The Passing Show

Ambrose Bierce

San Francisco Examiner/March 18, 1900

Another Rear Admiral has spoken. He is a retired Rear Admiral, but though you should retire a Rear Admiral into a mortar, yet will not his Rear Admiralness depart from him. Death alone can remove it. The “elderly naval man” in this instance is Rear Admiral Henry Erben (retired), with whose name and fame many of us have not the happiness to be familiar. In an article I have read, and which will appear in the same issue of “The Examiner” wherein these lines will be printed, he expounds the utility of fortifications for the Nicaragua Canal and of fortifications in general as Admiral Dewey expounded it before him and many another American gentleman will expound it after. It is an assumption demanding a good deal of exposition, but the officers of our navy are not the men to be daunted by difficulties. Before the Spanish war it was generally agreed among military men, whether soldiers or sailors, that a gun on shore (that is, in a fort) was a match for four guns afloat. Just what occurred during the contest to change the naval mind it is difficult to say. Certainly not the defeat of forts by ships, for with one exception the guns afloat were defeated and baffled by the guns ashore. The exception was Cavite, in Manila Bay—a venerable structure racked by recoil of its own potmetal artillery. Dewey “reduced” it, and is now engaged in affirming its formidable character for instruction of a prize court. All other harbor defenses, it seems, are worthless and only “invite attack”—including those that drove McCalla from Cienfuegos, those that drove Merry from Cardenas, those that drove Sampson from Matanzas, those that drove him from San Juan, those that held him from Santiago, and those at Havana whose standing “invitation” our entire fleet persistently declined on the good ground of several “previous engagements.” 

Says Rear-Admiral Erben: 

“There can be no question as to the desirability of a mighty navy of the most modem type of construction, and it is the navy and not fortifications (which are of little or no account anyway when one studies the matter closely) that we must look to in times of trouble with an European power.”

That is the most candid and straightforward utterance of the seagoing mind that heaven has yet permitted to evade the divine censor. By one who studies the matter closely, the distinguished seaman and less distinguished writer tries to say, it is seen that fortifications “are of little or no account.” Is it not strange that the officers of our Engineer corps, who are supposed to be educated in their profession, have by some malign fatality been debarred from close study of it? Is it not strange that the Spanish harbor defenses mentioned above were by a happy chance so effective, although planned and built by persons who had neglected their professional studies? Is it not strange that every important seaport in every ago has relied upon the strength of costly works which close study would have shown to be nearly or altogether worthless, and that in all the hundreds of combats between those works and an enemy’s fleet their worthlessness was not until now discerned? Is it not strange that the greatest naval power of the world does not restore Gibraltar to Spain and cease making another Gibraltar at Esquimalt? Really, the high officers of our navy must feel a pardonable pride in their discovery of the world’s immemorial folly—this infantile faith in sea-coast fortifications. When the glory of this great military revelation burst upon the consciousness of Rear-Admiral Erben he must have felt 

Like some watcher of the skies

When a new planet swims into his ken, 

Or stood like Cortez when with eagle eyes

He stared at the Pacific, and all his men 

Looked at each other with a wild surmise. 

Silent, upon a peak of Darien. 

As if he had not already sufficiently damned himself for an idiot, this unfortunate man goes on to say: 

“Ships with modem munitions could stand off and reduce the strongest fortifications created by the hand of man, in a short space of time.” 

It would be a mere waste of words to demand historical evidence of this, for he would not attempt to give any. There is none to give. The evidence is all the other way. Our ships were supplied with modern munitions and had all the time they could have asked for, yet in the instances noted they not only failed to reduce the ancient and obsolete Morro Castles at San Juan and Santiago and the crude earthworks at Matanzas and the other places, but there is no proof or presumption of their having in all their “bombardments” dismantled a half dozen guns or killed a score of men. They not only took their own time, but chose their own distance, keeping always out of range of the enemies’ ancient guns while plying their own “modern weapons of precision.” Yet this unearthly “authority” has the hardihood to say that about these harbor defenses, even those against which the famous dynamite cruiser “coughed earthquakes.” About all they required after the war to make them as useful to us as they had been to our enemy was a little putty to keep out the drafts and a fresh coat of whitewash to strengthen the walls. 

The art of harbor defense keeps even pace with the art of naval attack. Every improvement in the latter is met by a corresponding improvement in the former. Indeed, if the relative efficiency of ship and fort is not to-day what it used to be, the difference is in favor of the fort. By such inventions as the disappearing gun, the electrical minefields, the fixed range-finder and many other devices denied to the attack, the defense is enormously strengthened; whereas nearly all that makes the modern warship more formidable to fortifications than her predecessor was is equally available to her antagonist. There is one melancholy exception—the fort has no Admiral enamored of his trade and inebriated with the consciousness of his identity. 

