Military Book Reviews

A Brief Guide to Maritime Strategy

A Brief Guide to Maritime Strategy by James R. Holmes (Naval Institute Press, December 15, 2019, 196 pages)

A Brief Guide to Maritime Strategy is a deliberately compact introductory work aimed at junior seafarers, those who make decisions affecting the sea services, and those who educate seafarers and decision-makers. It introduces readers to the main theoretical ideas that shape how statesmen and commanders make and execute maritime strategy in times of peace and war. Following in the spirit of Bernard Brodie’s Layman’s Guide to Naval Strategy, a World War II-era book whose title makes its purpose plain, it will be a companion volume to such works as Geoffrey Till’s Seapower and Wayne Hughes’s Fleet Tactics and Coastal Combat, the classic treatise that explains how to handle navies in fleet actions. It takes the mystery out of maritime strategy, which should not be an arcane art for practitioners or policy-makers, and will help the next generation think about strategy.


James R. Holmes opens his book, A Brief Guide to Maritime Strategy, writing, “This book is a tutorial for my younger self”. This notes the prior existence of a strategic gap in the naval education of his youth. Like most young naval professionals, training was in the technical and tactical aspects of his trade, but not in its strategic purpose. In this slim volume, Holmes explains a logical, readable, and useful primer on a maritime strategy that will close this gap for any newcomer to the field.

Holmes uses three chapters titled, “How to Generate Sea Power”, “How to Keep the Virtuous Cycle Turning”, and “What Navies Do” to take a straightforward approach in this book. To connect this generation of sea power with its purpose, he filters the thought of naval strategist Arthur Thayer Mahan to its essence connecting Mahanian thought to modern strategic challenges. The author balances Mahanian thought with naval historian and strategist Sir Julian Corbett. Holmes illustrates the complementary nature of both strategists, demonstrating Mahan and Corbett wrote for different audiences and wrote with different aims, drawing out the key points of value for contemporary use.

This guide is far more than a simple introduction to the writing of Mahan and Corbett, despite their preeminence as the most influential contributors to the book’s subject. The author leans on many other strategists, past and present, identifying the interplay of naval strategy with national strategy, diplomacy, economics, and warfare in other domains. One notable example is his discussion on the work of Admiral Wolfgang Wegener, a cruiser commander in the German High Seas Fleet during World War I. Among other claims, Wegener argued that “The strategic will breathe life into the fleet”. Holmes unpacks Wegener’s meaning, illustrating the necessity of nations to prioritize their fleets to be successful in pursuing their interests at sea and abroad. Holmes also ties into American military strategist Edward Luttwak. He examines Luttwak’s notion of ‘suasion’ in naval strategy, demonstrating that naval presence has effects on adversaries only if the possibility that a transition to war remains.  

This book digs into issues of immediate contemporary interest to naval practitioners. The author’s discussion of anti-access, area denial (A2/AD) concepts provides a straightforward and useful lens through which to view the subject, while also identifying this is an old idea made new. He offers a stark warning to naval practitioners to mind the culture of their profession. Specifically, he warns readers to avoid the pitfalls of institutional hubris, doctrinal comfort, and groupthink that seem ever present in so much of today’s professional dialogue.

Final Thoughts

While Holmes’ introduction presents this volume as a tutorial for his younger self, potential readers must not think his book is only for new and inexperienced naval professionals. Rather, its intention is a primer for any professional, regardless of rank, experience, or role, who is new to the study of naval strategy. It is perhaps one of the most clear and concise works on the topic in print and can also serve as a useful corrective for the inevitable misunderstandings many readers may have collected about Mahan, Corbett, or the purpose and functions of a navy. It serves as an incredible springboard from which readers can dive more deeply into the subject, deliberately offering a rich set of references for just this purpose. A Brief Guide to Maritime Strategy is exactly what its title suggests, yet it is so much more, earning it a place on any military professional’s bookshelf. 

Brian Kerg is a prior-enlisted mortarman, communications officer, and nonresident fellow with Marine Corps University’s Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Future Warfare. He is currently a student at the School of Advanced Warfighting in Quantico, Virginia. Follow or contact him on twitter @BrianKerg.

Leave a Reply....