Clausewitz On War, by Hew Strachan

I was not very impressed by Hew Strachan’s book, The First World War: Strachan seemed to me much too enamoured with the grand strategy of that war to the exclusion of the human cost for either civilian populations, or for the ordinary soldiers who fought on the diverse battlefields of that war.

This, nevertheless, is an interesting introduction to Clausewitz’s tome, a famously difficult and unfinished work, beloved by professional soldiers and armchair militarists alike.

Some of Clausewitz’s more famous dictums are now well known, such as the idea that, “War is the continuation of politics by other means”. But this can belie the complexity of his thought which was still evolving as he wrote, based on his study and his experience of fighting in the Napoleonic wars,. His experiences with the Russian forces during Bonaparte’s 1812 invasion was particularly influential as he realised that he had participated in one of the most novel campaigns in history.

The complexity of Clausewitz’s thought means that, aside from a interesting biographical chapter, Strachan’s book is itself complex. I think I would need to read it at least twice to begin to grasp some of the ideas properly. So perhaps this is not a book meant for the casual reader but for one preparing to tackle Clausewitz’s On War itself as part of a serious programme of study.

However there is still something to be gleaned from this for the average citizen. Clausewitz remains enormously influential on policy makers and war planners, and as war continues to deface the contemporary world these are ideas which are important to understand. As Clemenceau said, and as Jack Kennedy proved during the Cuban Missiles Crisis, war is much too important to be left to the generals.

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The Red Moth, by Sam Eastland

As the German Army is approaching the gates of Leningrad, a light aircraft is brought down by Russian troops. The couriers on board are carrying a painting of a red moth.  

When news of this peculiar cargo reaches Stalin, his suspicion is aroused. So he summons his best investigator, Inspector Pekkala, to enquire into the meaning.

Inspector Pekkala is something of a literary cousin of Philip Kerr’s inspired creation Bernie Gunther, another honest detective in the midst of a monstrous system. However unlike Gunther, who is believably worn down over the years by violence and compromise, Pekkala seems almost superhumanly incorruptible: undiminished and undaunted, even in the face of Stalin’s rage.

The interplay between Pekkala and Stalin is very entertaining, but it did bother the history student in me. In these books Stalin comes across more as a stern police captain rather than the genocidist whose paranoid purges of his own military and bureaucracy brought his country to the brink of ruin. Yet both Pekkala, and his side kick Kirov, manage their intimate service to this psychotic in a way that keeps their hands clean, the consciences clear, and their integrity as human beings undimmed. This aspect of the story does demand that whatever structure the reader is suspending their disbelief from has to be stretched a bit further to cross this historical chasm.

This quibble aside, The Red Moth is a hugely entertaining excursion to the battlefields of the Eastern Front, and Eastland’s familiarity with the milieu of Stalinist Russia does paint an engaging portrait of life in those bloody times.

The First World War, by Hew Strachan

This is a history of the First World War from the perspective of the High Commands. There is little consideration of the experiences of the ordinary soldiers, or of the civilian populations, though the appalling depredations that they experienced in many places are noted.

Instead Strachan endeavours to show the war for the world struggle across multiple fronts that it was, rather than confine his consideration to the trenches of the Western Front. As far as these are concerned, he notes, the “horror of the trenches” was much less horrible than the horror of mobile warfare and open battle when the majority of the casualties occurred.  

Amongst the themes that the book explores is the idea that this was a purposeful war in which the liberalism of the Entente – Britain, France, Russia, and latterly the USA – confronted the conservative militarism of the Central Powers – Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire. From this emerged the geo-politics of the Twentieth and now Twenty-First centuries.  

He also argues that the legend of “lions led by donkeys” regarding the armies, particularly of the British, is unfair. Instead he argues that the generals when confronted with the new challenges of industrialised warfare learned to develop new and effective tactics and operational approaches. 

And yet – when all is said and done even with Strachan’s cogent survey of the strategy and conduct of the war lords – the First World War continues to leave an impression of a war blundered into by a group of imperial leaders with little concern for the their people. Strachan notes that this perspective grew in popularity in the years after the war. But it was certainly present in some form during the war when the combatant poet Wilfred Owen noted how these “old men” were, content, individually and collectively, to watch “half the seed of Europe” slaughtered “one by one”. 

Strachan’s erudition means that this book is not one that can be set aside lightly. But it’s sympathy for the high commanders and lack of attention to the plights of the ordinary soldiers and civilians does leave me with a niggling feeling that perhaps, as Dorothy Parker once suggested of another book, it should be flung aside with great force. 

The Wonga Coup, by Adam Roberts

img_1101In March 2004 a group of mercenaries led by a former British officer, Simon Mann, attempted to undertake a coup in Equatorial Guinea, one of the nastiest dictatorships in Africa. Of course the motivation of Mann and his cronies was not in the least humanitarian, but rather a hope of getting their greedy hands on the country’s considerable oil wealth.

They had form as “soldiers of fortune”. Mann and co were behind Executive Outcomes, a mercenary operation that stiffened the Angolan army’s campaign against the UNITA rebels during that country’s civil war. Those escapades helped Mann become a millionaire.

However while Mann may have had some considerable tactical skills that could contribute to the winning of battles, his talents as an organiser of coups were much less impressive. The plan was bedevilled from the outset by difficulties with logistics and supply, not least of weapons. In the end the amateurishness of their efforts, particularly in the organisers’ inability to keep their plans secret, meant that the coup was easily rolled up by Zimbabwean, South African and Equatorial Guinean intelligence services before a shot was fired. Many of the plotters spent years in dreadful prisons in Zimbabwe and Equatorial Guinea.

In addition to a forensic detailing of the twists and turns of the plot The Wonga Coup has a number of interesting revelations. For a start Mann’s plot wasn’t the first to threaten the Equatorial Guinea dictatorship. The novelist Fredrick Forsyth, it seems, had tried to organise the same thing in the 1970s to install as president his friend, Odumegwu Emeka Ojukwu, the former head of Nigeria’s Katanga secessionists. He failed, but the experience provided him with the detailed research for a novel, The Dogs of War.

The Wonga Coup also details the involvement in the coup of Mark Thatcher, repellant son of the vile former British Prime Minister. Thatcher comes across as just as unpleasant as you might imagine and the account of his downfall at the hands of the South African justice system and its anti-mercenary laws is probably the most deeply satisfying part of the book.

Overall The Wonga Coup is a carefully researched and elegantly written account of a bunch of wealthy, grasping thieves’ efforts to enrich themselves further, and brought down by the extent of their own overweening arrogance that rendered them capable of overlooking even their own incompetence.

Prisoners of Geography: Ten maps that tell you everything you need to know about global politics, by Tim Marshall

Recently I was at a meeting with a pro-Brexit member of the British parliament who, six months after the referendum on Britain’s future in Europe, still did not understand the difference between the European Court of Justice and the European Court of Human Rights. Not everyone has to know that of course. But when the person in question is taking decisions that they promise will lead to a better tomorrow, one does expect them to have a firm grasp of the basic facts of today.

Prisoners of Geography is about some of those key and immutable facts. It is about the imperatives that are imposed upon political leaders by the geography within which they find their countries and how they feel compelled to respond.

For example Russia needs a warm water port for its navy. This allows it to project its military power across the oceans and be recognised as a world power. So, when Ukraine displayed a desire to move towards the European Union and Nato it did what it felt was necessary and reclaimed the Crimea and with that Sevastopol, the only warm water port available to it.

Similarly the historical Russian habit of extending its empire into Eastern Europe as far as the borders of Germany is explained by the vulnerability of Moscow to attack from the West across the Northern European Plain. Occupying Poland where the plain is at its narrowest, as it has frequently done, therefore increases Russia’s security from attack.

Another area of potential risk is the artic where Russia’s wish to control the energy sources there could put it on course for a clash with Nato.

