“Broadsword calling Danny Boy”: on Where Eagles Dare, by Geoff Dyer

This is a book that is so silly in its concept that it’s actually brilliant. It is a scene by scene discussion of the movie Where Eagles Dare, a movie that has somehow come to occupy a “unique place in the consciousness” of the author.

The book reminded me in a strange way of another film, The Grand Budapest Hotel. That film pretended to be a whimsical farce, but ended up touching quite profoundly upon life and history. In this book, Where Eagles Dare allows the author to entertainingly digress on all manner of subjects, from Richard Burton’s drinking, to Mary Ure’s pioneering work as action heroine – a proto-Buffy, if you will – to Clint Eastwood character’s disturbingly sadistic preference for killing with a knife when in possession of a perfectly good silencer. In the course of this the author also touches upon youthful hope, life, and war.

I’m never going to be 15 again watching this for the first time with my family at Christmas. But this book brought back the memory of that pleasure, if only for a fleeting moment.

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Churchill, by Roy Jenkins

Summary: Churchill – both a hero and a villain

321F9220-5CD0-49CB-9EC9-689E793FD92FIn Brexit Britain one’s attitude towards Churchill is something of a faux-patriotic touchstone. Recently shadow chancellor John McDonnell caused frothing indignation amongst the perpetually offended right-wing of British society when in response to a silly question, “Churchill: hero or villain?” he responded, “Villain,” citing Churchill’s behaviour, when Home Secretary, towards striking miners in Tonypandy.

Of course, one of the reasons that Churchill attracts so much biographical attention is that he is a complex figure.

Considerable portions of Churchill’s career, most notably his resistance to Nazism, are the epitome of heroism. At a human level he was also very funny and impressively magnanimous. For example, he formed a close friendship with Smuts, who he had fought against, and been imprisoned by, in South Africa. Jenkins also suggests, probably correctly, that Michael Collins would have become an enduring friend if he had lived, and one can only regret the consequences to Anglo-Irish relations that he did not.

But other aspects of Churchill’s character and leadership are markedly less attractive. For example his deep grained racism and his unreconstructed imperialism are manifestations of the very worst aspects of British history and society.

That these positive and negative elements resided in Churchill simultaneously, for example catastrophically worsening the Bengal Famine in 1943 while playing a central role in formulating strategy against Hitler, makes him an altogether more interesting and problematic personality than either his acolytes or his detractors might prefer.

Roy Jenkins’ biography of Churchill goes a considerable way towards exploring this complexity across the course of Churchill’s career from youthful imperial war-junkie, to young Conservative MP, to Leftish Liberal cabinet minister, to rancidly bigotted opponent of Indian independence, to prophetic voice against the rise of Hitlerism, to heroic war leader and after. Jenkins also details Churchill’s parallel career as a voluminous writer, a career that ultimately brought him a, somewhat controversial, Nobel Prize for Literature.

There are omissions – there is no discussion of the Bengal Famine – the gravest stain on Churchill’s record, dwarfing even his civilian bombing policy against Germany, his startlingly naïve fawning towards Stalin, and his complicity in the betrayal of Poland to Soviet tyranny, all issues which Jenkins discusses in some detail,

It is very much a political biography focusing on Westminster and Whitehall machinations, and the deliberations of high summitry amongst the “Great Powers.” So it would probably benefit a reader to have some extant knowledge of events in the wider world as they affected ordinary human beings, particularly the struggle for Indian independence, the course of the Second World War, and the Suez crisis.

The book is enriched by Jenkins’ insider knowledge: his early parliamentary career overlapped with that of Churchill; and before rising to the presidency of the European Commission Jenkins was also British Chancellor and Home Secretary, two posts Churchill also held.

Nicholas Soames, currently a Tory MP, tells the story of how, as an eight year old he once intruded on Churchill with the question, “Grandpapa, is it true you are the greatest man in the world?”

“Yes,” said Churchill. “Now bugger off.”

Ultimately Jenkins shares this conclusion, that Churchill was the greatest human being ever to hold the office of British Prime Minister. It is perhaps an easier assertion for a Briton to make than for any citizen of a nation that suffered the bloody consequences of his racism to accept. But Jenkins certainly provides a rich portrait of this compelling personality, one who did so much to shape the Twentieth Century, particularly in relation to the triumph of European democracy.

Arnhem: the battle for the bridges, 1944, by Antony Beevor

Summary: a thorough, and thoroughly bleak, account of what happens when Europe is divided

Much like XXX Corps in this book I stalled on the Neder Rijn: I must confess to finding this account of the infamous Allied defeat in the Netherlands so bleak that I had to set it aside for a couple of months before finishing it.

Nevertheless there is much to recommend in this book. First, in its ability to make a more critical assessment of the main protagonists in the battle, it has a more rounded view of them than could be obtained from either Cornelius Ryan’s gripping account, A Bridge Too Far, or Richard Attenborough’s celebrated film of the same name.

