Creative anachronisms

In 2008, an airline executive named John Adams published a book, If Mahan Ran the Geat Pacific War, Alfred Thayer Mahan being the great naval strategist (and son of the teacher of Civil War generals, Dennis Hart Mahan). In this thought experiment, Adams applied extracts from Alfred Thayer Mahan's work to the decisions and ad hockery of the U.S. war against Japan. He proposed Mahan's doctrines as substitutes to the then current doctrines of naval warfare.

There is merit in this kind of anachronism.

Previously in this blog, we have asked readers to consider the modern (but now superseded) doctrine of "effects based operations" as a rationale for Jefferson Davis's strategy. We have mentioned Rowena Reed's wonderful Combined Operations in the Civil War, which borrows implicitly from the WWII era doctrine of the same name and which the reading public in her day was generally familiar with.

Often the Civil War reader is exposed to the 20th Century doctrine of "total war" (although ACW authors give this lip service rather than the full treatment). Personally, I have toyed with ideas for a number of posts addressing the relevance of several interesting modern doctrines, especially the interwar "industrial web" theory and the "double effect" doctrine, among others.

The problem may be one of interest. Over the last 60 years, at least, military science has been the missing ingredient in military history. Readers are not used to it and it can be jarring where the bookbuyer expects a low-intensity cozy.

The point in Civil War publishing often seems to be to write a book that will read as easy as a detective novel. The narrative is paramount. There is a story arc and loads of human interest. Villains and heroes contend. No matter what the struggle, micro or macro, the outcome advances us to a dramatic resolution.

Of course, there are those few books that are dense with military science and resemble publisher excretions of completely indigestible matter. Or maybe they are atonements for all the talespinning pushed out into the marketspace, rather like the odd "highbrow novel" published by a trade house.

Brent Nosworthy authored two works specifically to address the military science deficit. Archer Jones tried to tackle the strategic level issues. Clayton Newell, like Adams another moonlighter, wrote about the evolution of operational theory in the early western Virginia offensive. There are some more examples of course.

Some readers, way into battle data, may protest that they are neck deep in military content. But this is not theory or doctrine. Battle books may have a reference to contemporary tactical doctrine, esp. regulations, but mainly address who stood where and in what formation and maybe, in a really good book (rare), what some movement formation might have been, who ordered it, and by what reason (in this, see especially Edward Steere on Longstreet in the Wilderness for a model exposition).

Adams did not write his Mahan book to punish naval history readers and he did not enroll them in an tough military science course. He attempted to enrich them by opening vistas of thought, analysis, and imagination. He tried to provide a deeper reading experience. Certainly, Civil War history needs the same.