This was required reading for a graduate course in the history of American military affairs. The goal of Robert O'Connell's book Sacred Vessels: The Cult Of The Battleship And The Rise of the U.S. Navy, was to examine the over fifty-year "love affair" that the U.S. Navy had for its battleships. O'Connell very ably articulated that after reading Alfred Thayer Mahan's book published in 1890, Influence of Seapower Upon History, naval and political leaders in the U.S. and in several other countries such as Britain, Germany, and Japan, quickly adopted the battleship as their weapon of choice to defend their shores, and as the ultimate weapon to project their military power abroad. Mahan's thesis was that great nations possessed mighty navies that protected their sea-lanes for commerce and also had the offensive capability of destroying the enemies' navy, which in turn allowed them to blockade and starve their enemy into submission. Thus, O'Connell's thesis was that Mahan's philosophy of naval warfare lent itself to the adoption and "myopic adoration" by American politicians; especially naval leaders of the battleship as its set piece weapon for over fifty years. In addition, most naval leaders stubbornly ignored the strategic and tactical technological advancements of such weapons as submarines and carrier-based airplanes, in deference to keeping the battleship on top of the navy's weapon pyramid. "To those men the battleship was the single most important artifact of their professional existence: It symbolized everything that was acceptable and orderly about naval life" (3).
The strengths of O'Connell's book was in his examination of the U.S. Navy's traditions and how they caused its officer corps to hold onto their obstinate adoration of the battleship, which caused a culture of malevolent neglect towards any other technological advances in naval warfare that threatened to remove the battleship from atop the navy pyramid. In particular, with regards to the training, assigning, and promotion system of its officer corps, the battleship became the logical ship to which all officers aspired to be assigned to and take command of someday. In addition, O'Connell pointed out that until 1899, the promotion system was based on seniority and not meritocracy like other major navies. "In 1906 the youngest captain in the U.S. Navy was fifty-five years old, or twenty years the senior of his youngest European counterpart. Promotion to rear admiral before the age of sixty was considered unusual" (23-24). Except for a few daring officers like Admiral William S. Sims, who was open to and promoted technological advancements in naval war fighting, O'Connell's book adeptly proved that the navy's antiquated culture was extremely slow to change. Even the empirical evidence provided by Germany's successful submarine warfare during World War I, as well as General Billy Mitchell's successful aerial bombing and sinking of the captured German battleship Ostfriesland in 1921, could not change the navy's adoration for the battleship. Thus, the battleship as the "behemoth of the oceans" with its perceived geo-political projection of power caused it to continue to be the premier naval weapon until December 7, 1941, when the Japanese sank five and damaged two of them in their aerial attack on Pearl Harbor. O'Connell's examination of the questionable effectiveness of the battleship as a weapon through the lens of a military intelligence analyst was most enlightening making his book a must read for historians and political scientists.
Recommended reading for anyone interested in military history, and American history.