The Age of Great Sea Battles Isn't Over

The U.S. Navy can’t forget the Gods of the Copybook Headings.

This week, as every graduation week since 1949, the great and the good of maritime strategy converged on Newport for the Naval War College’s Current Strategy Forum. Your humble scribe served on a panel that examined the question: “What do classic works of strategy have to teach us about America’s strategic predicament in the world today?” Herewith, I share with you a smoothed-out version of my remarks:

Classic works have a great deal to tell us: they furnish a starting point for assessing our situation, and they keep us grounded. These are both vital functions. Just ask Rudyard Kipling. In 1919 Kipling published a poem titled “Gods of the Copybook Headings.” Copybook headings were proverbs or maxims that British schoolkids used to copy over and over to practice penmanship. There was a heading at the top of each page, and the students would copy it over and over to fill the page. Therein lay wisdom.

Indeed, Kipling claims that common-sense truisms like “If you don’t work you die” outlast the false Gods of the Marketplace, or the Zeitgeist, or the latest Vision that grips a society or institution. If you lose touch with such permanent verities, he tells us, then “As surely as Water will wet us, [and] as surely as Fire will burn, / The Gods of the Copybook Headings [will] with terror and slaughter return!”

The poem is Kipling’s admonition to heed the wisdom of the ages, using timeless precepts to organize our thinking. And it’s his warning not to delude ourselves that we can repeal fixed, timeless facts of human existence. It constitutes his warning against yielding to fads.

How does this fit with the topic of our panel? Well, classic works of strategy reveal how the Gods of the Strategic Copybook Headings work. Treatises on strategic theory aren’t algorithms or how-to manuals. You can’t flip them open and run the checklist when some strategic problem confronts you. What they do is help us think about our strategic predicament and opportunities, and they anchor us in reality.

Like Kipling’s poem, the classics provide students of strategy with intellectual ballast. And they steady our temperament. Those steeped in the classics aren’t too beguiled by the latest thingamajig to emerge from a weapons lab, or by the latest Big Idea to come out of academia, or out of the business world. By and large, these things are superficial and fleeting. They shouldn’t buffet us too much.

Seldom are those steeped in the strategic canon gulled into thinking that technology, tactics or organizational methods will let us escape permanent dynamics of human conflict. Still less do they succumb to claims that History with a capital H has rendered basic facts about martial strife moot.

Which brings me to sea-power theory. In 1992 the American sea services published their first post–Cold War strategic directive, entitled. . . From the Sea.” It’s a remarkable document. In the preamble the sea-service leadership declares rather starkly that America owns the sea. We had won big. The Soviet Navy had vanished from the high seas, much as the Imperial Japanese Navy adorned the seafloor in 1945. With no one left to fight for command of the sea, we could afford to concentrate on projecting power ashore from this offshore safe haven.

The leadership thus sent a strong bureaucratic signal: that battle is passé. That History with a capital H had repealed the most basic fact about naval warfare, namely that you have to win maritime command if you hope to exercise command. It’s no accident that many of the capabilities we’re now scrambling to recreate—long-range anti-surface warfare, to name one—started to decay after 1992. Such atrophy was in keeping with the times, and with official guidance.

Kipling would shake his head at our presumption.

As would Captain Mahan and Sir Julian Corbett, our two sages of sea power here at the College. These were men who looked to history—to the age of wooden ships and iron men—in search of permanent things. They sifted through the past for enduring lessons to help naval officialdom shape future strategy.

Around here we often ask students whether they’re Mahanian or Corbettian, but that’s a false choice. Mahan and Corbett agree on a lot. Together they articulate a composite logic and grammar of maritime strategy that remains as compelling as it was when they wrote a century ago.

Now, Clausewitz teaches that international competition and war have a grammar all their own—the grammar of violent interaction between antagonists determined to get their way. But they don’t have their own logic. The logic of competition comes from policy—from national purposes.

So maritime endeavors are about purpose and power, policy and strategy. Mahan excels at explaining the purposes that drive nations to do business in great waters, while Corbett explains how to use sea power on the operational level to help fulfill national purposes. Mahanian logic, Corbettian grammar: you might almost call it a unified field theory of sea power!