For the better part of my life I have been reading naval books, for 14 years I wrote the "Books of Interest" column in the Naval Institute's Proceedings, and spanning several decades I have had the honor of writing the "Notable Naval Books" feature that appears annually in its "Naval Review" issue. So it seemed like an appropriate and relatively simple endeavor for me to pick a dozen or so all-time greats.
But once I sat down to actually make my selections, I realized I had inadvertently strayed into a minefield. To begin with, any list I came up with would likely incur disagreement (if not wrath) from those who will inevitably have their own lists in mind. Further, I am most fortunate to know, like, and respect many authors of naval history books, so I would run the risk of either letting my personal bias show or of hurting the feelings of those whose works were not selected.
And finally, there is the matter of criteria. What attributes should I use to come up with this list of classics? Should I focus on those books that are rich in historical content? Or should it be those that are particularly well-written? Should I limit the list to only certain genre, or try to be all-inclusive? Or should I seek some other criteria?
Because, like most writers, I find it very difficult to pass up any opportunity to get into print, I was able to get over the first two hurdles, deciding to take my chances with the wrath of others and hoping that my fellow writers will either understand or ultimately forgive me if I do not include their works. But the selection criteria continued to be a major hurdle. After much deliberation, I finally realized that there was one criterion that could serve as a common denominator, one that had real value and yet allowed me to narrow the list to a manageable few.
I learned early in my Navy service the value of simulation in training. Aviators have long understood that simulators allow one to experience flameouts, malfunctioning landing gear, and the like without suffering the ultimate consequences. Even my fellow ship drivers have sometimes embraced simulators as a way of risking groundings and collisions at sea without it ruining their entire day.
The advent of the computer has resulted in some pretty amazing technological wonders in the world of simulator training, and no one appreciates their value more than I. But I have long believed that books—at least certain ones—can serve as simulators when one is trying to gain virtual experience in those realms that defy traditional training methods. Leadership (and its corollary, followership), strategy, and combat, for example, are areas that are important to most naval personnel yet are very difficult to teach and elude simulation even with the best computers. But there are books that are something akin to simulators, serving as stimulants to our imaginations and as catalysts to analytic thought that allow our brains to experience and learn some of the more esoteric aspects of our profession.
It is this qualification—the ability to provide virtual experience in realms that defy traditional training methods—that I have chosen as the criterion for selecting an unusual few from the many great books whose focus is naval history.
With this in mind, it is probably not surprising to find historical fiction comprising a significant proportion of this elite list. The latitudes provided by fiction, when properly employed, allow this simulation we seek to be particularly effective.
Let me begin with one of the first books I ever read. In the pages of Thomas Heggen's Mister Roberts I may well have discovered that part of my soul that took me "down to the sea in ships." As a young man growing up in the streets of Baltimore, I discovered a whole new world in that book, an escape from the bleak urban canyons of the inner city to the vast waters of the Pacific "planed to perfect smoothness, and in the emergent light . . . bronze-colored, and not yet blue." As I traveled the decks and compartments of the fictional USS Reluctant and stood my first watches, I sensed the camaraderie of a crew, felt a sense of purpose no matter how mundane, and shared the deep frustration Doug Roberts felt in knowing the war was passing him by. For me, it was as though a bright light suddenly came on, allowing me to see things inside myself that I had heretofore no inkling of their existence.
But Mister Roberts is more than an introduction to an enticingly different world; it is a study in leadership, a series of case studies in what to do and what not to do when entrusted with the authority and awesome responsibility of rank. It serves as inspiration, warning, and challenge and is made real by the intrusion of human frailties and palatable by the embellishment of humor. For better or worse, that short novel set my course for life and gave me some of the tools with which to navigate it.
