Military Strategy Magazine  /  Volume 7, Issue 4  /  

Mahan Versus Corbett in Width, Depth, and Context

Mahan Versus Corbett in Width, Depth, and Context Mahan Versus Corbett in Width, Depth, and Context
To cite this article: Armstrong, Benjamin ‘BJ’, “Mahan Versus Corbett in Width, Depth, and Context,” Military Strategy Magazine, Volume 7, Issue 4, winter 2022, pages 16-21.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are offered in the author’s personal and academic capacity and do not reflect the positions of the U.S. Naval Academy, U.S. Navy, or any government agency.

Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan and Sir Julian Corbett are the two most well-known naval strategists and naval educators. Their writings and theories are often taught at war colleges and staff colleges, and they lie at the foundation of most naval strategic writing and teaching even one hundred years after their deaths. In our contemporary lessons on naval strategy and maritime affairs, the ideas of Mahan and Corbett are often offered as separate “Schools of Thought,” encouraging students to identify as either “Mahanian” or “Corbettian” and to see the two men and their ideas in opposition to one another.[i] This caricature is likely offered because highlighting differences appears an easier pedagogy than explaining similarities. But the result of this is a general understanding that the two strategists disagreed and sets up the need to choose between them.

However, this is a historically and conceptually flawed way to approach them and their naval thinking. By examining the two men in width across their published work, in depth through their biographies, and in context by acknowledging the time and audiences which they wrote for, we can help explain the differences between the two men and understand the significance of the fact that in general they came to the same or similar conclusions.[ii] Looking at them and their writings through these historical lenses rather than via a focus on theory offers a different perspective. This more historically informed approach demonstrates that the most important part of a comparison between the two men and their writing is how, despite the differences in their background and methods, they largely agree on the key elements of naval strategy.

Almost all the staff colleges and war colleges in the modern world, including those in the People’s Republic of China for more than a decade, teach about what Mahan and Corbett wrote.[iii] Yet few of them appear to spend much time teaching about who they were. For historians engaged in strategic studies this presents a problem. In learning only about theory, only about selective excerpts of what these strategists said about sea power and strategy but ignoring who they were and where their ideas came from, we are only presented with a theoretical foundation. This does not help us comprehend how they themselves meant their ideas to be applied. Theory alone is useless. As Corbett himself wrote, it’s only useful to naval professionals if they understand how to adapt that theory, to modify it, to think about it, within their modern or contemporary context.[iv] For strategic scholars and historians the same rule of thumb applies. Theory is valuable as an element of study that informs analysis, but it cannot be the only element, and we must recognize the unique nature of every historical event.

Width – One Book or Many

Both Alfred Thayer Mahan and Julian Corbett were hard working and prolific authors. Despite this fact, nearly every discussion of their work, and in particular the surface level comparisons of the two men and their strategic ideas, focus entirely on their single most famous book. Some professors have insisted that this is the proper way to assess them, telling us that “although both authors published numerous other works displaying nuanced views on seapower and world affairs, for better or worse, great strategic thinkers are judged by their masterworks.”[v] However, at the very least some historians might suggest that a brief look at what those “other works” entail may be in order.

The vast majority of those who say that they “have read” Alfred Thayer Mahan seem to have focused on a very limited number of pages. In fact, it most often seems that their quotations and citations come from roughly the first eighty pages of The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660–1783. These are the pages of the preface, the introduction, and the portion of the first chapter where Mahan lays out his definitions and conceptual ideas. For example, this section contains his “six elements” of sea power. Mahan, however, wrote or contributed to twenty books. A skim through John Hattenforf’s bibliography of Mahan’s work demonstrates the daunting nature of how voluminous his historical and international affairs writing was.[vi] There are over 160 articles, but if we start including the letters to the editor and interviews done with New York newspapers and others we start to get closer to 300 pieces. Almost all of this, save for one book and one article, came after he published the Influence of Sea Power Upon History. In this way Mahan differs from that other oft-quoted great strategist, Carl Von Clausewitz. Clausewitz’s Vom Krieg, or On War, was written closer to the end of his life. It was his magnum opus, the sum total of his knowledge about war and warfare. He did not even finish the book and his wife Marie had to complete the editing and publication for him.[vii] As opposed to the end of his career, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History was arguably written at the start of Mahan’s career as a naval thinker and as a strategist.

