Notable Naval Books of 2008

By Lieutenant Commander Thomas J. Cutler U.S. Navy (Retired)

As always, reference books that appear on a regular basis (such as Janes' Fighting Ships and Combat Fleets of the World ) and longstanding professional books (such as the Watch Officer's Guide ) are not included. While there is no question that such books are notable, mentioning them year after year is redundant and unnecessary; those interested in this list are more than likely already aware of such important books and need not be reminded.

Because it is considered a prestigious accolade to be included in this list, and coming up with only 20 from the many fine books that were published in the previous year is difficult and subjective enough without then trying to further rank them in some manner, the editors have listed the books in alphabetical order, by title, so as to avoid any perceptions of hierarchical ranking or favoritism. Selecting the better and the best from this list will be left to the individual reader.

The Naval Institute is first and foremost an open forum, so the editors welcome the inevitable disagreement that will likely come from these choices.

Agents of Innovation: The General Board and the Design of the Fleet that Defeated the Japanese Navy by John T. Kuehn ( Naval Institute Press )

A formal body established by the secretary of the Navy in the years between the two world wars, the General Board played a key role as the arbiter (and innovator) between those who were creating Fleet assets and those who were limiting them as a result of the Washington Naval Treaty of that era. Dr. Kuehn, a retired Navy commander and currently a member of the faculty at the U.S. Army Command and Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, argues that the constraints placed by Article XIX of that treaty led conversely to innovations that ultimately played a significant role in the coming war. 

Aircraft Carriers: A History of Carrier Aviation and Its Influence on World Events: Vol. II, 1946-2006 by Norman Polmar (Potomac Books)

Recognized as one of this nation's foremost naval analysts, Norman Polmar concludes his landmark study of aircraft carriers with this fact-filled analysis of the role of the flattop since the end of World War II. Originally conceived as support vessels for the battleship, these venerable warriors not only eclipsed the big gun ships of yesteryear but have remained a centerpiece to most naval operations, despite the development of guided missiles, nuclear weapons, and powerful attack submarines. In nearly every crisis or turning point in world history, aircraft carriers have played a role, covering the spectrum from deterrence to alfa strike. Never content with merely recording the events and statistics of history, Polmar provides the why as well as the who, what, and where of this important story.

A Dawn like Thunder: The True Story of Torpedo Squadron Eight by Robert J. Mrazek (Little, Brown and Company)

A former U.S. congressman and novelist, Mrazek has brought attributes of both accomplishments to this work, imbuing it with the right measure of patriotic fervor and the kind of color that brings fiction to life. The men who flew Devastators or Avengers at both Midway and Guadalcanal deserve the tribute that this fine book represents. Performing under arduous circumstances that nearly defy the imagination, these Navy flyers played no small part in the great turnaround in the fortunes of the Pacific War, and their story reminds us why Tom Brokaw felt compelled to call them the "greatest generation." Mrazek's rendition of that story clearly reflects the awe he feels for his subject, yet it remains good history, untainted by unnecessary embellishment and undiminished by inappropriate admiration.

(For an excerpt, see December 2008 Proceedings )

Destroyer Captain: Lessons of a First Command by Admiral James Stavridis ( Naval Institute Press )

The extraordinary individual who has since risen to lofty four-star heights and earned a reputation as one of the Navy's best and brightest was once a "mere" ship captain entrusted with defending the nation's interests from the bridge of a guided-missile destroyer. Despite Jim Stavridis' well-known ability to do everything in an extraordinary manner, we see in this memoir a man facing the challenges of a first command with humility and a sincere appreciation of his good fortune at having been given an opportunity realized by only a relative few. Stavridis is one of those rare naval officers who has wielded both pen and sword with alacrity throughout his meteoric career, somehow finding the time amidst awesome responsibilities to write countless articles and an extraordinary number of books that have created a legacy of edification and inspiration that will long endure. This book will be among his most memorable, because it is a window into the mind and the soul of an individual, who, despite unquestionable innate talents, never loses sight of the need for a devoted work ethic and who, even more significantly, is ever aware that great deeds are never accomplished alone. It is not at all surprising that his ship was named the best in the Atlantic Fleet, yet there is not a single instance of the puffery that too often creeps into memoirs, and we are left with a virtual textbook on good leadership as well as a hell of a good read.

