George Washington, William T. Sherman and Viking Marauders

The United States has been engaged in land wars in the Middle East for so long that it’s easy to forget some of our nation’s most significant battles have been fought at sea. Two good new books remind us of the importance of maritime warfare in our national history.

Nathaniel Philbrick demonstrates once again with IN THE HURRICANE’S EYE: The Genius of George Washington and the Victory at Yorktown (Viking, $30) that he is a masterly storyteller. Here he seeks to elevate the naval battles between the French and British to a central place in the history of the American Revolution. He succeeds, marvelously. He can relate in a word or two what others might take a chapter to expound. For example, his phrase “Washington’s tightly coiled response” captures the tense tone of much of Washington’s wartime correspondence.

Nor is Philbrick afraid to make sweeping assertions. He writes that “the bitter truth was that by the summer of 1781 the American Revolution had failed,” in that it was a stalemate that many Americans no longer supported physically or financially. Victory would be secured, he continues, not by Americans but by French funds, guns, ships and soldiers. (Philbrick also does hurricanes well.) On top of that, at a time when many books of military history have poor maps or none, this book has many, all of them instructive and graceful. As a writer, I’m envious of Philbrick’s talents, but as a reader, I’m grateful.

Trent Hone’s LEARNING WAR: The Evolution of Fighting Doctrine in the U.S. Navy, 1898-1945 (Naval Institute, $34.95) is quite the opposite, a dry volume written for military professionals. But there is a place for such works, especially when they show how organizational change can be the key to victory.

Hone examines the United States Navy of World War II through his lens as a management consultant. Sample: “The Pacific Fleet would not advance as a monolith; it would attack as a distributed network.” Personalities do not loom large in his tale. The real hero here is not an individual but a large, complex organization, the American Navy, that quickly grew from second-rate status to become the world’s premier maritime force.

Even so, Hone tells the story of the 1942-43 Guadalcanal campaign particularly well. That history is often related from the Marine Corps’s point of view, which in painful summary is that the Navy ran away and left the Marines to fight it out alone against the Japanese. As Hone tells it, Navy commanders knew they were outmatched by the Japanese but also recognized that Guadalcanal was a decisive campaign of the Pacific War. Understanding those stakes, they engaged in suicidal missions in an effort to keep the Japanese Navy from bombarding the Marine airfield on the island and also from landing reinforcements.

But the most intriguing chapter is Hone’s study of a critical but largely unrecognized reorganization that transformed Navy operations beginning in late 1942. The problem was that commanders of warships were being cognitively overwhelmed by all the new information thrown at them in battle. In addition to traditional sightings and signaling, they were now receiving reports by radio from aircraft and from other ships, as well as from radar readings. The Navy’s answer was to design a new Combat Information Center on each ship. Through it, all that data could be continually funneled, sifted, integrated and passed to the captain and others on the vessel who might need it, like gunners. Such an improvement may seem mere common sense, but then many great innovations do seem obvious — in retrospect. Interestingly, Adm. Chester Nimitz told skippers what to do (establish the new centers) but not how to do it. This meant that different ships devised different approaches, which provided the basis for subsequent refinements.

Hone’s history is good as it goes, but it would have been better had he also addressed the Navy’s clear failures of the time. For example, it seemed unable to devise an effective response to the German U-boat campaign along the East Coast in 1942. Also, it went into the war having developed a deeply flawed torpedo, the Mark 14, which among other things often failed to detonate, and sometimes ran 10 feet deeper than intended and so passed under enemy warships. These problems seem to raise a few doubts about Hone’s thesis that the Navy went into the war as an innovative, flexible organization brilliant at learning from its mistakes and so able to address them quickly.

Three other new books are seemingly obscure, but actually quite illuminating.

I’ve been a student of the American military for nearly three decades, but until I picked up AFRICAN AMERICAN OFFICERS IN LIBERIA: A Pestiferous Rotation, 1910-1942 (Potomac, paper, $21.95), I didn’t know that for several decades in the early 20th century, the United States Army had a training, advising and leading mission in Liberia. What’s more, most of the officers who carried out the mission were black Americans. Brian G. Shellum, a retired Army tank and intelligence officer, does a workmanlike job of relating this neglected tale.

The American effort in Liberia had a dual purpose: to fend off encroaching colonial powers, but also to help the 15,000 former American slaves who colonized Liberia to subjugate the approximately 730,000 indigenous people who resented the newcomers. One of the most effective American advisers was Col. Charles Young, who was born a slave in Kentucky in 1864, fought for the Army in the Philippines, was briefly acting superintendent of Sequoia National Park, was active in the N.A.A.C.P. and wound up serving repeated tours in Africa.

The book is instructive in the multiple hazards and difficulties of foreign training missions. Liberian government officials wanted to have a military force, but feared having one that was too effective. In a terrible irony, at one point they shunted aside the American advisers and used their own troops to round up indigenous people, who then were shipped to forced labor camps elsewhere in West Africa.

It’s not often that a work of medieval military history reminds me of a minor BBC comedy show, but that’s the case with THE VIKING WARS: War and Peace in King Alfred’s Britain, 789-955 (Pegasus, $29.95), by Max Adams. Reading this quirky book, with its heavy reliance on the evidence of coins (where they were minted, what king was depicted on them, what dates they carried, where they were unearthed), brought to mind “Detectorists,” a charming television series made a few years ago about the loves and feuds of two amateur archaeologists in eastern England.

Adams’s book isn’t really a military history, and his publisher has done him no favor with the book’s American title. It was published last year in Britain as “Ælfred’s Britain: War and Peace in the Viking Age,” which is a more accurate description. Battles do not figure largely in it, but the reasons for war and their outcomes do.

