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markk

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John Hatcher
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Slips into the melodramatic

Neptune's Inferno: The U.S. Navy at Guadalcanal - James D. Hornfischer

I read this as part of the naval history kick that I've been on lately. For the most part I've been reading histories of the design and construction of warships, which has provided some interesting insights into geopolitics and the deterministic factors in the wars of the 20th century. With my reading narrowing to cruisers lately, I became more interested in reading about some of the campaigns in which they fought, which led me to this book.

 

What made this particular campaign so interesting was that it was simultaneously both a reversion to earlier forms of naval combat and a new type of warfare. The early battles of the war in the Pacific had already demonstrated the decisive role that air power was coming to play in naval battles. Yet air power still suffered from a number of limitations, most notably that the planes could only operate in daytime. This had the effect of shifting naval combat to night, when ships could operate free from fear of air attack. This pattern first emerged in the naval battles around the Solomons in the fall of 1942 where the heavy attrition in aircraft carriers suffered by both sides gave surface combatants greater reign. These battles were desperate and often confused affairs, with both sides literally operating in the dark when it came to their enemy's dispositions and position. Yet while the United States suffered proportionally heavier losses, their success in holding off Japanese bombardment and resupply efforts on Guadalcanal facilitated the eventual American victory there, beginning the long, bloody rollback of the Japanese empire.

 

James Hornfischer describes all of this in a book that carefully reconstructs these naval actions and sets them in the context of larger operations. It's described with a high level drama that often reflects the tension and excitement many of these men felt as they found themselves thrust into a war to which they were still adjusting. Yet Hornfischer's writing often crosses the line from dramatic to melodramatic, as he strains to achieve eloquence through bombastic prose that can be overwrought. In this respect,  in attempting to achieve Homeric heights he comes across as hackneyed and overwrought. Nor does it help that Hornfischer's coverage is heavily weighted towards the American side, which is perhaps understandable given the weight of his sources but nonetheless imbalances his analysis. As a result, while an entertaining and often informative account of the battles, it falls short of being the epic, definitive account that the author so clearly aspires to write.