Battleships: a ridiculous but awesome idea
The Battleship is one of the most glorious, evocative and ultimately useless machines ever created by human beings.
They’re fast: in their heyday of displacement speed vessels, they were the fastest things on the high seas. They’re huge; they’re made of foot thick steel armour, they have brobdingnagian cannons on them. Some of the Washington treaty battleships had such powerful guns, they could have capsized if they lit them all off at once.
Dreadnaughts were the tumescent penii of navies from 1900 until 1942 or so, just as aircraft carriers and nuclear ballistic missile submarines are now. Navies were then measured by how many Capital ships they had. The idea was, if you had two and your enemy only had one, you could go blast the enemy’s one ship and be the ruler of the seas. Ruler! Of the seas! No small ships could possibly sink your battleship (at least, according to the doctrine of the day), so if you had some battleships, and the enemy didn’t; you were in charge of Neptune’s realm.
Guns that squirted out bullets as heavy as a Volkswagon; 14″, 16″, 18.1″ in diameter! Armor a foot and a half thick! Giant coal and oil burning steam engines creating 150,000 horsepower and belching out enormous clouds of smoke! 60,000 ton craft at 30 knot speeds! Sweet baby Jesus, that’s damn cool. However, it was never real practical, except for the occasional shore bombardment, and for comparing proverbial dong size with the navies of other nations.
The idea of battleships duking it out in the high seas is pretty ridiculous when you stop to think about it. It never really happened unless you count the Battle of Jutland. And the Battle of Jutland was really an exercise in how moronic modern navies are. There was no real reason for those battleships to fight a duel the way they did except that both sides had a bunch of battleships. If the nations of the world had the equivalent cost invested in submarines or destroyers, maybe the same thing would have happened. Maybe the subs and destroyers would have done better. Maybe they could have made little cardboard rowboats with piles of money in them, and thrown petrol bombs at each other, for a more or less equivalent outcome. Both sides claimed victory in this battle, but the upshot was that nobody wanted to risk their big expensive battleships in such an engagement again, because both sides lost a bunch of outrageously expensive ships. It was the same kind of stupidity displayed by land forces during that particular war: line up, one against the other, and pound the other side to jelly. While I am a bloodthirsty red-necked American who loves war and giant guns and battleships, even I think this battle was just plain silly.
“Aftermath of Jutland”
The Great War is my favorite to study, both because I like dumb stuff, and it was the dumbest war ever, and because it was the dawn of the modern world. Everything about modern life can trace its origins to the era of 1914-1919; all the bad, all the good, all the stupid and what little cleverness there is all comes from that time. Other than the invention of antibiotics, we really haven’t appreciably advanced beyond that era: something we can’t see now because we have iphones and the internet, but something future historians will consider as obvious as the fact that the Dark Ages started with the sack of Rome. Just as Western Civilization staggered and faded after the fall of Rome, Western Civilization has never really recovered from the shock of the Great War. Cultures which endured and developed over a thousand years were wiped out, never to return again. Western culture, abstract thought and artistic development: nothing important has developed since 1919; we’re still reeling from the shock. If you want to understand the present: contemporary history started in 1914. The battleship isn’t a bad place to nose around and figure out where we are and how we got there.
The way I see it, the battleship is sort of the ultimate embodiment of the Western military mind. Historically speaking, at least if you believe in the theories of Victor Davis Hanson, Western Civilization defeated other cultures using phalanx tactics as developed by the ancient Greeks; armor plus distance weapons. You knit your shields together and make an impenetrable shell, and poke your spears at the enemy through the shell. The battleship was the biggest armor with the longest distance guns. Almost every large scale war fought by Western cultures (with the notable exception of the wars of Belisarius) followed this pattern. Napoleonic warfare was just this, with guns instead of spears. The American civil war was guns and forts, but the same idea. March at the enemy in formation and shoot at him until he is dead! This was a winning tactic against every civilization the West went up against, except the Mongols and other mounted archers, who consistently slaughtered Western armies, a fact which Hanson conveniently forgets about in all his books.
The Great War proved the ultimate limitations of the phalanx idea for all times, since the Hun and Mongol invasions were apparently not enough. In fact, innovations of WW-1 changed the face of Western warfare forever. From the antics of T.E. Lawrence in the middle east, to the innovations of the Stoßtruppen on the Western front, to the adventures of the Arditi of Gabrielle D’Annunzio on the Austrian front: manoeuvre warfare was proven superior to phalanx tactics. This was really only demonstrated on a wide, irrefutable scale in WW-2 by the German General Staff and Patton (even then, the idea was not well accepted). It was then we discovered what the Mongols always knew: manoeuvre warfare works better. If the enemy comes marching at you in his phalanx, you are better off going around him and slaughtering him from the rear than hitting him head on. The Mongolians knew it; that’s why they were unstoppable warriors. The Mongols never had the societal organization the West did, so they could never take advantage of their successes, and their various empires only served to make the Russians and Chinese paranoid, and Eastern European women more exotic looking.
“The F-16 of the 11th century”
Manoeuvre warfare is now American combat doctrine; mostly reified by a lone genius former fighter pilot named John Boyd. Many aspects of the western way of phalanx war survive; we still have our proverbial battleships; useless as they may be. We just don’t recognize them as such. For example; armored missile silos, as opposed to missiles on rail cars. For missile silos, just target the enemy’s silos with lots of missiles and you can duke it out and win (just like the phalanx). If he puts his missiles on rail cars, you haven’t got a chance of hitting them all. So it was, metaphorically, with the actual battlewagon; when it was at the peak of its capabilities, it was overcome by the manoeuvre warfare tactics of the aircraft carrier (which is itself probably made obsolete in real modern warfare by the cruise missile, the internet and the satellite). The torpedo boat probably would have done the same thing against the battleship had it been used properly. In fact, when it was, it did pretty well.
“The lovely and awe-inspiring battleship Musashi; most fearsome battleship ever built, before and after it discovered manoeuvre warfare and the torpedo”
So, take a few minutes to contemplate the mighty battlewagons of the past. They were neptunian iron shod warriors of the deeps! They were giant mechanical knights, animated by a thousand men! Great robotic juggernauts who cruised the seven seas for … well, I don’t know what they did it for; some kind of supremacy of the high seas thing, but it was pretty cool that they did.