Notable Naval Books of 2011

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

Because inclusion on the list is considered by many to be a prestigious accolade, and because coming up with a list of only 20 from the many fine books published in 2011 is difficult and subjective enough without trying further to rank them in some manner, the editors again list the books in alphabetical order by title to avoid any perceptions of hierarchical ranking or favoritism. Selecting the better and the best from this list will be left to the reader.

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

1812: The Navy’s War by George C. Daughan (Basic Books)

With the 200th anniversary of the start of the War of 1812 looming, it is no surprise that several of this year’s books are early entries to the inevitable (and welcome) commemoration of that historical milestone, when Great Britain finally acknowledged the loss of its colonies and recognized the birth of a new and important player on the world stage. By contrast to many other aspects of that all-but-forgotten war, the U.S. Navy’s significant successes at times approach mythic status. Prize-winning author George Daughan has made a great story even better by delivering an account that author and historian Douglas Brinkley describes as “riveting” and Robert Middlekauff (author of The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763–1789 ) calls a “sparkling effort.”

(For a full review, see June 2012 Naval History .)

Battle for the City of the Dead: In the Shadow of the Golden Dome, Najaf, August 2004 by Dick Camp (Zenith Press)

Retired Marine colonel and accomplished author Dick Camp captures the grit of urban warfare in this oral history of one of the Iraq War’s most challenging battles. Using the sensitivities and the sanctity of the Imam Ali Mosque and the largest Muslim cemetery in the world to their advantage, the so-called “Mahdi Militia” of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr fought American forces in an intense campaign that reflected much of the political and military complexity of the war. Battling 120-degree heat as well as a fanatical enemy who exploited American rules of engagement, the U.S. Army and Marine Corps proved their mettle in yet another testament to the courage and capability of Americans at war.

(For a full review, see July 2011 Proceedings .)

The Battle of Midway by Craig L. Symonds (Oxford University Press)

Part of Oxford University Press’s Pivotal Moments in American History series, this account of the battle most historians acknowledge as the turning point in the Pacific war sheds fresh light on an event that has been written about countless times. Craig Symonds, winner of numerous prestigious awards as both author and U.S. Naval Academy professor emeritus, has uncovered new evidence in this analysis of the battle and the events leading to it. His account reads better than most fiction, and even though many readers know the outcome, its sense of drama makes it a page-turner. Overturning the conventional wisdom that portrays the American victory as relying heavily on luck, Symonds explains why other more quantifiable factors determined the outcome. Selected as a Best Book of 2011 by Military History Quarterly , Symonds’ latest work is described as “clear and readable” ( The Wall Street Journal ) and “absolutely outstanding” ( The Washington Times ).

(For a full review, see December 2011 Naval History .)

Between War and Peace: How America Ends Its Wars Edited by Col. Matthew Moten (Free Press)

As the United States attempts to extricate itself from two long and costly wars, the phrase “exit strategy” is often tossed around by news media pundits. But this is more than mere rhetoric; it is an essential element of any sound strategy that too frequently is overlooked as nations make the leap from diplomacy to war. Many wars are tainted by this oversight, often with tragic results. Moten, a history professor at West Point, has gathered an impressive group of military historians to provide a collection of informative and sometimes provocative essays that recount and evaluate the endings of 14 American wars, from the Revolutionary War to the first Gulf War. Between War and Peace is a thought-provoking volume that offers lessons and guidance that strategists will ignore at their peril.

(For a full review, see June 2011 Proceedings .)

Black Sheep:The Life of Pappy Boyington by John F. Wukovits (Naval Institute Press)

No stranger to the Pacific War ( Admiral “Bull” Halsey: The Life and Wars of the Navy’s Most Controversial Commander , Palgrave Macmillan, 2010) John Wukovits turns his considerable skill to the life of Gregory “Pappy” Boyington, a sometimes larger-than-life fighter pilot who evokes many emotions, but never boredom. An ace many times over, Boyington earned the Medal of Honor and Navy Cross and secured a deserved reputation as a “black sheep.” Wukovits recounts Boyington’s colorful life, including his time as a Flying Tiger in the Burma and China theaters, his exploits as a Corsair pilot and squadron commander in the South West Pacific Area (the subject of a popular television series in the 1970s), and his ordeal as a prisoner of war. This is biography as it should be written.

