Stephen Budiansky's BLACKETT'S WAR: THE MEN WHO DEFEATED THE NAZI U-BOATS AND BROUGHT SCIENCE TO THE ART OF WARFARE
Book review by Dennis D. McDonald
Blackett’s War is an uneven but fascinating account of how basic science and engineering techniques, now called “operations research” or “operational research,” were applied to solving military problems during World War II. The main focus is Patrick Blackett’s British anti-submarine efforts but the applications also include aircraft maintenance and organizational problems as well as how military resources are managed. Attempts are made to include American application efforts as well but it is difficult to tell from this book whether the author is being objective about American stupidity (of which there was plenty) or is just generally anti-American.
I was a bit disappointed at the lack of technical detail of the solutions discussed by the author. I did find the mix of analysis, politics, and organizational behavior to be fascinating. As someone who has long been involved in both studying and managing technology adoption, the roles of politics, entrenched bureaucracies, and enthusiastic executive sponsors (such as Winston Churchill) are fascinating and all very recognizable.
I also enjoyed the portrayal of how various scientists in different scientific disciplines (including insurance actuaries) became involved in the British war effort, including many who were communists or socialists.
The book does sprawl a bit. Those with a background in O.R. or Industrial Engineering might be at the disappointed at the lack of technical detail but it is a pleasure to read a book that attempts to show the value of analytical techniques as opposed to just focusing on the invention of newer, brighter, and shinier machines. Several times the author makes the point that it is often better — and more economical — to spend time and energy on making what we already have work better. Clearly the Allies during World War II, including Churchill, realized the wisdom of this, as this book demonstrates.
Review copyright (c) 2013 by Dennis D. McDonald