Reading this book in the aftermath of 2016 US presidential election was a sobering experience. Marshall reminds us that the United States has a treaty with Taiwan which requires it to go to war if Taiwan is invaded. Something that would spark an invasion by China would be formal recognition by the US of Taiwan as an independent country. Fortunately “there is no sign of that”. Or at least there wasn’t until the US’s gerrymandered electoral system put a narcissist with a disinterest in facts and a xenophobia about China into the Oval Office.

Prisoners of Geography is illuminating not just on these contemporary geopolitical issues, but also on a range of developmental issues: why have Africa and South America developed, or failed to develop, as they have; how geography shaped European history and why the peace the continent has experienced over the past 70 years is not inevitable but the result of conscious political choice in the shape of the European Union. It also throws light on contemporary conflicts in the Middle East, between India and Pakistan, and in the Korean Peninsula.

I was mildly disappointed that there was no chapter on the geopolitics of Britain and Ireland, particularly as Brexit threatens to dangerously reshape the relations between the two islands once again. But, as Brexit also shows, as so much of the UK population and political class is utterly disinterested in reality at this moment in history perhaps there is no point.

Prisoners of Geography is a lucidly written and compelling book. It reminds us why the world is still a dangerous place. It is more dangerous still when power is put into the hands of the intellectually lazy, utterly disinterested in the facts.

The Black House, by Peter May

A man is found murdered on Lewis, in the Scottish islands. The modus operandi of the killer is similar to that of a case that Fin McLeod, a Lewis native now a Detective Inspector, is investigating in Edinburgh. So Fin is sent North, returning home for the first time in 18 years, to see if he can be of any assistance to the police team investigating the Lewis case. What he finds reawakens a whole series of long suppressed memories. 

The Black House starts routinely (“There’s been a MURDER!”) enough as that classic trope: a police procedural with a flawed, troubled detective at its centre. But it quickly turns into something else. In significant part the book is about growing up, and a major portion of the book is told in the first person as Fin reminisces on his childhood, and the days leading up to his departure to university in Glasgow. This reminded me a lot of Seamus Deane’s sublime novel of childhood, family, politics and war in post-partition Derry, Reading in the Dark.   
Interspersed with this is the procedural part of the book, in the “present”, which is told in the third person. It is not at all clear until close to the end of the book just how these two parts relate to each other. But they ultimately merge very elegantly.

The Black House is the first part of a trilogy, and it is a hugely entertaining novel of life and crime, with a strikingly unusual setting in the Western Islands. I look forward to the rest of the series.

The Great Siege: Malta 1565, by Ernle Bradford

img_1080In 1564 the Ottoman Sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent, decided to try to put paid, once and for all, to the religious-fanaticism tinged piracy on Turkish shipping of the Knights of St John. To do this he aimed to capture their base on the island of Malta. By early summer 1565 he had put his plan in motion and managed to land a force of over 30,000 crack troops on the island to confront the ten thousand or so knights and men-at-arms under the command of the Order.

So began the first great siege of Malta, and it was an extraordinarily vicious and bloody affair.

Ernle Bradford (1922-86), the author, was a participant in the second great siege of Malta, during the Second World War, as a navigator on a Royal Navy destroyer. So he brings to this account of the battle a strong sense of what it means to wage war on this island.

Bradford is a generous and fair-minded chronicler of the battle, recognising the extraordinary courage of both Christian and Ottoman forces, and the extraordinary barbarism with which they fought each other. For example frequently the Ottomans would execute their prisoners by means of bastinado. Or, following the Turkish capture of one of the Knights’ forts, St Elmo, La Valletta, the Grand Master of the Knights, ordered the Ottoman positions to be bombarded with the heads of murdered Turkish prisoners of war. Such courage and barbarism had the same roots: a belief in the evil of their opponents and a conviction that death in the Holy War in which they fought was the noblest thing, and that it would lead to immediate transportation to paradise.

The outcome of the battle shaped decisively the course of European and Ottoman history. But more than that, the conduct of the battle remains vitally relevant. It gives an insight into the frightening violence that can emerge when human beings believe themselves in possession of so absolute a truth that it not only allows them, but requires them, to be the judge of others.