Tuesday, July 28, 2020

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Sunday, July 12, 2020

(Anti) Red Harvest

Several years ago, respected novelist Val McDermid, one of the titans of the so-called “Tartan Noir” sub-genre of British crime fiction, wrote about how crime fiction is “left-wing” while thrillers are “right-wing” [1]. McDermid’s summation rested on the rather lazy conclusion that, “the crime novel, the roman noir, the krimi lean to the left” because they are “critical of the status quo” and often give “a voice to characters who are not comfortably established in the world—immigrants, sex workers, the poor, the old.” Thrillers, on the other hand, are innately conservative as their plots tend to be of the “world turned upside down” variety, therefore requiring the heroic protagonist to set things right [2]. This view of course rests on the assumption that the status quo is always right-wing. Recent events in the US and Europe have shown quite the opposite insofar as multi-national corporations, the media, academia, and municipal governments are concerned.

While McDermid was criticized by others (most notably Jonathan Freedland, who also wrote in The Guardian about how thrillers can also be left-wing [3]), one can understand why she reached her conclusion. There is an undeniable current of left-wing politics that runs through a large percentage of crime fiction. Scandinavia, which has ruled the crime novel world for two decades now, is awash in “left-wing angst” [4]. Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, the team that more or less created the genre of Scandinavian crime fiction in the 1960s, wrote politically aware police procedurals featuring police officer Martin Beck. Novels such as 1968’s The Laughing Policeman and 1975’s The Terrorists are rife with discussions about police brutality, urban terrorism, the benefits of Swedish social democracy, and the horrors of apartheid in South Africa. Other Scandinavian writers, from the Swede Henning Mankell to Dane Jussi Adler-Olsen, have used their popular novels to showcase the dark side of nationalist politics, religion, and the nuclear Nordic family. The man who truly brought the Scandinavian aesthetic to the masses, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo author Stieg Larsson, spent the majority of his life as a left-wing journalist dedicated to exposing the Swedish far-right [5].

Left-wing politics were present in crime fiction long before the Vikings took over, too. Dashiell Hammett, the writer who created the all-American hard-boiled genre, was a member of the Communist Party USA who spent five months in prison for contempt of court [6]. Hammett’s progeny, like James M. Cain, Kenneth Fearing, and William Lindsay Graham, were similarly men of the political left who saw in crime fiction the truest expression of proletarian literature.

Unrecognized by many scholars and fans alike, the left-wing tradition of crime writing has always co-existed with a right-wing one. Arguably the most successful American crime writer in history, Mickey Spillane, was a thoroughgoing conservative and anti-Communist. Spillane’s ultraviolent private detective Mike Hammer became a cultural icon during the Eisenhower years, not least because Spillane’s novels dealt explicitly with sex. Before Spillane, hardboiled detectives usually conformed to strict personal codes that almost always barred either the killing or bedding of clients and/or suspects. Hammer breaks those laws as a bloody, rage-fueled instrument as blunt as his surname. Before Inspector “Dirty” Harry Callahan hit the mean streets of San Francisco with a .44 Magnum Smith & Wesson Model 29, Spillane’s Hammer took it to the crooks with a Colt .45 and a belief in the superiority of justice over law, the latter of which is too prone to corruption and manipulation by pink-o liberals.

Spillane’s politics are most clearly on display in One Lonely Night, the fourth Hammer novel published in 1951. In One Lonely Night, Hammer’s adversaries are card-carrying Communists, including one soapbox preacher who tells his annoyed audience that a “[o]ne armed Communist was worth twenty capitalists without guns” [7]. Hammer casts this off as nothing more than a variation of the Popular Front’s rhetoric, which saw Communists join coalitions with non-Communist parties across the world in order to check the rise of the far-right, most notably in Germany and Italy. One Lonely Night even incorporates the real Foley Square trials, which saw the US federal government prosecute the leadership of the Communist Party USA for violations of the Smith Act, as part of the story. Oddly enough, one of those caught up in the legal proceedings was none other than Dashiell Hammett.

Spillane’s tough populist fiction, including his James Bond-esque Tiger Mann novels, found a huge fan in Ayn Rand, the founder of Objectivism and a major influence on postwar American libertarianism. Rand’s The Romantic Manifesto has nice things to say about Spillane’s protagonists as heroic and Romantic men standing up against the herd, especially egg-headed nihilists. Rand also enjoyed Ian Fleming’s James Bond, a character that may as well be the archetype of McDermid’s right-wing thrillers.

