17.7.05

THE DIFFICULT WE DO RIGHT AWAY. Book Review No. 18 is Craig Symonds's Decision at Sea: Five Naval Battles that Shaped American History. Of the five, the most significant might have been the Battle of Lake Erie, which most people learn of incidental to the wineries and Tri-Motors (if they're still flying?) on the Erie Islands and the roller coasters ashore. That victory, which secured for the United States control of Lake Erie, made possible the development of the coastal cities that later became Erie, Cleveland, Sandusky, Toledo, and Detroit. (Absent amicable relations between the U.S. and Canada, the Prairie Provinces might well have at some time become States. There is a stretch of road along the north bank of Lake Superior that is essentially the only improved road between east and west, and imagine how difficult a few monitors would have made hacking the Canadian Pacific out of that same bank.)

The theme that sticks out in most of the five stories is individual initiative and excessively aggressive behavior, something still part of our military tradition. Commodore Perry built his fleet behind a sand bar at Erie, Pennsylvania; he was in the middle of floating his fleet over the bar, an evolution that required guns and tophamper to be removed in order to reduce the draft, when the British fleet hove into view. Perry's reaction: speed up the refitting of Niagara and prepare for action. The British, with the expectation of being able to deal with the fleet at their leisure once their ship Detroit was ready, left the preparations alone.

The Battle of Hampton Roads contains a similar tale, with Captain Buchanan of Virginia deciding to turn his sea-trial into a raid. Had he waited even a day, Monitor would have been on station and his first day's success against the wooden ships well might not have happened. At Midway, the Japanese calculated that Yorktown would not be available to respond to their move; they thus decided to refit Shokaku and Zuikaku at leisure as four carriers against two are sufficient odds. Four against three and an airfield, on the other hand, is a good way to lose four.

The book also has some thoughts about what goes on on land that will reward careful study. For example, Admiral Dewey requested a force to occupy the Phillipine archipelago after destroying the Spanish fleet, a request unanticipated in Washington, and one that might have contributed to a protracted guerrilla war with aftereffects to this day. That the U.S. Navy now has the task of inspecting any cargo ship anywhere and confiscating contraband cargoes ought give readers pause, even if captains do not have the authority to press-gang civilian crews into the Navy, as their Georgian counterparts did.

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