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New Series: Seapower in Culture

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This post serves as introduction for a new series of posts: Seapower in Culture. Inspired in part by Alyssa Rosenberg’s work at the Center for American Progress, but also by a recent David Sirota column attacking my beloved Top Gun and by the imminent arrival of this horror, Seapower in Culture will investigate (unsurprisingly) the depiction of seapower in modern pop culture.

I’m approaching this series with a broad definition of seapower, which I’ll conceptualize as the ability of actors (governments, NGOs, etc.) to shape political and economic outcomes through employment of maritime means.  This leaves a great deal of latitude, which is appropriate for a series of this nature.  The series will range widely into science fiction and fantasy. Battlestar Galactica, Star Wars, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and George R.R. Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice are all in the lineup. However, I’ll also include more conventional depictions of seapower, including Final Countdown (the first entry in the series) Riddle of the Sands, Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series, Top Gun, and the like.

Each entry will contain the following elements, roughly in this order. A plot summary will either introduce the work or remind readers of the general series of events. I’ll then examine the theory of seapower (or lack thereof) that animates the work.  A discussion of other interesting, related bits (depiction of civil-military relations, historical antecedents and influence, position within the canon, influence) will follow. Let’s be clear: There will be spoilers.

I plan to cross-post this series at both LGM and ID.  In part this is to justify the workload to my self; essays like these require more time and attention that a simpler link-and-comment post. However, given that the commenting communities are so radically different at LGM and ID, I think it’s worth getting reactions and feedback from both groups. Indeed, I encourage the readers of one blog to take a look at the comments on the other (and not just for this series).

I’ll be writing this series every other Sunday, with the intervening Sundays normally reserved for a book review (I have lots of airpower book reviews essentially in the can). Next week’s entry will, as noted, be Final Countdown, the 1980 Kirk Douglas-Martin Sheen film featuring a time-traveling USS Nimitz. It’s streaming on Netflix, so anybody who’s interested should take this opportunity to give it a viewing…

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  • elm

    I look forward to this! Can I put in a request for Hornblower discussion in addition to Aubrey-Maturin?

    Also, everytime I see the Battleship commercial, I think of you. I’m hoping it will be awesome, at least in the “Release the Kraken” sense.

    • John

      If at some point Liam Neeson says “You sank my battleship!”, the whole idiotic film will be worth it.

      I’m still puzzled, though, by the fact that a movie apparently set during the present day will feature navies using battleships. Perhaps Rob can provide some insight into this.

      • Murc

        I actually wonder if they’ll bother to spend thirty seconds having the characters explain what hand-wavey justification they have for… I’m guessing an Iowa?… being in full fighting trim when the aliens just happen to arrive, or if they won’t even bother and just head straight to the ‘splosions.

        • Warren Terra

          It’s in the trailer. Something about a full fleet exercise, if I recall.

          • Murc

            There are currently no battleships in the fleet. Unless by “full fleet exercise” they mean “even museum ships in private hands” in which case I expect to see the USS Constellation out there in all of its three-masted glory.

            … actually, given the nature of the movie, I wouldn’t be surprised.

            • Warren Terra

              Now you’ve probably spoiled the plot-twist-ending.

              • LosGatosCA

                It goes bang?

            • firefall

              That would be the only thing that might tempt me to watch it

      • Warren Terra

        The Battleship / Bill And Ted’s Bogus Journey mashup, of the same sort as the “Release The Kraken” mashups (eg this et al), needs to happen.

  • Murc

    Battlestar Galactica, Star Wars, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and George R.R. Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice are all in the lineup.

    Can we get some Honor Harrington all up in there?

    Second of all… hell. Yes. Seapower as a cultural and economic tool in Lord of the Rings? My friend, you are talking to a bona fide expert in Gondorian history vis-a-vis seapower, especially as relates to Gondor’s four Ship-Kings, the Kin-Strife, and the Corsairs of Umbar in general. I can, have, and will devote reams of paper the subject.

    • Malaclypse

      But notice – almost all of the seapower was either in the appendices, or, more importantly, in the Akallabêth. By the time of the events of LotR, seapower was either evil – the Corsairs of Umbar – or nothing more than the power to flee Middle-Earth held by the Elves.

