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Reviewed by:
  • Transportation and Revolt: Pigeons, Mules, Canals, and the Vanishing Geographies of Subversive Mobility by Jacob Shell
  • Richard R. Young, Ph.D., FCILT, EM-ASTL
Jacob Shell. Transportation and Revolt: Pigeons, Mules, Canals, and the Vanishing Geographies of Subversive Mobility. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015. 208 pp, ISBN 978-0-262-02933-9

As transportation practitioners and academics, the readers of Transportation Journal think of transportation in terms of improved transportation. Innovation and invention have consistently been employed to make transportation more capable, faster, and less expensive. Our modern world depends on it to function flawlessly in providing those goods and services necessary for everyday life. Improved transportation is usually invisible to users until it ceases to function to their expectations or, even worse, if it ceases to function at all.

Improved transportation is dependent upon technology, which in turn is dependent upon energy and human capital to both engineer the advancements and maintain operations. In a military context, modern warfare requires substantial improved transportation capacity to project power to all corners of the globe. High-tech weapons systems require airlift and sealift capabilities not only to initially reach the battlefield but also to provide spare parts and troop sustaining materiel. Warfare is largely about building a military supply chain that is agile and capable while seeking to deprive the enemy of the ability to do the same, which is the reason that USMC Commandant General Robert Barrow is famously credited with the quote: “Amateurs talk about tactics, but professionals study logistics.”

The question becomes one of how a small irregular fighting force can succeed when it has no improved transportation resources. One underlying premise that Jacob Shell posits is that fighting forces have historically done so not by using improved transportation but by resorting to what many [End Page 237] might consider archaic means that also are highly resilient. Revolts start out as shoestring types of operations that need to draw on transportation resources that are first and foremost ubiquitous. Second, they need to be versatile when it comes to carrying capacity and their ability to move through difficult terrain. Finally, there is the assumption that they can be effectively used by unskilled operators.

Shell divides this book into four distinct subtopics that appear disconnected. Starting with observing that the US Army deactivated its mule teams in the early 1950s in favor of mechanized transport, he notes that years later revolutionaries effectively were still using animals—Che Guevara with mules in Cuba and later in Southeast Asia the use of elephants. Moreover, some forms of communication depend on transportation, such as written correspondence flown by carrier pigeons, a key practice used well into the twentieth century. In summary, the first half of the book is a compelling read made all the more so because it is heavily laced with historical examples.

The second half of Transportation and Revolt discusses why some improved transportation assets were never developed because of disinvestment. Here Shell goes into considerable detail explaining why New York never had a subway system for moving freight about the city, a development that would have likely retarded the exodus of manufacturing, but still would likely not have been enough to counter high labor costs and the inefficiencies of handling goods in an urban setting. This well-detailed discussion of missed opportunities demonstrates how improved transportation technologies had not been adopted.

To this reviewer, Shell’s Transportation and Revolt needs to be thought of as two distinct volumes. One would be for examining the history of basic and perhaps archaic transportation modes that have been utilized for centuries by both revolutionaries and explorers in situations in which improved transportation would not have been practical either for economic or capability reasons—clearly improved transportation can be a disruptive influence. The second volume would address the missed opportunities when leveraging improved transportation could have changed the outcome of history, not the least of which would be regional economic development and commercial growth. Shell might be accused of having 20/20 hindsight, but he might also be a case in which he only undertook univariate analysis, thereby ignoring other developments. [End Page 238]

The question remains as to where to find...


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