George Washington's Secret Navy: How the American Revolution Went to Sea by James L. Nelson (International Marine)

Among George Washington's many attributes and achievements, one often-overlooked aspect is his appreciation for sea power. James Nelson has taken a major step toward rectifying that oversight in this fascinating new look at one of General Washington's lesser known strategic moves. In the words of famed historian Thomas Fleming, Nelson has "taken an episode that occupies no more than a few paragraphs in other histories of the Revolution and, with convincing research and vivid narrative style, turned it into an important, marvelously readable book." In doing so, Nelson brings to light an event that may well have had far-reaching consequences despite its seemingly minor footprint among the many steps on the road to independence. Readers may well be surprised to see a great general venturing into the realm usually reserved for great admirals, but they may be even more surprised to see the man whom we revere today for his respect for civilian authority virtually creating a "navy" without the approval (or even the awareness) of the Continental Congress.

(For a full review, see April 2009 Naval History )

Hell's Islands: The Untold Story of Guadalcanal by Stanley Coleman Jersey (Texas A&M University)

What makes this latest contribution a welcome addition to the already sizable body of Guadalcanal literature is that Jersey, a medical air evacuation specialist in the South Pacific during World War II, has thoroughly combed the mountains of Australian, Japanese, and U.S. documents and interviewed more than 200 Allied and Japanese veterans of the campaign to produce this account, which actually introduces new facts and provides unique views on that landmark struggle. One reviewer likens this rendition to an oral history with the fruits of research added on.

(For a full review, see December 2008 Naval History )

The H. L. Hunley: The Secret Hope of the Confederacy by Tom Chaffin (Hill and Wang)

One of those "evergreens" of naval lore is the story of the first submarine to successfully sink an enemy ship, and Chaffin's contribution to the tradition is a welcome one. One review of Chaffin's book suggests that it may be "overfilled" with "fascinating information"—a criticism that one supposes the author will not lose any sleep over! Indeed, this is a fact-filled yet lively narrative that intimately acquaints the reader with the submarine itself, the men who crewed her (at ultimate peril), and the era in which these pioneering events took place.

(For a full review, see December 2008 Naval History )

If by Sea: The Forging of the American Navy—from the Revolution to the War of 1812 by George Daughan (Basic Books)

The origins of the U.S. Navy are complex, encompassing culture, economics, and politics as well as the opportunities, exigencies, and practical limitations of historical events. George Daughan has gotten his arms around all of that and spun it into a readable tale that is both revealing and riveting. Eschewing the expediency of ignoring the less dramatic events of the Revolutionary War in favor of the swashbuckling episodes that follow, Daughan has given the Continental Navy its due by putting its trials and tribulations into context as essential prelude. He then transitions to the Quasi-, Barbary, and 1812 wars, creating a cohesive narrative that embraces all that can rightly be called "origins" of the American Navy.

(For a full review, see October 2008 Naval History )

Leathernecks: An Illustrated History of the United States Marine Corps by Merrill L. Bartlett and Jack Sweetman ( Naval Institute Press )

From the shores of Tripoli to the sands of Iraq, this comprehensive history is a worthy addition to the literature about America's most popular armed force. Devoted followers of Marine Corps history may recall that Bartlett and Sweetman teamed up several years ago to produce The U.S. Marine Corps: An Illustrated History , an excellently written but rather poorly illustrated book. To its credit, Naval Institute Press has admitted its mistake and made amends by transforming the earlier, somewhat desultory version into this new, absolutely stunning tribute to the colorful history of the Corps. The authors have taken advantage of this resurrection by improving their written contributions as well, and the result is a truly impressive volume that more than makes up for the earlier false start and is a fitting tribute to the men and women who have come to be known, with much admiration, as "Leathernecks."