(For a full review, see February 2012 Naval History .)

The Heart and the Fist: The Education of a Humanitarian, the Making of a Navy SEAL by Eric Greitens (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Exemplifying the words of John Stuart Mill, who wrote, “The person who has nothing for which he is willing to fight, nothing which is more important than his own personal safety, is a miserable creature,” Eric Greitens delivers a singular memoir that reveals the seemingly disparate qualities merged in the warrior and the humanitarian. Publisher’s Weekly says the book confronts “the same dilemma as the American military, which strives to be a strong deterrent against the evils of the world, while protecting the sick and powerless.” Combining the rigors of SEAL training with the compassion that emerges from witnessing the suffering of fellow human beings struggling in dismal parts of the world, Greitens is both participant and observer, describing “nuns who fed the destitute in Mother Teresa’s homes for the dying in India, aid workers who healed orphaned children in Rwanda, and Navy SEALs who fought in Afghanistan.” The result is a thought-provoking, often inspirational account of “the incredible possibilities that exist for each of us to live our one life well.”

(For a full review, see July 2011 Proceedings .)

How Britain Won the War of 1812: The Royal Navy’s Blockades of the United States, 1812–1815 by Brian Arthur (Boydell Press)

Before the Vietnam War, many Americans asserted that the United States had never lost a war. Had this book appeared then, it might well have aroused a great deal of opposition. Today, chastened by our experience in Vietnam and doubts about the situations in Iraq and Afghanistan, Brian Arthur’s contention that the British won the War of 1812 seems far less controversial. Arthur argues convincingly that America achieved none of its war aims, but advocates of the importance of sea power will see more value in his contention that a major factor in Britain’s victory was its imposition of a commercial blockade that inflicted serious damage to the vulnerable American economy.

(For a full review, see June 2012 Naval History .)

Joe Rochefort’s War: The Odyssey of the Codebreaker Who Outwitted Yamamoto at Midway by Elliot Carlson (Naval Institute Press)

Winner of this year’s prestigious Theodore and Franklin D. Roosevelt Prize in Naval History, this is the first biography of the man who headed the U.S. Navy’s decrypt unit at Pearl Harbor when it broke the Japanese navy’s code before the Battle of Midway. Rochefort was an iconoclast whose friends and enemies were many and vocal. He has appeared in many other accounts as a bit player and occasionally a prominent character, but this independent and often irreverent man, whom many credit with changing the course of World War II, has never been fully explored until now. Elliot Carlson skilfully transforms a caricature into a flesh-and-blood human being, providing not only excellent biography but a major contribution to the history of the Pacific war.

(For a full review, see April 2012 Naval History .)

Neptune’s Inferno: The U.S. Navy at Guadalcanal by James D. Hornfischer (Bantam)

When James Hornfischer first appeared on the literary scene, it was clear that naval history had a new star. His skill in combining excellent scholarship with damned good reading was evident from the start, and this latest contribution does not disappoint. Much has deservedly been made of the Marines’ ordeal and ultimate victory at Guadalcanal, but the Navy’s struggle there has been consigned to relative obscurity, despite the fact that more sailors died there than did Marines. This early naval campaign, waged before the so-called “sleeping giant” had fully awakened, was strategically important and a source of hard-earned lessons for the Navy as it rose, phoenix-like, from the ashes of Pearl Harbor to become the most powerful naval force in the history of the world. Hornfischer’s gripping tale is edifying, gratifying, and it is to be hoped only one of many more works to come from this gifted writer.

(For a full review, see January 2011 Proceedings .)

Pacific Air: How Fearless Flyboys, Peerless Aircraft, and Fast Flattops Conquered the Skies in the War with Japan by David Sears (Da Capo Press)

Taking the unusual tack of including the aeronautical engineers who designed the naval aircraft that fought and won the Pacific war along with those who flew them, David Sears has told an important and often overlooked story of how the Americans won this sweeping conflict. The contributions of the men in the cockpits is well documented, but there is little known of the vital impact made by the people who designed the F4F Wildcat, F6F Hellcat, and the TBF Avenger. Sears rectifies that with a readable, convincing account. These aircraft were, in many ways, the most successful naval weapons ever designed. Sears’ skills as a researcher and writer and grasp of his subject gained from his own experience as a former naval officer always lend authenticity and credibility to his work. This latest book is no exception.