When we consider Mahan in width, a historian or strategist today might ask whether a book written at the start of his career should be the one that we are using to represent the totality of what he thought. It seems unfair or incomplete to ignore where he may have changed his mind, like in his understanding of the Battle of Tsushima, or where he broadened or added nuance, as in his discussion of the determinative links between naval power and a merchant marine. Scholars of strategy should be nervous about those who tell us to limit our sources, those who suggest that a single book, or worse an eighty-page excerpt from that book, is all that is needed for understanding. As Geoffrey Till wrote in his book Seapower: A Guide for the Twenty-First Century, “who wrote what” does matter if we are going to understand the subject.[viii]

Considering Corbett in width is a similar, but also slightly different case. For Corbett, the book on which theoretically focused scholars place all their attention on is Some Principles of Maritime Strategy. In many ways, this is fair when compared to thinking about The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, because Corbett published it roughly twenty years into his career as a writer and historian, and ten years after he started teaching at the Naval War Course at Greenwich. Yet, there was still another decade of Corbett’s writing after Some Principles was published, and this included nine additional volumes.[ix]

Corbett’s output was similar to Mahan’s. He published over twenty books and dozens of articles during his time as a historian and naval educator. For an example of how reading him widely informs our understanding, Corbett’s nervousness with “decisive” naval battles developed over time and throughout his writing, but becomes most clear in the moments after Jutland and his writing of the official history a decade after the publication of Some Principles of Maritime Strategy.[x]

When considering everything that Corbett and Mahan had to say, pigeonholing our understanding of them into summaries of only their most famous single volumes seems not only unfair. It also seems like a methodologically poor approach to understanding them. In order to truly understand their views on strategy, naval power, and maritime affairs, we must read both Mahan and Corbett in width. Looking for a quick summary of only their most famous books, a “Cliffs Notes” version of their theories that can be summarized in a few sentences, defeats the purpose of what each man was trying to achieve and ignores the wide sea of their thinking on maritime power. By relying on only one of their books or passages from that single book, strategists are left with what Jon Sumida called a “paradox: a body of famous work that has received a great deal of study but has been misunderstood completely.”[xi] From the very meaning of the phrase “command of the sea,” to the “decisive” nature of fleet battle, both Mahan and Corbett wrote with nuance across multiple publications, nuance which is entirely missed by those who seek to read and consider as little as possible.[xii]

Depth – The Men Wielding the Pen

In examining Corbett and Mahan in depth, it may be most valuable to consider the biography of each man and how their background may have had a role in their approach and their writings. To say that Julian Corbett and Alfred Thayer Mahan were different men seems a bit glib. Yet, there are fundamental differences between the two men, and how they came to naval affairs, which must have had serious effects on their mindset and how they approached the subject.

Alfred Thayer Mahan was a career naval officer. He spent forty years in uniform, from his induction at the U.S. Naval Academy in 1856 to his retirement in 1896. He rose through the ranks, fought in the American Civil War, commanded ships, had his share of incidents at sea and landing forces ashore, and retired at the rank of Captain. His introduction to intellectual pursuits was almost entirely naval. He finished second in his class at Annapolis. Even before his time in Annapolis, Mahan had grown up on the banks of the Hudson River, “on post” at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. His father, Denis Hart Mahan, was a renowned military professor and future Academic Dean of West Point, and much of Mahan’s life as a young man was surrounded by the study of military and naval affairs.[xiii]

Mahan’s first published article came in 1879, an essay on naval education and the curriculum in Annapolis which he wrote during his second tour of duty as an instructor at the Naval Academy.[xiv] The work was published by the Naval Institute, which Mahan had immediately gravitated toward when he returned to Annapolis in 1878. He quickly assumed the role of President of the institute, surrounded by naval officers studying and writing about naval affairs, and discussing it as part of their lifelong intellectual pursuit of their profession.[xv] And this was all before Stephen Luce asked him to come to Newport and help found the Naval War College, before he became the “prophet of sea power.”