This is an enjoyable book, but it is also very English. At times it feels as if it is veering into Old English, as when Adams, an archaeologist, relates that “the king of Brycheiniog in southern Wales killed an abbot, called Ecgbehrt, with his companions, provoking the vengeful wrath of the Myrcna hlaefdige. She sent a force to his llys at Brecenanmere, the crannog on Llangorse lake, stormed it and captured his queen.” For all that, Adams doesn’t have much to say about the fact that the Norsemen ultimately prevailed, a century after this book closes, with a successful invasion of England in 1066 by William the Conqueror, a descendant of the Viking raider Hrolfr, a.k.a. Rollo.

The question of how wars are financed is about as far as one can get from traditional military history about great generals and decisive battles. Yet funding is, of course, essential to conducting almost any war. And as Sarah E. Kreps, the author of TAXING WARS: The American Way of War Finance and the Decline of Democracy (Oxford University, $29.95), points out, war taxes are an especially American issue, given that the United States was founded partly as a result of disputes with Britain over payment of the costs of the French and Indian War, and of the continuing defense of the Colonies.

But the financing of wars has become a peculiar political issue nowadays, notes Kreps, a former Air Force officer who teaches government at Cornell University. While our recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been controversial, she observes, how we pay for them has not been. Despite our current partisan polarization, politicians of neither party raise the issue much. She concludes that there now exists a broad, quiet political consensus to insulate the American people from the human and financial costs of their wars. This agreement is insidious, she writes, because it has undermined democratic accountability.

One complaint: A volume written by an Ivy League professor and published by Oxford University Press should not contain historical howlers. Two that I noticed: She has Harry Truman losing to Dwight Eisenhower in 1952, and refers to “the Tea Party Massacre and the origins of the American Revolution,” a seeming conflation of the Boston Massacre of 1770 and the same city’s Tea Party three years later.

What does William T. Sherman’s march through Georgia in 1864 have to do with today’s controversy over Confederate monuments? Lots, I think. The monuments quarrel grows in part out of an incomplete understanding of our past. Monument supporters charge that taking them down reduces our history, but the problem is that many of the people involved in the controversy simply don’t know enough history. Imagine, for example, if Southern plantations were more accurately called “slave labor camps.” Would young lovers then still dream of being married in such places?

Likewise, Sherman’s march continues to be misunderstood. Contrary to what many Americans still believe, and some are taught, its violence was not indiscriminate. Rather, Sherman was quite precise in directing it against the property (but not the persons) of wealthy Southern die-hards whose assets had been largely untouched by war. Nor was the campaign particularly bloody. As J. D. Dickey notes in RISING IN FLAMES: Sherman’s March and the Fight for a New Nation (Pegasus, $29.95), Sherman’s casualty rate from campaigning through enemy-held territory for several weeks was minuscule, less than 600 out of 62,000 men.

But Sherman did achieve his goal of eviscerating Southern morale, both at home and at the front, where rebel officers realized that their families and homes were unprotected. By doing that, Sherman helped bring an end to the war. He should be ranked among our top five generals, ever.

Dickey, the author of “Empire of Mud,” looks at the march mainly through the eyes of soldiers and other participants, like nurses. Perhaps as a result of this perspective, he tends to overemphasize the role of subordinate commanders like John Logan, while underestimating Sherman’s extraordinary ability to juggle troop movements, logistics and intelligence, all while adapting to a new way of war built around the railroad and the telegraph. So “Rising in Flames,” while interesting, is unlikely to take a place alongside essential texts like Joseph T. Glatthaar’s “The March to the Sea and Beyond.”

Speaking of Glatthaar, his new book, THE AMERICAN MILITARY: A Concise History (Oxford University, $18.95), carries precisely the right title. In just 127 small pages of text, Glatthaar, a historian at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, gallops through American military history from the French and Indian War all the way to Iraq and Afghanistan. Impressively, he manages to provide a lot more than battle histories, deftly delving into technological advances, social changes and political contexts. Anyone looking for a place to begin understanding the military history of our country would do well to start here.

It is all too easy to forget the costs of war for the people who wage it. Some 2.5 million Americans have served in Afghanistan and Iraq. In AFTER COMBAT: True War Stories From Iraq and Afghanistan (Potomac, $29.95), Marian Eide and Michael Gibler seek to construct one big narrative from interviews with 30 veterans about their experiences in those countries. Does this approach work? Yes, and far better than I expected. I finished this book wishing that there were companion volumes for the American Revolution and the Civil War.

Eide, an English professor at Texas A&M, and Gibler, a former Army officer, have compiled what amounts to a primer on what it was like to be enlisted in the Army in the post-9/11 era. People who know the military won’t be surprised by much, but others can learn a lot from it.

And there are still some illuminating surprises. I’ve covered military operations as a reporter in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq, yet I’d never before heard about a kind of “mortar bingo,” in which soldiers would bet on where enemy mortar shells would next hit their base. “After Combat” captures the odd humor of war.

Also, I hadn’t before seen this observation from one soldier: “Most of the platoons had people on suicide watch. … It was the powerlessness, and suicide is one way of getting power back. Suddenly, you’re in control again; you can do something. … Part of it is they see violence as a solution.” Finally, it offers a line true in any war: “It was really boring and then really stressful.”

For female soldiers, a major stressor was internal. One comments that “there was no training about how to deal with the constant advances.”

Only one line in the book made me shake my head. I generally appreciated the tone of the editors, which is neither mawkish nor militaristic. But at one point they assert that it is polite for civilians to say to veterans, “Thank you for your service.” Some vets I know don’t mind that phrase, but some others hate it. I think it is better to simply say, “Welcome home.”

Thomas E. Ricks, the Book Review’s military history columnist and the author of five books about the American military, is a visiting fellow in Bowdoin College’s history department.

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