Review: The Outlaw Sea–A World of Freedom, Chaos, and Crime (Paperback)

4 Star, Capitalism (Good & Bad), Crime (Organized, Transnational), Nature, Diet, Memetics, Design, Threats (Emerging & Perennial), Water, Energy, Oil, Scarcity

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4.0 out of 5 stars Replays Atlantic Monthly But Pleasantly Surprising,

December 18, 2005
William Langewiesche
This is not the book I was expecting. Normally it would only have gotten three stars, for recycling three articles, only one of which was really of interest to me (on piracy), but the author is gifted, and his articulation of detail lifts the book to four stars and caused me to appreciate his final story on the poisonous deadly exportation of ship “break-up” by hand. It is a double-spaced book, stretched a bit, and not a research book per se.

Two high points for came early on. The author does a superb job of describing the vast expanse of the ungovernable ocean, three quarters of the globes surface, carrying 40,000 wandering merchant ships on any given day, and completely beyond the reach of sovereign states. The author does a fine job of demonstrating how most regulations and documentation are a complete facade, to the point of being both authentic, and irrelevant.

The author’s second big point for me came early on as he explored the utility of the large ocean to both pirates and terrorists seeking to rest within its bosom, and I am quite convinced, based on this book, that one of the next several 9-11’s will be a large merchant ship exploding toxically in a close in port situation–on page 43 he describes a French munitions ship colliding with a Norwegian freighter in Halifax. “Witnesses say that the sky erupted in a cubic mile of flame, and for the blink of an eye the harbor bottom went dry. More than 1,630 buildings were completely destroyed, another 12,000 were damaged, and more than 1,900 people died.”

There is no question but that the maritime industry is much more threatening to Western ports than is the aviation industry in the aftermath of 9-11, and we appear to be substituting paperwork instead of profound changes in how we track ships–instead of another secret satellite, for example, we should redirect funds to a maritime security satellite, and demand that ships have both transponders and an easy to understand chain of ownership. There is no question that we are caught in a trap: on the one hand, a major maritime disaster will make 9-11 look like a tea party; on the other the costs–in all forms–of actually securing the oceans is formidable.

Having previously written about the urgent need for a 450-ship Navy that includes brown water and deep water intercept ships (at the Defense Daily site, under Reports, GONAVY), I secure the fourth star for the author, despite my disappointment over the middle of the book, by giving him credit for doing a tremendous job of defining the challenges that we face in the combination of a vast sea and ruthless individual stateless terrorists, pirates, and crime gangs collaborating without regard to any sovereign state.

I do have to say, as a reader of Atlantic Monthly, I am getting a little tired of finding their stuff recycled into books without any warning as to the origin. Certainly I am happy to buy Jim Fallows and Robert Kaplan, to name just two that I admire, but it may be that books which consist of articles thrown together, without any additional research or cohesive elements added (such as a bibliography or index), should come with a warning. I for one will be more alert to this prospect in the future.

Having said that, I will end with the third reason I went up to four stars: the third and final story, on the poisonous manner in which we export our dead ships to be taken apart by hand in South Asia, with hundreds of deaths and truly gruesome working conditions for all concerned, is not one of the stories I have seen in article form before, it is a very valuable story, and for this unanticipated benefit, I put the book down a happy reader, well satisfied with the over-all afternoon.

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