Book Review for Corbett Centre Website

A fantastic review of my Maritime Strategies for the XXI Century. The Contribution of Admiral Castex:

Academics working in the strategic studies and professional military fields are always beseeching their students actually to read the great works of maritime strategy rather than short summaries or books by other people who simply say what the great men said. But those same academics have a real problem when it comes to Raoul Castex (1878-1968) and his Theories Strategiques. For a start Castex’s thinking  expands over no less than five big volumes, with two more of appendices and indexes covering some 3000 pages in all. Secondly, he writes in his own  language, French, and sadly that tends to deter many Anglo-Saxons, not least because the French is mellifluous and on the self-indulgent side. Thirdly, Castex wrote his volumes over several decades and his ideas not unnaturally tended to shift over time.

For such reasons, Castex has tended to remain, in the words of his main biographer, Herve Couteau-Begarie, ‘the unknown strategist.’ Accordingly summaries and reviews of Castex’s work by people who have studied him in depth are tempting. The classic edited summary was produced back in 1994 by Eugenia Kiesling for the Naval Institute Press. Now Lars Wedin’s book is a specially welcome reinforcement for people who want to know what Castex said but haven’t the time to engage in the deep mining required !

Wedin’s book is not, however, merely a summary of what Castex said. What it also does is illustrate the reason why academics urge their students to ‘read the original.’ The point is not simply to identify what Mahan, Corbett or Castex said when they wrote about maritime strategy important though that is; instead doing this is valuable because that what they said in the past should help us understand the present and the future, not so much by telling us what the answers are but much more by identifying the questions we should ask and what we should be thinking about in the very different conditions of today and tomorrow. In this, Wedin’s book is extremely useful.

Wedin’s approach is to tell us in brief what Castex said and then to discuss the extent to which this needs to be amended or up-dated now. The whole is framed by an accessible and readable personal review of maritime strategy and today’s world. Refreshingly, the focus is principally on the NATO/ EU area and its challenges, rather than the US, China and the Asia-Pacific region which unsurprisingly now tends to dominate the naval discourse.

Wedin argues that well versed as he was in all the debates of the time Castex synthesises the land and the sea dimensions, and the historical and the materiel schools of naval thinking. He starts Mahanian but ends Corbettian. He was the latest of the major strategists and so was able to incorporate  nuclear weapons into his theories and thought, like Admiral Gorshkov, that their advent greatly increased the importance of seapower. To an extent he also covered the role of navies in peacetime and broadly their diplomatic functions, quoting Mahan’s definition, ‘Naval strategy has indeed for its end to found, support and increase, as well in peace as in war, the seapower of a country’.

So, what are the main messages ? The first is that as Castex developed over the years, he grew more and more Corbettian in his outlook, slowly moving away from the Mahanian focus of his first Volume. Wedin broadly concurs with the Castex/Corbettian line but like Castex emphasises the need for fresh interpretations and application of the traditional principles of maritime strategy and the role that national culture and geography can have on them. Thirdly, and to repeat the initial point, above all Maritime Strategies for the XXI Century is a great example of how looking at the thoughts of the great maritime thinkers of the past can help us understand the problems of today and tomorrow.

Wedin is especially interested in how the contemporary scene has shifted things. For example he updates Mahan’s basic list of the constituents of seapower: hence geographic conditions, economic and financial conditions, industrial conditions, ‘morale’ conditions (by which he means history, strategic culture, ideology etc) , national defence conditions and diplomatic conditions. Wedin, like Castex, lays great stress on the impact of strategic geography and warns of the challenges of contemporary technology.   Not all of his readers will agree either with what Castex said or with how Wedin updates it to fit today’s circumstances, but that doesn’t matter. His book is an engaging and accessible  voyage of discovery that will help his readers understand the many maritime challenges of the 21st Century. It is highly recommended.