• When Military Strategy Ignores Economics: The Sad Story of Rear Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan

    March 4, 2023
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    Attack on carrier USS Franklin 19 March 1945

    Reprinted with permission Mises Institute Martin George Holmes

    It is a great tragedy that many modern military leaders and strategists do not understand economics. If they did, I suspect that there would be a lot less war, a lot less military spending, and a lot less wastefulness. Certainly, there would be greater awareness of the appalling human and economic costs of war in a capitalist age.

    Ludwig von Mises, the great Austrian economist, understood this point well. In his 1927 book Liberalism, he noted that as late as the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1792–1815), the world was divided into self-sufficient economic blocks.1 This factor helps explain the failure of Napoleon Bonaparte’s Continental System, a blockade designed to ruin Britain by excluding it from Continental European commerce. The system was poorly run, but Mises emphasizes that even if it had been meticulously implemented, neither side would have starved for want of trade with the other. For example, Continental communities would have been able to rely on their own agriculture for necessities. Only certain luxuries, such as sugar, would have been unavailable or very difficult to obtain.

    By the twentieth century, the situation had changed. The world had become more integrated; the division of labor, fostered by liberal ideals, meant that many territories were no longer self-sufficient. In particular, several industrialized countries relied on imported food and materials for food production. To deprive them of these goods would be catastrophic.2

    Astonishingly, this economic shift – so plainly evident to Mises and other astute liberal economists – was lost on Rear Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan of the United States Navy, the most influential naval strategist in modern times. Mahan became an international celebrity after the publication of the first volume of The Influence of Sea Power upon History in 1890, which proclaimed the geopolitical importance of maritime commerce and naval prowess. In an age of rampant imperialism, great powers across the world followed Mahan’s advice and constructed (or upgraded their existing) battle fleets of heavy ships to defend – and expand – their overseas interests.

    Mahan has long been stigmatized as a proponent of big battleship battles aimed at seizing control of the sea. More recent scholarship has revealed that Mahan, a devout Christian and erudite thinker, was deeply concerned about waging war as ethically and decisively as possible.3 Seeking to minimize casualties in combat, he actually championed the neutralization of enemy seaborne commerce by establishing a close or distant blockade of enemy ports. This strategy would destroy the enemy’s economic base and compel their surrender. As he noted in 1899, “It has been the glory of sea-power that its ends are attained by draining men of their dollars instead of their blood.”4 He used a series of earlier wars to prove his point, such as the Anglo-Dutch Wars of the seventeenth century (when England strangled Dutch commerce) and the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (when Britain strangled French commerce).

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    One can appreciate Mahan’s humanitarian desire to lessen wartime casualties. However, Mahan should have learned from his study of maritime commerce that by the twentieth century, times had changed. Any serious blockade of an industrialized nation would wreak havoc not only on its economy but on its civilian population as well. Violence in battle would be replaced by violence on the home front. Astonishingly, Mahan never seems to have acknowledged this shortcoming in his thinking. As far as I can tell, scholars have not devoted sufficient attention to the issue either.

    Mahan died in December 1914, shortly after the beginning of the First World War. It is tragic that Mahan did not live to see more of this conflict, because it illustrated the diabolical nature of his naval strategy. The British Royal Navy swiftly imposed a distant blockade on Germany, which relied on imported food as well as imported fertilizer for its agriculture. This blockade also affected Germany’s ally, Austria-Hungary. The consequences were catastrophic. It is estimated now that nearly one million civilians in these territories perished because of the blockade, not usually from direct starvation, but because malnutrition weakened their immune systems.5

    Many more people in these countries experienced horrific health problems from eating ersatz products designed to replace basic staples like bread and sausage. These were concocted from a medley of ingredients that were frequently unsanitary, innutritious, and indigestible; some were downright poisonous.6 As if this suffering was not bad enough, the Germans’ anger toward the blockade influenced their pursuance of unrestricted submarine warfare and bombing raids against the British Empire, which caused numerous civilian and military deaths. It also influenced the manoeuvres of the German High Seas Fleet, which famously engaged the British Grand Fleet at Jutland in 1916 – a blood-spattered clash of the type Mahan had so desperately sought to avoid.

    The historical lesson, in other words, is clear. Knowledge of economics is vital for understanding the world and acting ethically within it. Even military strategists ignore economics at their peril. Mainstream scholarly opinion of Mahan may have improved in recent years, but his support for blockades shows that despite his concern for ethics in wartime, he did not have a positive moral influence on world history.

    • 1.Ludwig von Mises, Liberalism in the Classical Tradition, trans. Ralph Raico (Irvington-on-Hudson, NY and San Francisco: The Foundation for Economic Education, Inc., and Cobden Press, 2002), 26.
    • 2.Ibid., 27.
    • 3.On Mahan’s moral worldview, see Suzanne Geissler Bowles, God and Sea Power: The Influence of Religion on Alfred Thayer Mahan (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2015); Jon Tetsuro Sumida, Inventing Grand Strategy and Teaching Command: The Classic Works of Alfred Thayer Mahan Reconsidered (Washington and Baltimore: The Woodrow Wilson Center Press and The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997).
    • 4.Alfred T. Mahan, Lessons of the War with Spain and Other Articles (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1899), 106.
    • 5.Alexander B. Downes, Targeting Civilians in War (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2008), 87.
    • 6.Alexander Watson, Ring of Steel: Germany and Austria-Hungary in World War I (New York: Basic Books, 2014), 334, 435.

    Martin George Holmes is a historian with a PhD from the University of Otago, New Zealand.

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