Monday, December 11, 2006

In days of old when ships were bold just like the men who sailed them

Decision at Sea: Five Naval Battles That Shaped American History is a good book with an inappropriate name. The battles covered range from the well known, Midway, to the should be well known, Lake Erie, to the not particularly important, Operation Praying Mantis. For each chapter, Symonds sets up the political context, shows how the battle came to be and then provides a good short explanation of what happened. In two cases, the battle turned on chance. In others, the end result was pre-ordained. For all of them Symonds nicely sums up what happened without bogging down in the detail that bedevils much military history. He then describes what came after the battle. The short chapters build on each other as he shows how technology, leadership and sailors changed over the decades. He also illustrates the changing fortunes of the US Navy.

It's a very engaging read, although I think the idea that the battles shaped American history is a bit of stretch. Sure, Lake Erie and Manila Bay truly changed the direction of history, by helping prevent a US loss in the War of 1812 and by starting the brief Imperial phase of US interaction with Asia. Midway was important, but mostly for shortening a war that already started. Hampton Roads is important, but more from its role as the first ironclad battle than as a change in direction.

To get a sense of how the Navy sees these battles, we should see which have ships named after them. There is Lake Erie in service, it is one of the Aegis cruisers. The aircraft carrier USS Midway recently became a museum. The last Manila Bay served in World War 2 as an escort carrier. Hampton Roads has yet to get a ship, although recent ship names from the Civil War include Shiloh, Gettysburg, Chancellorsville, Vicksburg and the naval battle Mobile Bay. A small complaint is that there are a few trivial factual errors. This makes some people crazy, but I can live with it.

Debating the historical importance of the battles is really a quibble. The main value in the book is getting a contextual battle history of the Navy and the growth of American power and influence. It also shows the importance of contingency in history. If you are a fan of naval history or interested in learning about it, this would be a good choice.

No comments: