Following Christmas lunch and food coma I had a little time for reading in the study before dinner and was able to finish this book. It's a 2006 case study by a professor at the Naval War College analyzing the decisionmaking during the five carrier battles of World War II. It's not a traditional historical narrative, nor is it a disinterested one – it has a purpose, which I'll get to in a moment.
The book takes as its starting point Admiral Nimitz' statement at the end of the Pacific War that the war had presented nothing new – all the problems and issues had been war gamed out at the Naval War College during the interwar period, where students (in this context meaning senior naval officers) were brought in for months of training in how the next war should be fought using as a key text something called Sound Military Decisions, which provided a framework for how decisions should be made in battle.
Smith goes through each of the battles and evaluates the commanders' performance using the eight factors familiar to NWC students, pointing out how their actions correctly reflected what they had been taught – and notes that in many instances, the commanders later related their activities in terms of that text – specifically using the phrase "estimate of the situation." He notes that the U.S. did not lose any of the battles from at least the strategic perspective, despite being outgunned in four of the five – which made me curious what a similar book would reveal about surface battles, where the U.S. Navy's record was decidedly more mixed in 1942.
As I said, the book isn't a disinterested analysis. Smith relates that back in the 1920's, some naval leaders bemoaned the fact that the Chief of Naval Operations, the commander in chief of the fleet (the counterpart to today's field commanders actually tasking with fighting naval actions in specific theaters of operations), and the superintendent of the Naval Academy were not NWC graduates. At the end of the book he relates that the same in true today, and argues that the naval service suffers from NWC study not being a de facto requirement for senior positions. He may be right, but of course as faculty at the NWC it's not surprising he would think that. And the argument that specific training is necessary for a commander to effectively respond in battle is not a new one – naval aviators made a similar argument for aviation training as a prerequisite for major combat commands during the war. The debate over what training is best for the next generation of leaders is never ending, nor should it be otherwise.
But a good recent overview of the battles with explicit analysis and grading of the various naval commanders' performance by an experienced academic using specific, consistent criteria is something I really enjoyed.