Another novel that is a phenomenal simulator in the art of leadership is Herman Wouk's The Caine Mutiny. But there is a caveat: I read this Pulitzer Prize-winning book twice (one of the few books I have ever done so—so little time, so many books to read) and discovered that I saw it very differently in the two readings. The first time I was very young, and, through the equally immature eyes of Willie Keith, I missed some important learning opportunities because I was so caught up in despising the USS Caine's captain, Philip Francis Queeg. Decades later, the second reading brought fresh insight, and I began to see the complexities and more powerful lessons that Wouk so artfully wove into this gripping tale. My perspective now included an empathy for the Caine's more senior officers, Steve Maryk, Tom Keefer, and even Queeg. Like life itself, this novel's lessons are not so easy to grasp, but it is a functioning laboratory for leadership, a true gift from Herman Wouk to the Navy he obviously loves.
Another man who so obviously loved the Navy and was able to share that love through his writing was Edward L. Beach ("Ned" to those of us privileged to know him). While there is much to commend his book Run Silent, Run Deep as a high-caliber simulator like the previous two, there is more science than art in this work. Ned was a no-nonsense, incredibly efficient combat veteran whose sense of duty pervaded everything about him, including his writing.
His protagonist, Commander P. J. Richardson, is almost iconic in his qualities, yet when one realizes that Run Silent is about three parts memoir and only one part fiction, Richardson, skipper of the submarine USS Nerka, becomes a standard to strive for, and one longs to fill those standard-issue Navy shoes he wears. Ned's descriptions of life at sea, the rigors of combat, and the challenges of leadership allow the reader into the enigmatic culture of naval life and deep into the crucible of war.
A book that begins with the words "Hello, ship" is not one easily put down if the reader has even a hint of saltwater in his or her veins. Jake Holman is a Sailor's Sailor, and his experiences in the far-off Asiatic Fleet make Richard McKenna's The Sand Pebbles an obvious naval classic. But it is more than great literature; it is a virtual training ground for those who must encounter other cultures in their travels, and a study in human character with a particular relevance to those who wear uniforms.
The last of the novels I selected for this unusual list is The Bridges at Toko-Ri by James Michener. Here, in contrast to Doug Roberts, we encounter the reluctant warrior who is intimately familiar with the dangers of war—so much so that he must confront his own demons in order to continue—yet ultimately risks his life out of a sense of obligation to his fellow man. In a very few pages, Michener immerses the reader in a struggle that not all Sailors will encounter but all must be prepared for.
Because fiction is often a reflection of the human condition, it is not much of a leap to move from that genre into biography. Here the selection process becomes even more challenging because there are so many naval biographies from which to choose. Take John Paul Jones, for example. There have been countless profiles of this early American naval hero—many of them probably better suited for the fiction category—with two new ones published within the last five years. Among the many attempts at capturing the essence of this enigmatic figure, James Fenimore Cooper took a stab at it in his Lives of Distinguished American Naval Officers and Lincoln Lorenz is often credited with writing one of the best, John Paul Jones: Fighter for Freedom and Glory, back in 1943. But the one that most deserves the title of "classic" is Samuel Eliot Morison's John Paul Jones: A Sailor's Biography.
Although not a swashbuckling page-turner, as some of the less-polished versions try to be, Morison's biography—this list's second Pulitzer Prize winner—breathes life into that marble statue by Houdon that we so often associate with Jones. What emerges is a fascinating study in character and a depiction of Jones that serves as both textbook and point of departure in the subject of leadership.
In his introduction to the Classics of Naval Literature edition of Thomas Buell's biography of Raymond Spruance, The Quiet Warrior, John Lundstrom called the book a "masterpiece of American Biography" that "can be favorably compared to . . . Morison's classic John Paul Jones: A Sailor's Biography." No faint praise (from an icon of naval history himself) and every bit deserved. I confess a possible bias here because I hold the late Tom Buell in high esteem for a number of reasons, but it is a bias built from the recognition that he was a great writer of naval history, an opinion shared by enough of my colleagues that I feel very safe in owning it. I also must admit a certain bias in choosing this work over Buell's other excellent biography, of Ernie King (Master of Sea Power), because I hold the subject—Raymond Spruance—in very high esteem as well.
Returning to my theme of simulation, Spruance is the admiral one would choose as the model if trying to build an "admiral simulator." Here was a man who put deeds far ahead of words, who put results ahead of image, and who (borrowing from John Lundstrom again) "competed not with others but with his own impossibly high self-expectations." This blending of a classic writer with a classic admiral makes this a classic book by every measure.