Writing at the same time as Spillane but half a world away, Italian crime novelist Giorgio Scerbanenco became beloved by critics and readers alike for his realistic depictions of Milan. But, like Spillane, Scerbanenco, who watched in horror as the Bolshevik Revolution forever damaged his native Ukraine, was vociferous in his denunciations of Communism. This was no small beer in 1960s Italy, when the US State Department believed that as much as 4-percent of the Italian working class belonged to the Italian Communist Party [8]. Where Spillane and Scerbanenco moved apart was in their reactions to industrial capitalism. Spillane’s Mike Hammer is an arch-individualist—a pure freelancer for hire all alone in the teeming stew of New York City. Scerbanenco’s disgraced doctor turned private eye Duca Lamberti is a social critic who sees crime in Milan as a product of an imbalanced capitalist modernization. Few things better distill the differences of postwar American and European conservatism like Spillane and Scerbanenco’s novels. The action-oriented hyper-individualist versus the contemplative intellectual.

Spillane and Scerbanenco are both gone now. They are not as popular as they used to be. Where are the conservative crime novelists now? One might mention James Ellroy, but his over-the-top “white knight of the far right” shtick has always looked like tongue-planted-in-cheek grandstanding. Others, like Brad Thor and Kurt Schlichter, are more political journalist than artist. In 2020, their might be a litany of right-wing crime writers crying out against McDermid’s simplistic take, but because of the democratic marketplace of eBooks, we may never know their names.

[1]: Val McDermid, “Why crime fiction is leftwing and thrillers are rightwing,” The Guardian, 1 Apr. 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2015/apr/01/why-crime-fiction-is-leftwing-and-thrillers-are-rightwing.
[2]: Ibid.
[3]: Jonathan Freedland, “Thrillers are politically conservative? That’s not right,” The Guardian, 3 Apr. 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2015/apr/03/thrillers-politically-conservative-val-mcdermid-crime-fiction-jonathan-freedland. 
[4]: Robert Murphy, “Nordic Noir: The Story of Scandinavian Crime Fiction,” BBC.com, 20 Dec. 2010, https://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/tv/2010/12/nordic-noir-scandinavian-crime-fiction.shtml.
[5]: Charles McGrath, “The Afterlife of Stieg Larsson,” New York Times, 20 May 2010. https://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/23/magazine/23Larsson-t.html.
[6]: Petri Liukkonen, “Dashiell Hammett profile,” Kuusankoski Public Library, 16 Jul. 2006, https://web.archive.org/web/20060716050714/http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/dhammett.htm.
[7]: Mickey Spillane, The Mike Hammer Collection, Vol. 2 (New York: New American Library, 2001): p. 78.
[8]: Roger W. Benjamin and John H. Kautsky, “Communism and Economic Development,” The American Political Science Review, Vol. 62, No. 1 (March 1968), 110-123. 

Sunday, June 21, 2020

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More coming. 

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Sunday, May 3, 2020

Murder in the Burkean Parlor: The Traditional Conservatism of Agatha Christie

“Good reactionary fun.” That’s how Robert Barnard, an English crime writer, critic, and lecturer, described The Secret Adversary - Christie’s second overall novel and her first dip into espionage fiction. The Secret Adversary, which tells the tale of two “Bright Young Things” of the Jazz Age and their battle against an octopus-like conspiracy from the radical left, is certainly conservative and it does not treat its ideological opponents well. In actuality, The Secret Adversary, which was published in 1922, feels more like something that should have been written during World War I then after it. Combining patriotic bravado with a steadfast belief that Britain’s enemies, no matter their political doctrine, were all uniformly evil, The Secret Adversary is indeed the dictionary definition of “good reactionary fun.”

For the most part, Barnard’s pithy description could be placed upon Christie’s entire canon. Throughout her six decades of writing, Christie, the undisputed doyen of the classic British mystery, never failed to churn out a pleasurable potboiler. A typical Christie novel pits some kind of sleuth (most famously either the Belgian fop Hercule Poirot or the elderly spinster Miss Marple) and a representative from the public order (usually the police, sometimes the army) against a culprit guilty of murder. These criminals almost always represent some sort of larger evil, from insatiable lust to supreme egoism. On other occasions, these criminals and their likeminded coterie of aimless young people embody direct political threats to the natural order of Englishness. In Death on the Nile, Mr. Ferguson (who is not guilty of any crime) bores the passengers with his nihilistic and openly violent brand of Marxism, while the fake Italian archaeologist Gudio Richetti turns out to be a wanted agitator and bomb-maker.

And while Christie’s espionage novels contain better examples of the author’s dislike of radical and progressive ideologies (take for instance her depiction of the fascist organization at the heart of They Came to Baghdad), it is her detective novels and famous whodunits that shed light on Christie’s deeper understanding of politics. For Christie, tradition was key, and in her best novels a sense of Burkean conservatism provides both the subtext and the overarching theme.

Few philosophers are as cherished by British and American conservatives as Edmund Burke. His image adorns the Twitter profile for the paleoconservative magazine The American Conservative, while his ideas and writings are constant fodder for conservative journalists, critics, and armchair enthusiasts. In 2013 alone, two major studies of Burke were released - Edmund Burke: The First Conservative by Jesse Norman (a Conservative Member of Parliament representing the West Midlands constituency of Hereford and South Herefordshire) and Yuval Levin’s The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left. In the former, Norman, during an interview with National Review Online’s John J. Miller, admits that Burke’s is the “first conservative” because he was the first Western thinker to articulate a comprehensive defense against the Enlightenment’s rampant rationalism and its undying loyalty to science as the true arbiter of and for human societies. In this way, Norman echoes Russell Kirk, who famously called Burke’s ideas the “politics of prudence” in his 1974 tome The Roots of American Order.

 In Levin’s critically acclaimed account, Burke is used as the foil to Thomas Paine’s rapacious appetite for revolution. While Levin tries to make both men out to be the periwigged ancestors of today’s modern Left/Right split in American politics, he also undermines some of his theories by displaying their inconsistencies and even their contradictions. Burke, for example, “does not make [Levin’s] task easy,” as Gertrude Himmelfarb makes clear in her review of Levin’s book for The Weekly Standard. Burke was the type of thinker who could support one revolution (the American) and despise another (the French). Burke, as a literary critic, could champion the sublime and the beautiful in nature (two ideas that were quickly pounced on by the Romantics - a group of artists whom Burke had little to no sympathies with), while at the same time refute Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s theoretical State of Nature and write that mankind was the product of “civil society” - a constantly evolving state that required constraints to prevent against anti-social desires or impulses.

Civil society, for Burke, was the most important part of human civilization. It was not only the glue holding strained human relations together, but it was also the bulwark against the inherently tyrannical state. In short, at the sake of boiling down and distilling a complex set of ideas, Burkean conservatism can best be characterized by its skepticism towards government and other large institutions and its preference for smaller, more local forms of governance. As part of this, the private is usually favored over the public, and the family and traditions are seen as superior to   grandiose ideologies such as nationalism or the multi-faced forms of aetheistic rationalism.

While this may all seem like a far cry from the supposedly disposable bibliography of Christie, the truth is that Christie’s detective novels, especially her Miss Marple tales, embody Burkean conservatism like no other form of popular fiction. According to the British journalist and blogger Johann Hari, Christie’s work “conforms to Burkean conservatism in every aspect: justice rarely comes from the state. Rather, it arises from within civil society - a private detective, a clever old spinster.” Furthermore, according to Hari, Miss Marple, like “Parliament and all traditional bodies,” has slowly “accrued the wisdom of the ages” - Burke’s stated goal for all competent civil societies.

In her debut novel Murder at the Vicarage, Miss Marple establishes herself as the primary source and seeker of gossip in St. Mary Mead, a sleepy, peaceful village that is the very stereotype of rural England between the wars. The nosy Marple is mostly tolerated by the other villagers in Murder at the Vicarage, and from lunch appointments to afternoons spent crocheting, the old woman lives the prosaic life of bucolic boredom with the occasional twist of bloodletting. In Murder at the Vicarage, the murder of the widely loathed Colonel Lucius Protheroe upsets the natural order of things in St. Mary Mead, and as such Miss Marple, as the representative of tradition within the community, is forced (gleefully forced, I might add) to act on the community’s behalf.

Private justice of this sort is de rigueur for Christie’s detective novels, whether or not it’s the meek looking Miss Marple or the mustachioed Poirot who delivers the final verdict. On top of this, the professional forces - provincial police, Scotland Yard, and others - are usually depicted as either in the wrong or too slow to keep up with the private eye. This of course Christie borrowed from the Sherlock Holmes stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle - the undisputed godfather of much of today’s detective and crime fiction.

But even though Christie borrowed greatly from Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, few of her novels treat the police and other public officials as scornfully as Holmes. Especially in Doyle’s earliest Holmes stories, the “Great Detective” often openly mocks the London police and the brave few inspectors who are willing (or forced) to deal with him. The Holmes of literature is haughty, vain, and prone to erratic bouts of depression. He is, to put it bluntly, an eccentric city dweller without roots or any deep ties to much besides himself and his one everlasting friend. Holmes is also a man of science, and as such his powers of deduction come from intense study, rational inquiry, and detached observation.

Christie’s detectives however are rarely as conceited or even as unquestionably brilliant as Holmes. Poirot sometimes bends and even steps over the line into superciliousness, but even he is far too humane and gentle to be compared to the notoriously cold Holmes. And unlike the pipe-smoking resident of Baker Street, Poirot credits his “little grey cells,” which seem almost magical, rather than any named science or rational philosophy. Miss Marple may be disliked by many of her peers, but she is nevertheless part of a community and cannot be extracted from the earth of St. Mary Mead - the very source of her own detective powers. As such, the rural wisdom and knowledge of Miss Marple, which has been accrued over many years, and the almost sublime qualities of Monsieur Poirot both conform to certain dictates that underline Edmund Burke’s traditional style of conservatism. While this may be a surprise to some, those who have read Christie’s novels will probably not jump at the thought that Christie espoused Burkean conservatism. After all, Christie’s novels seem to portray an idealized civil society in which transgressions are punished by the community or someone representing the community. Furthermore, Christie herself, in her numerous letters and correspondence, made no bones about her conservatism and her general distrust of social and political change, writing once on feminism that:

[It is] the foolishness of women in relinquishing their position of privilege obtained after many centuries of civilization. Primitive women toil incessantly. We seem determined to return to that state voluntarily.

In the grand scheme of things, Christie’s novels can be enjoyed by readers who disagree with her politics. But, conversely, it is also hard to imagine Christie’s novels if their underlying politics had been removed. Without the tacit approval of tradition, family life, and civil society, Christie’s novels would become aimless and would move towards the more hard-boiled school of writing, of which she was decidedly not an adherent. If nothing else, Christie and her creations offer glimpses into the conservative English soul - a soul that appreciates Sunday lunches, crossword puzzles, and the savory slowness of life moving gradually.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

10 Great, But Little Known Naval Commanders

In the annals of military history, more than a few great naval commanders stand out. For the British Royal Navy, once the world’s supreme ocean-going force, Admiral Sir Horatio Nelson is the eternal god of the waves. For the United States, Captain John Paul Jones, Commodore Matthew Perry, and Admiral Chester W. Nimitz are the goldust trio of naval excellence. During World War II, the Imperial Japanese Navy put up one heck of a fight, with the brilliant Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto earning distinction as one of the IJN’s best strategists.

Popular culture and national memory has made these men heroes. However, they are but a slim sampling of naval brilliance. The following list will highlight some of history’s lesser known, but no less great naval commanders.

10. Conrad Helfrich

The day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, December 8, 1941, was an incredibly busy day for the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy. On that day, Japanese forces invaded British Malaya, the Philippines, and the Dutch East Indies. Of these three, the Japanese actions in the Dutch East Indies are mostly overlooked. This is a shame for several reasons, but none more so then the fact that the contributions of the Royal Netherlands Navy and the Royal Netherlands East Indies Army (KNIL) are often overlooked or outright forgotten [LINK 1].

No Dutch officer played a bigger role in the Allied victory in Asia than Admiral Conrad Helfrich. General Douglas MacArthur considered Admiral Helfrich important enough that the Dutchman was front and center at the official Japanese surrender aboard the USS Missouri in 1945 [LINK 2]. All you have to know about Admiral Helfrich’s effectiveness can be gleaned from his nickname—“Ship-a-Day.” This sobriquet came from Admiral Helfrich’s ability to torpedo a Japanese ship seemingly every day in 1942.

Under Helfrich’s command, the Royal Netherlands Navy, especially its submarine fleet led by submarine K-XVI, sunk 100,000 tons of Japanese shipping and damaged 200,000 tons more. Junior officers underneath Helfrich, such as Lieutenant A.J. Bussemaker and Lieutenant Henri van Oostrom Soede sunk 27,100 tons of Japanese shipping and sunk or damaged 17 Japanese ships respectively [LINK 3].

Helfrich’s reputation did sink (pun intended) a little after the Battle of the Java Sea. During that battle, Helfrich not only lost the brave Admiral Karel W.F.M. Doorman, but the Allies were decimated by a Japanese force [LINK 4]. Following this disaster, Helfrich was sent to British Ceylon (today’s Sri Lanka) in order to train Dutch troops for future battles in the Pacific. Helfrich’s service to the Royal Netherlands Navy lasted from 1907 until 1949.

9. Hayreddin Barbarossa

For a time during the Early Modern Age, no navy was held Europe in the grip of fear quite like the Ottoman fleet. Thanks to this force, the great Turkish exporters of Sunni Islam managed to control not only the Mediterranean, but also the Red Sea and parts of the Indian Ocean. For a time, no Ottoman commander inspired as much terror as Hayreddin Barbarossa.

Unlike most men on this list, Hayreddin Barbarossa did not attend a world-class naval academy. Rather, Hayreddin Barbarossa began his naval career as a pirate. Born on the Greek island of Lesbos, the man later known as the “Pirate of Algiers” and “King of the Sea” spent his formative years as a pirate in North Africa. Here Barbarossa (Italian for “Redbeard”) and his brother protected Muslim coastal cities from Spanish and Portuguese attacks [LINK 5]. Following a succession crisis in the Ottoman Empire, Barbarossa and his brother became common freebooters without a single master. This period saw the apex of their success as privateers.

Barbarossa’s first great exploit occurred in 1517. In that year he led a pirate squadron that captured the heavily fortified city of Algiers in what is today Algeria. This victory convinced Sultan Selim I to name the pirate as the regent of Algiers. Selim also named Barbarossa as the overall commander of the Western Fleet [LINK 6]. With Constantinople’s full backing, Barbarossa conquered all of Tunisia in 1533 and turned the North African coast into a lucrative pirate empire that benefitted the sultan’s regents.

In 1538, Christendom’s great ruler, Emperor Charles V of the House of Habsburg, attempted to capture Tunis from Barbarossa. The ensuing Battle of Preveza saw the Holy League, which was a naval coalition that included Venetian, Mantuan, Spanish, Portuguese, Papal, Genoese, Maltese ships, fall decisively to the smaller Ottoman fleet under Barbarossa. Barbarossa managed to outfox the equally brilliant Genoese admiral Andrea Doria by holding the land around Actium, which in turn allowed the Ottoman shore batteries to dominate the battle space. The Holy League lost thirteen ships, while the Ottomans lost none [LINK 7]. The victory at Preveza allowed the Ottomans to take over the remaining Venetian holdings in the Aegean Sea.

8. Fyodor Ushakov

Russia is mostly known as a land-based power. However, the Russian Navy has its own pantheon of great commanders, and none stand higher than Fyodor Ushakov. Born in into the minor nobility in the village Burnakovo, Ushakov enrolled at the Naval College in St. Petersburg at the tender age of sixteen. At the school Ushakov had a reputation as a serious student who did not partake in the indulgences of the big city. In 1765, Ushakov graduated as a midshipman and was assigned to the Baltic Fleet [LINK 8].

Ushakov would make his name not in the Baltic, but in the Black Sea. Here, Ushakov won several victories against the Ottoman Navy during two Russo-Turkish Wars between 1768 and 1792. The key to Ushakov’s success was that he promoted innovation among his men and a culture of flexibility. This paid off during the Battle of Tendra off the coast of Bulgaria in September 1790. Ushakov’s Black Sea fleet managed to defeat the larger Ottoman force by concentrating hi limited firepower on the main Ottoman vessels. This caused panic among the Turks, who would ultimately lose six ships and 2,000 sailors during the fighting. The Russians lost only 46 dead and wounded [LINK 9]. The subsequent Battle of Cape Kaliakra, where the Russian forces put an end to Ottoman hegemony in the Black Sea, further solidified Ushakov’s reputation.

Owing to his liberation of Orthodox Christians in the Caucasus and Bulgaria, Ushakov is one of the few naval admirals to ever be beautified by a church [LINK 10].

7. Wilhelm von Tegetthoff

 Neither Austria nor Hungary has a navy today, but a navy did exist back in the days of Austria-Hungary. The best naval officer ever produced by Austria-Hungary was Admiral Wilhelm von Tegetthoff. Born in 1827 in Marburg, Austria, von Tegetthoff graduated from the empire’s naval college at Venice in 1849 and was promoted to lieutenant in 1851. By 1866, he was a vice admiral and a member of the Austrian Navy’s Privy Council [LINK 11].

Baron von Tegetthoff’s crowning achievement was his victory at the Battle of Lissa in 1866. The battle, which occurred during both the Third Italian War of Independence and the Austro-Prussian War, began when Italy’s Minister of Marine ordered an attack on the Austrian island of Lissa (now Vis, Croatia). Italy sought to claim the island as part of a larger campaign to dominate the Adriatic Sea. Logic dictated that Lissa would be an easy victory for the Italian fleet. Carlo di Persano’s force included 12 ironclads, 10 cruisers, and four gunboats. Von Tegetthoff only had seven ironclads, one steamers, 12 gunboats, and six cruisers at his disposal. And, unlike the Italian fleet, the Austrian sailors spoke several different languages, including Croatian and Italian.

After successfully silencing most of the Austrian shore guns on the island, the Italians made the poor decision to slow down their offensive and refrain from taking Lissa in a ground assault. On July 20th, a mist over the Adriatic disguised von Tegetthoff’s fleet as it approached the island from the northeast. Once the battle commenced, the Austrians struck at the heart of the Italian fleet in a wedge-shaped formation that used ramming tactics to great effect. Di Persano, who did not have his best ship, the “Affondatore,” in service that day, tried to shift his ships around to the Austrian rear. This failed because the Austrians held the left flank and basically captured the Italian van. The Austrian “Kaiser,” despite being a wooden relic, outmaneuvered the majority of the Italian fleet while simultaneously inflicting damage with its 92 guns. By day’s end, the Austrians had lost 38 sailors, while the Italians suffered 620 killed [LINK 12].

Baron von Tegetthoff was hailed as the empire’s supreme hero following this victory. His inspirational leadership held together his multi-ethnic command, and it was Tegetthoff who inspired Emperor Franz Josef I to occupy the Adriatic Coast in the name of the Hasbsburg crown.

6. Junio Valerio Borghese

Nicknamed the “Black Prince,” Italian naval officer Junio Valerio Borghese was one of the most daring and controversial naval commanders of the Second World War. Born into the noble House of Borghese in the Province of Rome in 1906, Borghese joined the Royal Italian Navy in 1929. As a submarine commander, Borghese served during the Italian invasion of Abyssinia and Spanish Civil War [LINK 13].

Following Italy’s entry into World War II in 1940, Borghese helped to form the elite Decima Flottiglia MAS. These Italian naval commandos perfected the use of human torpedoes, or diver-propulsed submarines. The Decime Flottiglia MAS’s greatest victory came on December 18, 1941, when one Italian submarine and three human torpedoes struck the British Royal Navy fleet harbored at Alexandria, Egypt. This swift and silent attack disabled two battleships, damaged one destroyer and one tanker, and killed eight British sailors. The Italians lost six men captured [LINK 14]. The success of the raid convinced other nations to create their own naval commando forces.

By 1943, Borghese was the unit’s overall commander. That year would prove to be pivotal, for the Italian king removed Fascist leader Benito Mussolini from power and agreed to surrender to the Allies. Borghese continued to fight as a member of the pro-German Italian Social Republic. Borghese’s antipathy to democracy was so strong that, in December 1970, he and other neo-fascists attempted to pull off a coup in order to install an “authoritarian solution” to Italy’s postwar malaise. Known as the Borghese Coup, the event ended in a dismal failure [LINK 15].

5. William “Bull” Halsey, Jr.

“Bull” Halsey was as brilliant as he was gruff. Born in Elizabeth, New Jersey on October 30, 1882, Halsey entered the prestigious US Naval Academy in 1904. He first saw action aboard a destroyer in World War I. During the interwar years, Halsey became one of the US Navy’s biggest proponents of air power and, at the age of 52, Halsey earned his aviator wings [LINK 16].

Halsey’s moment of glory came during World War II. Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Halsey’s task force was virtually the only American naval force operating in the Pacific between December 1941 and April 1942. Halsey, his ship the “Enterprise,” and the rest of Carrier Division 2 gave the US Navy time to rebuild itself by carrying out targeted hit-and-run attacks on the Japanese fleet. These attacks included raids on the Gilbert and Marshall islands in February 1942 and Wake Island in March 1942. Halsey’s group was also at the center of the daring Doolittle Raid which struck the Japanese Home Islands for the first time in the war [LINK 17].

In October 1942, Halsey took command of the Central Pacific campaign. During that time the US Navy, along with ships from the British Royal Navy, Australia, New Zealand, and the Kingdom of Tonga, provided sea and air cover to Allied forces fighting on Guadalcanal and the rest of the British Solomon Islands. Once the islands were taken back from the Japanese, Halsey was next given the command of the Third Fleet. In October 1944, the Third Fleet spearheaded the Allied reconquest of the Philippines. During the Battle of Leyte Gulf, Halsey, the Third Fleet, and the Seventh Fleet destroyed what remained of the once mighty Imperial Japanese Navy. The battle cost the Japanese four aircraft carriers, three battleships, six heavy cruisers, four light cruisers, and 10,500 sailors [LINK 18]. Allied loses were significantly lower, with just one light carrier, two destroyers, one destroyer-escort, and two escort carriers taken out of action.

Halsey would remain in the US Navy until 1959. Without question, his greatest contribution to modern naval warfare was his innovative use of naval aviation.

4. John Fisher, 1st Baron Fisher

No officer embodied the heyday of the British Royal Navy quite like John Arbuthnot Fisher. The future first sea lord entered the navy at just 13. As a midshipman, Fisher saw action during the Crimean War. Fisher was aboard the HMS “Highflyer” on December 28, 1857 when an Anglo-French force captured the Chinese province of Canton (Guangzhou) during the Second Opium War [LINK 19]. Over a decade later, after becoming a captain, Fisher’s ship the “Inflexible” provided the heavy bombardment of Alexandria during the British invasions of Ottoman Egypt in 1882 [LINK 20].

In 1904, the battle-hardened Fisher earned the distinction of being named as the Royal Navy’s first sea lord. In this capacity, Fisher reorganized the Royal Navy, commissioned some of the first submarines, and oversaw the turnover from a coal-powered fleet to an oil-based one. It was also Fisher who was responsible for the creation of the HMS “Dreadnought,” the massive battleship that revolutionized naval warfare [LINK 21]. 

During World War I, Lord Fisher remained in service, but saw no action outside of London’s Board of Invention and Research. The ever combative Fisher did clash heads with Winston Churchill over the latter’s decision to open up a new front against the Central Powers at Gallipoli. In one of his last acts, Fisher recommended what he called the Baltic Project—a Royal Navy invasion of invasion German Pomerania [LINK 22].

3. Togo Heihachiro

During his lifetime, Japanese Admiral Togo Heihachiro saw Japan go from an isolated shogunate to a world power. A lot of Japan’s success was due to Admiral Heihachiro’s naval victories against the Qing Dynasty and the Russians.

Born on January 27, 1848 in Kagoshima, Japan, Togo undertook an intensive study of naval science between 1871 and 1878. Given that Britain was the undisputed master of the seas, Togo spent a majority of his student days in England. After returning to Japan, Togo served in several capacities of the Imperial Japanese Navy. Also during this time, Togo saw action during minor naval skirmishes with Korean and Chinese ships. Togo also served as an advisor on British, American, French, and German ships [LINK 23].

Togo’s first real taste of combat came in 1894 when he served as an officer aboard the “Naniwa.” The “Naniwa,” as part of Admiral Kozo Tsuboi’s Flying Squadron, took part in the Battle of the Yellow Sea. During that battle, the Qing Chinese fleet, which included state-of-the-art warships that had been built by Germany, was utterly decimated by a Japanese force that consisted mostly of light cruisers and gunboats [LINK 24]. The faster Japanese ships inflicted 850 casualties on the Chinese overall.

The Japanese victory during the First Sino-Japanese War set the stage for the later Russo-Japanese War. During that conflict, Japan’s greatest admiral earned his crowning achievement when, between May 27 and 29, 1905, he destroyed the Russian Baltic Fleet during the Battle of Tsushima. The Russians not only lost two-thirds of their entire Baltic Fleet, but the battle guaranteed a Japanese victory overall [LINK 25].

