Sunday, April 7, 2013

Symonds: Novels, Narrative and Nature of War

(Professor, author and distinguished historian Craig Symonds, who is at work on his next book, took time to share a top five list of books with Navy Reads.  We featured his “The Battle of Midway” last year, a top ten recommendation from the Naval History and Heritage Command.  Also last year, Eric Foner, the esteemed Lincoln historian, recommended “Lincoln and His Admirals” by Craig Symonds, a book we look forward to reviewing in the weeks ahead. -- Bill Doughty)

By Craig Symonds

I suspect that many--maybe even all--of these will overlap suggestions by others, but here's a list of five:

C.S. Forester, “The Good Shepherd”

Covers a single day in the life of an escort commander during the Battle of the Atlantic.  It shows better than any other book I know the kind of unrelenting pressure that comes to bear on a commander in the midst of a prolonged crisis.  Though it is a novel, it is a true-to-life study by a man who spent time at sea on the Atlantic convoys and who is also one of the best wordsmiths in the English language.

C.S. Forester, “The General”

In this Forester novel, the main subject is an Army officer who, by virtue of circumstances and simple longevity, rises to command an Allied army on the Western Front in World War I.  The task is utterly beyond him, for he has failed to learn new solutions to new problems.  It is a cautionary tale for those who think they do not need to adapt and can simply apply old lessons to new problems.

Barbara Tuchman, “The Guns of August”

This is not a novel, but a narrative history of the circumstances that led the world into holocaust in 1914.  Tuchman shows how momentum and inertia stole the initiative away from the heads of government and the generals.  World War I did not need to happen at all, and wiser men might have prevented it.  This is another cautionary tale for decision makers at the highest level.

Michael Shaara, “The Killer Angels”

In this novel of the Battle of Gettysburg, the reader experiences the dilemmas of commanders at every level, from Lee and Mede (the army commanders) through various corps and division leaders down to regimental commanders, and in particular Joshua L. Chamberlain.  My students at the Naval Academy loved this novel and it helped them understand both the nature of 19th warfare and the burden of command.

and, less modestly,

Craig Symonds, “Decision at Sea”

This work shows how changing technology and changing culture affect the nature of war at sea from the Battle of the Capes in 1781 to Operation Praying Mantis in 1988.  From iron broadsides to missile warfare, many of the problems of command and control remain the same even if the technology has changed.  If there is a cautionary tale here, it is that wars often create their own momentum and that it is hubris to think that they can be completely controlled.

(A special thanks to Professor Symonds. We will go back in time 150 years with him soon when we review his “Lincoln and His Admirals.”)

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