Friday, January 14, 2011

Learning the lessons of war

"Distance was a cleansing agent for everything... 'When you are not straining and gasping to save your life, the act of doing so can seem adventurous and exciting from a distance.  The greater the distance, the greater the adventure.'" (pg 39)

The distance of time has a way of changing our perceptions. Now we can look back on World War II with patriotic pride and feelings of accomplishment, but it certainly didn't start out that way. It should be obvious how unprepared we were for Pearl Harbor but we tend to forget how unprepared we were to fight a Pacific war at all, and how painful the losses were until we learned how to fight. In Neptune's Inferno: The U.S. Navy at Guadalcanal, James Hornfisher discusses the clumsy role the US Navy played in those early days.

Neptune's Inferno: The U.S. Navy at GuadalcanalIn spite of the Navy's success at Midway, Hornfisher says that "combat readiness simply wasn't the order of the day" (pg 87). Over the course of about four months in late 1942 the Navy engaged in several sea battles with ships from the Japanese fleet (IJN) off the coast of a small island in the south Pacific named Guadalcanal. This was different from Midway, where planes fought each other hundreds of miles from their carriers. At Guadalcanal the fighting was mostly battleships, cruisers, and destroyers, and a lot of them went to the bottom of Ironbottom Sound taking a lot of men with them. US commanders were frequently caught unawares and generally failed to take advantage of radar technology, and friendly fire was responsible for a large portion of the casualties. In spite of that, losses and casualties at sea were about the same on both sides, and the US held on to the island. But it was a costly experience for the navy to learn how to fight in a new age.

Neptune's Inferno focuses more on the naval side of the battle than the conflicts on the island, and Hornfisher makes each battle come alive. He doesn't write for the novice history reader, but those who are already used to reading such books will love the excitement of his narratives. There were a lot of people, places, ships, and even planes involved, and it can seem a bit overwhelming at times. I find I enjoy it more when I don't worry so much about trying to remember every name and detail or keep everything straight but just enjoy the history.

But Hornfisher has an amazing way with words, and his writing pulls you into the story making it hard to put down. What I like most is how insightful his books are. He includes the experiences of everyone from admirals to regular sailors, and sets it all against the greater backdrop of events to pull out the important lessons. He points out that major navies during WWII were "between the age of fighting sail and the age of nuclear propulsion when fuel was consumable and therefore a critical limit on their reach" (pg 37) and explains how this factored into objectives and events. His first book, The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors: The Extraordinary World War II Story of the U.S. Navy's Finest Hour is one of my all-time favorites, and if this one lacks anything in comparison it's the more inspirational ending of the other. Nonetheless, highly recommended reading for those interested in WWII history. (I received this book from Amazon Vine.)

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