(For a full review, see April 2009 Proceedings )

Lincoln and His Admirals by Craig L. Symonds (Oxford University Press)

With all of the attention that has been paid to the American Civil War and to Abraham Lincoln, it is somewhat surprising that so little of that attention has focused on the significant role of the Union Navy and, more specifically, to Lincoln's role as commander-in-chief of that navy. Craig Symonds, long recognized as one of the truly outstanding naval historians of our time, has filled this notable void with a meticulously researched and engagingly written account. Lincoln emerges from this study as one of the great naval strategists of the age, despite his having virtually no previous knowledge of ships or naval operations. As if Symonds does not have enough laurels of his own, out of a field of more than a hundred possible winners, he shares the 2009 Gettysburg College Lincoln Prize (long considered the "Oscar" of Lincoln literature) with James M. McPherson. An icon of Civil War literature in his own right, McPherson describes Lincoln and His Admirals as a "compelling portrait of personalities and a sharp analysis of strategy" and "a gripping narrative that finally gives the Union navy—and its commander in chief—the credit they deserve for the important part they played in winning the Civil War."

(For a full review, see June 2009 Naval History )

The Lions of Iwo Jima: The Story of Combat Team 28 and the Bloodiest Battle in Marine Corps History by Fred Haynes and James A. Warren (Henry Holt and Co.)

Not for the faint of heart, this is war at its most visceral. Haynes, a veteran of the carnage on Iwo as part of Combat Team 28, teams up with Warren, an accomplished military historian and writer, to create what Booklist calls an "intense, moving account" in which "the harsh face of war in the Pacific theater has rarely been portrayed so effectively." While the authors acknowledge some of the controversies surrounding this momentous battle, their focus remains on the warriors involved, even recognizing the courage and tenacity of the enemy soldiers. The first half of the book recounts details of the assault on the island, while the second half recalls the grueling, gruesome struggle against the island's defenders. The result is an appreciation of what that famous flag-raising photo atop Mount Suribachi really represents.

(For two independent reviews, see October 2008 Proceedings and December 2008 Naval History )

Naval Firepower: Battleship Guns and Gunnery in the Dreadnought Era by Norman Friedman (Pen and Sword Books)

In this heavily illustrated and fact-filled book, world-renowned naval analyst Norman Friedman, whose many articles and books shed light on both contemporary and historical issues, focuses on the era when the battleship was still regarded by many as queen of the sea. Friedman recounts the rise and decline of these magnificent vessels from before World War I to the end of World War II, focusing on the heart of their power by analyzing the fire-control systems that directed their potentially powerful weapons. With big guns as their main armament, these behemoths were awe-inspiring on sight, but those weapons were in reality only as good as the systems that aimed them. Explaining and analyzing these complex systems, with their electro-mechanical computers and specialized optics, Friedman draws many interesting and sometimes surprising conclusions. Although the battleship has disappeared from the world's oceans, this book is a must-read for anyone who would understand the complexities of naval thinking.

One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War by Michael Dobbs (Alfred A. Knopf)

Many books have been written about those harrowing days of the Cuban Missile Crisis, but this may well be the best yet in terms of page-turning, nail-biting suspense. Dobbs has taken an already highly-charged drama and made it more intense through his storytelling skills, yet he has managed to preserve historical accuracy and maintained an air of authenticity while recounting a series of events that are almost surreal by their very nature. Dobbs has the advantage over some of the earlier writers, because much more has come to light than was previously known; making it clear that Armageddon was closer even than once suspected. With a cast of characters that includes President John F. Kennedy and his brother U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, Cuban leader Fidel Castro, and U-2 pilots and ship commanders, among many others, this is a study in the wielding of power that is hard to match.

(For a full review, see March 2009 Proceedings )

On the Corps: USMC Wisdom from the pages of Leatherneck, Marine Corps Gazette, and Proceedings edited by Lieutenant Colonel Charles P. Neimeyer, U.S. Marine Corps (Retired) ( Naval Institute Press and the Marine Corps Association)

Through the decades of their existence, the three professional magazines most widely read by Marines have produced a sizable body of what can only be described as wisdom. With that realization in mind, a large number of Marines were asked to pick their "best of" titles from the thousands of articles available. A consensus was reached, and the result is this unusual anthology that resurrects and preserves insights and guidance that are unique and timeless.

