Inventing A Modern Navy

When Mahan made clear the true goal of seapower, he brought order to all the new naval technology.

It is no doubt disconcerting for some historians to realize that one of the most celebrated and influential works of history was composed by a captain in the United States Navy. But it should also be reassuring to find that historical facts, imaginatively interpreted, can be used to alter the thinking and change the actual course of future events. Mahan almost invariably started from the evidence of the past in his search for conclusions in whatever subject he was considering, and he turned his attention to everything from systems of promotion to the legitimate place of the civil and military interest in the administration of an armed force.


He didn’t always get it right. He opposed, for instance, the all-big-gun ship because he felt that opening engagements at the extreme ranges permitted by the great guns would produce in the naval mind an “indisposition to close” that was in conflict with the magisterial Nelsonian dictum that no captain could go far wrong if he laid his ship alongside an enemy. But on the whole, building his arguments on a base of the historical evidence, he said many wise and constructive things.

And now that Mahan and his works have themselves become historical facts, can they be usefully applied in the present circumstances? Some years ago 1 suggested that the development of our modern Navy could be taken as a kind of parable. What the naval history of the past century nicely demonstrates is this: If you want to design and control a satisfying technological system, you must have, beyond a sense of the engineering possibilities, a clear idea of what you want to use it for.

About the time Mahan was writing his book, Thomas Huxley came over to this country with much the same message. You have all these steam engines, dynamos, open hearths, rolling mills, and consumer goods, he pointed out, but have you figured out what you are going to do with all these things? That, he said, was the “great issue about which hangs a true sublimity and the terror of overhanging fate.”

The world has changed a good deal since then. For one thing, it has in itself become an evolving technological system. It is now within the engineering possibilities to replace the work of the hand with the operation of the robot, to colonize the outer spaces of the universe, to preempt much mental activity with an artificial intelligence, and to blow the whole thing up. But the overhanging issue still overhangs. The criteria for determining some unifying purpose and maintaining order among all these great potentials are simply not yet there. The earlier ideal of progress is insufficiently defined to serve as a controlling concept. The current overriding aim, though more precisely stated as the constant increase of the gross national product, has proved too narrow.

What seems now required is a scheme of things for human affairs as comprehensive in its statement of ends and means as were the command of the sea and the composition of the fleet for those concerned with naval operations. Since human affairs are more complicated than naval operations, an outline of such a scheme will probably not be found in one book or one man’s mind or in a night and a day. It will be the product of a collective investigation over time.

The search may well start from the recognition that people won’t know what to do with technology until they have a clearer and more distinct idea of what they are and might hope to be. When you can do almost anything with the machinery, it becomes necessary to decide first what you plan to do for and with yourselves. That new scheme of things will therefore have to include a revised list of priorities, an array of alternative satisfactions, the assumption of new kinds of responsibilities, the acceptance of self-imposed disciplines, and quite probably a new definition of what makes life worth living. It’s a tall order and will take some doing, but as the naval lesson suggests, it may be the best way to circumvent the workings of fate.