Notable Naval Books of 1997

By Lieutenant Colonel Richard Seamon, U.S. Marine Corps Reserve (Retired)

Even naval historian Clay Blair's Hitler's U-Boat War: The Hunters 1939-1942 , which offers some surprising new facts about overblown assessments of the achievements of Nazi submarines, lays much of the blame for U-Boat failures on political interference. Hitler, as Vice Admiral James F. Calvert, U.S. Navy (Retired), pointed out in his review, became "an unwittingly good friend to the Allies" by often countermanding Admiral Donitz's requests although he knew "almost nothing about submarine strategy or tactics."

Coping with civilian control always has been a major part of the military's job. It is a task that is only going to get more complicated according to the essays collected in The Military and Conflict Between Cultures: Soldiers at the Interface , edited by James C. Bradford. Wars that have ranged over 3,000 years and five continents offer important lessons in this scholarly collection. Not the least of those lessons is the necessity of learning to get along with allies from different ethnic groups. The small conflicts of the post-Cold War world, the authors point out, already tax the multicultural commands of the United Nations no less than the enemies of Rome challenged Caesar's generals at the outposts of empire.

Learning to deal with different ethnic groups that are now—or are likely to become—enemies is a far different problem. This is when spies become "soldiers at the interface." The colorful history of the world's second-oldest profession is recounted in Spy Book: The Encyclopedia of Espionage by Norman Polmar and Thomas B. Allan. From Mata Hari blowing a kiss to her firing squad, to spy exchanges on Berlin bridges and unmanned balloons drifting over what used to be the Soviet Union, the personalities and paraphernalia of a clandestine world are examined in fascinating detail.

No spies are necessary, because few secrets are hidden in the gender wars at home. Newspaper headlines and television talking heads report every skirmish in the battle between the sexes. There are no signs of a truce, either in the Navy or the other services. Linda Bird Francke's Ground Zero: The Gender Wars in the Military insists that the unavoidable problems of integrated uniformed services are far more serious than today's media would have us believe. As a matter of fact, Ms. Francke says, male chauvinism never is going to disappear and the situation is going to get worse. Although she bolsters her argument with an impressive catalog of incidents that have received little attention elsewhere, her harsh rhetoric is likely to convince only the most militant feminists. Writing from a different perspective in War and American Women: Heroism, Deeds and Controversy , William B. Breuer points out that the difficulty of dealing with women in the military did not begin with Tailhook '91, or the recent scandals at service academies and Army training bases. World War I women volunteers knew their share of sneers and contemptuous gossip; so did World War II WAVES, WACs, WASPs, and SPARs, even as they served with honor. A combat veteran himself, Breuer is convinced that women are in the military to stay.

In Women Warriors: A History , David E. Jones, a martial arts instructor and college professor reaches back to the second millennium B.C. and begins his catalog of female fighters with Arabian queens and Chinese pirates who were fierce leaders and masters of the sword and lance. Jones' tales of courage and derring-do continue through the American Revolution, the Civil War, both World Wars and Vietnam. His heroines have him convinced that a properly trained woman can be the equal of any man in uniform. Perhaps. Others remain harder to convince. Few naval aviators who attended Tailhook '91, for example, are likely to agree (or to forgive senior officers and civilian service secretaries who tended to tag them all with guilt by association). And they continue to resent the fact that the story has not been allowed to die. The latest book , The Mother of All Hooks: The Story of the US. Navy's Tailhook Scandal , by William H. McMichael will not help their morale. The story of the convention itself and the humbling investigations that followed "never was a pretty one," said Colonel Hays Parks, U.S. Marine Corps Reserve (Retired), in his review. Worse yet, mistakes of fact and failure to discuss "reported misconduct by female naval personnel (including the original complainant Paula Coughlin)" mar what is the most complete account of Tailhook to date.

Far more important for the Navy than one more reminder of Tailhook troubles, the report of the Naval Academy's Special Committee to the Board of Visitors, The Higher Standard: Assessing the United States Naval Academy , by Admiral Stansfield Turner, U.S. Navy (Retired), and Dr. Judy Jolley Mohraz, offers an ambitious prescription for the Academy's future. Well aware that "‘Blue Ribbon' commissions are sometimes appointed to deflect criticism," Political Science Professor John Allen Williams is satisfied in his review that this commission has turned out a "worthwhile product . . . a mature and balanced set of recommendations designed to improve an institution that is fundamentally sound." Among those recommendations was a call for an open communication policy. Careful to avoid criticism of the Academy's administration, the commission left it to reviewers like Professor Williams to mention "hypersensitivity to adverse publicity." Too often, he said, "the Academy's response to an incident makes it worse than it otherwise would be." For the most part, though, the commission found the Academy and its administration in fine shape. Though critics of the Academy will find little to crow about in this report, future administrations will find much to do as they attempt to implement the committee's suggestions and continue producing top-quality officers for the Navy and the Marine Corps.

