Saturday, July 08, 2006



I apologize for having taken far longer to write up a review of this book than I meant to take. It’s not that I had to mull over the information afterwards to get my brain wrapped around the book, nor was due to my lack of opinion on the book’s merits...

It was because of the “target rich” environment this book provides. I had to really wrestle with coming up with as concise as possible, yet reasonably complete summary of just what is essentially wrong with Cobra II.

If you would care to review more concise and more specialized reviews instead, I highly recommend Victor Davis Hanson’s Commentary piece and PrairiePundit’s thoughts on the subject.

My Cliff's Notes version would read:
The authors make a lot of hay while failing to provide adequate support for many of their assertions, even where I would like to (and do) agree with their end position. Although Victor Davis Hanson (link above) finds Cobra II flawed but worthwhile, I cannot make the same recommendation.

What makes a book “successful” IMHO? aka “A long, slow wade into the deep end”

(Yeah, the rest of this post is a little tedious, but at least you'll know what the standards are....)

I won’t just recommend or keep books because they embody or present a great truth that I want to keep at hand for further study, or just for the renewed enjoyment that comes from revisiting them. I very often recommend or collect books that must be judged, in the final analysis, as complete failures from the author’s "message" point of view. I do this when, though the author(s) fail to make their case, they still provide a wealth of hard data or historical evidence that is in and of itself very useful. It is a quirk of mine to collect books where the author or authors lay out all of the salient points, prove to have an obsession for hard facts, and a knack for finding the most minute of details -- sufficient information for the reader to form their own judgements -- yet still fail to prove their argument.

When this happens it seems almost as if the authors miss the point of what they are writing about. Examples of this that immediately come to mind, that I recommend and keep in my library, are Battleship: The Sinking of the Prince of Wales and the Repulse and The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers.

Battleship (my book doesn’t have the subtitle on the spine – perhaps it was on the dust jacket) is remarkable for its gripping account of the sinking of the HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse by the Japanese just days after Pearl Harbor. The author (some editions seem to have a co-author listed) lays out the timelines and all the geographical, operational, technical, political and situational facts in the finest detail. The book reveals the important personalities, command dynamics, and individual actions taken. For all the accuracy in recreating the events of the battle, and in spite of the very specific and accurate title, the book fails because the author’s entire effort reaches beyond the events and builds up to the crowning assertion that because English battleships were vulnerable when used improperly (without any air cover), battleships in general were too vulnerable to airpower and therefore obsolete. The author didn’t even adequately make the case that just under-armed English battleships were obsolete. When I first finished reading this book years ago (1979-80?), I wondered: given the quality and scholarship that went into the book, perhaps there was an editor’s hand involved in an effort to generate sales through pandering to a then-contemporary controversy over plana to reactivate the U.S. Iowa class battleships? (I intend to someday read some other edition and look for differences.)

The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers by Paul Kennedy is another wonderful resource that uses a tremendous amount of history and economic data to try and build a case that the US was/is destined to follow in the footsteps of earlier Great Powers that ‘overspent’ the nation’s treasure on defense. The book is worth the price as a primer on the Hapsburg Empire alone, but the author’s attempt to tie the goings on of settled distant history to today’s unsettled ‘future history’ and to draw so direct a corollary between the foibles of past ‘empires’ to the U.S.’s current superpower status is in a word, "farcical".

The cherry-picking of then-current economic information didn’t hold up at the time of the writing and it sure doesn’t hold up in retrospect. Although I suppose the author could make the case he was right about the root cause of the demise of the Soviet Union, his evaluation and presentation of the relative cost of defense for the US was poor: At the time of the writing (and even more so now) it wasn’t a question of whether the US wanted to buy “guns” or “butter”, but rather one of “how many guns” AND “how much butter” do we want to buy at the same time?

These books establish the baseline for what is my lowest-level definition of “worthwhile” non-fiction, and Cobra II does not rise to anywhere near this minimum standard.

Tomorrow: What were the authors' 'aiming' at?

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