Shattered Sword, by Parshall and Tully
Shattered Sword is over 600 pages in length, the core of which is a carefully researched historical narrative based on original Japanese source material that had not been previously fully exploited by Western historians. This approach offers new insights into and understandings regarding one of history’s most decisive Naval battles. As time has passed, and if lecture invitations and positive reviews are any indication, those understandings have come to be accepted as having lasting value by many credentialed historians, service veterans and Navy-related organizations, among them the Naval War College, the National WWII Museum and the Battle of Midway Roundtable.
And yet, a few reviewers have virtually ignored the operational records based narrative, the signal contribution of Shattered Sword, latching instead onto certain of the authors’ ex post-facto and self-admittedly subjective interpretations regarding the battle. Those ideas are separable from the book’s historical contributions and do not in any way change or alter the fact-based historical research that comprises the core narrative of the book. Based almost entirely on this subjective aspect a vocal few have decreed that the book is not worth reading. However, much of the reaction has been, as often happens, at a tangent to the main body of the work in question. As a result, a little additional elaboration seems in order.
What then, is it that has so offended those who down rate Shattered Sword? Not the historical research but rather the authors’ intimation that iconic works by Walter Lord and Gordon Prange, Incredible Victory and Miracle at Midway, and the conclusions they drew regarding Midway, are flawed. That the US Navy victory was not, after all a “miracle victory” against a vastly superior foe by the underdog US Navy -- inspired by “a magic blend of skill, faith and valor” as Walter Lord put it. Some perceive Shattered Sword as an attack on decades old interpretations of the battle as heroism against almost impossible odds, a view that is, to them, simply unacceptable. There is certainly an element of revisionist opinion in the authors’ interpretations of the battle. But while that has little to do with the core Japanese operational records based historical narrative, nevertheless the authors cannot be forgiven for daring to undermine the oft repeated underdog victory tale.
Ronald Russell, moderator of the Battle of Midway Roundtable (midway42.org), a forum that included a number of Midway veterans over the years, anticipated just this sort of outcome in his review. “While the book can justly be called outstanding. . . some will want to argue with a few of the authors’ subjective analyses on certain aspects of the battle. Those points are solidly documented and well reasoned, though, so approach matters of that nature with an open mind. But such quibbles are unimportant in judging the book overall. . . Accordingly, I have [placed] Shattered Sword near the top of our recommended reference list.”
By contrast, when it comes to hyperbole it’s difficult to find prose more purple than Walter Lord’s: “They had no battleships, the enemy eleven. They had eight cruisers, the enemy twenty-three. They had three carriers (one of them crippled); the enemy had eight.” Miraculous win indeed, against those odds. Well, not quite. At the pointy end of the spear, when and where the engagement actually took place, Admiral Nagumo’s striking force included four carriers (248 aircraft), two battleships, three cruisers and 12 destroyers. The US Navy's Task forces 16 and 17 included three carriers (233 aircraft), eight cruisers and 15 destroyers -- and there were 127 land-based aircraft at Midway as well as 16 submarines assigned to the area, two of which had an impact on the battle. Furthermore, none of the surface combatants ever saw each other – they simply provided antiaircraft and antisubmarine protection -- so their numbers, while not completely irrelevant, are certainly secondary in any accounting of the strength of the opposing forces. And thanks to herculean repair efforts at Pearl, the Yorktown was not “crippled,” in any operational sense but instead was able to conduct effective flight operations up until the moment it was attacked by aircrews from Hiryu. In fact, the Yorktown launched the only coordinated American air strike of the day, as her torpedo squadron, dive bombers and fighter escort were the only ones to arrive on target together that morning.
As Shattered Sword points out, one of the (many) fatal flaws of Combined Fleet commander, Admiral Isoroku Yamamato’s Midway plan was that much of his mighty force, most of the Japanese fighting Navy if the Aleutian invasion is included, was deployed in such a way as to be too far removed to be of any use to Nagumo when it counted. In the end, all that mattered were the carrier and land-based aircraft present at Midway and the anti-aircraft fire from the supporting ships on the scene -- and the latter was largely ineffective on the part of the Japanese.
Having said the above, there are valid points of criticism that need to be acknowledged. Discussion of numbers does not tell the full story. Critics make a sound point regarding the mixed quality of the American air assets. Many of the aircraft at Midway, as well as the Navy’s shipboard Douglas Devastator torpedo bombers, were so ineffective as to be virtual death traps for their air crews. The authors touch a raw nerve when they assert that Torpedo 8 did not, in fact, enable the dive bombers by drawing down the Japanese Zero combat air patrol (CAP). Waldron’s squadron was decimated long before the SBDs attacked. The implication that those sacrifices and others like them, by the other torpedo squadrons and by the Midway attack waves, were in vain is simply intolerable to many. And this is one point where the authors may have given an incomplete assessment of the many US air attacks that preceded the decisive SBD Dauntless dive bomber attacks at 10:25 AM – it was the cumulative impact of repeated sequential American attacks that eventually unhinged Nagumo’s tactical decision-making as well as his operational tempo, and thus doomed the Japanese defense.
