Subscribe via RSS Feed

Sunday Maritime Book Review: The U.S. Navy Against the Axis: Surface Combat, 1941-1945

[ 13 ] December 31, 2007 |

Over the break I finished Vincent O’Hara’s U.S. Navy Against the Axis. I strongly recommend it to anyone with an interest in the Pacific War, and in surface naval combat in the 20th century in general.

O’Hara makes the argument that surface combat in the Pacific is tremendously understudied, and that it contributed far more to the eventual decision that is commonly given credit. Carrier battles were consequential but rare; especially in the Solomons, surface combat made the difference between victory and defeat. As a strategy for emphasizing the relevance of the subject matter this makes sense, and I’m willing to go along with it up to a point. Certainly the surface battles of the second half of 1942 helped determine the fate of the Solomons; had the early Japanese advantage been more pronounced, or if they had made better operational decisions and accepted some additional risk, the IJN might well have driven the USN from the Solomon Islands simply with surface units. However, I’m not sure just how far that goes. To consider the relative impact of surface and carrier engagements, imagine an alternative scenario in which the Japanese win a resounding victory at Midway. Such a victory would, in all likelihood, have “decided” the Solomons campaign such that no campaign would have taken place. The larger point is that the carrier battles in 1942 and 1944 may have been rare, but their outcome set the strategic and operational terms under which surface combat would be conducted. I don’t think that O’Hara would disagree with any of this, but it’s nevertheless important to emphasize that carrier combat set the terms for the rest of the war.

For academic purposes the book is a godsend. That is, it’s a godsend for anyone who’s ever thought about putting together a research project based on an analysis of Pacific theater naval battles, a population which probably amounts to me and a small handful of other academically inclined naval enthusiasts. The battles are divided into campaigns, and each battle is accompanied by a table listing the launch date, major armament, speed, and fate of every major combatant. As the book is about all USN surface combat, not just that which took place in the Pacific, he includes a chapter on the action against the French fleet at Casablanca during Operation Torch. The carrier battles aren’t included, although they are briefly summarized in the campaign histories. I found this a trifle jarring, but it made sense in context of what he was trying to do with the book.

The book gives a good overview of Japanese and American surface doctrine throughout the war. Early in the war, of course, the 24″ Long Lance torpedo proved a great advantage for the Japanese, although not as much of one as is commonly supposed. American surface effectiveness increased considerably when a) effective torpedoes became available, and b) when commanders developed an effective torpedo attack doctrine. Both of these developments were critical, and helped turn the tide in the Solomons campaign. American gunfire, especially as provided by the 5″/38 gun, also eventually proved to be a great asset. Japanese tactical and operational doctrine, although advanced at the beginning of the war, was less flexible than that of the USN. In particular, O’Hara notes that the Japanese successfully conserved their major surface units (battleships and heavy cruisers) through 1942 and 1943 to no great effect; the units that might have been decisive in 1942 were overwhelmed in 1944. Also, in spite of what has become their historical reputation, Japanese commanders demonstrated considerable tentativeness in battle, and in many cases pursued risk-averse tactics that precluded them from following up major opportunities. The USN officer corps proved far more flexible, aggressive, and capable than its IJN counterpart.

O’Hara has only a minimal discussion of the role of the older US battleships, apart from the action in Surigao Strait and the strategic situation following Pearl Harbor. Earlier this year, an LGM correspondent forwarded me this article, in which David Fuquea argues that the older battleships were underutilized in the Pacific campaign, particularly towards the latter part of the Solomons campaign. Fuquea suggests that the older ships had enough speed to intercept Japanese ships in the Slot, and enough firepower to tip the balance strongly in the US favor. The major objections to using the battleships seem to have regarded fuel efficiency and vulnerability. The former makes sense, but apparently does not apply by the late 1942 portion of the campaign. The latter does not make sense; it seems that the older battleships were simultaneously considered too valuable to risk, yet to useless to use. Given that the USN (and the Allied navies in general) was lousy with old slow battleships by 1943, it seems to me that the use of the older ships would have been worth the risk. Had the Second Battle of Gualdalcanal gone differently, and had USS Washington been sunk or seriously damaged, the use of the older ships in the Slot may have been forced in any case.