When Togo Heihachiro died in 1934, his state funeral was attended by naval officers from the British Empire, the United States, France, Italy, the Netherlands, and China.

2. Raymond Spruance

Known as the “Quiet Warrior,” Raymond A. Spruance was born in Baltimore, Maryland on July 3, 1886. In 1906 he graduated from the US Naval Academy. From then until 1940, Spruance climbed through the ranks by serving aboard the battleship “Mississippi” as well as five destroyers. Spruance also served at the US Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. In total, his early career saw him hold positions in engineering, intelligence, and administration [LINK 26].

When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Spruance was the rear admiral in charge of Cruiser Division 5. As leader of this division, Spruance provided the necessary screen for “Bull” Halsey ‘s carrier task force during the attacks on the Gilbert and Marshalls [LINK 27]. When Admiral Halsey fell ill ahead of the pivotal Midway campaign, Halsey named Spruance as his replacement. Despite his lack of aviation experience and training, Spruance leveraged Halsey’s junior officers and his fleet of 233 planes to defeat the Imperial Japanese Navy during the Battle of Midway [LINK 28]. Spruance’s force inflicted on the Japanese fleet one of its worst defeats ever. Four fleet carriers and the heavy cruiser “Mikuma” were sent to the bottom of the ocean, while three Japanese destroyers, a battleship, and an oil tanker were badly damaged.

On July 10, 1945, Admiral Spruance, then in command of the Fifth Fleet, was awarded the Navy Cross for leading US sailors, soldiers, airmen, and Marines into combat on Okinawa and the Ryuku Islands. It was Spruance’s ships that entered Japanese waters, and it was his ship, the USS “New Mexico,” that covered the ground forces throughout the brutal fighting on Okinawa [LINK 29].

Spruance left the Navy in 1948. He died at the age of 83 in 1969.

1. Yi Sun-sin

Korean admiral Yi Sun-sin still has a lot of power. This was made clear in October 2018 when the Japanese government protested the fact that the Korean fleet off of Jeju Island flew Admiral Yi’s standard during an international fleet review [LINK 30]. While the Japanese saw this as an unnecessary provocation, Koreans see Admiral Yi as their greatest national hero and the symbol of anti-Japanese resistance.

Yi was born in the ancient Korean capital of Seoul on April 28, 1545. In 1576, Yi passed a series of examinations in order to enter into the Kingdom of Joseon’s military. By 1591, Yi was in charge of the naval and ground forces in the Province of Cholla (today’s Jeolla). Here Admiral Yi created what many consider to be the world’s first ironclad warships—the kobukson, or turtle ships. These small and swift ships had upper decks that were covered with armored plates and spikes, while the bow included a dragon’s head cannon that emitted smoke in order to obscure the ship’s position [LINK 31]. These turtle ships would prove effective during the massive Imjin War (1592-1598), which saw a unified Japan under the leadership of warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi invade Korea as a step towards the larger conquest of Ming China.

While the Japanese armies dominated Korea and even managed to invade parts of northern China, Admiral Yi’s Joseon and Ming fleet constantly scored victory after victory against the Japanese. Admiral Yi’s greatest victory came on October 26, 1597 at the Battle of Myeongnyang. Here, Yi, who had been a political prisoner just days before, managed to defeat a Japanese fleet of 330 ships with just 13 battleships. Admiral Yi accomplished this feet by bottlenecking the Japanese at Myeongyang Strait and attacking their ships with artillery fire from the shore and sea. Then, when the tide turned (which Yi had planned on), the Japanese fleet tried to flee, but the withdrawal turned into an unmanageable panic. The Koreans only lost five men to death and wounds, while the Japanese lost 33 ships and 8,000 men [LINK 32].

A true warrior, Admiral Yi died during the Battle of Noryang on December 16, 1598. This battle, which ended the Imjin War, began on land as the combined Joseon-Ming army pushed the retreating Japanese south towards the Korean coast. The Japanese escape was blocked by Admiral Yi’s force at Noryang, and Yi ordered his men to concentrate their fire on the Japanese ships in the harbor. Only 50 of the 500 Japanese ships present during the battle managed to escape back to Japan [LINK 33].

Tragically, a stray bullet mortally wounded Yi during the battle’s height. Rather than let the news of his impending death slip out, Yi ordered his eldest son and nephew to keep his death a secret until the battle ended. “The Battle is at its height. Tell no one of my death…” Admiral Yi reportedly said before passing away.