Book Reviews

Coming from one of Britain's leading naval historians, Maritime Supremacy presents a mighty thesis: that all civil liberties essentially derive from sea power.

Put so baldly, this might sound similar to the Pope saying that all good things derive from God, or Monsanto declaring that genetically modified foods will prevent world starvation, or an X-Files scriptwriter pronouncing that the truth is out there. We all have our corners to fight, and sometimes the bigger and more audacious the claim, the more likely it is to be accepted.

Another naval historian may not be the best person to judge the validity of Peter Padfield's thesis; perhaps instead it should be placed before someone with no understanding of sea power at all-Napoleon, for example. Yet I find the author's argument persuasive.

Padfield's worldview divides power blocs into two: continental/territorial and maritime. This is simple enough. I long have advocated the principle that "natural" maritime nations are those with coastlines longer than their land frontiers. The sea is their lifeline and route to trade and prosperity, so a merchant fleet evolves, followed by a dedicated defensively armed navy, which, in turn, develops offensive potential and extends the area of trade and domination. In contrast, the "unnatural" maritime powers are those whose land frontiers are longer than their coasts, but which develop an offensive armed fleet nonetheless.

Padfield is not the first to note that in the past 250 years France, Russia, and Germany (twice) all have come to grief through unnatural attempts to exploit sea power. Nor does he take serious issue with Alfred Thayer Mahan's basic principles—except one.

In Padfield's words, Mahan asserted that maritime power was a product of, inter alia, "the character of the people, and the type and disposition of the government." But the argument of this book is that here we have at least a two-way street. Padfield proposes that national character and type of government "are results quite as much as determinants of their power base, whether maritime or territorial."

Any land-based power, he observes, is fundamentally concerned with maintaining the integrity of its frontiers and strengthening itself by extending its territories- jobs for soldiers. These conditions produce "centralized governments, warrior elites, and professional bureaucracies" (read: Napoleonic, Hitlerian, Stalinist) with "total incomprehension and contempt for the needs of trade and sound finance." In contrast, any sea-based power draws its strength from the needs and desires of a merchant class, whose financial success puts pressure "on hereditary monarchies and landowning aristocracies, usually poor by comparison; and sooner or later merchant values prevail in government. Chief among these are dispersed power and open, consultative rule."

The quotations above are from his introduction—a beautiful, elegant, focused piece of writing that by itself is almost worth the price of the book. If I have a quibble, it is with the rest of the book—not with its ideas (quite the contrary) but with its structure.

Strange as it may be for a naval historian to say this, the book contains too much naval history. For example, Padfield's account of the Armada is excellent, but that one campaign occupies 33 pages—or 12% of the text. His comprehension of the context and his natural, understandable absorption in the details are expressed in fine writing, as always, yet nearly result in the point being missed—that sea power comes from free trade and tends toward the development of open democratic government, whereas land-based military power comes from and tends toward the opposite.

The book would not have converted Napoleon to a maritime viewpoint (Sacre bleu, take it away, I have an army to run!). But if the imperial patience was overstretched by an excess of naval detail, even a soldier-dictator would have found much to ponder fearfully in Patfield's chapter on "The Dutch Golden Age" and much to admire in the thrilling and compulsive "Quiberon Bay." Together, those chapters demonstrate powerfully the theory and practice of a sea power which, simultaneously growing from and creating a desire for commercial, political, and religious freedom, led in 1787 to the ratification of the U.S. Constitution.

Mr. Howarth is the author of To Shining Sea: A History of the United States Navy, 1775-1998 (University of Oklahoma, 1999) and co-author of Nelson: The Immortal Memory (The Lyons Press, 1999).

 

Patrick O'Brian: A Life Revealed

Dean King. New York: Henry Holt & Co., 2000. Photos. Notes. Bib. Index. $27.50 ($24.75).

Reviewed by Captain James Stavridis, U.S. Navy

In writing Patrick O'Brian: A Life Revealed, Dean King took on the life of a determinedly private man, attempting to probe into the story of a complicated and often deliberately obscured life. Happily, King succeeds nicely in illuminating the journey of one of this century's best pure writers and among the finest of all authors in the underrated genre of historical fiction.

Patrick O'Brian, the creator of the 20-volume series of Aubrey-Maturin novels and the author of many other books and translations as well, was born Patrick Russ in London in 1915. He first achieved literary success as a young man by writing popular adventure stories, and he seemed destined for a fairly normal British middleclass life. With the coming of World War II, however, all that changed. In the aftermath of the war he assumed what was essentially a new identity: Patrick O'Brian, a supposedly Irish writer, complete with a new family and ultimately a move to the south of France.