O’Hara also briefly discusses some tantalizing missed engagements. In his review of the battles of Leyte Gulf, he mentions three; Hyuga, Ise, and the surviving surface elements of Ozawa’s force against American cruisers in a night action, three of Oldendorf’s battleships (California, Tennessee, and Pennsylvania) against Kurita off Samar, and the Iowa, New Jersey, and attendant cruisers and destroyers against Kurita following the latter’s retreat towards San Bernadino Strait. It is of course beyond the scope of O’Hara’s work to discuss battles that never happened, but it’s nevertheless interesting to think about how the engagements would have played out, especially the latter two. I’m inclined to think that in both cases the American ships would have prevailed against Kurita’s battered, disorganized, and demoralized force, but either would probably have been tight in spots. Evan Thomas recently published a book on Kurita, Halsey, and Leyte Gulf which I’ll review at some point; it’s more readable than the O’Hara for a non-specialist, but isn’t as strong overall.

I was extremely happy with the book, and heartily recommend it. Here and there I could quibble with various points (was the USS Washington really the most powerful battleship in the world in November 1942? Advocates of the Duke of York, the Yamato, and the South Dakota class might have cause for complaint…), but overall it’s an outstanding piece of work.

Share with Sociable


[ 52 ] December 30, 2007 |

Admittedly, despite the lack of overarching historical significance yesterday where exciting comebacks are concerned I was more emotionally invested in the Flames’ later one against what in terms of its current personnel and management has to be far and away the most loathsome team in professional sports. But the game on every network in the country yesterday turned out to be an excellent one. And while I would in general have been rooting for the underdog, I’m actually happy the Patriots did it. The underdog thing is less compelling because the teams that could stop the Patriots from winning a championship are as bad or worse — any decent person has to hope they’ll pummel the Cowboys senseless if it comes to that. And I’m especially glad they went undefeated and hope they’ll now win because I’ve never seen any players less gracious about having a record broken than the ’72 Dolphins (who are also the Dolphins, and are based in Florida, so they’re already hateful before their specific odious actions.) In some way it’s understandable because had they not exploited an extremely weak schedule to go undefeated they wouldn’t even be in the discussion of the greatest team ever, but that’s all the more reason to be happy that the regular season record is now shared by a genuinely great team.

Plus, it makes Gregg Easterbrook cry.

…to be clear, I’m using the Csonka quote merely as an illustrative example; cf. also here and here.

Share with Sociable


[ 9 ] December 30, 2007 |

The good news is that Will Saletan didn’t include “Black Stupidity” in his end-of-the-year list of “best Human Nature” stories. The bad news is that Saletan is still around to compile the list.

In happier Slate-related affairs, Dahlia Lithwick’s compilation of the Bush administration’s “dumbest legal arguments of the year” is well worth the time. In answer to the obvious question — “only ten?” — Lithwick points out that such a list is only possible if Abu Gonzales receives an entry entirely to himself.

God, what a crappy year it’s been.

Share with Sociable

And the Kingdom of Darkness Extends its Dominion Upon the Earth…

[ 10 ] December 30, 2007 |

First Kristol, now this.

Share with Sociable

In Case You Had Any Illusions About This Being A Meritocracy…

[ 0 ] December 29, 2007 |

Of course Bill Kristol has been hired by the Times; why should having seemingly endless access to other media outlets despite having no discernible expertise about anything and being consistently wrong about everything stop him from getting a prestigious gig on an allegedly liberal op-ed page? And, of course, the response to this latest reactionary affirmative action hire will be that they need even more conservatives

Share with Sociable


[ 11 ] December 29, 2007 |

The Times has a year-end tribute to Steve Gilliard.

Share with Sociable

Debate Question: Does Sean McAdam Belong in the Baseball Moron Hall of Fame?

[ 0 ] December 29, 2007 |

Yes. My evidence:

What? All of a sudden, won-loss record isn’t a fair measuring stick for pitchers? If we’re not going to take records into account, what’s the new standard?

It’s sad that a baseball reporter for the premier mainstream sports journalism organization can still, in 2007, be so ignorant of the basic metrics of the game.

Share with Sociable

He May Be Right About Hockey Below the Mason-Dixon

[ 129 ] December 28, 2007 |

But Yglesias is wrong about so-called “ice girls.” Ygleisas yearns for half-naked women to objectify in order to better enjoy his hockey watching.

I don’t know about Matt, but when I go to hockey games, it’s actually to watch hockey. Fancy that.

UPDATE BY SL: Lest I be seen as endorsing that part of the linked post, I concur with Bean. As I told the person next to me at the game, I much preferred the Capitals giving youth hockey players the opportunity to sweep up the ice during breaks rather than scantily-clad women.