Sir Julian Corbett was raised in an entirely different context as the son of an architect and real estate developer, not a military man. He attended Cambridge University and once he graduated at the top of his class he joined the bar. As a lawyer, or barrister, he mastered his briefs and the value of succinct writing and clear argumentation.[xvi] His engagement with maritime affairs, rather than practical or professional, instead appears to have started as a romantic engagement. After the death of his father, Corbett left the law in order to run his family’s estate and become a novelist. His books, romantic tales of the Renaissance, Vikings, and of Elizabethan era sea rovers, were well reviewed but of mixed success.[xvii] While he seems to have blamed his publisher, the hard facts are that many of the books did not sell.[xviii]

During a short period as journalist for the Pall Mall Gazette he had his first, and one might say only, direct engagement with military activities when he covered the Dongola Expedition for the newspaper as what the twenty first century would call an embedded reporter.[xix] When he returned, Corbett began working with the noted naval historian John Knox Laughton, who also served as something of a mentor to Mahan via correspondence.[xx] Laughton brought him into the Naval Records Society, and Corbett began learning to work with original sources and started to do the hard work of researching and writing detailed and documented naval history.[xxi] It was these histories, and Laughton’s support, which brought him to the attention of the Royal Navy and resulted in the offer for him to become the lecturer on naval history and strategy at the War Course.

Corbett and Mahan had nearly the same job descriptions in their respective naval educational enterprises. Both taught naval history and strategy to officers, and both men became most famous for that work. However, they came to those positions from dramatically different backgrounds. Mahan was a career officer who had years of practical experience which informed but did not dictate his analysis and thinking, and Corbett was a career civilian with almost zero real experience who instead based his work on a deeply scholarly and historical methodology. When looking at the two men in depth, it appears that while they came at their shared subject from these varied and different directions they still arrived at the same conclusions.

Context – Navies and Nations in the World

Context continues, throughout centuries, to be one of the elements of understanding which historians insist on. It is central to how history majors at universities across the world are taught to examine and understand the times, places, and people that they study. Each man this article has been discussing was a naval educator, and both taught at the upper level of professional military education. They were both historians. But they taught and studied in far different places, with different students, and for different navies and marine corps. When thinking about context it is important to start with the state of the U.S. Navy in 1885 when Mahan began working on the lectures that would become The Influence of Sea Power Upon History. Through the last decades of the 19th century the U.S. Navy was a fourth or fifth rate power. It lacked modern warships, it lacked the most advanced weapons, and it didn’t have a Congress or a country that seemed to care about it. Even Oscar Wilde made fun of the U.S. Navy. When an American character in The Canterville Ghost points out that the United States has no ancient ruins to visit, the ghost replies “You have your navy and your manners.”[xxii]

When his book was published in 1890, Alfred Thayer Mahan was writing for a navy that would likely lose any major naval battle that they tried to fight. Even as the United States began to be more assertive on the global stage following the end of Reconstruction and westward expansion, it did not have a navy that could do much to back up threats or diplomatic rhetoric.[xxiii] As the U.S. Navy rose at the dawn of the twentieth century, driven by Mahan’s friend and frequent correspondent Theodore Roosevelt, doubts remained about the role America and an American navy should play in the world. This was the audience that Mahan was writing for, an American audience that needed to be taught that navies are more than just coastal defense and showing the flag, that they have to prepare for and be able to win battles, and that ability then helps to create sea power. To use a poker analogy, it was the table stakes to being a great power, and the U.S. needed to figure out how to do it. It was not that coastal defense or peacetime operations did not matter, or that commerce raiding was not valuable to an overall strategy, but that these elements alone were insufficient. So it should make sense to us that the large, organized, battle fleet and how it operated was the focus of Mahan’s message in The Influence of Sea Power Upon History and that his apparent focus on “decisive” battles remained a hallmark across his writings. It was central because that was the message he thought his audience most needed to hear.

