Sacred Vessels is an irreverent account of the modern battleship and its place in American naval history from the sinking of the coal-fired Maine in Havana Harbor in 1898 to the deployment of the cruise missile-armed Missouri in the Persian Gulf in 1991. With provocative insight and wit, Robert O'Connell conclusively demonstrates that the vaunted battleship was in fact never an effective weapon of war, even before developments in aircraft and submarine technology sealed its doom. The worlds navies failed to recognize the full implications of rapid technological change at the turn of the century but were enthralled by the revolutionary design of the HMS Dreadnought, launched in 1903. Nations raced to build and deploy the biggest, the fastest, and the greatest possible number of battleships, usually at the expense of much more effective forms of naval force. Dreadnoughts became the international currency of great power status, subject to the same anxious accountancy as nuclear weapons today. Their awesome beauty captured the public s imagination and won the unquestioning devotion of naval officers everywhere. When war came in 1914, the world held its breath in anticipation of a modern-day Trafalgar, but dreadnoughts everywhere avoided battle, and when they were forced to fight, the results were inconclusive or irrelevant. In spite of this display of impotence, the world's shipyards continued to turn out the great vessels. The sinking of the heart of the U.S. battlefleet at Pearl Harbor–an event that finally forced the United States into World War II–ironically also began to shake the U.S. Navy free from its infatuation with the dreadnought in favor of the more practical charms of the aircraft carrier. Still, sheer faith in the battleship ensured that it would live to fight again, this time with even more questionable results. In fact, says O'Connell, battleships have never played an important role in the outcome of any modern war, but they have continued to be resurrected and refurbished–even garnished with nuclear weapons–right up to the present day. Television images of the Missouri and the Wisconsin firing on the shores of Iraq in 1991 were not just a glimpse of an anachronism: We were witnessing, with a lingering sense of awe, the last gasp of a fire-breathing behemoth that in actuality was all but toothless from the moment of its conception. Sacred Vessels is more than the unmasking of a false idol of naval history. It is a cautionary tale about the often unacknowledged influence of human faith, culture, and tradition on the exceedingly important, costly, and supposedly rational process of nations arming themselves for war.
Table of Contents
Preface -- Introduction: A Fatal Vision -- In the Beginning: Traditions of the Naval World -- Upon This Rock: The Technological Revolution and the Prophet Mahan -- Crusaders in Blue and the Grail of Seapower -- Sacred Vessel: The Dreadnought -- The Evil Below . . . and Above -- Trial by Fire: Battle in the North Sea -- Crisis of Faith: Protecting the North Atlantic -- Martyrdom: Dreadnoughts in the Wake of Versailles -- Requiem: The Washington Naval Conference -- Life After Death: Rehabilitating the Dreadnought -- Conclusion: Vampires of Seapower -- Appendix
Robert L. O'Connell is Senior Analyst at the U.S. Army Intelligence Agency's Foreign Science and Technology Center. He was a member of the U.S. delegation to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva. He has a Ph.D. in history from the University of Virginia. Dr. O'Connells first book was Of Arms and Men: A History of War, Weapons, and Aggression. He is a contributing editor to MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History, for which he has written numerous articles and essays.