Share with Sociable

It’s The Rules, Stupid

[ 0 ] December 28, 2007 |

To add on to what Markos says about Evan Thomas’s silly version of the “American politics went to hell when the pro-apartheid faction left the Democratic Party” narrative, for further debunking one can look outside the United States. First of all, if polarization depresses turnout, it’s rather hard to explain why countries with PR systems and hence much more polarized parties than the U.S. have much higher election turnouts. Even more importantly, the much greater turnout elsewhere makes it overwhelmingly likely that the unusually low voter turnout in the U.S. has nothing to do with some sort of inherent apathy among the electorate and much more to do with the fact that rule make it much harder to vote in the U.S. If you want to increase turnout, make the state responsible for ensuring that people register, give people time off work, make lines at polling places low, etc. How blurring distinctions between the parties is supposed to increase turnout, conversely, I can’t tell you.

Share with Sociable

Fascists Everywhere! Except Among Jingoistic Supporters of Arbitrary Executive Power

[ 7 ] December 28, 2007 |

Brad listens to the podcast-from-hell so you don’t have to. There’s lots that’s amusing-in-a-depressing-way, such as a professor of law discussing William James and Jimmy Carter as fascists as if it was a perfectly reasonable proposition. But I have to say that I enjoyed not only the assertion that providing certain minimum living standards represents fascism but using college campuses as a metaphor for this because they involve “free food, shelter and recreation.” Jonah is in for one hell of a shock if one of his kids gets into NYU.

Meanwhile, as always the comments chez Dr. Helen are a treat; for example, apparently one example of fascism is someone who uses “dominate” in the sense of the word being forced to drop out of grad school because…some teachers and fellow students disagreed with his political views. As we all know, to a true anti-fascist rugged individualist success is only possible when all of your colleagues agree with you about everything.

If you haven’t already suffered from an overload of Teh Stupid, see Spencer Ackerman’s ongoing series of excerpts from Child Labor Laws? You’d Better Believe That’s Fascism.

Share with Sociable

And If The Devil Rays Win the Next 18 World Series, Their Reputation as an Organization Will Be Greatly Enhanced

[ 15 ] December 27, 2007 |

As I’ve said before, nothing signals a Must To Avoid more than a positive book review that describes an unreadable book. Such is the case with Robert Dallek’s review of a new book about Condi Rice by official Bush administration mash note writer Elisabeth Bumiller. Apparently, we’re meant to think that the fact that the book makes no judgments and contains no interesting analysis of Rice’s tenure as Secretary of State is a feature, not a bug. The review does, however, contain this bit of high comedy:

Ms. Bumiller says that if President Bush and Ms. Rice can produce a settlement in the Middle East between Israelis and Palestinians and an end to North Korea’s nuclear program, it would give them claims on success that would significantly improve their historical reputations.

Uh, yeah. And if I discover a way of powering cars entirely with oxygen, emitting a vapor that would result in the immediate killing of cockroaches and paralysis in the hands of every Hollywood producer about to sign a contract with Joel Schumacher and Uwe Boll, my reputation as a world-class scientist would be greatly enhanced. I’m reminded of nothing so much as David Adesnik’s suggestion that Bush signal his commitment to a rational foreign policy by appointing Dick Lugar.

Share with Sociable

Hockey Below the Mason-Dixon

[ 12 ] December 27, 2007 |

Yglesias says that “it’s a bit sad to see how much more engaged and knowledgeable the crowd at the Caps game is compared to the Wizards’ fans.” As it happens, when I was in town for Farley’s wedding since I had to go to the MCI Verizon Center to get tickets for a game in March anyway I decided to take in the Crapitals/Sabres game. Having seen a lot of games in Calgary and Montreal I was pleasantly surprised by both the near-sellout crowd and the intensity of the fans, neither of which I expected, and were impressive even given the artificial boost given by the presence of a real hockey market in the game (up in the nosebleeds where I was “Let’s Go Buffalo!” chants were frequent.)

Given the context, I was amused that the Capitals decided to combine two lame in-game promotions. A woman was participating in one of those “find the moving puck!” things, and in turned out that the prize for the contestant was…a marriage proposal. The punchline was that although it had to be the least challenging hidden puck/ball game in history, she got the answer wrong. But she said yes anyway.

Share with Sociable