By Thomas Parrish. Viking. 576 pp. $29.95

"Cowardly," "bitter enders," "a sure sign of weakness," "desperation tactics," "pathological," "aberrant." Terms that could be drawn from a Donald Rumsfeld briefing on terrorism in fact constitute some of the more printable characterizations of submariners and their tactics at the opening of the last century. That a weapons system invented to facilitate a guerre de course -- or "commerce war," a form of maritime insurgency that slithered over into piracy -- would elicit condemnation from more tradition-minded warriors was foreseen by Leonardo da Vinci, who refused to actualize his design for a submersible for the benefit "of men who practice assassination at the bottom of the sea."

A coroner's court in Kinsale, Ireland, agreed with Leonardo that assassination was indeed the business of submarines, when on May 10, 1915, it declared "the Emperor and the Government of Germany" guilty of murder in the sinking of the Lusitania. Any doubts that the chivalry of maritime combat had become one of the first casualties of submarine warfare had been laid to rest barely three weeks into World War I, when the U-9 singlehandedly sank the British 7th Cruiser Squadron off the Hook of Holland. And there was another, especially sinister feature to this encounter -- after having torpedoed the British cruiser Aboukir, the captain of the U-9 then lingered to pot the two British cruisers that rushed to rescue the Aboukir's drowning crew. The message was clear: Any captain who slowed to rescue shipwrecked sailors or loitered off an invasion beach offered his ship and crew to ambush by these heartless killers of the deep. "Underhand, unfair, and damned un-English" was the verdict of one British admiral.

True, perhaps, but irrelevant. When 26 men in a slow boat could send 36,000 tons of warship to the bottom, all it took was the squeeze of the British maritime blockade, combined with the failed breakout of the High Seas Fleet at Jutland in 1916, to convince Berlin that the U-boat was a potential war winner. In his exhaustive new study, The Submarine, Thomas Parrish charts the history of this revolutionary craft, taking pains to stress its halting rise to prominence as a near-indispensable feature of modern naval warfare.

Yet as the early German experiments with the submarine in World War I went on to demonstrate, good tactics seldom translate into brilliant strategy. Unrestricted U-boat warfare together with news of the infamous Zimmerman telegram helped to justify America's April 1917 entry into the Great War -- and thus to speed Germany's eventual defeat.

The use of submarines as a weapon of war faced considerable operational impediments, as well as moral objections. Diving planes, ballast tanks, diesel engines and reinforced hulls offered technological challenges that were only gradually mastered. In 1864, the H.L. Hunley, a Confederate Navy craft, became the first submarine to sink a ship. But onboard mishaps were far more common than direct hits, and for several decades engineers struggled to make the submarine more lethal to the enemy than to its own crew. The achievement of reliable torpedo technology challenged U.S. submariners until well into 1943.

Other features of submarine crewmanship were less lethal, yet still far from attractive, especially in the early years. The navy expression "as welcomed as a fart on a submarine" hints at a combat environment that stank of stale, dank air, unwashed bodies, malodorous heads and spoiled food. Submariners, rattled by the concussion of depth charges, often must have longed to exchange their breathless claustrophobia for a well-ventilated foxhole.

Despite such arduous conditions, submarines soon graduated to full combat status under German naval command. In both world wars, German subs achieved results far out of proportion to their small numbers. But this was largely because the Allies were slow to develop tactics and technology to deal with the U-boat threat -- Q-ships, mine barrages, zig-zagging convoys with destroyer escorts to take advantage of the submarine's slow underwater speed, depth charges, hydrophones, sonar, Huff-Duff (direction-finding), sub-hunting aircraft and, in World War II, Ultra-guided intelligence that allowed the Allies to locate the wolfpacks and the ships ("milch cows" in Navy parlance) that supplied them.

All of this made submarine service a high-risk enterprise. Twenty-two per cent of U.S. submariners perished in World War II, the highest casualty rate of any U.S. service, but far below the huge proportion of German U-boat crews who were lost at sea.

Why, if submarines were so effective, did Germany build so few of them? Parrish fails to note that, before 1914, submarines fit poorly into Adm. Alfred von Tirpitz's vision of a "Luxury Fleet" fashioned to announce Germany's arrival as a great power. A fleet built around battleships and heavy cruisers required an assembly of admirals and a conscription program to rival that of the prestigious Prussian army. A discrete submarine force commanded by a politically invisible cadre of lieutenant commanders did not fit Tirpitz's political agenda, even if it would have better served Germany's defense needs. Parrish also fails to note that French enthusiasm for submarines in the Entente cordiale days at the turn of the 20th century was anchored less in the realization that the Gallic navy was no match for its cross-Channel rival than in the desire of the left-leaning Radical governments to break the political power of a conservative Catholic fleet admiralty.

While Parrish tells an entertaining story, in the end his enthusiasm for his subject clouds his judgment. "From the naval point of view," he declares, the 20th century "could without undue exaggeration be called the Century of the Submarine," marking the craft as "a potentially decisive weapon in war." Yet from a nautical perspective, the last hundred years undoubtedly would be better characterized as "the century of the carrier." Nor was the submarine, for all of its lethality, capable of anything more than drive-by warfare. One searches in vain for an example of the "decisive success" of the submarine in any war, including the Pacific during World War II, where, although U.S. submarines caused extensive damage to Japanese commerce (largely because the Japanese failed to react) and discouraged Tokyo from redeploying forces from China to deal with the U.S. advance across the Pacific, U.S. victory in Asia relied on a lethal combination of air, land and sea forces working in unison. The post-World War II generation of nuclear-powered, missile-carrying "boomers" developed under the direction of the irascible Adm. Hyman Rickover and Adm. Arleigh Burke, provided a secure, second nuclear strike capability. Ironically, given the lethal history of submarines that Parrish has sketched, they plied the oceans for decades helping to keep the Cold War cold, without ever firing a shot. *

Douglas Porch is a professor of national security affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School and the author, most recently, of "The Path to Victory: The Mediterranean Theater in World War II."

U-boat crew off the European coast