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Torpedo: Inventing the Military-Industrial Complex in the United States and Great Britain.

Torpedo: Inventing the Military-Industrial Complex in the United States and Great Britain by Katherine C. Epstein. Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2014. pp. 328, 30.00 [pounds sterling] (cloth).

The relationship between the state and the armaments industry is an issue of considerable ongoing relevance to the present day, when the highly technical nature of new weapons systems, the length of the procurement process and the globalized nature of the world economy have led to an increasingly complex interplay between governments and private industry. As such, scholarly research into the origins and development of this multifaceted association is an endeavour possessed of considerable merit. In this ambitious book, the author sets out to trace the origins of what she refers to as the modern military-industrial complex to the development of automotive torpedo technology in the United States and Great Britain before the First World War. In doing so she contends that many of the principal features of the archetypal example of the military-industrial complex, the Manhattan Project, were present in the relationship between navies and armaments manufacturers before the First World War. In seeking to prove her case, the author guides the reader through the complex, inter-related questions of torpedo development, patent law, civil-military relations and naval tactics and strategy in two of the world's premier navies between the late nineteenth century and the outbreak of the First World War. She argues that torpedo technology not only played a key role in the development of the military-industrial complex, but that "torpedoes were at the nexus of the international arms race, globilisation, and industrialisation before World War I" (p. 3).

The book is arranged into a series of six sequential chapters, which alternate between describing and analyzing events in the United States and Britain. Epstein provides the reader with a wealth of information on the development of various models of torpedoes and upon the development of legal practice relating to the collaboration between government and private industry, particularly in the United States. The troubled relationship between the US government and the Bliss Company, the Navy's primary domestic supplier of torpedoes, provides an interesting case study in the relationship between government and the arms industry with significant current resonance. Epstein's identification of what she terms "servant" technology--in this case, innovations in subsidiary testing procedures integral to the improvement of torpedo technology--is an especially insightful and valuable contribution. In this capacity, Torpedo represents a useful and original contribution to our understanding of the interaction between government and private industry in the two countries she studies. Unfortunately however, the same cannot be said of her attempts to relate the tale of torpedo development to wider debates about naval strategy and tactics, particularly in the British case.

The author subscribes to the notion that developments in torpedo technology exercised a decisive influence upon naval strategy and tactics before and during the First World War. Whilst this thesis undoubtedly contains elements of truth, the torpedo did not have the transformative affect upon the nature of the war at sea that the author claims; she neglects to mention the fact that a torpedo sank not a single modern capital ship of either the British or German Fleets for the duration of the War. Furthermore, her analysis that the torpedo was the key driver of change in naval warfare before 1914 is simplistic to the point of verging upon technological determinism. Such a focused approach could perhaps be excused by the constraints of space and brevity; strategy and tactics are, after all, narrow concerns when compared to her lofty aim of mapping the birth of "the modern relationship between the state and society" (p. 2). However, the author feels sufficiently confident of her command of these topics to dismiss a vast extant body of scholarship on the grounds that it is not based upon "adequate command of the relevant primary sources" (p. 211). Equally unfortunate is that Epstein uses the same reasoning to dismiss the raft of recent work which disputes her technology driven narrative as unconvincing in a series of caustic endnotes (n. 61, 64 and 73, pp. 206-10). Even if such accusations were justifiable, in itself a notion open to considerable doubt, the author's failure to provide any evidence to support her claims adds little to the force of her argument. The same could be said of her decision to confine her trenchant critique to the books endnotes, rather than expanding upon them in the text. Whilst it would be difficult in a work of this conceptual scope, her criticisms of earlier writers' archival efforts would be more persuasive had the author herself consulted a wider range of primary material relating to British naval policy. Indeed, Epstein herself appears to have overlooked a number of relevant secondary works, such as Alan Cowpe's PhD thesis, "Underwater Weapons and the Royal Navy: 18691918" (King's College London, 1980), or John Brooks' Dreadnought Gunnery and the Battle of Jutland (London and New York, 2005), which authoritatively disputes her narrative of the development of British gunnery control technology and fleet tactics before 1914.

Torpedo represents a brave attempt to address some very broad and important themes. The book provides a series of interesting insights into the development of the relationship between the state and the armaments industry in the increasingly global world of the early twentieth century. As an analysis of the development of torpedo technology in the US and Great Britain in this period, it is most certainly a valuable contribution. However, in her attempts to paint the torpedo as central to the development of naval strategy and policy in the Royal Navy, the author over-reaches herself. This is unfortunate if, perhaps, inevitable due to the scope of the task she set herself. Nevertheless, as Epstein herself admits, this work has clearly identified much that "would bear further study" (p. 204). Torpedo would have been worthy of consideration on those grounds alone.

David Morgan-Owen

National Museum of the Royal Navy
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Author:Morgan-Owen, David
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2014
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