(For a full review, see October 2011 Naval History .)

Pacific Crucible: War at Sea in the Pacific, 1941–1942 by Ian W. Toll (W. W. Norton & Company)

After his success with Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy (W. W. Norton, 2008), Ian Toll turns his attention to the early days of the Pacific war. Combining first-hand accounts with recent scholarship, he adroitly tells the story of the early months of the war, when the U.S. Navy emerged from the devastation of Pearl Harbor and, despite operating on a shoestring while waiting for the nation’s industrial might to gear up, managed to turn the tide in a way no Hollywood screenwriter could dream up. Toll enhances an already powerful script with top-notch storytelling skills to produce what Kirkus Reviews describes as “an entertaining, impressively researched chronicle of the tense period between the bombing of Pearl Harbor and American victory at the battle of Midway.”

(For a full review, see April 2012 Naval History .)

Preparing for Victory: Thomas Holcomb and the Making of the Modern Marine Corps, 1936–1943 by David J. Ulbrich (Naval Institute Press)

One of the Leatherneck Originals series (a cooperative effort, with the Leatherneck Classics series, of the U.S. Naval Institute and the Marine Corps Association to produce the best of Marine Corps literature), this is an outstanding biography of one of the Corps’ important figures, who served as commandant during the years leading to World War II and for several of the war years as well. Holcomb was instrumental in transforming the Marine Corps from a relatively small, ship-based force to a formidable service in its own right. Preparing for Victory is a model of good biography, meticulously researched and analytical. Predicting that “this classically crafted biography will go far toward gaining Gen. Holcomb his rightful place in the history of our Corps,” Leatherneck Magazine selected it as its June 2011 Book of the Month, praising Ulbrich for having portrayed Holcomb as “a visionary leader, shrewd publicist, progressive thinker, meticulous planner, and a courageous combat leader.”

(For a full review, see October 2011 Naval History .)

The Rockets’ Red Glare: An Illustrated History of the War of 1812 by Donald R. Hickey and Connie D. Clark (Johns Hopkins University Press)

Capturing the domestic, diplomatic, and military history of the War of 1812, this stunningly illustrated volume is a rare blend of scholarly achievement and visual pleasure. The glory, controversies, successes, and failures here portrayed transport the reader to an era when the United States was not a world power but behaved like one. Although today the war is largely forgotten, or at least ignored, by many Americans, some of its milestones are remembered in disparate and unconnected ways. The bombardment of Fort McHenry (which inspired the words to our national anthem), the Shawnee chieftain Tecumseh (whose exploits are little known but whose name is familiar), and the Battle of New Orleans (popularized in both film and song) are but a few examples made more significant when put in proper context. This impressive book is a welcome commemoration of the war’s 200th anniversary.

(For a full review, see June 2012 Naval History .)

Somalia: The New Barbary? Piracy and Islam in the Horn of Africa by Martin N. Murphy (Columbia University Press)

An expert in the contemporary version of the ancient problem of piracy, Martin Murphy reviews the history, motivations, methods, and operational tactics of Somalian pirates from the early 1990s to the present. Linking their activities to those of Somali political groups, Martin explains how and why violent Islamists operate in Somalia and predicts the extent to which they may exploit maritime dimensions in the future. He concludes with an analysis of the political and military solutions that have been proposed or implemented and suggests a future course in dealing with the problem. Rear Admiral Terence E. McKnight, former commander of the counterpiracy task force operating in the Gulf of Aden, writes that Murphy “does a masterful job of capturing the history of piracy, explaining the current threat and making some brilliant recommendations on how to prevent pirates from getting the upper hand in the years ahead. This book should be at the top of the reading list for every well-educated naval officer.”

(For a full review, see May 2011 Proceedings .)

Surface and Destroy: The Submarine Gun War in the Pacific by Michael Sturma (University Press of Kentucky)

Popular scenarios of submarines attacking surface targets during the Pacific war include captains peering through periscopes and ordering “Fire One! Fire Two!”—but, as Michael Sturma makes clear, there were times when these engagements took place on the surface as gun battles. These encounters presented a different set of challenges and were much more personal for the participants. Sturma explores this latter aspect in some detail in this comprehensive and interesting study. His conclusions are thought-provoking, making this more than mere narrative history. Ronald Spector, the respected author of Eagle Against the Sun: The American War with Japan , writes that Sturma’s book fills “an important gap in our knowledge of the War with Japan in general and the submarine war in particular” and that it will appeal to the specialist and general reader.

