The Occasional Joke

Nurse: Patient's name?

Centurion: Marcus Licinius Crassus

Nurse: And his date of birth?

Centurion: 115 BC.

Nurse: All right. And what is he here for?

Centurion: Cataphract surgery.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

A strange but satisfying book

So I've finished (mostly - still on the appendices) The Last Century of Sea Power, by H.P. Wilmott. This is a vast (507 pages), new (2009) work by a British (oh, so very British) author, published, strangely enough, by Indiana University Press. It's hugely analytical, packed with tables of things like cargo volumes, sinkings, orders of battle in wars you've never heard of -- and it's only Volume I. It's a little light on the editing -- quite a few mis-usages that can't be explained by sheer Britishness, for example. But nonetheless, exactly the kind of book I like to find.

Why? Because a) it's full of just that you-be-damned, I've got tenure, British academic attitude that, occasionally, engenders good historical analysis, b) it's really analytical (that is, the author makes a logical case for his assertions instead of just stating his opinions), and c) Wilmott is clearly out of his tiny mind, but in a good way. In the narrative, he'll set up a classically-structured paragraph, make his argument, and then -- once a chapter, at least -- leave you open-mouthed at the end. Consider this example, in which he addresses the received idea of German military excellence (with which, in case you can't tell, he is not impressed:)

"... the very fact that for so long the student was fed on a diet of German proficiency, indeed excellence, invites obvious comment. To slightly amend Oscar Wilde's famous witticism: to lose one world war may be regarded as unfortunate but to lose two smacks of carelessness. Indeed, one's own argument is that the Germans, in two world wars, may have displayed tactical quality but the evidence would seem to suggest that in both conflicts Germany was possessed of leadership that never understood the difference between war and a war, between a war and a campaign, and a campaign and a battle. Of course, it is incumbent upon all not to explain the distinction to Germans lest the bastards really do become dangerous."

With apologies to any German readers who may take offence, I laughed at that for a day or so. And anyway, any historian who thinks Jackie Fisher was not a good influence is ok in my book. (Wilmott doesn't think much of Churchill, either: "... the self-advertising charlatan ..." which, again, accords with my views.) Alas, his works don't seem to deal very much with events outside the last century; after reading this volume, I'd welcome a book by him on the US Civil War: "... that probably traitorous, certainly incompetent nineteenth century equivalent of Fabius, George McClellan ..."

Oh, well. Wonder what he'll have to say about Halsey?