The Neptune Factor: Alfred Thayer Mahan and the Concept of Sea Power

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The Neptune Factor: Alfred Thayer Mahan and the Concept of Sea Power. By Nicholas A. Lambert. Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, 2023. ISBN 9781612511580

Reviewed by Chuck Steele

The Neptune Factor by Nicholas Lambert is neither a critical assessment nor a balanced appraisal of Alfred Thayer Mahan’s contributions to strategic thinking at the turn of the last century. What Lambert offers is a full-throated endorsement of Mahan as a geostrategist par excellence.

While the book is well-researched and thoroughly documented, it is ultimately an act of advocacy unincumbered by obligations to address its subject in anything other than the most sympathetic of terms.

The author’s intent, as expounded in the book’s preface, is to make clear the centrality of economics to Mahan’s concept of sea power. According to Lambert, “Far from defining sea power in terms of combat, Mahan defined it in terms of economics” (p. xiv). Lambert’s objective is simple, and demonstrating that Mahan understood the importance and logistical advantages of transoceanic commerce to America’s growth does not seem particularly revelatory. Furthermore, given its narrow focus and the wealth of material Lambert has mined in its defense, the main thrust of the book is overstated.

The Neptune Factor is intended for an audience familiar with Mahan. Indeed, Lambert offers this study as a corrective to all those, past and present, who have placed the emphasis in their interpretations of Mahan on his admiration of large fleets capable of winning command of the seas through decisive battles. In making his case, Lambert draws distinctions between commerce raiding, a form of warfare Mahan did not endorse, and commerce destruction. This view of sea power is a limited one that assumes naval warfare consistently supports strategies of attrition or exhaustion over annihilation (p. 95). As such, Lambert does not argue against Mahan’s fondness for large fleets, but he expends significant space discussing other ways that navies could be used to bring economic pressure to bear on one’s enemies. Thus, winning command of the seas is not an end; rather, it is a means leading to blockade and the cessation of transoceanic commerce (pp. 98-99).

However, Lambert’s efforts to cast Mahan as a focused geostrategist, as opposed to a source of cognitive dissonance offering both contrasting and complimentary views of the components of sea power, are hindered in large part by Mahan’s prolific literary output. Indeed, Neptune’s author establishes early on that the volume of pages generated by Mahan, his need to phrase things in terms that would make his work marketable, and the evolutionary nature of his ability to express himself clearly contributed to his being misinterpreted. Writing of Mahan’s edits to his first major work, The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660-1783, Lambert opines, “though they helped Mahan sell his manuscript, their effect was to create interpretive challenges for readers of and a distraction to his explication of sea power” (p. 79). More precisely, Lambert acknowledges that Mahan’s work was beset with “contradictions,” although, he downplays them as being “more apparent than real.” For Lambert, Mahan’s inconsistencies were “the product of poor writing, poor structure, and above all his efforts to improve the marketability of his book by his inserting frequent analogies between the past and the present” (p. 95).

To obviate the problems associated with sifting through the work of a high-yielding and prolix writer, Lambert engages in a great deal of Mahansplaining. For the author of this book, it is not enough to introduce a quotation, allowing his subject to illuminate a point in his own words; Lambert makes a habit of using his voice to clarify what the reader has just experienced. He inadvertently acknowledges this practice in one instance by prefacing a quote from a 1902 article in the National Review by alerting his audience that contrary to preceding examples, Mahan’s “finely nuanced argument in the lengthy passage that follows need no interpretation.” (251)

Setting himself to the task of being Mahan’s interpreter, Lambert is dismissive of both the totality of Mahan’s work and many of the responses to his writing. To make his points about Mahan’s emphasis on political economy more aggressively, Lambert downplays Mahan’s standing as a historian and his contributions to the literature of naval arts and sciences. Considering the extent to which the geostrategist’s reputation rested on his efforts in those areas, Lambert is compelled to set his interpretation in opposition to Mahan’s naval historian contemporaries, whose thoughts were at odds with Lambert’s contentions. For instance, Lambert reduces his consideration of Julian Corbett, the era’s other great naval theorist, to one short paragraph and a dismissive quote (pp. xv-xvi). Similarly, in addressing John Knox Laughton’s critique of Mahan’s first major work, Lambert states that the writer he himself faults for lack of clarity produced a thesis on the “economic dimensions” of sea power that passed “far above his [Laughton’s] head” (p. 162).

The Neptune Factor also suffers from problems of misidentification and omission. While Lambert deals effectively with the shortcomings of the work of Harold and Margaret Sprout, the latter most notably being the author of a chapter on Mahan found in the 1943 edition of the Makers of Modern Strategy, his criticism of Philip Crowl, the author of the contribution on Mahan found in the 1986 version of the same-titled book, seems misguided. Lambert faults Crowl and Robert Seager, the author of Alfred Thayer Mahan: The Man and His Letters, with a “failure to integrate their study of Mahan into the wider historical literature on the era in which he lived . . .” Specifically, Lambert faults their arguments for not conforming to the Wisconsin School of economic history (p. 332). What Lambert neglects to mention is that Crowl offered a far more comprehensive assessment of Mahan than one focused solely on his concept of sea power. Unlike Lambert, who expends his energy illuminating a single aspect of Mahan’s corpus in an unnecessarily long book, Crowl addressed Mahan’s broader influence on his times and its basis in a flawed study of history.

Considering the contradictions in Mahan’s writing, it is unsurprising that The Neptune Factor concludes with an unintended bit of irony. Lambert, at one point, insists that his subject be seen in the context of his own time. “It should never be forgotten that Mahan was writing for his contemporaries, not posterity” (p. 247).  Yet despite the admonition to view Mahan in the light of his own time, Lambert chooses to end his book by bringing Mahan’s relevance to the modern-day. “Though Mahan’s concept of sea power is more than a century old, the time may have come for it to be resurrected for a new age of international relations” (p. 347).

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