Another point of contention is their dogged defense of Nagumo’s violation of Yamamoto’s direct order to keep one-half of his striking force in reserve, armed with anti-ship weapons in case US naval forces should make an appearance. Nagumo’s order to rearm his reserve wave with land attack weapons when the first wave did not fully knock out Midway, at which point his search plans had flown only the outward leg of their (very sparce) search patterns, could be said to be the single decision that doomed his chance to launch a crippling strike against the American carriers. And, at the macro level, the authors raise doubt regarding just how much of a turning point Midway was, given the attritional carnage of the six-month Guadalcanal campaign and the subsequent impact of the Essex class carrier program. These assertions, of course, benefit from 20-20 historical hindsight.
A summary of the battle might go like this. Nagumo’s carriers came under frequent and repeated attacks once they were located -- thanks to American code breaking at Hawaii's Joe Rocheford led Station Hypo. These attacks were vital to the American victory because they impacted the Japanese ability to conduct unimpeded operations -- and they probably impacted Nagumo’s ability to make sound operational decisions. Once American ships were discovered Nagumo had a narrow window to launch a partial strike but declined to do so, preferring a full deckload strike, in accord with long-standing Japanese doctrine. But, thereafter he never had an opportunity to launch a full deckload strike because of continuing sequential American torpedo plane attacks – the real payoff from the horrific sacrifice of the Midway assets and the carrier torpedo squadrons.
Still, the outcome was not a foregone conclusion. Unlike almost any battle in recorded history, the margin of victory turned on the actions of three individuals. (We defer discussion of the impact of US command and air group leader decisions during the battle, which is another story entirely.) Crucially, submarine Nautilus skipper William Brockman persisted in harassing the Japanese carrier force on the morning of the Midway strike, causing the destroyer Arashi to be detached to suppress the Nautilus. It was the Arashi, returning to the Japanese carriers, that led Enterprise air group commander Wade McCLusky and his SBD dive bombers to them. McClusky, the second critical individual, had kept up his search for the Japanese carriers despite a seriously dwindling fuel supply. And then it was Dick Best who, seeing McClusky take the first carrier, Kaga, the reverse order of dive bomber attack doctrine, pull out of his dive and take two other pilots with him to attack Akagi with a far more difficult broadside approach, with Best scoring the single hit that ultimately destroyed Akagi. Of McClusky’s decision to continue his search, no less an authority that CINCPAC commander, Admiral Chester Nimitz said it “decided the fate of our carrier forces at Midway.”
Absent the decisions, actions and skills of these three individuals, Kaga and Akagi might have survived the initial dive bomber attack, with only Soryu incurring damage. The outcome of Midway might have been very different indeed. In the end, the battle turned on four factors. The first was that Nagumo had two missions, land attack and anti-ship attack, while the Americans had only one. Despite the fact that Kido Butai had a proven ability to launch coordinated from six decks simultaneously (four at Midway), the conflicts inherent in Yamamoto's dual mission attack proved to be the undoing of the Japanese carrier force.
Because of this, the Americans were able to exploit the second factor, the element of surprise, conferred by Commander Joe Rochefort’s signal intelligence from station HYPO, to place Nagumo in a fatal vice -- as Nimitz had anticipated and counted on -- when his two missions suddenly came in unresolvable conflict on the morning of the battle. The third factor was that, despite the almost total lack of coordination on the part of the Americans’ various strike forces and fighter escorts, the repeated waves of American attacks, all of them ineffective right up to the final dive bomber attacks, kept Nagumo’s carriers off balance and maneuvering (or else recovering their own strike aircraft), rendering them unable to do much else than launch and recover combat air patrol (CAP). (And no, the Americans, while inferior in many aspects of both air frame quality and combat coordination, were not outnumbered in quantity in any material resource that mattered, else they would not have been able to occupy the Japanese defenses with largely uncoordinated attack waves for such an extended period of time.) The fourth factor was the choices made by the three individuals named above -- whose actions were decisive -- as well as decisions made by Task Forces 16 and 17 commanders on the morning of the battle.
