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Book Review:

At War, At Sea

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By Ronald Spector

Review by Jeff Herne

Someone once wrote that warfare is hours and hours of boredom interrupted by moments of sheer horror. Most accounts of the history of naval combat in the 20th Century fall into this category...hours and hours of tedium sprinkled with a few chapters of first hand accounts of the events that took place. I have several hundred books in my library dealing with combat in the 20th Century, so while passing time in a local bookstore, I figured this book would fall into the same category; the same regurgitated information, the same photos of SBDs at the Battle of MIdway, and the same accounts and speculations from the same old band of naval historians.

As I randomly opened the book and started reading, I quickly found myself aboard a British AA cruiser in the middle of the convoy actions around the island of Crete. A fluke, I thought, so I opened to another random page and read a paragraph about the loss of the Musashi. With my interest now piqued, I started flipping through the chapters, and after a few minutes I decided I must have this book...

And what a book it is. The author opens his work with a well written chapter about the status of the worlds' navies at the turn of the century, and immediately goes into the events leading up to the Battle of Tsushima. Intermixed with historical facts and data are personal accounts of the battle from both sides, which adds a nice flavor to the book, keeping the reader interested in what's going to happen next, all the while educating the reader about the multitude of problems faced by everyone involved, from the stokers to the admirals.

At War, At Sea follows this format throught the entire book, dedicating a couple of chapters to the post WW1 and pre-WW2 histories that tend to bore us with politics, goverments bickering over treaties, and the clandestine buildup of Japan and Germany. Instead, the author gives us insight to the battles from several points of view, including historical fact, first hand accounts, conjecture and opinions about the events as they were unfolding, by those who were there, and after-action commentary from admirals, sailors, and historians.  His final chapter concludes with the shooting down of the Iranian airliner by the USS Vincennes in 1998. In between, he covers the significant aspects of naval operations and battles of World Wars 1 and 2, Korea, Vietnam, the Cold War, and the Persian Gulf, from all sides.

It's very rare that I will dog-ear a book in a matter of weeks, but this particular book is hard to put down. It's well written, concise and informative, yet it reads like an action novel. It's an affordable $16 in paperback, and was originally published in 2001 from Penguin Press. The author, Ronald Spector, is a professor of History and International Relations at George Washington University. His previous works include, Eagle Against the Sun: The American War Against Japan, and After Tet, the Bloodiest Year in Vietnam. I highly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in naval history.


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