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  • Reflections
  • Andrew D. Lambert

The responses to my paper have helped to amplify some of the core issues. John Beeler points out the impact of new approaches on naval history and the importance of keeping up to date with the wider profession. He is right: the present is the most successful era in the brief life of naval history as a significant subset of historical scholarship in terms of people, posts, and above all the quality of work. He provides an impressive list of current practitioners to make his case, only to reveal that rocks and shoals lie ahead. The lack of peer recognition by the AHA is no more than the norm, and yet it is absolutely crippling. If we do not exist, and the AHA clearly states that we do not, and we have no endowed chairs to make our case, then this "golden age" could be no more durable than a champagne bubble. If we can resolve the structural problem, much of the career anxiety and status envy that drives the prophets of doom in Beeler's critique would disappear overnight. Peer recognition would also enhance the position from which naval historians deal with the torrent of ill-digested naval stuff that masquerades as history, in all media forms.

Despite, or perhaps because of his career in service education, John Hattendorf switches the focus from the "military" history section where Beeler chooses to reside, to the "maritime," emphasizing how his academic interests are distinct from the context in which he works. The vital link between naval and maritime history informed my last book, The Gates of Hell: Sir John Franklin's Tragic Quest for the Northwest Passage (Yale University Press, 2009), which focuses on navigational science and Arctic research. As Hattendorf stresses, all historians of the sea must address the unique issues at the heart of seafaring: we cannot be historians of something we cannot comprehend. Nowhere is this more obvious than in Hattendorf 's sterling work to provide structure, focus, and leadership for maritime history in the United States. This work is paying dividends, while close links with Canada emphasize the international nature of the subject. Despite the positive trends, the limited American academic engagement with the sea is still evident from this side of the Atlantic. I have supervised a significant number of American research students working on American and other naval histories here in London.

Barry Strauss reminds us that navies, ships, trade, and sea power have been underrepresented in history since the Greek pioneers; our present concerns are only the latest in a long litany of naval lament. The sea is, after all, an alien element, one that does not naturally determine cultural identity. Most people live and work on the land; they value the possession of land, and describe themselves by location, faith, and ethnicity. Sailors do not conform; they are an exotic, mobile, destabilizing element that can carry dangerous ideas as easily as commerce and soldiers.

Current historical trends reflect the wider culture, much as navies reflect the societies from which they draw their men, money, and materiel. Contemporary culture affects attitudes toward the past. As Alex Roland, W. Jeffrey Bolster, and Alexander Keyssar explain in The Way of the Ship: America's Maritime History Reenvisioned (John Wiley & Sons, 2008), the United States, initially a maritime trading power, had become a land-oriented continental state by the mid-19th century. American sea power theorist Alfred Thayer Mahan was about to address this subject when he died suddenly in late 1914. He recognized a need to explain the move away from the sea. The United Kingdom remains fundamentally different, the significant maritime element in national culture reflects absolute dependence upon the sea. We see the sea in Britain because we are never more than three days away from starvation and a power blackout. We are utterly dependent on imported food and fuel; there are no stockpiles. The American situation is different. And only by understanding such variations can we comprehend the distinctive perspectives on the sea taken then and now by different states. But historians operate in their own age and their own culture. Only a fundamental shift in national consciousness could...


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