Patriot Pirates: The Privateer War for Freedom and Fortune in the American Revolution by Robert H. Patton (Pantheon)

We most often associate patriotism with sacrifice and noble motives, but in the case of privateering during the American war for independence, the baser motive of greed proved congruent with the needs of the American war effort. Patton's masterful treatment of this somewhat ignored aspect of the Revolutionary War is both enlightening and thought-provoking. In what he calls a massive seaborne insurgency, men who more often than not were motivated by profit were able to significantly challenge Great Britain's control of the sea far more than the Continental Navy could ever have hoped to. In an odd sort of "win-win" situation, virtual pirates were able to amass much booty while furthering George Washington's strategic aims.

(For a Books in Brief review, see May 2008 Proceedings

Retribution: The Battle for Japan, 1944-45 by Max Hastings (Random House)

As one would expect from Max Hastings, this book sheds a glaring light on war, revealing its brutality and chaos in great detail while drawing a number of lessons from its practice. Focusing on the end of the war in the Pacific, he evaluates many of the decisions made by seniors that had great impact on their subordinates, pulling no punches in his analysis of MacArthur's invasion of Luzon and having little patience for those who question Truman's decision to use the atomic bomb. As always, his vivid writing takes readers to the front lines, and he uses words like bullets to hammer home his strongly held convictions. The New York Times Book Review calls this book a "masterly account of the climax of the conflict against Japan" and calls Hastings "a military historian in the grand tradition."

(For a full review, see August 2008 Proceedings )

Sheriff of Ramadi: Navy SEALs and the Winning of al-Anbar by Dick Couch ( Naval Institute Press )

Dick Couch, a former Navy SEAL who is now well-known as a successful author, describes the battle of Ramadi in Iraq as the most significant military engagement since 9/11. His focus is on the Navy SEALs who played a major role in this battle, including Medal of Honor recipient Michael Monsoor, but what emerges is more than a mere account of bravery in battle. Couch describes and analyzes a situation where special operations forces were integrated with conventional Soldiers and Marines, and he concludes that what happened in Ramadi was more than an event; it is a template for future operations in which old techniques are replaced by new ones that more accurately address the realities of a new kind of warfare.

The Strongest Tribe: War, Politics, and the Endgame in Iraq by Bing West (Random House)

In a comprehensive overview of the Iraq War, Bing West provides a thought-provoking assessment of that ongoing conflict. He pulls no punches in his treatment of the early period, which he covers in a chapter called "How to Create a Mess," and his evaluation of the next several years of the war is no less critical—"hope posing as a plan" is his assessment. West's tone changes markedly with the introduction of General David Petraeus and the so-called "surge." Here, West is more laudatory and optimistic, concluding that the war is winnable. Critics might argue that as a Vietnam veteran, West's views are encumbered (a Washington Post reviewer refers to "the clouded prism of our own experience"), but experience is often the handmaiden of insight, and West's assessments are worthy of serious consideration, particularly because he has supplemented his studies with numerous trips to Iraq over the course of the war. Although the final chapter to this war story has yet to be written, The Strongest Tribe is a worthy addition to the many predictions of how that story will eventually end.

(For a full review, see November 2008 Proceedings )

Through the Wheat: The U.S. Marines in World War I by Brigadier General Edwin Howard Simmons, U.S. Marine Corps (Retired) and Colonel Joseph Alexander, U.S. Marine Corps (Retired) ( Naval Institute Press )

One day in June, in the latter days of World War I, U.S. Marines moved out "through the wheat" as they began their assault at Belleau Wood in the face of German machine gun fire and poison gas shells. Before the day was over, the Corps suffered more casualties than it had in all their previous engagements combined, yet those charging Leathernecks had left more than their blood marking that battlefield. It was a turning point in that service's history, when it was forever transformed from a seagoing light infantry supplementing the Navy's power at sea into the nation's "point," tasked with making initial assaults in all manner of heavy combat. General Simmons and Colonel Alexander bring their extraordinary talents as writers and historians together to capture the seminal importance of the Marines Corps' role in this first world war. Not surprisingly, the result is a riveting account of hand-to-hand combat accompanied by fascinating analysis of what it all meant to the Corps, the nation, and the world.