Corbett had a fundamentally different audience. His audience was already the global naval hegemon with the largest and most powerful navy in the world. It was assumed that British naval officers knew that they had to win battles. And they had been building large, organized battle fleets, and operating them for generations. Nobody needed to be reminded of the importance of it.[xxiv] In fact, the Royal Navy’s focus on battles and their centuries-long embrace of the need for “decisive” sea power became a major concern for Corbett. If Mahan needed to convince Americans that they needed to be able to win big battles, Corbett realized that he needed to teach Britons that just winning them was insufficient. Trafalgar was a glorious moment, and certainly important to the victory over Napoleon. But it clearly did not win the war on its own. Instead, it set the conditions that allowed the British to win.

As a result, Corbett was focused on what to do with your navy besides just winning the big battles. It was insufficient to beat the enemy and then just float around and wonder what happened next. So Corbett’s focus was on what to do with a large powerful Navy, rather than simply the importance of having one for battle.

The Grudge Match that Never Was

The sea power scholars and teachers who focus on theory, and who ascribe to a doctrinal approach to Mahan and Corbett, will often suggest that the two men and their ideas are in competition with one another. This interpretation is based on a focused reading of the most famous books of each man. But this approach also loses sight of these strategic writings in width, depth, and context. As a result it offers a skewed view of naval strategy as something that creates competing schools of thought, or that forces naval professionals to make exclusive or procedural choices about a theory to adopt. Instead, a broad examination of these two men and their work, the books and the articles, and considering them closely, the common interpretation and that narrative of competition falls apart. As the Naval War College’s Kevin McCraine has written in his recent book Mahan, Corbett, and the Foundations of Naval Strategic Thought, the two men are in far more alignment and agreement than would be necessary to consider their ideas as competing with each other.[xxv]

The truth is, the theories are not very far apart at all. In fact, if today’s strategists and historians study them while considering the width of the author’s expansive bibliographies, the depth of their differing personal biographies and approaches to the subject, and the dramatically different context of their audiences and the nations they were writing for, we quickly realize that there are logical explanations for the areas where they appear to disagree. And these disagreements begin to appear quite minor. At the same time, this closer reading and broader analysis results in the realization that even at their most theoretical they reach the same strategic principles. As Mahan himself wrote to Corbett in 1907, their work “reaching the same conclusion by different paths have reinforced and complemented one another.”[xxvi] The disagreements demonstrate the fluid nature of sea power and strategy, and give students of that strategy a reminder that there are no set answers, and no school solutions, but instead principles to consider and rules to break in order to find the genius of sea power based on present conditions.