(For a full review, see October 2011 Proceedings .)

Tirpitz and the Imperial German Navy by Patrick J. Kelly (Indiana University Press)

It is one of the accidents of history with far-reaching implications that Alfred von Tirpitz appeared on the scene during Imperial Germany’s Second Reich as the effective complement to Kaiser Wilhelm’s delusions of naval grandeur. Wielding great influence over the national agenda, Tirpitz was—unlike his vacillating and unpredictable Kaiser—a highly capable individual who greatly increased the German navy’s potential and, in so doing, contributed to one of the primary causes of World War I. A history professor at Adelphi University, Patrick Kelly has produced a first-rate biography of this grand admiral who is better known for his political skills than his naval ones.

(For a full review, see October 2011 Naval History .)

Turning the Tide: How a Small Band of Allied Sailors Defeated the U-Boats and Won the Battle of the Atlantic by Ed Offley (Basic Books)

Because it lacked the drama and compressed intensity of the great Pacific fleet engagements during World War II, the Battle of the Atlantic is often underappreciated as the vital component of overall maritime strategy that it was. Ed Offley does much to correct this imbalance in his vivid retelling of the campaign that ultimately turned the tide in spring 1943 and which avoided a catastrophic logistic defeat and enabled the critical invasion of Europe a year later. Combining jaw-dropping statistics with “you-are-there” accounts of two specific convoys, this is both a strategic study and an inspiring testament to the capabilities of those confronted with seemingly impossible circumstances. Publisher’s Weekly credits Offley with focusing “on individual combatants, from the lowest ranks to the highest, emphasizing the human elements and making for an extremely readable text,” and Proceedings calls this a “thorough and scrupulous operational history.”

(For a full review, see June 2011 Proceedings .)

Utmost Gallantry: The U.S. and Royal Navies at Sea in the War of 1812 by Kevin D. McCranie (Naval Institute Press)

Focusing on the oceanic war rather than the war in the Great Lakes, Kevin McCranie has produced a distinctive and useful account of the War of 1812. McCrainie’s coverage of this David-and-Goliath clash between the world’s preeminent naval power and the fledgling fleet of an (at best) third-rate power is enhanced by his descriptions of entire cruises by individual warships, not just the individual battles that so often dominate studies of the war. He does not ignore the battles—far from it—but his comprehensive treatment provides a perspective that is often missing in other versions. McCranie considers both sides’ strategies, making the entire war more understandable. A must-read for serious students, the book also will delight the casual reader.

Westmoreland: The General Who Lost Vietnam by Lewis Sorley (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Former Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird contends that “to understand the Vietnam War in its totality one must logically try to understand General Westmoreland.” Lewis Sorley penetrates much of the mystery of this controversial general who led American forces in Vietnam during the war’s formative and defining years. As the title makes clear, this is no hagiography, and while balance may not be one of its qualities, the book is an important contribution to the literature of the Vietnam War, whatever the reader’s preconceptions. The research is meticulous and the writing fascinating. Former South Vietnamese Ambassador to the United States Bui Diem writes that this “brilliant portrait . . . helps us understand why our war lasted so long and ended as it did,” and Tom Ricks ( The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008 , Penguin Press, 2009) predicts that this “terrific” work will be “the definitive book on Westmoreland.”

(For a full review, see December 2011 Proceedings .)

The Wrong War: Grit, Strategy, and the Way Out of Afghanistan by Bing West (Random House)

A former assistant secretary of defense, combat Marine, and acclaimed war correspondent, Bing West is well placed to offer strategic advice and a “way out of Afghanistan.” Bringing to bear not only his own battlefield experience but observations made during three years as an embedded reporter, West builds a case for withdrawal while providing a vivid, on-the-ground view of this brutal and frustrating war. While unsparing in his criticisms of past actions, West also offers constructive alternatives for an acceptable outcome that readers (and perhaps policy-makers) may judge for themselves: withdraw most troops from Afghanistan, stop spending billions on the dream of a modern democracy, and insist the Afghans fight their own battles.

(For a full review, see March 2011 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 War 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.


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