In A Life Revealed, Dean King does his best to explain this cathartic and sudden reinvention of a life, and ultimately does so with a fair amount of clarity. As he says in the introduction, "only in knowing the truth about O'Brian can we fully grasp the magnitude and nature of his accomplishment. His genius was largely that he had connected with the 'different self' to create from disappointing reality—quite magically—extraordinary fiction…"

The O'Brian mythology, carefully cultivated by the author through his middle years, was of an Irish Roman Catholic who had worked for British intelligence in his early years—and was largely invented. In fact, his English father was a doctor and his mother died when he was only three years old. He began writing early, perhaps influenced by Rudyard Kipling. He married early as well, to a Welsh woman whom he abandoned (there is no kinder word) along with his son, Richard. His daughter by that first marriage would die of spina-bifida after O'Brian had left the household.

One apparent cause of the break up was Mary Tolstoy, whom O'Brian married in 1945 shortly before he changed his name. After marrying her, he spent much of the rest of his life in the south of France, writing first several novels and completing a series of translations before embarking on the Aubry-Maturin novels over the final 33 years of his long life. When he died in January 2000 at 85, having just completed Blue At The Mizzen (W. W. Norton, 1999), he left behind a self-created portrait: aloof, scholarly, occasionally difficult, and fiercely protective of his privacy.

The biography captures all of that reasonably well, and includes a judicious use of plot summaries and the various publishing histories of the Aubrey-Maturin works. King also draws several interesting parallels between the characters in the novels and O'Brian's own life: the early death of Aubrey's mother and Maturin's obsessive secrecy, for example. Unfortunately, without direct access to his subject, King is hampered in developing a portrait that truly explores beyond the surfaces of O'Brian's life—leaving the reader to wonder at the source of such extraordinary writing emerging from behind the deliberately opaque screen of this brilliant writer. But all in all, to the dedicated reader of the Aubry-Maturin series, A Life Revealed is well worth the time and the volume is a solid and useful end-piece to the series.

Captain Stavridis was commanding officer of the USS Barry (DDG-52), commodore of Destroyer Squadron 21, and presently is executive assistant to the Secretary of the Navy.

 

Argonaut: The Submarine Legacy of Simon Lake

John J. Poluhowich. College Station, TX: Texas A&M, 1999. 181 pp. Photos. Appendices. Notes. Bib. Index. $24.95 ($22.45).

Reviewed by Commander John D. Alden, U.S. Navy (Retired)

The inventor of one of the earliest U.S. submarines—who made a fortune salvaging sunken cargoes from the ocean bottom, smuggled his boat to Russia and constructed additional submarines for the Tsar during the Russo-Japanese War, built 33 undersea craft for the U.S. Navy, and was the first to operate one under the Arctic ice—would appear to deserve consideration as a father of the modern submarine. Add to these achievements the ownership or operation of a dozen companies, the registration of more than 200 patents, the construction of wooden ships for the U.S. Army, and the invention of cast-concrete prefabricated houses, and one should have the candidate for a lively biography. Unfortunately, Simon Lake's inventive reach tended to exceed his practical grasp. The author describes him as jumping from one project to another, "gadfly fashion." Lake is revealed as an over-enthusiastic visionary who ended up losing his companies, his fortune, and ultimately his home. Overlooked by historians, a cluster of rotten pilings in the harbor of Bridgeport, Connecticut, became his only monument.

Attempting to demonstrate that Lake's contributions to submarine development rank him with John P. Holland, the author devotes almost as many pages to Holland as to Lake and blames Lake's lack of success on the political machinations of Holland's naval supporters and the Electric Boat Company. Actually, both inventors were the victims of underhanded skullduggery and both became embittered at the Navy and Electric Boat-but for different reasons. Holland felt that the Navy spoiled his submarine by adding a deck "for officers to strut on." Lake thought his boat was better; the Navy clearly did not.

Here the author has failed to appreciate the crucial differences between Holland's concept of a submarine—which dove porpoise-like by using planes to control the angle on the boat—and Lake's insistence on submerging on an even keel. The verdict of history clearly is on Holland's side. Even when Lake finally received a Navy contract for the USS Seal (G-1) (SS-19 1/2), he added wheels to run along the sea floor, an air lock and chamber for divers, and deck torpedo tubes—none of which the Navy wanted. About the 32 other submarines that Lake built for the U.S. Navy, the author says little. Comparison of their characteristics with those of contemporary Electric Boat designs shows the Lake boats to be clearly inferior.

The author has been too ready to accept claims and allegations from secondary sources such as Simon Lake's autobiography, newspaper stories, and some writings by R. G. Skerrett. The fact that Lake's Nautilus (the ex-USS O-12 [SS-73]) dived briefly under the edge of an ice pack hardly proved "the feasibility of under-ice travel." Many annoying errors also mar the book. The Holland VI, not the Plunger, sank alongside the pier on 13 October 1897; and the S-4 (SS-109) was lost in 1927, not 1926. And it is hard to believe the author when he says that a crew of six men could remain submerged for 60 hours in Lake's little Protector "in the comfort of quarters that resembled a sleeping car on American trains."

Commander Alden, a World War II submarine veteran and author, trained on antiquated O- and R-class boats.

 

 
 

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