Saturday, May 23, 2009

Memorial Day 2009

Burial at sea, off Tarawa: USS Zeilin, November 16, 1943

This Memorial Day weekend, I decided to dedicate this post to the American military and the men who served, like my father who joined the Navy December 8, 1941 and served in campaigns from Guadalcanal to the end in Tokyo Bay.

This first post is by Galrahn of Information Dissemination who continues to amaze me with the depth of his analysis. For someone who describes himself as a technologist, entrepreneur, and owns a technology consulting company, he remains front and center in my book, for his razor sharp focus on naval centric affairs.

His post, What Does a Duck Look Like? Naval Flag Officers in 2002, is a perfect example of the breadth of his interest in all things naval.

Galrahn describes why he posted a seven year old report.

This article was originally submitted as a special research project for the Naval War College in October 2002 by the LCDR Michael Junge, United States Navy. Purchased but never published by the United States Naval Institute for publication in Proceedings, this article seems to align itself very well to recent discussions regarding leadership and promotions tracks.

Nested in the report is a reference to Naval Aristocracy: The Golden Age of Annapolis and the Emergence of Modern American Navalism by Peter Karsten. One of the commenters to this post described Karsten this way.

The use of Karsten as a foundation source troubles me. If one reads him, he exhibits a highly prejudiced view of the officer corps, particularly in his disparaging use of terminology in re: Naval Academy officers...why has no one ever challenged his biases?

This imediatly caught my eye as I had written an article about American Forces in World War II some of which, examined Karsten's negative view of the naval officer corps.

I wrote in part:

Prior to the twentieth century, the U.S. Navy and their marine detachments were the only American military forces with extensive overseas experience. The army, with the exception of the Mexican War had been purely in a defensive position with regard to other wars. Peter Karsten’s book entitled, The Naval Aristocracy looks back into the mid-nineteenth century and the emergence of the United States as a major naval power. His primary focus is his interpretation of the role of the navy in protecting the emerging business interests of American companies as they sought overseas markets. Karsten disagrees with the assessment of many leading historians such as Fletcher Pratt, Samuel Eliot Morrison and McGeorge Bundy and others who saw the navy’s role as one of “innocent” American diplomacy.[1] The author takes the opposite view expounded by Charles Beard that the navy was totally an instrument of American business interests abroad. Looking into the mindset of the American naval officer of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Karsten attempts to show that the navy had developed a philosophy that in the words of Henry Simpson, made “Neptune God, Mahan his prophet, and the United States Navy the only true church.”[2]

Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan and his messmates became the main target of Karsten’s thesis. By focusing on the frailties of human spirit and overlooking the positive accomplishments of securing a rule set for safe commerce, the author fails to recognize the possible outcome had the United States Navy remained in a purely defensive role. If one reads this work unaware of the past histories of nations, their impression would be of an “evil empire” bent on dominating a world filled with lesser sorts. The views of American naval officers are not much different from the views of any person who is in the service of their respective nation during any time period. This can be attested from the writing of the earliest historians from the Bible and Classical Greece.[3] The role of navies since the man first went to sea was to defend the shores, protect the sea-lanes and project the power of the nation it served.

Karsten reveals his views most clearly in his final chapter when he asks the question. “Must we have every new naval, army or air force weapon that the weapons merchants create?”[4] His less that balanced thesis thinly disguises his anti military bias and is important to be recognized. Awareness of it allows the reader to understand that these men whose personal views a person today may find offensive were the instruments that created a navy that was able to resist the aggression of countries in the twentieth century.

A digression into the world that Karsten would have us live would find a navy similar to Sweden’s where America would have a large flotilla of coastal patrol craft to guard our shores. Our only capitol ships would be hospital ships sent to the scene of natural disasters worldwide. By the advent of World War I we would not have been able get our men to Europe without the help of the British Navy. World War II would have been different story. We of course would not have had possessions in the Pacific. War in the Pacific would not have occurred because Japan would have conquered Asia unopposed. The United States would have been reduced to a vassal state watching the world carved into two spheres between Germany and Japan. For all their faults we must be thankful that such men as Mahan did exist. Their role in shaping the future of a “Blue Water” navy is best revealed in Steven Howarth’s To Shining Sea a definitive history of the United States Navy.

The men who captained the U.S. Navy during World War II grew up at the altar of the philosophy of Alfred Thayer Mahan. During the 1930’s the fact that President Roosevelt was a great fan of the navy, began a ship building program to stimulate the economy, this would gain many new ships such as destroyers and submarines.[5] Aircraft carriers were built as plans for battleships were reduced. This turned out to be an act of providence. Aircraft carriers their planes and the smaller ships that protected them became the primary tools that secured the seas. Battleships although vital in shore bombardment and as anti-aircraft platforms were relegated to a supporting role. At the outbreak of the war, American naval power was driven back across the Pacific. Our Eastern Shore was the perfect backdrop for German submarines to sink coastal shipping. The fight to regain control of the seas was the doctrine that had been developed in the previous century by those “aristocratically” naval officers whom Peter Karsten wrote so derisively about in his book. In the same vein the American business interests that were portrayed as colonializing the world would become the source of thousands of planes and ships with which to regain control of the seas and carry the fight back to the aggressor’s door.

Contrasting the written history found in Howarth’s book with Karsten’s benign role of how the navy should be employed, one would not need too great of an imagination to see Howarth’s history would not have occurred as written. It would have been a history written by a German or Japanese historian about the demise of the United States as a great power. Several factors would contribute to our naval success in World War II that stand in opposition to the role we should have played as defined by Karsten. We would have not have had any presence in the Pacific, so during the 1930’s as Japan rose to military prominence the Pacific would become their personal pool. One could perhaps argue that had Perry never opened the door to Japan becoming an industrial power it would still be a feudal kingdom. Our commitment to Great Britain would not have been possible as our navy; being in a defensive role could only protect our eastern shoreline from attack. Hitler would have not been impeded in his quest for empire and in a short time his sights would have turned to North America.

Howarth’s book covers the history of the United States Navy; he devotes two chapters to World War II. In those chapters he outlines the time from the 1933 to 1945. The United States Navy was not only responsible for confronting the Japanese Navy and supporting the Marines in their island hopping campaigns across the Pacific, but destroying the German submarine menace in the Atlantic and moving a million men across the sea to confront Germany and Italy. The Soviet Union owes its survival to the U.S. Navy who protected convoys that brought thousands of tons of material to their shores. None of these events would have taken place had the navy remained as it was before men like Alfred Thayer Mahan and his “messmates” came with their views of American naval power. Stephen Howarth allows the record speak for itself in his book. He only reports the facts as they occurred without much comment on the mindset that led them. The “call to duty” subscribed in Karsten’s book is the grist that sustained the navy in World War II,
it is unfortunate he failed in his anti-military view to see the forest behind the tree.

[1] Peter Karsten, The Naval Aristocracy: The Golden Age of Annapolis and the Emergence of Modern American Navalism (New York: The Free Press, 1972) 140.[2] Ibid., 250.[3] Ibid., 316.[4] Ibid., 391[5] Steven Howarth, To Shining Sea: A History of the United States Navy, 1775-1991 (New York: Random House, 1991), 357.

Below are af few sites to reflect on the sacrifices of those who served.

World War II Private Letters, Founded by the grandson of Private Melvin Johnson

United States Naval Institute Blog A site loaded with tributes to those who have served and are serving at sea.

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