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At War at Sea: Sailors and Naval Combat in…

At War at Sea: Sailors and Naval Combat in the Twentieth Century (2001)

by Ronald H. Spector

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Naval warfare has traditionally been seen as being very heavily dependent on technology, perhaps more so than on the human seafarers employing the technology, and naval history has frequently emphasized the technological innovations that have transformed naval warfare, particularly in the twentieth century. Criticizing this view as “technological determinism,” Ronald Spector in At War at Sea chose to turn this view on its head, instead emphasizing people, training, cultural backgrounds, and a host of other social and cultural factors in his study of twentieth-century naval warfare. Spector used this “human dimension” to explore how navies using similar technologies achieved very different levels of success and failure (e.g., the Russo-Japanese War) and why navies chose to use technologies in dramatically different ways, as with the British and American experiences with early naval aviation. Spector provided a much-needed emphasis on the human factors involved in warfare, though he was unable to avoid emphasizing technology in his narrative. For example, though he stated that he was interested in the question, Spector never provided an example of a navy with inferior technology besting an opponent that used superior technology. While Spector admirably demonstrated the importance of human factors in modern naval warfare, it is clear that technology – particularly technological differentials between opponents – has played an important role in naval warfare and must be considered closely along side human factors.

Review copyright 2009 J. Andrew Byers ( )
  bibliorex | Mar 26, 2009 |
20th century/History/History - Military / War/History: World/Military - Naval/Modern - 20th Century/Naval History - Modern/Naval art and science/Naval history, Modern/Sailors
  Budzul | Jun 1, 2008 |
An episodic history of naval combat in the 20th century, beginning with the demolition of the Russian fleet by the Japanese at Tsushima (1905) and ending with the first Gulf War (1991). It is more comprehensive, and thus in many ways more useful, than the equivalent section (about 3/4 of the book) of John Keegan's Price of Admiralty.
1 vote ABVR | Dec 6, 2005 |
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0670860859, Hardcover)

Ronald H. Spector's At War at Sea is both a greatest-hits treatment of 20th-century naval battles and a comprehensive history of how sea-fighting tactics and technology have developed over the last century. Spector begins with what he calls "probably the most decisive naval battle of the last two-hundred years," and it's one that many American readers may not know well: the Battle of Tsushima, in May 1905, during the Russo-Japanese War. In a sense, it sets the tone for much of the book--or at least the portion running through the Second World War--for this is the battle that established Japan as an important military power in the Pacific, and one that could humiliate a Western opponent.

Spector next covers Jutland ("the greatest clash of battleships in history") in some detail, and makes a claim that informs much of his book: "Even in the matter of big guns, projectiles, and armor, the decisive considerations concerned human judgment, organization, and training." In other words, Jutland wasn't won by technology (despite the voluminous writings on this point by argumentative scholars), but by individual sailors. To emphasize the point, Spector shares the observations of ordinary participants from diaries, letters, and memoirs. Some of them are incredibly lucid. Here is a merchant seaman describing what it's like after a torpedo strikes a ship: "As a rule once you got hit, that's it, you're down like a stone wallop. They've got no chance. Down in about a minute. Gone." Spector then notes that about seven of every 10 merchant ships hit by torpedoes stayed afloat for less than 15 minutes.

Spector does not write with much verve, but he treats his subject with the thoroughgoing seriousness it deserves. At War at Sea is a strong account that will appeal to naval buffs. --John J. Miller

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:20:00 -0400)

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The definitive history of 20th-century naval combat.

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