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The Battle for the Seas in World War II, and How It Changed History

Granting that maritime jargon can be esoteric, a few basic commandments have governed the English language for at least 500 years. One is: “Thou shalt not confuse ships with boats.” Ships carry boats, but not vice versa, and any surface vessel large enough to carry its own boats is a ship. When a layperson confuses the terms, it may seem like terminological pettifogging to correct the error — but in a work of naval history, the standard is different. To call a heavy warship a “boat,” as is often done in these pages, is a cardinal error. Entire classes of giant battleships and aircraft carriers are introduced, for example, as “Iowa-class boats,” “Yorktown-class boats,” “Illustrious-class boats” and “Bismarck-class boats.”

In a quick look at Kennedy’s earlier works, no references to boats for ships are found. In “Victory at Sea,” the instances fall into a 70-page section of the book, in Chapters 8 and 9. The question arises: After decades of having used the terms correctly, did Kennedy write the mistaken phrases in this book? Or did he lose control of the editing process? In his acknowledgments, he names eight research assistants, seven at Yale and one at King’s College London. He claims sole responsibility for the final product, “warts and all,” and in a strict sense, he is right to. But with enough research assistants to organize a basketball team, one wonders whether better coaching was needed. At the very least, some part of the collective effort could have been diverted to identifying and correcting errors, for example, by searching Wikipedia.

In a mark of his confidence as a scholar, Kennedy does not gloss over his reliance on that online encyclopedia. He quotes from Wikipedia liberally in the main text, cites it more often than any other single source and regrets that he cannot acknowledge so many “fine though anonymous” authors by name. And indeed, Wikipedia does not deserve much of the disparagement often aimed against it. As a “first look” reference, it is a handy tool; this reviewer even consulted it while writing this review. Wikipedia’s articles on military history have improved in recent years, and many contain information not easily found elsewhere on the web. But, by Wikipedia’s own account, studies measuring its accuracy and reliability have been mixed, and its crowdsourced model means that any page can be edited by anyone, at any time, anonymously. For that reason, Wikipedia “does not consider itself to be a reliable source and discourages readers from using it in academic or research settings.” Many university professors would mark down a student paper that included uncorroborated Wikipedia citations. For a major university press to include more than 80 in one volume may be unprecedented. What on earth is going on in New Haven?

Kennedy’s professional legacy rests upon 50 years of distinguished scholarship. He is a legitimately great historian. No one book, much less a single faultfinding review, could dull a reputation that glitters so brightly. As the preface tells us, “Victory at Sea” was first conceived as an art book. After Ian Marshall’s death, the project grew by degrees into something much bigger and more ambitious. If Kennedy’s motive in reimagining the book was to pay posthumous tribute to a dear friend, it lends a noble character to the enterprise, in which case the reviewer is a rascal who deserves to feel ashamed of the criticism offered here.

But what is true of maritime affairs is equally true in the profession of history: If you book the passage, you have to pay the freight. Scholarship progresses inexorably. Let a decade go by, and the price of updating one’s expertise might be 20,000 pages of new reading. Researching and writing history is like a spinach-eating competition in which the only possible prize is another helping of fresh, steaming vegetables. In a valedictory passage in his acknowledgments, Kennedy seems to concede that some spinach was left uneaten: “If I have failed to acknowledge another scholar’s work, I apologize; it has been a joy to give credit (in the endnotes) to so much earlier writing and research.” The sentiment is generous but perplexing. To apologize seems a bit much — better, perhaps, to call it a sense of regret? A consciousness of shortcoming? But if the point is to concede that “Victory at Sea” is based mainly on outdated scholarship, wouldn’t the apology be owed to the reader, rather than the neglected scholars?

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