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May 09, 2006

American history through Naval Battles: Decision at Sea: Five Naval Battles that Shaped American History - Craig L. Symonds

Posted by Jeremy Black

Decision at Sea: Five Naval Battles that Shaped American History
by Craig L. Symonds
Pp. xvii+378. Oxford University Press, 2005
Hardback, 17.99

The nature, tone and pricing of this work indicate that it is a trade book, one of the many that should lead the Treasury to question the publisher's special tax status.

There is a certain amount of triumphalism in the book and the extent to which naval history should be written around battles is open to debate. Blockade, commerce raiding, logistical lift, and amphibious capability were frequently more important, and this was true of much American naval history.

Furthermore, some of the individual battles were far less important than Symonds, a professor at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, suggests. This is particularly true of Perry's victory on Lake Erie and also of the battle of Hampton Roads, while Symonds exaggerates the significance of the battle of Manila Bay.

In addition, from the scholarly perspective, it would have been useful to match the study of American sources with those of their opponents. This is a commonplace failure in much American (and non-American) popular military history and it is one that has become more serious in recent decades as the habit of top-down battle history has been complemented by the "face of battle" approach but, all-too-often, with a focus on simply one combatant.

Nevertheless, Symonds is to be congratulated for basing his book on far more research than is common for works of this type. Furthermore, he writes well and he makes perceptive points about his case studies, which include Midway and Operation Praying Mantis in the Persian Gulf in 1988. The last is the clash with which readers are likely to be less familiar, and Symonds makes good use of interview material. The operation was an attack on Iranian targets in response to the mining of an American warship. Symonds focuses on the use of missiles in order to wreck Iranian naval intervention, and presents the episode in terms of the long-term development of American naval capability. Throughout, he links this to interesting comments on American strategy.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History, University of Exeter. Amongst much else, he is the author of The British Seaborne Empire (Yale University Press, 2004) and The European Question and the National Interest (Social Affairs Unit, 2006).

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Photos, video, and a quick summary of Operation Praying Mantis are posted at

Posted by: Brad at May 10, 2006 04:58 AM
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