It is worth pointing out here that in the other three 1942 carrier battles, Coral Sea, Eastern Solomons and Santa Cruz Islands, the result in each case was a far more balanced affair -- battles of attrition without clear and lasting decision on either side -- with the US Navy losing the more significant carrier assets (fast carriers Lexington and Hornet lost vs. light carriers Shoho and Ryujo) while the Japanese lost more aircrews -- which as events turned out, they were ill equipped to afford. Only at Midway, where the US Navy benefited from and, crucially, was able to capitalize on the element of intelligence and surprise -- as well as the dual mission nature of the Japanese Midway attack -- were the results so one-sided.
Historians, book reviewers and armchair quarterbacks aside, Admiral Nimitz provided perhaps the best summation of Midway ever offered. “Midway was the most crucial battle of the Pacific War, the engagement that made everything else possible.” Sounds about right.
Jane Austen's Emma, starring Romola Garai
Reviews of Romola Garai's cinematic version of Emma have mostly been positive. However, quite a few Jane Austen enthusiasts, myself among them, took exception to certain aspects of the production, the foremost being the rather giddy, silly teenagerish portrayal of the title character by Garai. In point of fact, the Emma created by Austen is very mature for her age -- self assured and elegant in her conduct and manner. Where she errs is in her overconfidence, an implicit belief that she knows all and is mistress of every situation.
"The real evils, indeed, of Emma’s situation were the power of having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself; these were the disadvantages which threatened alloy to her many enjoyments. The danger, however, was at present so unperceived, that they did not by any means rank as misfortunes with her."
However, help is on the way. Jane Austen shows us, repeatedly, that her good friend and neighbor Mr. Knightley, prior to his recognition of his own feelings, is often exasperated that Emma does not live up to her potential as a young lady of both rank and substance. Unlike Jane Fairfax, she does not apply herself to music. She has tried her hand at art and given up too soon. Nor does she read books with any degree of persistence, as her governess Miss Taylor, now Mrs. Weston, had long urged. She allowed her personal likes and dislikes to show through in her relationships, sometimes negatively, e.g. with Miss Bates and Jane Fairfax. But nowhere is there the slightest hint that her behavior comes within a gentry mile of Romola Garai’s juvenile teenagerish performance, flouncing and flopping about -- especially compared to the conduct expected of a young lady in the role of head-of-household in a position of society in Regency England. Such behavior would be more likely expected from a Harriet Smith or some other girl from Mrs. Goddard’s school.
None of the four Jane Austen biographies I have read leads me to believe that Austen would create an Emma such the one portrayed by Romola Garai. Indeed, the opposite is the case. Though poor herself in later life, because her father was a clergyman Austen’s family was of the gentry class. Her mother was related to aristocracy, albeit distantly. As such, the custom of the times was that even lesser gentry would have been occasionally included in balls and gatherings of local aristocrats. In later life Jane frequented Godmersham, the estate of her brother Edward, made rich by adoption and inheritance into the wealthy Knight family. Her uncle and aunt, James and Jane Leigh-Perrot had money. The point is, Jane Austen knew quite well how people of that class conducted themselves.
Relevant to Emma’s situation, young people, especially someone in Emma’s position, were expected to grow up more quickly and take on responsibility at an earlier age than today. For example, Jane Austen’s brothers Francis and Charles both entered the Royal Naval Academy at age 12 and went to sea as midshipmen at age 14 and 15 respectively. (Both eventually rose to the rank of admiral.) By comparison, Emma is 20 at the beginning of the novel and had, for a considerable time (as she points out to Harriet), been mistress of her father’s manor. From EnglishHistoryAuthors.com, “the role of an estate’s mistress was the equivalent of, depending on the size of the estate, managing a small hotel to being the CEO of a major corporation.” The behavior portrayed by Romola Garai is that of giddy 21st century teenager, not that of a Regency manor hostess.
Many Jane Austen enthusiasts feel that the movie misses the mark with respect to authenticity; some would say here and there, and a few, rather badly. Like them, I agree that there were many departures from the novel noted by many familiar with Jane Austen's works -- in casting, script, direction and acting. Having said that, it was nevertheless a production worth watching, albeit a bit painfully so at times. In particular, the sets, locations and costumes were beautiful and the music was lovely. There was enough of the original to keep one hoping that it would all somehow end well. But, as one who respects Austen as one of the English language’s most beloved writers, it leaves me wishing for a truer effort. I can only speak for myself, but I suspect that for many devoted Jane Austen fans what we most long to see is a faithful rendering to screen of the essence of the author’s story and characters, not a reinterpretation targeted to modern language and cultural idioms.
