BOOK REVIEW – Commerce Raiding: Historical Case Studies, 1755-2009

Bruce A. Elleman and S.C.M. Paine, eds., Commerce Raiding: Historical Case Studies, 1755-2009. Newport: Naval War College Press, 2013. Index, bibliography, tables, 356 pp.

Review by Jason W. Smith
Class of 1957 Post-doctoral Fellow in Naval History, US Naval Academy

The recent saga of the Maersk Alabama reminds us of the continued relevance of guerre de course. Commerce raiding and protection have been and continue to be important functions of navies. In Commerce Raiding: Historical Case Studies, 1755-2009, the most recent edition in an excellent series published by the United States Naval War College, editors Bruce A. Elleman and S.C.M. Paine have compiled sixteen studies that range widely in chronology and geography. The result is a valuable international perspective, both in content and authorship, to this important aspect of naval war and strategic study.

Comparative histories like this are challenging to execute well, but editors Elleman and Paine have done fine work in identifying contributors and synthesizing their findings. The authors are a multinational and multidisciplinary group whose experience ranges from policy analysis to academia and the military. Each offers an insightful contribution here. Thomas M. Truxes writes on the Seven Years’ War, Christopher P. Magra on the American Revolution, Silvia Marzagalli on the Napoleonic Wars, Kevin D. McCranie on the War of 1812, Spencer C. Tucker on the American Civil War, David H. Olivier on France and German naval thought in the late nineteenth century, Paine on the First Sino-Japanese War, Elleman on the Russo-Japanese War, Paul G. Halpern on German submarine warfare in World War One and Kenneth J. Hagan and Michael T. McMaster on the Anglo-American response, Willard C. Frank, Jr. on the Spanish Civil War, Werner Rahn on Germany’s submarine campaign in World War Two, Ken-ichi Arakawa on Japanese merchant shipping and Joel Holwitt on American submarine warfare in the Pacific, George K. Walker on the Persian Gulf tanker war, and Martin N. Murphy on Somali piracy.

The authors contribute concise essays, focusing, according to the editors’ guidelines, on the international context, the belligerents, the distribution of costs and benefits, the logistical requirements, enemy countermeasures, and the operational and strategic effectiveness of these campaigns. The greatest strength of the book is in the less-studied cases such as the Sino-Japanese and Russo-Japanese Wars, the Spanish Civil War, and the tanker war. Set within the comparative framework of more well-known instances of commerce raiding such as the German U-boat campaigns of the world wars, these case studies break new ground and fill historiographical gaps. Magra’s essay, in particular, challenges historians to reconsider their interpretations of the American Revolution. He argues that the Continental Navy initially adopted a multi-faceted strategy that consisted of intelligence gathering and prisoner taking as well as commerce raiding. That said, I question Magra’s contention of “the widely held belief” among historians that “Americans relied only on privateering throughout the entire Revolutionary War” (36). Magra should be praised for pointing to the complexity of American naval strategy at the outset of the conflict, but I wonder whether he is also making too much of the argument.

In an introduction and conclusion that nicely flesh out the larger significance of these studies as a whole, Elleman and Paine identify three factors that influence “how and why” commerce raiding strategies have been adopted and conducted (2). First, they point to the well-known maxim that commerce raiding is usually, though not universally, the strategy of the inferior force. The usefulness of this study is in showing that commerce raiding and protection have been both primary and important secondary strategies in many maritime conflicts. In considering naval strategic thought, it is useful not to think in binary terms of guerre de course or guerre d’escadre, but of a varying and subtle mix of the two—a point that Magra’s essay, among others, illuminates. The second factor is the length of the campaign. The more protracted the war, Elleman and Paine suggest, the less effective commerce raiding becomes. The third factor is the use of technology. Innovations such as steam power, the airplane and submarine, and GPS have significantly influenced the conduct and effectiveness of commerce war. The editors tie these various strands together in a conclusion containing a number of useful comparative figures.

Ultimately, Elleman and Paine argue, commerce raiding offers an “efficient way to impose disproportionate costs on the enemy.” It can be decisive “in protracted war,” they contend, but only in combination with other military operations. Finally, even in instances outside war, such as piracy or the Persian Gulf tanker war of the 1980s, “attacks on commerce can threaten the orderly growth of global commerce” (8). Implicit in these arguments is that guerre de course, as a strategy in and of itself, has not historically brought about decisive victory in war.

A study of this scope and structure will, by nature, leave some issues unaddressed. More emphasis, for example, might have been placed on the cultural dimensions of guerre de course. The editors hint at the “popular—albeit often misguided—image . . . of the dashing privateer” and state that guerre de course campaigns “have been conducted with relatively little public awareness” (1,3). Yet public condemnation of German unrestricted submarine warfare during the Great War or the human, but terrifying image of Somali pirates in the 2013 film Captain Phillips suggest that commerce raiding, in fact, influences public imagination with important consequences for strategy and policy-making.

The book also raises, but does not fully address, the fundamental question of how to define commerce raiding. Is commerce raiding by navies similar to commerce raiding by privateers or pirates? How is it different? Is it worthwhile to consider them together or on their own terms? Martin N. Murphy speaks to this point in his essay, arguing that Somali piracy should be more appropriately considered through the lens of state-sponsored privateering. Ultimately, the book is weighted heavily in favor of naval guerre de course—perhaps appropriately enough—at the expense of privateering and piracy. The reader is left wondering how to make sense of these various strands of commerce warfare.

These quibbles largely derive from the nature of the subject and the inherent structure of an edited compilation, and they should in no way take away from a valuable study that is ambitious in scope. The editors and authors should be commended for a book that is broadly international in context and authoritative in its contributions, placing well-known cases among lesser known studies. This is comparative history executed at a high level. The insights derived from it transcend the extant scholarship on the subject and will prove valuable to historians in the military, the government, and the academy alike.

(Return to the January 2015 Issue Table of Contents)

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