The challenges those officers will face, according to Commander John D. Alden, U.S. Navy (Retired), have changed little from those that faced the subject of his biography: Salvage Man: Edward Ellsberg and the U.S. Navy . "Public disinterest, a hostile press, parochial-minded legislators, service bureaucracies, prejudice and careerism, to name a few," plagued the Navy in Ellsberg's day, but no such problems could keep this unconventional officer from becoming the nation's leading marine salvage expert. Sunken submarines, wrecked dry docks, sabotaged ports, artificial harbors for the Normandy invasion—Ellsberg handled them all with "courage, brute force, and quick-witted improvisation." Despite General Dwight Eisenhower's recommendation, the Navy waited until the end of Ellsberg's career before reluctantly promoting him to the grade of rear admiral.

Another reminder of military perseverance in the face of public and political "attention deficit disorder," is Fellowship of Valor: The Battle History of the Marine Corps by Colonel Joseph H. Alexander, U.S. Marine Corps (Retired). "This is the true-grit version of our history" said Marine Brigadier General Gregory S. Newbold in his review. It is "Professional Military Education that educates and inspires." It is also an eloquent reminder of the esprit de corps found in Colonel John W. Thomason's anecdote from World War I about an American lady who visited a French hospital ward and "saw on a pillow a face unlike the fiercely whiskered Gallic heads there displayed. . . 'Oh' she said, ‘surely you are an American!' ‘No, ma'am,' the casualty answered, ‘I'm a Marine."'

Apocryphal the anecdote may be, but the training that builds such pride is made abundantly clear in Making the Corps by Thomas E. Ricks. Much more than a journalist's report on boot camp, this book, said Lieutenant Colonel F. G. Hoffman, U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, in his review, "explains the distinctive culture that has made the Marine Corps into a fiercely proud, almost mythical organization, imbued with traditions and values increasingly absent from society." Although he sees the Corps as "the most well-adjusted of the U.S. military services today, at ease with its post-Cold War situation," Ricks worries about an increasingly politicized, conservative Republican officer corps. That concern is balanced by his admiration for an "internal tolerance for diversity, debate and self-criticism," and by the candor of the Marine Corps, from generals to privates.

Candor to a degree seldom found in the military helped the Corps deal with a disgraceful episode in Vietnam and get on with its mission without suffering from a rash of bad publicity. Son Thang: An American War Crime by Gary D. Solis reports that a "killer team" of Marines guilty of slaughtering 16 women and children in the hamlet known as Son Thang was brought to trial quickly; there was no cover-up. What troubled the author, who became a lawyer after two tours in Vietnam, were flaws in the Uniform Code of Military Justice. What troubled the Corps was not only an unforgivable atrocity committed by Marines, but the recognition that those men had been foisted on a proud outfit by a foolish, politically contrived quota system.

Histories of World War II in the Pacific seldom get bogged down in stories of atrocities committed by U.S. troops. Occasionally, though, a new look at an old hero can shed fresh light on both the man and his campaigns. The Pacific War Revisited , edited by Gunther Bischof and Robert L. Dupont, is a collection of essays that cover everything from the submarine campaign to the use of atom bombs. The book's most important contribution to military history is a devastating revisionist review of General Douglas MacArthur's controversial career. Even though supporters are given equal time, the end result for the general is a resounding defeat.

In an entirely different approach to the Pacific war, Colonel Joseph H. Alexander, U.S. Marine Corps (Retired), covers seven decisive amphibious operations in Storm Landings: Epic Amphibious Battles in the Central Pacific . War against Japan was a bloody reminder that the United States is a maritime nation. Coordinated assaults from the sea against heavily-fortified positions were vital to maintaining maritime superiority. A veteran amphibian himself, Colonel Alexander examines the landings at Tarawa, Saipan, Guam, Tinian, Peleliu, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa—the continually evolving tactics and the high cost in casualties—with an expert's eye. More than a detailed study of past battles, this is a valuable textbook, rich with lessons for the future.

Chances are that few survivors from the dangerous beaches of Storm Landings would see much point to a return visit, even in peacetime. Lieutenant Commander Joseph C. Meredith, U.S. Naval Reserve (Retired), on the other hand, longed for a chance to go back to the far green islands he had first seen in 1943 from the deck of USS Stephen Potter (DD-538). In the early 1950s the Navy sent him back. In A Handful of Emeralds: On Patrol with the Hanna in the Postwar Pacific , his colorful, almost lyrical diary records his abiding affection for the people and places he still sees as Joseph Conrad saw them, "through the starlight of bygone nights."

Japanese naval veterans can harbor few such romantic memories. Their once mighty fleet, report David C. Evans and Mark R. Peattie in Kaigun: Strategy Tactics and Technology in the Imperial Japanese Navy 1887-1941 , "was not just beaten by the U.S. Navy; it was annihilated." With painstaking research and consistently clear writing free of any taint of academic jargon, the authors explain how stubborn, repetitious mistakes led the Japanese Navy to its ultimate defeat. In the Pacific war, they point out, "the navy's early tactical victories were soon undone by disastrous strategic miscalculations .... Of no institution has this been truer than the Imperial Japanese Navy from 1941 to 1943." Few scholarly studies, so packed with history and analysis, manage also to be so easily readable, and so worthy of shelf space alongside the other notable books of the past year.

Colonel Seamon writes the Books of Interest column for Proceedings . He was the assistant managing editor for Time magazine.

 

 
 

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