Saladin: the life, the legend, and the Islamic Empire, by John Man

When a European army took Jerusalem in 1099 at the climax of the First Crusade, the slaughter of Muslim combatants and of Muslim and Jewish non-combatants, women, children and men, was so great that it was said the conquerors’ horses waded up to their bridles in blood. A century later when Saladin retook the city for Islam there was no such carnage. Instead Saladin allowed most of the city’s Christian population to depart in peace after paying a ransom.

Of course, as a man of his times, Saladin was not always so merciful. After inflicting a crushing defeat on Crusader forces at the battle of Hattin, Saladin had the Hospitaller and Templar survivors executed by inexperienced swordsmen whose clumsy hacking to death of the prisoners provided much sanguinary amusement for his more experienced troops.

John Man’s fast-paced, entertaining and informative biography of the great Muslim leader recounts the life and times of this legendary Kurd from relatively humble origins to enormous military and political power in spite of the the efforts of an obscure Islamic sect, the Assassins, to kill him. Over time Saladin managed to unite much of the hitherto squabbling Sunni Islamic world, welding them into a sufficient force to be able to confront the disparate Crusader states.

The peak of Saladin’s career, the battle of Hattin, opened the way to Jerusalem for him, but did not deliver him the prize. One of the few Crusader survivors of the battle was the knight Balian of Ibelin, who afterwards sought refuge in the city of Tyre while Saladin began his moves towards Jerusalem. This is where Balian’s wife resided.

Man recounts the story of how Balian sought a parole from Saladin to go and retrieve his wife, which Saladin granted. On entering Jerusalem the citizens begged Balian to remain and lead the defence of the city. Given their desperate state – most of Jerusalem’s garrison had been killed at Hattin – Balian sent a message to Saladin asking to be released from his parole, a request which Saladin again granted.

This story is one of many – alongside, for example, the one of how Saladin, in the midst of battle, sent two horses to King Richard to replace the one that had been just killed beneath him – that are frequently presented to demonstrate Saladin’s enormous chivalry. However it has always struck me as evidence of something perhaps more intriguing.

Man notes how Crusader and Muslim populations lived so close to each other that trade and even friendship often grew up. This story seems to suggest to me that what actually happened may have been less to do with abstract chivalry and more to do with a politically astute commitment to mercy. Perhaps what was really going on was an arrangement between Saladin and his friend Balian to mount a defence of Jerusalem that, after a decent show, could lead to a negotiated surrender of the city to the Muslim forces without the necessity of storm and the inevitable massacre that would result.

Whatever the underlying truth this is what ultimately happened. And the contrast between the atrocities of the Crusaders and the vastly more moderate approach of Saladin has helped to rightfully make the Muslim leader such an enduring legend in the hundreds of years since his death.

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Gerry Adams: An Unauthorised Life, by Malachi O’Doherty

In her book, Every Secret Thing, Gillian Slovo’s magisterial memoir of her parents, Ruth First and Joe Slovo, she reflects on the nature of clandestine life, how deceit becomes an all pervasive thing, a way of existence and a habit of living rather than something that can be easily compartmentalised.

This phenomenon may go some way towards explaining the inscrutability of Gerry Adams, a man who has lived much of his life clandestinely: while he has always denied even membership of the organisation most observers of the North of Ireland, myself included, believe him to have been a long-time leader in the IRA, including a period up to the atrocious La Mon bombing as Chief of Staff.

Malachi O’Doherty makes a serious effort with this book to understand what makes Gerry Adams tick. While he follows a straightforward biographical narrative the book is also something of a philosophical and psychological reflection upon the man and his choices to make war and to make peace.

Throughout his entire career there seems to be one constant with Adams: his belief in the IRA as a moral absolute. Any individual who had committed themselves to this is therefore entitled to unquestioning respect irrespective of what they have done, whether it is murdering a young woman teacher, Ann Travers, or a single mother, Jean McConville, or burning civilians alive, at the LaMon Hotel. Anyone who criticises the perpetrators and their actions renders themselves politically suspect and morally indefensible in Adams’ eyes. It is as if Pope Urban’s promise of forgiveness of all sins for those who went on Crusade in the Eleventh Century has been purloined wholesale by Adams in his perspective on those who waged his armed struggle.