Second, both these depictions of the battle obtain their narrative drive by focussing on the efforts to relieve the paratroopers in Arnhem. But, in truth, as Stephen Ambrose discerned when writing Band of Brothers, and as Beevor also shows here, the entire plan was woefully conceived as it was almost impossible to secure the road against German counter-attacks to ensure sufficient support and supply to the advancing armour to ever make the seizure of a bridgehead across the Rhine, the objective of the operation, a realistic objective. That the advance got as far as it did was in spite of the plan, not because of it.

American general Jim Gavin saw this from the outset but kept his mouth shut and distinguished himself during the battle as arguably the most gifted commander. Polish general Stanislaw Sosabowski, in a vain effort to save lives, made the mistake of pointing out to the British what a dumb, stupid plan this was. Hence, in spite of the courage he and his men showed in the fighting, including in rearguard, he was scapegoated by British generals Browning and Horrocks when their incompetence became apparent. (It is clearly a tradition in British public life for incompetents to blame the perspicacious, particularly when foreign, for their own inadequacies).

The book also pays tribute to the courage of Dutch Resistance and civilians in the course of the battle and notes how they bore the brunt of German fury after the Allies had been forced to withdraw.

For my money Antony Beevor’s best book is the Battle for Spain. But this book is a timely reminder of the shocking brutalities of European civil war that the establishment of the European Union finally rendered obsolete.

Vietnam: an epic tragedy 1945 – 1975, by Max Hastings

img_1577Summary: an elegant account of the cruelty of the Vietnam war

A recurrent theme of Max Hastings history books is the pity of war. He returns to that theme again with this work, a fine complement to Ken Burns’ extraordinary television history of the conflict.

Where other military historians – for example Hew Strachan – treat war as a near bloodless continental-scale chess match, or – a flaw with Fergal Keane’s Road of Bones – sometimes lose the reader in the extended descriptions of the squalid killings that make up a battle, Hastings manages the balance between the strategic overview of war and the horrific experiences of the combatants such that each illuminates the other. He is also careful to balance his account with not only French and American perspectives, but also with Vietnamese witnesses from both North and South.

The result is a fine account of the wars in Vietnam from 1945 when nationalist struggles against the French turned bloody, to 1975 and the fall of Saigon and with that the reunification of North and South Vietnam. This includes careful consideration of the most famous battles, including Dien Bien Phu and the Tet Offensive of 1968. But it also includes less well known, sometimes shockingly brutal, episodes. These include the guerrilla offensives by the Viet Cong in the early years of the war – in which communist cadres often assassinated their targets by burying them alive so as not to “waste” a bullet – and the final battles between North and South once the American left. Aspects of the war, such as the weapons and field craft of the combatants, the experiences of US prisoners, and the air war, are treated more thematically giving deeper insight into the ghastliness of what those who experienced it had to endure.

Hastings is particularly scathing about Nixon and Kissinger who cynically used the Vietnam war to further their own political agendas utterly unconcerned about the cost in both Vietnamese and American lives that this entailed. Indeed Ken Burns showed that Nixon went so far as to sabotage Johnson’s efforts to obtain a ceasefire in 1968 to increase his chances of winning the presidential election against his Democratic rival. That Nixon was not impeached for high treason is a matter of historical injustice. Kissinger remains an unindicted war criminal and does not deserve the fawning praise that everyone from Hilary Clinton to Niall Ferguson seems to heap upon this blood-soaked man’s head.

In the context of the US sponsored terrorism of the Phoenix programme, Hastings delivers a damning assessment of former Democratic US Senator Bob Kerrey’s war service. Kerrey lost a leg and won a Congressional Medal of Honour in Vietnam. But the balance of evidence suggests that he achieved little more than the butchery of civilians, including women and children, something that he has subsequently only partially acknowledged.

However Hasting is perhaps less objective in this book than in some of his other history work. He was, after all, a young journalist in Vietnam himself. Many of his generation came to the view that because South Vietnam and the US deserved to lose the war, North Vietnam must deserve to win it. This is a view he now believes to be deeply wrong. While not overlooking the cynicism, bumbling and atrocities of the US and the South, Hastings is careful to note that these were matched, such as in the massacres in Hue during the 1968 Tet Offensive, by the North, and that the brutal totalitarianism of the North compared poorly with the relatively open society that existed in the South.

Perhaps, Hastings notes, if South Vietnam had survived, it would have transformed, as South Korea did, from corrupt dictatorship to vibrant democracy. However it is difficult to see how this could ever have happened. North Vietnam in this account has some of the aspect of Rome during the Punic Wars, such was its implacable determination to win irrespective of the costs.

Hence, Hastings acknowledges, while the young anti-war campaigners in the US and elsewhere were naive in thinking Ho Chi Minh a moral paragon, they were right strategically and ultimately, morally: the war was unwinnable and it is wrong to waste lives on such a struggle. As he notes in the last sentence of the book, if only US and British policy makers had remembered the lessons of this war before blundering into Iraq.

