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Sunday Maritime Book Review: Sacred Vessels


In the course of some actual academic research I happened upon Robert O’Connell’s Sacred Vessels: The Cult of the Battleship and the Rise of the U.S. Navy. Someone (I forget who) also recommended this book in comments a while ago. O’Connell’s a fellow battleship enthusiast, but has come to hate the thing that he would love. His argument is that the battleship in the 20th century is essentially the product of folly. Naval officers (and some civilian policymakers) fell in love with the battleship and supported its development and procurement because the battleship fit into preconceived notions of how naval combat was supposed to be conducted. Although reluctant to give up the battleship, naval officers eventually decided that aircraft carriers fit the mold, and adopted the CV as the capital ship of the post-war age. The submarine, because it lacked the romance normally associated with naval warfare, suffered, as did the destroyer. O’Connell illustrates his account with more than a couple glorious quotes, including Admiral William S. Sims:

Kentucky is not a battleship at all. She is the worst crime in naval construction ever perpetrated by the white race

and, from Representative John S. Williams (D-Mississippi) in 1906:

Whereas the British Sea Monster which we are imitating has been named Dreadnought– an archaic name- this man-o-war is hereby named Skeered O’Nuthin as an expression of our true American spirit; Provided further, that it is hereby made the duty of the first Captain who shall command her to challenge in the nation’s name, the so called Dreadnought to a duel a outrance, to take place… in sight of Long Island and that on the occasion of the combat the President and his cabinet… being fond of the strenuous life, shall be entertained on the quarter-deck as guests of the ship and the nation

The latter suggests that Southern conservatism has not always been attached to a hawkish approach to American foreign policy.

O’Connell focuses on the USN, but his argument necessarily touches on the other navies of the world. Because every navy of consequence (and some of no consequence) pursued battleship construction, it’s untenable to argue that the battleship stems from organizational peculiarities in any one navy. This is an argument that I’m sympathetic with, especially since my dissertation is titled “Transnational Determinants of Military Doctrine”, and the paper I’m writing examines the spread of the dreadnought as a form. However, I wish that O’Connell had explored two issues at a bit more depth. First, the dreadnoughts of the navies of the world differed significantly, as did the appreciation of the aircraft, submarine, and other alternative weapons. I would have liked some account of why different navies pursued the dreadnought in different ways. Second, the primary alternative explanation for why all of the navies of the world would pursue the same kind of ship is that it is rational to do so; the rationality can be conceived of in either a bounded or a traditional sense, with the former explanation focusing on the battleship in preference to other established ship types, and the other in the battleship as the natural product of warship evolution. O’Connell hints at both, but would prefer to reject the idea that naval officers were behaving irrationally in favor of what might be termed “systemic bureaucratic blindness”.

O’Connell doesn’t take seriously enough the possibility that, at least in World War I, the dreadnought may well have been the best option available for control of the sea, and that, for some powers at least, control of the sea was an entirely reasonable object of war. O’Connell emphasizes the danger that the mine and submarine posed to the dreadnought, and suggests (although he’s reluctant to make the argument outright) that a navy based on cruisers, destroyers, subs, etc. would have been better than the concentration on battleships. For some powers this is no doubt true, as both Germany and Russia would have been better served by a sea denial rather than sea control strategy, although I think that the strategic errors would more accurately be placed at the feet of civilian policymakers rather than naval officers, as O’Connell would have us believe. For the US, UK, and Japan, however, it was sensible to try to build ships that, being larger and more heavily armed than the enemies ships, could destroy the latter in battle. Competition inevitably produced larger, more capable ships, and thus the dreadnought form. O’Connell also gives a somewhat misleading account of the performance of the dreadnought in World War I. Not a single dreadnought was lost to submarine attack during the war (one was lost to a mine, and one to surface torpedo boats), and only three (Barham, Royal Oak, and Kongo) were lost to submarines in World War II. Although O’Connell suggests that the standoff between the High Seas Fleet and the Grand Fleet was not expected by naval observers, it wasn’t a surprise to the admirals at the time, who had a very strong sense of how numerical advantage would play out in a major battle, and spent the war trying to manipulate the numbers to their own advantage. At Jutland, for example, Jellicoe’s decision to turn away from the German destroyer attack was motivated by a very sensible appraisal of the strategic situation; the Royal Navy did not need to sink Germany’s dreadnoughts as long as it outnumbered the High Seas Fleet. This can hardly be regarded as a flaw in the weapon system, any more than someone could argue that the ICBM is a useless weapon because it never gets fired. O’Connell also plays a bit fast and loose with some encounters; although naval enthusiasts still debate the encounter between Goeben and Admiral Troubridge’s four armoured cruisers, it’s hardly settled opinion that the smaller, slower, lighter armed cruisers would have been able to destroy Goeben. I would argue just the opposite; Goeben likely would have crippled or destroyed Troubridge’s cruisers without difficulty, specifically because of the characteristics (high speed, heavy guns) that characterized dreadnoughts.

O’Connell gets into interesting ground when he talk about the naval treaties and the run up to World War II, although his discussion is confused. He wants to argue that the limitations of the battleship were possible because everyone realized that the battleship was useless, but this argument obviously makes no sense. If there was generally consensus among civilians that the battleship was an obsolete form, then no limitation on their construction would have been necessary. The market, as it were, would have solved the problem. O’Connell also leaves out a few important facts about the interwar construction and modernization; contrary to his assertion, some of the reconstructions produced very useful units (the Italian modernizations in particular), and the USN made the decision not to modernize its five most modern battleships in favor of newer units. Also, the dreadnought in World War II was more useful than O’Connell suggests, as the German, Italian, and British dreadnoughts regularly saw action, and the faster Japanese and American battleships contributed to the air defense of the carriers.

I wish that O’Connell had turned his focus to the Southern Cone navies, where a genuinely peculiar naval race developed between Argentina, Brazil, and Chile. I suspect that he would have found, as I suggested above, that there were sociological reasons for the adoption of the battleship form, but that they depended more on civilian perception of international prestige than on the preference of naval officers for a particular form of ship. Nevertheless, he makes an interesting argument, one that combines elements of Lynn Eden (organizational frames) with John Meyer (world society). He also tells a lot of interesting stories, particularly about the development and internal politics of the USN. It’s a flawed but useful book.

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