Other leaders and generals, Adams’ own description of himself, have similar perspectives on their troops. Theresa May’s stated intent to remove the British military from the scrutiny of the European Convention of Human Rights suggests a similar attitude to another group of professional killers.  Perhaps they share the understanding that, as Sherman pointed out, “war is cruelty”. So, having asked men and women to wage it, it is perhaps hypocritical to demand limits on their cruelty once it has been unleashed in what one regards as noble purpose.

I don’t agree that war should ever be unconstrained and believe that those who make war criminals of themselves should be held accountable. But this book does remind us how many of those who were caricatured as evil villains during the Troubles were enormously courageous and self-sacrificing. But courage is not the highest of human virtues – I would say compassion is. And a further thing that this book reminds us is that the dark side of courage is how it can facilitate atrocity.

I was never an admirer of Adams during the Troubles. I found his thinking at best shallow and at worst cock-eyed. I found his justifications for war glib. Adams never seems to have recognised that having claimed for his army an anti-democratic right to use violence that this may give rise to a culture in which individual members claimed a personal right to violence. Nor yet does he seem to have recognised that such a culture might have some relationship to the “unauthorised” operations – murdering civilians and covering up those murders – and the sexual violence that some members indulged in, and in which the leadership seems to have acquiesced.

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John Hume and Gerry Adams

I know that Adams has the reputation of being an intellectual amongst the IRA. But true intellectualism resides in rigorous engagement and testing of your ideas with alternative concepts and perspectives. Adams never had this until he began to sit down with John Hume in a protracted dialogue that gave rise to the peace process.

O’Doherty shows that Adams was indispensable in making the peace. So in spite of all his sins and flaws he does indeed deserve the gratitude of the peoples of Ireland and Britain. Certainly when history judges him, it should be more favourable to him than to those self serving clowns in the British Establishment who, at time of publication of this gripping and elegantly written book, have put the peace at risk with their thoughtless blundering.

Finally: The Benefits of Brexit

Over the past months I have noticed a recurrent question on social media asking users to name a single benefit of Brexit.

I have managed to think of a few. In future there will be access to duty free in Dublin Airport for the flights to London. And, when the UK government inevitably betrays the DUP and sets the border between UK and Ireland down the middle of the Irish Sea, as the desperate price they must pay to get a trade deal with the EU, that will be a significant step towards the reunification of Ireland. Though, of course, given that the path towards a reconciliation amongst the Irish people was already set by the Good Friday Agreement this particular benefit could probably have been happily forgone.

But aside from these the search for Brexit benefits has been a forlorn quest. Brexiters have long been flummoxed when challenged to name which particular European laws they objected to. And even the dimmest seem finally to have realised that the stories of bendy bananas were preposterous myths and the promises of £350 million a week for the UK’s National Health Service were cynical lies.

But of course there are enormous benefits of Brexit for some, though not of course the vast majority of those deceived into voting for it, or even the racists and xenophobes for whom economic concerns are secondary to ones of hatred.

No, those who will benefit are an entirely different stripe of ideologue. They are a political and social elite who campaigned against the EU to concentrate power more firmly into their hands, irrespective of the social and economic cost to the majority.

For all their talk of the sovereignty of parliament the first fruits of their labours will be obtained if the Repeal bills currently before parliament are enacted into law and they are granted the sweeping Henry VIII powers those bills request. Such powers will enable ministers, for years to come, to make law without recourse to parliament.

And these powers are then likely to be used to enable the political elite to reward some of their most cynical backers: those who have chaffed against the regulations from the EU that have protected workers’ rights, environmental standards and food safety. They will get the regulatory bonfire they have long craved and that leading Brexiters have been promising.

As the proportions and specific horrors of the catastrophe that will be Brexit become clearer by the day, it seems beyond rationality that the UK government still seems intent on embracing the disaster. But for some at the most senior levels of government this seems a price worth paying for supreme power in the devastated aftermath.