[i] For examples see Matthew Suarez, “Going to War with China? Ignore Corbett. Dust Off Mahan!” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, Vol. 146, No. 12 (December 2020). James Lacey, “A Revolution at Sea: Old is New Again,” War on the Rocks (17 October 2019): James Holmes, “From Mahan to Corbett?,” The Diplomat (11 December 2011):
[ii] The framework used, studying subjects in width, depth, and context, was suggested by Sir Michael Howard in his seminal lecture turned essay “The Use and Abuse of Military History,” RUSI Journal, Vol. 107, No. 625 (1962), 4-10.
[iii] James Holmes and Toshi Yoshihara, “The Influence of Mahan Upon China’s Maritime Strategy,” Comparative Strategy, Vol. 24, No. 1 (2005): 23-51.
[iv] Julian Corbett, Some Principles of Maritime Strategy: With an Introduction and Notes by Eric J. Grove, Classics of Sea Power Edition (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1988), 8-9.
[v] James Lacey, “A Revolution at Sea: Old is New Again.” Lacey largely dismisses the wider works of Mahan and therefore makes several assumptions and misleading statements about his work.
[vi] John B. Hattendorf and Lynn C. Hattendorf, A Bibliography of The Works of Alfred Thayer Mahan (Newport, RI: Naval War College Press, 1986).
[vii] Vanya Bellinger, Marie von Clausewitz: The Woman Behind the Making of On War (New York: Oxford, 2015).
[viii] Geoffrey Till, Seapower: A Guide for the Twenty-First Century, Third Edition (London: Routledge, 2013 ), 86.
[ix] John B. Hattendorf, “A Bibliography of the Works of Julian S. Corbett,” in John Hattendorf and James Goldrick, eds., Mahan is Not Enough (Newport, RI: Naval War College Press, 1993), 295-310.
[x] Andrew Lambert, “Writing the Battle: Jutland in Sir Julian Corbett’s Naval Operations,” The Mariner’s Mirror, Vol. 103, No. 2 (2017): 183-184.
[xi] Jon Sumida, Inventing Grand Strategy and Teaching Command: The Classics Works of Alfred Thayer Mahan Reconsidered (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000), 5.
[xii] Comparing and explaining even just the most significant elements of naval strategy examined by Mahan and Corbett is well beyond the scope of this article, and offering a few pointers defeats the purpose of studying in width, depth, and context. The best book length examination of the topic which puts the two authors in dialogue is Kevin McCraine, Mahan, Corbett, and the Foundations of Naval Strategic Thought (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2021).
[xiii] Edward Hagerman, “From Jomini to Dennis Hart Mahan: The Evolution of Trench Warfare and the American Civil War,” Civil War History, Vol. 13, No. 3 (1967): 201-203.
[xiv] Alfred Thayer Mahan, “Naval Education,” U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings, Vol. 5, No. 4 (1879): 345-376.
[xv] Benjamin Armstrong and John Freymann, Developing the Naval Mind (Annapolis, Naval Institute Press, 2021), 12-13.
[xvi] Andrew Lambert, 21st Century Corbett: Maritime Strategy and Nava Policy for the Modern Era (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2017), 7-8. J.J. Widen, Theorist of Maritime Strategy: Sir Julian Corbett and his Contribution to Military and Naval Thought (London: Routledge, 2012), 15.
[xvii] “Notes on Novels,” Dublin Review, Vol. 16, No. 1 (Jul 1886), 164-165. “Novels of the Week,” The Athenaeum, No. 3210 (4 May 1889).
[xviii] Eric Grove, “Introduction” in Some Principles of Maritime Strategy: With an Introduction and Notes by Eric J. Grove, Classics of Sea Power Edition (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1988), xi-xii. Andrew Lambert contests the characterization of Grove and biographer Donald Schurman, instead claiming literary success for Corbett, in Lambert, The British Way of War: Julian Corbett and the Battle for a National Strategy (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2021), 32-37.
[xix] “Dispatches from Julian Stafford Corbett to Pall Mall Gazette as Special Correspondent in the Soudan (Dongola) Expedition” (1896), Royal Museums Greenwich Collection, CBT/3/3; MS81/143. For an example see “The Situation in Egypt,” Pall Mall Gazette (18 March 1896), page 1, column 3.
[xx] A.T. Mahan to J.K. Laughton, 20 March 1896, in Andrew Lambert, ed., Letters and Papers of Professor Sir John Knox Laughton, 1830-1915 (London: Naval Records Society, 2002), 125-126. Nature of the Mahan, Laughton correspondence, 120.
[xxi] Andrew Lambert, The Foundations of Naval History: John Knox Laughton, the Royal Navy and the Historical Profession (London: Chatham Publishing, 1998), 147-158.
[xxii] Oscar Wilde, The Canterville Ghost (London: John W. Luce and Company, 1906), 81.
[xxiii] Craig Symonds, The U.S. Navy: A Concise History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 58-61.
[xxiv] Kevin McCraine, Mahan, Corbett, and the Foundations of Naval Strategic Thought (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2021), 28-30.
[xxv] Ibid., 251.
[xxvi] A.T. Mahan to J.S. Corbett, 12 Aug 1907, in Robert Seager and Doris Maguire, eds., The Letters and Papers of Alfred Thayer Mahan, Volume III (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1975), 223.