Many of us might judge the Kate Beckensale 1996 ITV/A&E production, with an outstanding screenplay by Andrew Davies, as the most true-to-the-novel performance to date, a script that preserves much of the author’s dialog. Gwyneth Paltrow's version of about the same time was decent, but also fell short of the Beckensale/Davies production. Without question adjustments must be made to fit the needs of a presentation that is both visual and spoken as well as limited as to time. Yet despite the compressed nature of the two hour Davies script, with many scenes left out and others combined for brevity, Davies’ screenplay and Beckensale’s portrayal managed to capture, for me, the essence of Jane Austen’s Emma with a degree of refinement and understanding of Austen's original regrettably missing in Romola Garai’s giddy, and at times silly, performance.
The sad thing is, one suspects that with proper direction Garai might have produced a performance equally true to Austen. More’s the pity.
Kitty Cornered, by Bob Tarte
As a certified cat lover, I was prepared to like this book – especially since it was a Christmas gift from my even more dedicatedly cat loving wife. And, it is not without merit. It is, after all, about cats and the often whimsical experiences that derive from living in a multi-cat household. And the author, Bob Tarte, is quite capable of putting one word after another in coherent sentences. So, I can see how some might give it a high rating. However, a couple of cautionary notes are in order. First, the author employs a writing style that can only be described as over-the-top metaphorical cuteness. Examples may be found throughout the text, and sometimes on almost every page. The black patches of a black and white cat are described thus: “A black continent floated in a sea of white on her right side, and a few black islands had broken off and drifted to her left side, shoulders, neck and head.” A cat is not simply underfoot; it is “trying to kill me on the flight upstairs, tangling herself underfoot with the agility of a mountain stream.” Ducks in a nearby river don’t simply depart, they “pull a Rumpelstiltskin, suddenly flying off.” Cats don’t purr, they “switch on the purring machine.” The past, when only one cat resided in the house, becomes the “latter half of the Pleistocene Epoch.” These may sound appealing enough in isolation, but at some point one begins to wonder if clever prose is simply a substitute for content.
This is the second reason why my rating is lower than I hoped. Internet these days is full of cats doing interesting things. Cats open doors and windows, they rout dogs in combat, they save people from fires, illness and animal attacks. A few have taken to attending school every day, delighting students and teachers alike. They even serve as comfort animals in veterinary hospitals. However, in Kitty Cornered, very little that is truly unusual ever happens. Instead, the book mostly uses extravagantly cute language to disguise the everyday experiences of a household with lots of cats. Cats establish their territory, one vs. another. Cats are finicky eaters and must be fed separately all over the house. Some hit the litter box and some miss. Some are companionable and some are aloof. Some get injured or develop allergies and must be taken to the vet. And so on. This is not the stuff of legend, and only a love of cats combined with appreciation for the author’s ornate writing style can make it worth the reading time invested.
Our lone cat, a tortoiseshell that proves daily the existence of tortitude -- that feisty attitude that tortie owners so appreciate -- does more in a day than the six cats in this household do in an entire book. She opens the front door by herself to come in, and she rings a strap of bells on the inside doorknob to request to be let out. She never uses the litter box but instead always asks to go outside. She can leap seemingly impossible distances. She uses a nearby tree to climb to our garage roof and then cries until we place a 2x4 against the roof as a down ramp. She is a deadly hunter, and she has lately taken to catching bats on the wing in the middle of the night -- bad enough, but then she brings them inside as “gifts” -- after which chaos ensues as we attempt to evict the uncooperative intruders. Nor, I suspect, is she unique; no doubt others have similar tales to relate.
For cat lovers enamored of the author’s writing style, a highly favorable rating is understandable. But for me, the colorful writing simply became tedious after a few pages, and it failed to compensate for the dearth of event.
Jane Austen - The Secret Radical, by Helena Kelly
Like others who have given this book a less than sterling endorsement, I found Jane Austen, The Secret Radical to be flawed, albeit not without merit -- and for similar reasons. For those interested in understanding the events that contributed to formation of Austen’s worldview, the historical context of the Regency era in which Austen lived is well worth following. Furthermore, at some level the biographer’s thesis contains a seed of truth. Austen was more than just a writer of romances; she can be read many ways. Beyond the obvious love stories that everyone recognizes, she is widely known by more discerning readers as a master of the comedy of manners, a genre that “satirizes the manners and affectations” of a society. Furthermore, a careful examination reveals other, more serious themes – among them, the ills that result from primogeniture, entailment of inheritances and the dependent status of women. In this regard, author Helena Kelly is on target.