That the opposition Labour Party, wrapped up in its fantasies of some post-Trotskyist “People’s Brexit”, is so pusillanimously facilitating this careening towards disaster is even more bizarre. But then the careers of those, Left and Right, who are facilitating this mess, will naturally have come to an end as the reality bites, and they will be in comfortable retirement as the next generation scrambles to pick up the pieces.

To Kill the President, by Sam Bourne

img_1289Summary: Dreams of a better world

To Kill the President starts with Donald Trump coming within 7 seconds of ending the world by trying to launch a nuclear attack on North Korea and China. Things get tense after that.

Former Washington Guardian correspondent, Jonathan Freedland, writing under the pseudonym of Sam Bourne, here crafts a disturbingly plausible depiction of the Trump presidency as a krypto-Nazi one presided over by a petulant and bullying overgrown child. Of course the name of the president is never uttered, but his turn of speech, Twitter addiction, disinterest in facts, narcissism, inattention to detail and penchant for sexual assault all have Trump writ larger than his tiny, tiny hands.

Faced with this grotesque threat to human civilisation a small group of patriotic Americans decide they have no choice but to remove him from office, by whatever means necessary. Their efforts are stumbled upon by a White House Counsel, Maggie Costello, an appointee of the previous administration who is nevertheless kept on by the new regime who want a least a few competent professionals to remain.

Maggie is an outsider in every way in the new dispensation: a woman in a misogynistic administration, foreign (Irish), leftist and cosmopolitan amongst the xenophobic Fascists. She is an intriguing protagonist: flawed, almost fatally, but smart and tenacious too, by way of compensation.

To Kill the President is a compelling thriller, perfect escapism for those who want a brief respite from the horrors of contemporary reality.

The Whydah: A Pirate Ship Feared, Wrecked and Found, by Martin W. Sandler

Summary: A fine young adult account of the heyday of piracy in the Americas, with plenty of interesting detail for the more jaded.

On the night of 26 April 1717 the pirate ship, the Whydah foundered off the coast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, bringing to an end the short but spectacular career of Black Sam Bellemy and over 130 of his crew. They had spent the previous year raiding and looting with impressive efficiency honest merchant shipping from the Caribbean to Maine.

Of course the thing was that much of this legitimate commerce that Bellamy and his crew were so dangerously disrupting was based on the “triangular trade”, the genocidal system that captured, tortured and enslaved Africans to enrich the Western world.

The Whydah, is a narrative history for young adults focussing on the story of the ship from its launch to the discovery of its wreck. By way of full disclosure: the author, Marty Sandler, is one of my best friends in the entire world, so I was positively disposed to like this book even before I picked it up.

Having said that this is an important book. Because in focussing on this sliver of history, Marty illuminates a much wider society in a way that many, even today, would rather not contemplate.

Marty presents evidence to show pirate society, violent and avaricious as it was, to be in many ways vastly more admirable than the system of Western “civilisation” against which it rebelled and fought. For example the pirate ships were democracies, electing their officers, and amongst the very few places in the 18th Century where Blacks and Whites lived and worked as equals. Some of the pirate captains even had ethical objections to the slave trade.

IMG_1266The Whydah is a book that will encourage young people to think and question the myths and fables their more powerful elders tell them. And for those of us who occasionally like to look out to sea, it reminds us how the horizon was once speckled with wooden boats, filled with desperate men and women, prepared to try to steal a better life from those who denied such a thing to them.

Somethings have changed since then.  Today the desperate have plastic boats.

PT 109: An American Epic of War, Survival, and the Destiny of John F Kennedy, by William Doyle

Summary: A gripping war story that gets to the heart of important truths about both war and Jack Kennedy

In 1945 John Ford made a cracking war movie called “They Were Expendable” about the exploits of a motor torpedo (PT) boat unit, including, of course, John Wayne, defending the Philippines against the Japanese onslaught.