A few of the fundamental and immemorial advantages of the fort over the ship may be stated here for instruction of the dark understandings comprised in the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, who have failed to amend the Hay-Pauncefote treaty off the face of the earth. The fort has the stability of gun platforms, and the ship has not. The ship is limited to the number and size of her guns; the fort can carry, without sinking, as many as the foundries can make. The ship is restricted in the matter of armor; the fort can be made absolutely impenetrable by even so simple and cheap a device as increasing the thickness of its parapet with a spade. Only a few of the ship’s gunners can be protected by casemates; the fort can so protect its entire garrison. The fort has but one vital spot—its magazine—and that can be made invulnerable; the ship has a dozen; all accessible to shot and shell. The fort’s environment is neutral; that of the ship is hostile: when she is wounded at the water line the ocean attacks and destroys her. The fort knows the exact range of every point that her guns can reach; the ship has to learn all that under fire. The fort has auxiliary means of offense and defense—mines, torpedoes and obstructions; it can strike aloft and alow, through the air and through the water. The ship has in that kind of combat only one available weapon, the missile. With her many disabilities the ship has but one advantage—mobility; and that is strategic, not tactical. It is of little use to her in combat (except as it enables her to quit when beaten), for she is compelled to fight where her antagonist wants her to; that is to say, he faces in every direction from which she can approach and covers every point from which she can reach him. These being the conditions, it is wonderful, not that fortifications almost invariably defeat fleets, but that a fleet ever by any chance defeats a fortification. But if all this is erroneous—if Admiral Dewey’s and Rear-Admiral Erben’s complacent contempt of fortifications is well founded, it is pertinent for some watchdog of the treasury to inquire why the War Department is demanding for the next fiscal year $11,728,938 for fortifications. This is nearly seven millions more than the appropriation for the current year. It is a large sum to be worse than wasted on works which one gallant naval officer assures us “are of little or no account” and which another says only “invite attack” and “make a battleground” of the waters which they are believed to guard. 

The utterances of these distinguished gentlemen of the sea are more than the mere idle vaporings which doubtless they think them to be. They are exceedingly mischievous and pernicious. The Senate Committee on Foreign Relations has thoughtlessly adopted them for its own, and in the “amended” Hay-Pauncefote treaty there is no provision for fortification of the canal. On the contrary, the committee in its report quotes Admiral Dewey and another naval officer to the effect that fortification for the canal would not only be needless, but dangerous. Here is the sentence from the report: 

“In any event if wars are to come that will involve the ownership or control of the canal or the right of passage through it, no battle should be fought in the region near to it.” 

Then, assuredly, an enemy desiring ownership or control of the canal, or the right of passage through it, would secure the “object of his desire.” He would have only to avoid battle elsewhere, sail into the neutral region near the canal, and, free from molestation, take possession of the canal. If an enemy’s fleet is to have immunity from resistance in that region, he would be a fool to give battle elsewhere until he had grasped the undefended prize. But (it will be urged) he is forbidden by the amended treaty to do that. True, even as the same instrument, while recognizing our right to take possession of the canal for our own defense, forbids us to employ one of the most effective means to that end. But in war all treaties between belligerents are canceled—inter arma silent leges. If at war with a European naval power we should ourselves not hesitate for a moment to seize and fortify the canal if we could. Unfortunately, it would be too late to do so; and in order to do so himself an enemy would need only to be more powerful on the sea than astonishingly amended convention is, and by merely building ship for ship can always remain. If it be urged that the “guarantee” of the canal’s neutrality by all the other powers will prevent its seizure by any one power, I beg leave to point out that the other powers are not infrequently very strenuously preoccupied with wars of their own. And it is precisely when they are so pre-occupied that an enemy to ourselves is most likely to materialize, as a natural product of the political and military situation. 

One more quotation from the report of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. It has a familiar sound like the cry of the seagull. Its home is on the rolling deep: 

To make the canal a battle ground is necessary to expose it to destruction, and the erection of fortresses for its protection will invite hostilities to its locality. 

