14 Oct 19
Posted by: Kevin Rowlands

Naval histories are replete with stories of major fleet actions.  It has long been true that these oceanic, blue-water encounters are the ones which shaped the perceptions of naval warfare amongst the general public and practitioners alike. It is almost as if the high-water mark of war at sea is the fleet-on-fleet battle and that nothing else matters much.  Those perceptions are wrong, however, and US naval officer and historian Benjamin Armstrong has played his part in setting the record straight.

On one level, Small Boats and Daring Men is a page-turning tale of unruly colonials trying to form a navy and finding that small, local actions are just as important as big fleets pounding each other to pieces. We read about John Paul Jones and his exploits in the Revolutionary War, about the fight against Barbary pirates, raiding missions on the Great Lakes, and America’s first forays into the Far East, with romantic expeditions to Sumatra and other places. Some of the stories will be familiar to navalists, but others will undoubtedly be new to most armchair or cabin bunk readers.  Everyone will learn something.

However, the real value in this book is more serious.  It may read like a popular history (and full credit to the author for being able to do that) but it is actually the published version of Armstrong’s doctoral thesis which he completed at King’s College London under the supervision of Andrew Lambert. Armstrong cleverly uses his series of derring-do case studies to argue that guerre de razzia, or war by raiding, was fundamental to the early history of the American navy, and that it has too often been overlooked by historians intent on focusing on guerre de course (war on commerce) and guerre d’escadre (war via fleet and warship battles).  In fact, he puts forward a convincing argument that non-traditional or irregular warfare of this kind is actually the most traditional, regular form of maritime action there is.

Revolutionary America did not have the naval means to stand and fight against the might of the Royal Navy, and it was men like John Paul Jones, many of them sailors on the rivers, bays and waterways of the Atlantic coast who stung the British like hornets.  Armstrong even goes so far as to say that it was President Theodore Roosevelt who appropriated the legacy of John Paul Jones over a hundred years after his death, cementing his sobriquet as the Father of the American Navy by honouring his blue water battles, rather than giving due credence to his equally valuable and more numerous brown water skirmishes.

But two hundred years ago, not all American politicians were enamoured with the idea of even having a navy, and after independence it was an uphill struggle to maintain any US ability to go to sea.  Necessity, however, is the most powerful driver for change and it was the taking of American ships and hostages by North African corsairs which convinced reluctant members of Congress that a navy was not an optional luxury for a nation with ambitions of global trade.  There is much here to learn from and to apply to today’s navies.  Small Boats and Daring Men has already found quite a following amongst practitioners, particularly in the United States, and has even been the subject of the inaugural read for the Marine Corps University Book Club. Not all the answers will be found between its covers, but some may be, and it will certainly get the reader thinking and asking questions of his or her own.

So, what is this book? A great story with swashbuckling heroes and bloodthirsty pirates?  Absolutely. A well-researched study of early American naval development? Certainly. A thought-provoking contribution to professional military education that navalists should engage with?  Of course. It is all of those things and more.

Scholarly, entertaining, recommended.