The Fall of the Stone City, by Ismail Kadare

Summary: a dream-like account of the nightmare of totalitarianism

In 1943 the German army approaches the Albanian city of Gjiorkaster, planning a brutal reprisal for an ineffectual Albanian ambush on the column. However the city is home to a close university friend of the German commander, and at a dinner between the two the salvation of the city is negotiated.

Or maybe not. What actually happened at the dinner is a source of much speculation, not least by the Communists who take power after the Germans. They begin to wonder is this actually evidence of some existential threat to their system.

This is a novel of the competing rumours that emerge from this dinner, each as haunting as the dark folk tales that swirl around the city and that these rumours echo. It is a book about the history and culture of Albania, and how the myths of the past cast their bloody influence across time right up to the present day.

It is a strange and haunting story, beautifully written and elegantly translated..

The Border: the legacy of a century of Anglo-Irish politics, by Diarmaid Ferriter

Summary: an elegantly written but blunt introduction to the politics of the British border in Ireland, and the threats to peace that British blundering poses

C66EED07-C7FF-4BF8-9689-5C51CD075777This is a very short book. Doubtless a historian of the calibre of Diarmaid Ferriter could have written a considerably longer one. But with a short book there is the hope, however forlorn, that at least some English people might deign to read it.

Because as this book elegantly demonstrates, it is English ignorance of Ireland that has, in the aftermath of Brexit, done so much to threaten Ireland’s fragile peace.

Margaret Thatcher once infamously stated that Northern Ireland was as British as her own constituency, Finchley. This was, of course, nonsense, as this book shows, and, as Ferriter also shows, something she herself did not even believe. It was only when its particularities and differences within the UK were finally publicly recognised by the British government, that a constitutional settlement could be hammered out, within the context of Ireland and the UK’s common membership fo the European Union, which effectively removed the contentious border in Ireland. This new settlement encompassed, in John Hume’s words, the “totality of the relationships” – within Northern Ireland, between north and south, and between Britain and Ireland. This was then enshrined in an international treaty: the Good Friday Agreement.

With Brexit, and Theresa May’s reliance on the far Right to maintain her premiership, the imperial nostalgists in the Conservative Party and the Protestant Supremacists of the Democratic Unionist Party, who always opposed the Good Friday Agreement, have seized upon this as an opportunity to wreck it. Theresa May herself, never a fan of the rule of international law, has been happy to be steered by their atavistic will into the frontiers of unlawful behaviour, threatening to renege on the UK’s commitments under the Good Friday Agreement, as she seeks to satisfy their fantastical demands.

I’m writing this the morning after the senseless murder of a young journalist, Lyra McKee, on the streets of Derry. Dangerous passions have already been stirred up by British incompetence. But we can be confident this tragedy will not encroach on the consciences of Boris or Stanley Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg, David Davis, self-styled “Brexit hardman” Steve Baker, disgraced former Defence Secretary Liam Fox, or neo-fascist leader Nigel Farage. For them the lives and hopes of the Irish are of no consequence. They will never be bothered to read even this short book.

But any English person who dreams of their country being something more than an intolerant vassal of the United States, should read this. Those who are ignorant of history are already blundering into its bloody repetition.

The Spy and the Traitor, by Ben McIntyre

2E971371-2167-4B7D-AD62-DA061BC69D1ASummary: gripping account of a small portion of the Cold War that gives considerable insight into some of the wider issues

Sub-titled, “The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War” McIntyre’s account of the career of Oleg Gordievsky does make for fascinating reading. 

Gordievsky came from a KGB family – both his father and brother had been officers. But Gordievsky lost the faith. Disgust at the Soviet system, particularly the crushing of the Prague Spring, led to a momentous decision: in 1972, while posted in Copenhagen, he became a double-agent for MI6.

He described his choice as an act of dissidence, in the spirit of great Russian dissidents like Solzhenitsyn. But where Solzhenitsyn could protest through art Gordievsky could only protest with the information and secrets that were his stock in trade.

McIntyre credits Gordievsky with a number of decisive interventions in the Cold War. Most importantly, he argues that warnings from Gordievsky led to Nato changing military exercises that the Soviet leadership had come to believe were cover for an actual nuclear assault on the Warsaw Pact, thus averting the most dangerous moment in world history since the Cuban Missiles Crisis. Gordievsky also played a key role in the developing of good working relationships between Thatcher and Gorbachev, and the US decision to escalate military spending in the belief that this would eventually bankrupt the Soviet Union and lead to its collapse,

Eventually, in spite of MI6’s best efforts to guard Gordievsky’s identity, he was betrayed by a traitor in the CIA, recalled to Moscow and investigated by Soviet counter-intelligence. Convinced that his days were numbered if he did nothing he triggered an MI6 plan to exfiltrate him. The unfolding of this operation, led by future Liberal Democrat peer, Ray Asquith – called Roy Ascot in this book – at the time head of the MI6 station in Moscow, provides a gripping climax to this wholly satisfying account of Cold War combatants.

Oh – and Donald Trump is almost certainly a KGB agent since the 1980s.