In other words, fortresses do not protect, but expose to destruction the thing sought to be protected. But is it true that fortifications “invite hostilities”? Is their existence a temptation to attack them? Of course not. A fort is not built at random, nor attacked wantonly. It is placed where there is something to guard—a city, or harbor, a river, or possibly a canal—something which in possession of an enemy would give him an advantage. The fort is attacked, not for the pleasure of fighting it, nor for the profit of killing or capturing its garrison, but in order to get possession of what it guards. Itself is a powerful dissuasion from attack. The wolf does not assault the fold for the fun of fighting the shepherd and the dogs, but to get the sheep that it shelters. If it were not for the fold the wolf would have cheap mutton. If the shepherd should say that the fold “invites” the wolf he would be as great a fool as a committee of the United States Senate inspired by an Admiral of the United States Navy. In bombarding the Morro Castle at Santiago, Sampson’s purpose was to open a way to the fleet and city that it guarded. In attacking the fort at San Juan his object was possession of the harbor and city as a base of operations nearer to the sphere of war than Key West. Young Bagley lost his life at Cardenas, not because the batteries there were an “invitation” to his commander to make the harbor a “battleground,” but in an attempt to destroy certain gunboats gifted with the disagreeable quality of mobility for aggression. Not even at Matanzas did an absurd and inexperienced flag officer attack the Spanish earthworks altogether wantonly. There was the mule. 

Let us suppose that in 1861, after the surrender of Fort-Sumter, the Confederate military authorities had said: “To make Charleston harbor a battleground is necessarily to expose the city to destruction, and the erection of forts for its protection—will invite hostilities to its locality.” Let us suppose that in observance of that remarkable military principle they had not only constructed no more forts, but had dismantled Forts Sumter and Moultrie, Castle Pinckney and the rest of their harbor defenses. That, I take it, is what Admiral Dewey, if he had been in the Confederate service, would have advised, and what Rear Admiral Cushman K. Davis and Commodore John T. Morgan would have approved. General Beauregard thought differently. He thought it better that Charleston harbor should be “a battleground” than that the Federals should take peaceable possession of Charleston. And despite all that the United States navy, with its great ironclads and tremendous armaments, could do the harbor of the hated city remained to the end of the war a Confederate lake. Indeed, I do not at this moment re-call any instance during our Civil War of harbor fortifications being “reduced” by ships. Even Fort Jackson, below New Orleans, was able to fight Farragut with nearly all his men and guns after Porter’s mortar-boats had dropped into it, during five infernal days and nights, more than 16,000 13-inch shells. It is true that Farragut’s fleet ran past the forts below New Orleans and those at the entrance to Mobile Bay, and they were afterward surrendered; but they were not “reduced.” And there would be no running the gauntlet into a canal studded with mines and torpedoes. 

To show the needlessness of fortifications, the mentally afflicted commonly affirm the ease with which an enemy’s vessel could be prevented from passing through the canal: a stick of dynamite is all that is needed to do the trick, they say. But we do not want the canal wrecked just when it will be the most useful to us; we want it for passage of our own ships. Exclusion of the enemy’s is not enough. But the stick of dynamite argument has a double utility in the mouths of the philosophers who are not ashamed to use it: It is so easy for us to destroy the canal, and it can be so cheaply done, that expensive fortifications accomplishing the same ultimate purpose are needless; and they are useless, for it is equally easy for an enemy to do the same. It is not easy for an enemy to do any such thing. Except at a lock a stick of dynamite would accomplish nothing. We should not need a line of sentinels from sea to sea, as one of those complacent simpletons points out: we should have only to guard the locks—a very simple military problem which any corporal can solve. One should be charitable to the unfortunate, but really it is not permitted to the stick-of-dynamite gentlemen to affirm in one breath the ease with which we can wreck the canal to exclude the ships of an enemy, in the next the ease with which an enemy can wreck it to exclude ours, and in a third the necessity of having its neutrality “guaranteed” by all the great powers of Europe. By their own showing, its neutrality can be guaranteed by nothing but universal paralysis. 

I am a friend to Great Britain. I believe her to be as just as she is powerful, and as patient and forbearing as she is just. I believe in her good will to our county and to our form of government, and favor the maintenance of any good understanding with her that is short of an alliance. If ever again we quarrel with her (which Heaven forbid) I think it is more likely to be the fault of my passionate, sensitive, jealous and demagogue-driven countrymen than of her people or government. But who can look into the future of nations? Who can forecast the trend of their interests, their sympathies, their animosities? Destiny plays with loaded dice. I am not willing that the welfare of my countrymen shall be staked on any throw. Let Great Britain once get possession of the Nicaragua Canal and the world cannot dislodge her. She will make a Gibraltar at the one terminus, an Esquimalt at the other—for even the officers of her navy have not the happiness to entertain that contempt of fortifications which serves to distinguish ours from the worms of the dust. You may think, Messrs. Senators, that the risk is small. Perhaps it is—let it go at that. But consider, I pray you, the incalculable value of the thing risked. It is nothing else than American dominance in the new world.


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