jervis, and Horatio Nelson. These leaders possessed the tenacity to sail, fight, and win. They gained command of the sea, and they brought English sea power to fruition.

Throughout his works, Mahan made various leadership comments. For the most part, he believed that naval leaders should be aggressive, courageous, and determined. In his mind, Nelson was the perfect combat leader.

During the 1890s, Mahan wrote a Nelson biography in which he glorified Nelson's battles and exploits. Yet, as a devoutly religious man, Mahan could not understand Nelson's behavior with Lady Hamilton. Critics claimed that Mahan whitewashed this part of Nelson's biography. After further investigation, Mahan had to admit that Lady Hamilton projected a "gloomy shadow over his hero."8 Years later, Mahan's biographer, Robert Seager, noted that Mahan could not conceive that "Nelson's combat temperament expressed itself in almost identical ways on King George's quarterdecks and in Lady Hamilton’s boudoir."9

In addition to Nelson's biography, Mahan wrote numerous leadership books and articles. Among them were biographies of John P. Jones, Thomas Macdonough, David Farragut, John Jervis, and Edward Hawke. In nearly all of these, he compared these leaders to Nelson. For instance, during the Spanish-American War, U.S. Navy Commodore Winfield Schley failed to attack the Spanish fleet aggressively in a typical Nelson manner. Mahan castigated Schley for his lack of leadership. In fact, Mahan wrote to the Navy Department that Schley was totally "unfit for command."10 Nevertheless, when the Spanish decided to fight, Schley defeated them.

Mahan claimed that Nelson possessed several distinct leadership characteristics. The most important were Nelson's ability to analyze a battle situation quickly (coup d'oeil) and his determination to attack the enemy's weakness aggressively. Carl von Clausewitz was the first military writer to explain these leadership skills, noting:

If the mind is to emerge unscathed from this relentless struggle with the unforeseen, two qualities are indispensable. First, an intellect that even in the darkest hours, retains some glimmerings of inner light which leads to truth; and second, the courage to follow this faint light wherever it may lead. The first of these qualities is described by the French term coup d'oeil; the second is determination.11

Mahan used similar terms and ideas in describing Nelson's and Admiral David Farragut's leadership qualities:

Nelson, for the most part, shone upon the battlefield by his tactical combinations, by the rapidity and boldness with which he carried out plans previously laid, or, on occasion, by the astonishing coup d'oeil and daring with which, in unforeseen crises, he snatched and secured escaping victory. Farragut in actual battles showed that careful adaptation of means to ends, which has a just claim to be considered tactical science; but his great merit was in clearness with which he recognized the decisive point of a campaign, or of a particular operation, and threw upon it the force under his direction.12

Mahan agreed with Clausewitz that the art of command included coup d'oeil. To be successful, a leader must analyze clearly the battle situation and then take action. Over and over, throughout modern military literature, these elements of leadership reappear. For instance, S. L. A. Marshall wrote that leadership is, by rough approximation, "sixty percent the ability to anticipate and forty percent the ability to improve."13 Field Marshal Rommel's biographer, Desmond Young, noted that Rommel possessed "Fingerspitzengefuehl, that innate sense of what the enemy was about to do."14 Recently, Colonel John R. Boyd incorporated coup d’oeil and Fingerspitzengefuehl into modern terms. Boyd said that leadership was primarily "observation, orientation, decision, and action."15

Mahan recognized that leadership skill includes courage. Nelson often declared, "No captain can do very wrong who places his ship beside the enemy."16 However, he, like Mahan did not advocate rash action. Through experience and study, Nelson could predict French tactics. To ensure that all of his subordinates were knowledgeable and determined, Nelson invited each of his captains for the HMS Victory dinner. There they would discuss the next battle and the enemy's weaknesses. Thus Nelson built cohesion and a fighting spirit in his command. Often he called his fellow officers band of brothers.17 Unlike today, when rated and nonrated officers sometimes emphasize their differences, Nelson attempted to build morale by promoting a fraternal brotherhood. In other times and other wars, both General Robert E. Lee and Admiral Chester Nimitz similarly considered their officers as their brothers.18 Unfortunately, today many officers attend management schools where they learn that "familiarity breeds contempt" instead of Nelson's ideal, "familiarity bred cohesion."

Although most individuals are familiar with Nelson's Trafalgar victory and his comment "Thank God I have done my duty," few realize that Nelson spent many years in boring pursuit of the French fleet. Nelson's sense of duty was best described by his unyielding effort to bring the French into battle. According to Mahan, between June 1803, and July 1805, Nelson established a naval patrol off the Toulon coast. The HMS Victory participated, and during those two years Nelson remained aboard. Not once did he leave the ship. Mahan commented:

other officers, especially of the frigates, got their occasional runs ashore; but his slight figure was continually in view, walking the quarterdeck, to the unconscious contentment of the men, thus reminded ever, that their Admiral shared their deprivations.19

According to Mahan, Nelson’s sense of duty was inflamed by the "Nelson spirit"—which was, his desire to engage and defeat the enemy. Just before Trafalgar, in a letter to Lady Hamilton, Nelson wrote:

I have not a thought except on you and the French fleet; all my thoughts, plans, and toils tend to those two objects.... We cruise, cruise and one day so like another that they are hardly distinguishable, but hopes, blessed hopes, keeps us up, that some happy day the French may come out, then I shall consider my duty to my country fulfilled.20

Recently, military theorist, Morris Janowitz claimed that the "warrior spirit" remains an essential ingredient of the armed forces. According to Janowitz, the warrior spirit is based on a psychological motive that drives the individual to seek success in combat regardless of personal safety.21 Here is an example of two classical military theorists agreeing. Both Mahan and Janowitz stated emphatically that the warrior spirit should be a significant part of an officer's professional education. Thus Janowitz noted:

Despite technical aspects of the current military establishment, the need for heroic fighters persists.... Units must have an organizational format and a fighter spirit which will enable them to operate effectively.22

More recently, Colonel Harry Summers summarized the importance of the warrior spirit:

Peacetime training and education has one primary purpose—to strengthen and fortify the character and the will of those who would lead our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines into battle. It is this terrible ordeal of combat that, in the final analysis, defines the worth of our officer corps.23

Thus, a thorough examination of Mahan's works reveals many lessons that are true today. Basically, war is a human conflict; leadership is essential, and duty is critical. Mahan was a man of his times, yet he echoed Clausewitz's principles; and more recently, Janowitz has repeated them. If Mahan were alive today, he would continue to emphasize that success in war is not totally dependent on technology, that combat victory continues to be dependent on the leader's warrior spirit, and that officers need to build cohesion. While he did not directly address Air Force employment, Mahan adds greatly to our modern understanding of war and leadership. Because his ideas transcend time and technical innovation to focus on the military professional and war, Mahan remains one of the all-time significant classical military theorists.

Maxwell AFB, Alabama


1. Alfred T. Mahan, Letter to secretary of the Naval Institute, Proceedings, 27 November 1888, pp. 57-60.

2. Ibid., pp. 56-60.

3. Alfred T. Mahan, "The Practical Character of the Naval War College," Proceedings, June 1883.

4. Alfred T. Mahan, "Address of Captain A. T. Mahan, President of U.S. Naval War College," Proceedings, December 1888, pp. 621-39. Emphasis added.

5. Mahan, "The Practical Character of the Naval War College," pp. 153-66.

6. Ibid.

7. Martin van Creveld, Fighting Power: German and U.S. Army Performance, 1939-1945 (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1982), p.127.

8. Alfred T. Mahan, Naval Administration and Warfare (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1918), p. 257.

9. Robert Seager II, Alfred Thayer Mahan: The Man and His Letters (Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 1977), p. 341.

10. Alfred T. Mahan, Letter to John D. Long, Secretary of the Navy, 12 December 1899, in Letters and Papers of Alfred Thayer Mahan, edited by Robert Seager II and Doris Maquire, vol. II (Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 1975), p. 673.

11. Carl von Clausewitz, On War, edited by Peter Paret and Michael Howard (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1976), p. 102.

12. Mahan, "Address of Captain A. T. Mahan, President of U.S. Naval War College," op. cit.

13. S. L. A. Marshall, Men against Fire: The Problem of Battle Command in Future War (Gloucester, Massachusetts: Peter Smith, 1978), p. 108.

14. Desmond Young, Rommel, The Desert Fox (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1951), p. 116.

15. Lieutenant Colonel Barry D. Watts, The Foundations of U.S. Air Doctrine: The Problem of Friction in War (Maxwell AFB, Alabama: Air University Press, 1984) p. 116.

16. Alfred T. Mahan, The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660-1783 (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1890), p. 435.

17. Alfred T. Mahan, The Life of Nelson: The Embodiment of Sea Power of Great Britain, vol. II (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1923), pp. 341-46.

18. E. B. Potter, Nimitz (Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 1976), p. 197, and Douglas S. Freeman, R. E. Lee, vol. I (New York: Scribner, 1934), p. 26.

19. Mahan, The Life of Nelson, vol. II, p. 222.

20. Ibid., pp. 222-23,

21. Morris Janowitz, The Professional Soldier (New York: The Free Press, 1960), p. 32.

22. Ibid., p. 33. Emphasis added.

23. Colonel Harry G. Summers, Jr., "Warrior's Training and Education for Leadership and Readiness," Air Force Policy Letter for Commanders, 1 January 1985, p. 1.


Donald D. Chipman (B.A., California State University; Ph.D., Florida State University) is the Educational Advisor to the Commandant, Squadron Officer School, Maxwell AFB, Alabama, and a commander in the U.S. Naval Reserve. He has served on the faculty at Georgia Southwestern College, Americus, and was a U.S. Navy flight officer and navigator for the EC-121 Typhoon Reconnaissance Squadron in Agana, Guam. Dr. Chipman is coauthor of Philosophical Reflections on Education and Society and Critical Issues in Philosophy of Education and has written several articles published in academic journals, including the Review. He is a graduate of Squadron Officer School.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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