(For a full review, see November 2008 Proceedings )

Unknown Waters: A First-Hand Account of the Historic Under-Ice Survey of the Siberian Continental Shelf by USS Queenfish (SSN-651) by Alfred S. McLaren (University of Alabama Press)

In 1970 the nuclear-powered attack submarine USS Queenfish conducted an undersea survey of a major portion of the Arctic Ocean. Threading its way through underwater ice canyons and over previously uncharted sea floors, the sub traveled more than 3,000 miles with her crew constantly concerned about succumbing to unknown hazards or being detected by the Soviets. In one harrowing episode, Queenfish became lodged in an "ice garage," and only skilled maneuvering saved her crew from a death that is difficult to contemplate. McLaren adroitly recounts this scientific voyage in a manner that is reminiscent of a Cold War spy thriller.

(For a full review, see June 2008 Proceedings )

Lieutenant Commander Cutler, senior acquisitions editor for the Naval Institute Press, enlisted in the Navy at 17 and was a gunner's mate second class prior to being commissioned in 1969. A Vietnam veteran, he is the author of several books, including A Sailor's History of the U.S. Navy and Brown Water, Black Berets , published by the Press.

Thomas J. Cutler is a retired lieutenant commander and former gunner's mate second class who served in patrol craft, cruisers, destroyers, and aircraft carriers. His varied assignments included an in-country Vietnam tour, small craft command, and nine years at the U.S. Naval Academy, where he served as Executive Assistant to the Chairman of the Seamanship & Navigation Department and Associate Chairman of the History Department. While at the Academy, he was awarded the William P. Clements Award for Excellence in Education (military teacher of the year).

He is the founder and former Director of the Walbrook Maritime Academy in Baltimore. Currently he is Fleet Professor of Strategy and Policy with the Naval War College and is the Director of Professional Publishing at the U.S. Naval Institute.

Winner of the Alfred Thayer Mahan Award for Naval Literature, the U.S. Naval Institute Press Author of the Year, and the U.S. Maritime Literature Award, his published works include NavCivGuide: A Handbook for Civilians in the U.S. Navy; A Sailor's History of the U.S. Navy [one of the books in the Chief of Naval Operations Reading Program]; The Battle of Leyte Gulf; Brown Water, Black Berets: Coastal & Riverine Warfare in Vietnam; and the 22nd, 23rd (Centennial), and 24th editions of The Bluejacket's Manual. His other works include revisions of Jack Sweetman's The Illustrated History of the U.S. Naval Academy and Dutton's Nautical Navigation. He and his wife, Deborah W. Cutler, are the co-editors of the Dictionary of Naval Terms and the Dictionary of Naval Abbreviations.

His books have been published in various forms, including paperback and audio, and have appeared as main and alternate selections of the History Book Club, Military Book Club, and Book of the Month Club. He has served as a panelist, commentator, and keynote speaker on military and writing topics at many events and for various organizations, including the Naval History and Heritage Command, Smithsonian Institution, the Navy Memorial, U.S. Naval Academy, MacArthur Memorial Foundation, Johns Hopkins University, U.S. Naval Institute, Armed Forces Electronics Communications and Electronics Association, Naval War College, Civitan, and many veterans' organizations. His television appearances include the History Channel's Biography series, A&E's Our Century, Fox News Channel's The O'Reilly Factor, and CBS's 48 Hours.

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Events and Conferences

Guest Lecturer
12:30pm, “Shifley Lecture Series,” U.S. Naval Academy Museum, 118 Maryland Ave., Annapolis, MD /... Read More
Videotape Interview
10:00am, “Veterans Oral Histories Series,” American Veterans Center, 1100 N. Glebe Rd., Arlington,... Read More


Conferences and Events

Maritime Security Dialogue

Fri, 2016-07-08

You are cordially invited to: Delivering on the Vision for the Future of Submarine Warfare A discussion with Rear Admiral Charles...

2016 Naval History Conference

WEST 2017

San Diego Convention Center, San Diego, CA

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