The thing about the movie though, was that the capabilities of the PT boat therein portrayed were horseshit. The PT boat was a lousy weapon. Its torpedoes were close to useless as, due to technical flaws in their design, they rarely hit their targets let alone detonated. Few of the PT boats were equipped with radar though they were expected to fight in the darkest of nights. And these mahogany constructions were sent into conflict against much more heavily armed and steel armoured destroyers. This was only slightly more hopeful, in military terms, than sending a mime troupe to attack a panzer division, to borrow from Milan Kundera. Indeed in this book William Doyle notes that of the three confirmed sinkings of major ships by PT boats during the Second World War, one of them was American.

This was the branch of the Navy that Jack Kennedy, millionaire son of the former US ambassador to the Court of St James’s and best selling author of Why England Slept, joined in the Solomon Islands in 1943. It made him president.

Dave Powers, a friend and aide to Jack, once commented that, “Without PT 109 there would never have been a President John F Kennedy.” The legend of Jack’s fortitude and leadership following the sinking of his boat during a small battle in which 15 ill-equipped PT boats were sent to ineffectually attack a convoy of Japanese destroyers, was the foundation upon which Jack’s political career was built. But the story of this relatively brief episode in Jack’s relatively brief life is more important for a number of reasons, not least, after over half a century of muck raking and character assassination, it has proven pretty close to impossible to tarnish this truth of his heroism during those days.

Certainly it has been tried. Doyle notes the simmering accusation that it was Jack’s incompetence as a boat skipper that led to his boat being sunk, the only PT boat to have been sunk by ramming during the course of the war. However Doyle’s account of the ill-conceived battle in which the sinking occurs offers evidence that this is an unfair charge and that it was ill-luck on Jack’s part exploited by an imaginatively aggressive Japanese commander, Kohei Hanami, that led to the sinking. Later Kennedy, in a comment that gains enormous retrospective poignancy, noted his thoughts just before the moment of impact: “This is how it feels to be killed.”

He didn’t die then and went on to play a decisive role in saving the lives of his surviving crew. Doyle notes: “The longest Olympic swimming event staged before then, the men’s 4,000 metre freestyle race, was held only once, in 1900. Fourteen of the twenty-eight competitors… “did not finish” and the distance was promptly retired. On the afternoon of August 2, 1943, John F. Kennedy covered the same distance, plus a mile more, over open water, behind enemy lines in broad daylight…All the while he bit on a strap and towed a badly burned sailor along with him. Simultaneously … leading nine other men.. towards safety… it was an astonishing feat his crewmen never forgot.”

Once rescued with the crucial help of courageous Solomon Island scouts and an Australian Coastwatcher, he refused the option to return to the States but remained in the combat zone for months more. During that time he helped save the lives of 10 more Americans before ill-health forced him home.

For all his other flaws, these events, and those of the Cuban Missiles Crisis, more starkly than any others, show the greatness at the heart of Jack Kennedy. Indeed, it was almost certainly his experience of the chaos of warfare in the Solomons that stiffened Kennedy’s moral courage to face down the hawks in his administration and save the world from nuclear annihilation during that Crisis.

PT 109 is a gripping book about war, endurance and a young man leading in the most horrendous of circumstances. Would that there was someone with the qualities that Jack Kennedy displayed then in the White House today.

Small Vices, by Robert B Parker

Summary: Spenser on sparkling form

Spenser’s pal, the high-flying lawyer Rita Fiore, hires him to look into the conviction of a black man, Ellis Alves. Alves, a petty criminal with a history of sexual violence, has been sent to prison for the apparent sexual murder of a young student. The thing is, Alves, unpleasant a human being as ever there was, might not have actually done it.

Spenser starts poking about in the case with his usual mixture of insight and irreverence and finds the cases against Alves to be a bit on the fishy side. All the more so when folk start showing up threatening to do him violence for asking questions in the wrong places. In this instance, however, the violence that they are threatening may, for once, be more than Spenser can handle, even with the capable assistance of his buddy, Hawk.

Parker’s Spenser is a great creation – smart, kind and tough in equal measures, in the mould of the classic knight errant of American gumshoe literature, dwelling amidst a great community of characters, cops and crooks alike. This is a particularly satisfying episode in his literary career, when he finds himself faced with an opponent who may be his martial superior. All in all, a  great episode in the Spenser canon.