But Kelly is not content with elaborating on these themes. Positing each of Austen’s six books to be an exposition on some social evil, she goes Easter egg hunting in the Austen canon for connections with historical events, the English political climate, Regency social mores and even individual historical figures. All this is inextricably bound to Kelly’s collection of perceived social failings from that time. For example, Mansfield Park becomes an abolitionist tract. Emma contains a hidden Austen diatribe against the practice of enclosure, the fencing off of land by wealthy owners that effectively curtailed the feudal practice of allowing the poor to have common access to estate land to gather food and firewood. Persuasion is all about the pervasive nature of change in society and world events -- and the profound sense of uncertainty that -- in the author’s view -- follows therefrom. Northanger Abbey contains the rather bizarre conjecture that Catherine Morland’s exploration of a cabinet in her bed chamber is actually a covert and symbolic act of -- shall we say, while maintaining a degree of propriety -- female self-exploration.
Then, there is the matter of the male characters in Austen’s novels. With only a few exceptions, almost every male, both heroes and supporting characters, are skewered as, variously, deeply flawed or vile creatures. Examples abound. Edward Ferrars of Sense and Sensibility is condemned for falling in love with -- and thereby allegedly trifling with the affections of -- Elinor Dashwood while being secretly engaged to Lucy Steele. Never mind the fact that affections really can change over time. Mr. Knightly is a predator for casting an incestuous and lecherous eye on young Emma Woodhouse. Besides which, he has enclosed the formerly common land of Donwell Abbey, bringing hardship to the poor of Highbury. Henry Tilney is condemned for the apparently despicable act of falling in love with -- or at least proposing to -- Catherine Morland merely because she is in love with him.
Edmund Bertram doesn’t really love Fanny Price and is a complete jerk for being initially enamored of Mary Crawford. However, remember that Edmund and Fanny were raised from children in the same household, almost as brother and sister; in reality, it would have taken time for Edmund to overcome the taboos associated with such a relationship – as it did in the book Austen actually wrote, rather than in the opinion of a Kelly who appears to be looking for excuses to condemn men. (Interestingly, Edmund is condemned for initially ignoring Fanny, but Mr. Knightly is condemned for paying attention to young Emma Woodhouse. Which is it, Helena Kelly -- you can’t have it both ways.) Kelly also finds numerous ways to condemn the Church as corrupt – despite the fact that no fewer than half of Austen’s heroines marry vicars – Catherine Morland and Henry Tilney, Elinor Dashwood and Edward Ferrars, Fanny Price and Edmund Bertram. What kind of hypocrite would that make Austen if Kelly’s thesis were really true?
It may be that some of Kelly’s many speculations and conjectured hidden correlations contain valid insights into Austen’s works. However, one of the first laws of reason is that correlation is not causation -- or in this case, proof of an authorial thesis. Kelly’s suppositions are simply that – speculations, unprovable conjectures. Furthermore, Kelly’s fundamental thesis, that Austen was a radical closet social crusader, completely ignores and perhaps even at times contradicts one of the most enduring themes in Austen’s work, that of the moral rectitude of Austen’s central characters -- and, implicitly, that a harmonious and enduring society benefits from -- and perhaps even depends on -- such behavior. This thesis is elaborated in my essay, The Jane Austen Good Woman. The two theses are not mutually exclusive, of course, but the moral aspect of Austen's work is unmistakable, whereas the social crusader aspect is a highly inferential creation of Kelly's mind.
Virtually every Austen novel conveys an unspoken but deeply embedded message that propriety, rectitude and proper moral behavior receives its reward. The silent suffering of Sense and Sensibility’s Elinor Dashwood in her initially unrequited relationship with Edward Ferrars proves to be morally proper, while her wild-child sister is brought almost to death’s door by pursuing a dubious relationship that Elinor believes improper. Diffident Fanny Price, the good-to-a-fault heroine of Mansfield Park, eventually gains her reward despite the efforts of almost every character in Mansfield Park. Even Emma is forced to learn from mistakes -- brought on by her self-absorbed attitude -- that behaving properly to those around her carries the reward of a fulfilled life.
Austen is remembered today for her exquisite social satire and, I suspect, for the moral basis of her heroines’ conduct , as well as for the romantic, indeed Cinderella aspect of her plots. Some, at least, of Kelly’s speculations may accurately capture supporting threads imbedded in Austen works. However, there are other explanations. The social ills that appear in Austen’s work, and that form the basis for Kelly’s interpretation, were inextricably a part of how Regency England worked. To leave them out of her tales would have left an obvious and unrealistic gap. The reality of Austen’s intent is forever unknowable. However, we may safely infer that by showing sympathetic characters disadvantaged by the political and social system of the day, Austen may well have contributed to recognition on the part of the then powers-that-be of the need to make reformative, albeit not radical, changes.
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