David Stevens and John Reeve (eds.), The Navy and the Nation: The Influence of the Navy on Modern Australia, Allen & Unwin, 2005. 438 pp., illustrations, pictures, endnotes, and index.
Review by Charles Steele
Department of History,
United States Air Force Academy
In putting together The Navy and the Nation David Stevens and John Reeve have assembled something far more valuable than a mere narrative history of the Royal Australian Navy (RAN). In many regards it is an historical argument against taking something of great value for granted. At a time when navies the world over are having their funding cut and their worth questioned, the editors of this volume have cobbled together a significant statement of the enduring value of the RAN to the nation it serves. The book, a collection of essays drawn from the biennial King-Hall Naval History Conference, provides a plethora of examples detailing the immense contributions of the RAN to Australia .
While there is no escaping the fact that this is a compilation of conference papers, and not a coherent narrative, it should not be dismissed as the intellectual equivalent of being made to eat leftovers. This is history written, compiled, and edited with a purpose. As a collection of arguments begging the consideration of a host of events, personalities, and contributions made either in connection with or on behalf of the RAN, The Navy and the Nation provides forceful testimony to the importance of this navy to its island nation. Rather than a single author advancing a thesis, Stevens and Reeve provide the theses of several writers that serve the greater purpose of demonstrating how the RAN has benefited Australia .
Divided into four parts, the book has a sensible organization that carries readers from “concepts and contexts,” a Mahanian macro-view of Australia ’s place in an evolving naval epic, through sections entitled “the Navy and the nation,” “ships, industry and technology for Australia ,” and “naval people and the nation.” Among the 19 essays contained in these sections are those touching upon everything from hydrographic surveys, the RAN’s place in furthering the foreign policy aims of Australia ’s political leaders, the most famous ships to have served the nation, the historic importance of ship building in Australia , and the value of naval experience in the Australian populace. The most compelling of these essays extol the traditional strengths of navies while managing to place those strengths in particularly Australian contexts.
The editors draw on a wide range of talents and the essays are representative of a vast expanse of knowledge. In some regards this compilation’s greatest strength, a wonderfully diverse testament to the value of navies, the RAN specifically, is also its greatest weakness. Lacking the coherence of a single storyline, this collection might seem to some readers as being a bit too all encompassing. However well the editors may have chosen individual essays to suit their purpose, the fact remains that this is a compilation that lacks natural transitions and it requires close attention if large sections are to be digested at a single reading. For instance, Neil Westphalen’s interesting account of the naval and medical services nexus is, in a strict sense, the only essay of its kind in the book. Similarly, Geoff Cannon’s contribution “Technology transfer, knowledge partnerships and the advance of Australian naval combat systems,” is more contemporary and in some regards more specialized than most of the other offerings. That quibble aside, the book’s essays make several cogent arguments that do great credit to the editors and the RAN.
As unorthodox as this book might appear at first glance, it should be noted that it does contain impressive examples of what might best be called traditional naval history. The contributions of Geoffrey Till and David Stevens are perhaps the best offerings of this genre to be found in this collection. Till does an admirable job of setting a strategic backdrop upon which other developments/essays can best be viewed and Stevens offers a compelling, if not touching account of one of the most famous ships in the nation’s history. In many ways Stevens’ account of the life and death of HMAS Australia is reflective of the book’s aim to place the navy at the fore of the nation’s quest for identity. In general, it would be difficult not to be impressed with all that the RAN has contributed to Australia ’s rise as a nation, based upon the contents of this book. Whether one is interested in the history of navies in general, or of Australia’s navy alone, The Navy and the Nation contains a wealth of useful scholarship and is worthy of a place in the library of any student of naval history.