      • Murc

        The appendices, the Akallabeth, or the HoME, yes.

        I’m not sure you can disentangle those from LotR, however, as they formed the series ‘bible’ as it were, and Gondor has a long and proud seagoing cultural heritage. So does Aragorn, in fact; as a younger man he spent time in the fleet.

        I wouldn’t characterize seapower as being presented as evil in LotR in any case, however. It figures prominently in the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, and is especially significant since Tolkien presents the sea and water in general as a source of salvation, wonder, and purity (especially for the Elves) which makes Aragorn arriving at dawn borne on a west wind to make an awesome amphibious landing and kick some Orcs in the teeth a powerful sign of divine favor.

        • Malaclypse

          BUT, seapower was held only by fading powers. Parallels to both Dunkirk and the Destroyers for Bases Agreement seem rather obvious.

          • Murc

            That’s true, but literally everything in LotR is a fading power. Northwestern Middle-Earth in the late third age has been reduced to a largely unpeopled wasteland dotted with the ruins of the now-destroyed nations and provinces that once existed within it.

            That includes Mordor, by the way. Sauron seems like a colossal evil badass, but he’s basically a pale shadow of his former power and glory, and Barad-Dur would be regarded as a cute little cottage by his old boss.

            I’m hesitant to ascribe direct and intentional parallels between LotR and contemporary real-world events. Tolkien always heavily resisted those and because I’m not a post-modernist I’ve always regarded his statements on such matters as definitive.

            • John

              I think your overreading Tolkien’s comments on the matter. He specifically said that LOTR was not an allegory. If you read his explication of this, though, he means this really narrowly. For Tolkien, an allegory is basically like Pilgrim’s Progress – everything has a one to one correspondence and plays out exactly like what is being allegorized.

              That doesn’t rule out the possibility that individual events echo things in the real world. In particular, I think it’s hard to see the Scouring of the Shire as not inspired by Tolkien’s horror at the effects of industrialization in England, for instance.

              • John

                That is, I think you’re overreading. Sigh.

              • Murc

                This is true, but in his correspondences he’s often hesitant to ascribe direct real-world parallels to a lot of his work.

                This isn’t a hard and fast rule. He’s pretty up-front about things like “Oh, yes, of course the Shire and its inhabitants are a metaphor for sturdy English yeomanry.” It’s when people start hauling in specific political context and events (the World Wars, things like that) especially ones from his own life, that he gets REALLY hesitant. And I respect that.

                • John

                  Sure, although authors are often not the best judges of their own work.

                • matt

                  This whole thread is one of the most awesomely, intensely nerdy discussions of all time and I am enjoying it so much.

        • ajay

          So does Aragorn, in fact; as a younger man he spent time in the fleet.

          It’s pronounced “Arrrghagorn” I think you’ll find.

  • Mojo

    Next best thing to Sunday Battleship Blogging.

    • John

      What about Sunday Battleship blogging?

  • So in other words more sad excuses for Obama’s warmongering.

    /Soullite

  • LKS

    This should more than make up for the much missed Sunday Battleship Blogging.

  • DDG

    Speaking of Krakens, for some reason I feel compelled to recommend John Wyndham’s “Out of the Deeps” (aka “The Kraken Wakes).

    • firefall

      or actually anything he wrote (lamentably far too few in number)

  • t e whalen

    I hope we get an embedded music video from British Sea Power each week.

    • Warren Terra

      Or from the inevitable tribute act led by Alfred Thayer Mahan”.

    • LosGatosCA

      No Richard Rogers Victory at Sea?

    • Murc

      I vote plenty of Great Big Sea.

    • Bill Murray

      Billy Ocean could contribute something

    • DocAmazing

      My vote: Wooden Shjps.

      • rea

        The Airplane or the CSN version?

  • Slocum

    I hope to hell Whitney Houston didn’t do a cover of “In The Navy.”

  • Spud

    Of course there is “In Which We Serve”, the best war film written, directed and starring a man people called Coward.

  • apm

    So if a fictional federation of entities maintained a fleet of vessels dedicated to exploration, colonization, and defense it might be included in this series?

    • Robert Farley

      Aye, indeedy…

  • NBarnes

    the imminent arrival of this horror

    WHERE IS YOUR GOD NOW?

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