My next choice of biography may surprise, but James Tertius de Kay's A Rage for Glory is my pick (among several excellent ones) as the most useful biography of one of the Navy's most interesting heroes, Stephen Decatur. This book is too young to be a classic in the traditional sense (published a scant four years ago), but it meets the simulation criteria on several fronts, serving as another example of leadership, providing a primer on naval tactics, and capturing, like few other books, the rivalries (and their consequences) that are an unfortunate but inevitable by-product when powerful egos are blended with momentous events. The young naval officer will do well to read this book, for there are some lessons easier learned here than in the arena of real life.
Interestingly, the only three-star customer review of this book (among a plethora of five-stars) on Amazon's Web site complained of its brevity, one of the qualities I most appreciated. Rather than bludgeon the reader with an exposition of the writer's impressive research (as too many biographies do), this one packs a more powerful punch by its concise treatment. It is a page-turner that does not weary the wrist.
A step beyond biography is what I will call "collective biography," books that blend the recollections and experiences of a number of people bound together by a single event or series of related events. What these lose in depth they make up for in breadth by capturing the deeds and insights of numerous participants in momentous historical episodes. The master of that genre was the late Walter Lord, and two of his works have earned their way onto my list—Day of Infamy and Incredible Victory—because they serve as virtual bookends to an incredible period in naval history when the U.S. Navy went from the nadir of Pearl Harbor to the zenith of Midway.
Through Lord's masterful skills, we are able to vicariously participate in two seminal events, learning from the actions of others as they face the kind of cataclysmic trials we will probably never experience ourselves but should prepare for nonetheless. I have known many good teachers, but the best are those who are able to couple experience with theory, and Walter Lord has left us a legacy of great teachers by compiling and synthesizing the real-life experiences of ordinary people who did extraordinary things.
Measuring up to Walter Lord's high standards is James Hornfischer's relatively new The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors. Combining impressively thorough research with a dramatic flair in his writing ("A giant stalked through the darkness. In the moonless calm after midnight, the great fleet seemed not so much to navigate the narrow strait as to fill it with armor and steel."), Hornfischer has captured a jaw-dropping display of courage that defies the imagination and rivals anything John Paul Jones or Stephen Decatur ever did.
The courageous stand made by the crews of a handful of destroyers and destroyer escorts against a powerful Japanese fleet of battleships and cruisers during the fight off Samar, part of the Battle of Leyte Gulf, is admittedly a story that would be hard to ruin, but Jim Hornfischer has captured it as no one else has (including me). This is simulation at its finest, and should be read by everyone who aspires to those lofty but essential core values of our Navy: honor, courage, and commitment. All three are indelibly inked into the pages of this fine book.
In conclusion, I have chosen a memoir. In Love and War is no ordinary memoir, for it was written by two people—a husband and wife—who served their nation under particularly arduous circumstances, and who did it in a time when too much of that nation had temporarily lost sight of the true meaning of service and sacrifice. Jim and Sybil Stockdale were able not only to endure but to prevail in the face of formidable challenges that most of us can barely imagine.
This is not easy simulation, because it takes us into the terrifying world of the so-called "Hanoi Hilton," where American prisoners of war endured unspeakable horrors, and into the half-life of a spouse who must fight off crushing despair and keep hope alive while living out a drama with no certain ending. In their own ways each rose to the occasion—he earning the Medal of Honor and she moving mountains of bureaucracy and setting an example worthy of admiration and emulation. Their story is both instructive and inspiring, chronicling one POW's ordeal but representative of the many who deserve this nation's respect.
As I feared, having completed this list, I am awash with selector's remorse, worrying that I have slighted both friends and deserving candidates. Yet I stand by my selections, not as the "dozen greatest" or "the all-time best," but as a list of books that have had an influence on my life, that allowed me to see and feel and learn things that would otherwise not have been possible. Collectively they are a kind of simulation curriculum that confirm what most of us already know: Books are the foundation of our Western civilization and are the one common denominator in all that is good about it.
Mister Roberts by Thomas Heggen