A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership, by James Comey

934BEFDC-77C1-44A6-9EC2-6397DDDBEBF8Summary: a meditation on ethical leadership illustrated with war stories from Comey’s life as a prosecutor and his interactions with President Obama, and the moral and intellectual void that is Donald Trump. 

In the heyday of The Two Ronnies one regular, celebrated, segment involved Ronnie Corbett sitting in an armchair and telling a joke. This was never a straightforward affair. It involved Corbett taking every available digression and tangent upon the way before getting to the punchline, which he always landed neatly on at the end of the monologue.

Parts of James Comey’s book are a bit like that. There is a broad chronological structure to the book, particularly in the final chapters dealing with his time as Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation under President Obama, and Trump. But there is a strong thematic element to the earlier chapters, drawing on diverse parts of his life – from working in a grocery store, to his experiences with bullying, to the tragic death of his son – from which he draws what he believes are crucial aspects of ethical leadership.

It is the last chapters that will sell the book – and Comey does, rather satisfyingly, land a few punches on the bloated, bullying, pathetic Donald Trump, who Comey likens to some of the Mafia bosses he helped put in prison. But there is also a more serious purpose to the work – his meditation on ethical leadership – and it is this that may give the book a more enduring appeal long after Trump has been consigned to the dustbin of history.

Comey writes on the second page of this book, “Doubt… is wisdom” and his discussion of some major ethical choices that he has had to deal with over his career in government go some way to illustrating this truth. These include various hard cases of obstruction of justice, confrontations with Dick Cheney over torture, and, of course how he dealt with the notorious case of Hilary Clinton’s emails, something that, when added to the systematic Russian interference in the 2016 US elections, probably cost Clinton the presidency.

Across the course of the book Comey shows how even with matters of enormous moment, perhaps particularly with them, leaders often have to act under pressure with limited information, and frequently their choices boil down to trying to discern the lesser of two evils. This reality will probably resonate with anyone who has ever led anything.

Comey notes that given the stress involved in leadership that humour and laughter are essential, not only for a release of tension but because they are indicative of self-awareness and humility. Hence he is rightly unsettled that Trump appears a completely humourless creature. For himself he makes a few wry remarks and self-depreciating jokes, but he is no Ronnie Corbett. However he is a lucid, and sometimes compelling writer, frequently highly insightful on the subject of ethical leadership, unfailingly gracious in his treatment of those he has worked with, and with some exceptionally interesting stories to tell.

Comey is a highly experienced prosecutor and he presents a strong case in defence of his choices in the course of 2016. Still, while he continues to believe the choices he made were the best he could have managed given the circumstances, he describes feeling sick at the thought that they may have contributed to the election of Trump.

Still, by way of compensation, he suggests that it was his release of a memo of a private meeting with Trump, in which Trump appears to have attempted to obstruct justice, that led to the appointment of a Special Counsel, Robert Mueller, his FBI predecessor, to investigate the allegations of collusion between Trump’s campaign and Russia. So, while Comey may have played an unfortunate role in bringing Trump to the presidency, he may yet also have played a decisive role in removing him from it.

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Road of Bones: The Siege of Kohima 1944, by Fergal Keane

Summary: War is cruelty, and so is reading about it sometimes

In 1989 Alan Clarke and Danny Boyle made a short film for the BBC called Elephant. There was little dialogue, and little narrative. What there was instead was a reenactment of a series of 18 killings based on real incidents from the Troubles in the North of Ireland. The film did not seek to explain the causes of the conflict, which still had almost 10 years left to run when the film was broadcast. Nor did it endeavour to posit what political processes may be needed to end it. Instead it sought only to provide a visceral account of some killings. The cumulative effect of this relentless depiction of deliberate butchery of was one of horror.

I was reminded of that film about half way through this book, which has, as its centrepiece, an account of the siege of Kohima, a bloody portion of a wider battle on the borders of India and Myanmar in 1944. At Kohima the Japanese sought to break through Allied defences and cut loose into North Eastern India. Meanwhile a combined forced of British and South Asian troops, with limited supplies of ammunition and water attempted to thwart these plans from hastily constructed defences.

It’s tough reading: pieced together from diverse accounts of both Allied and Japanese soldiers these central chapters are essentially an anthology of killings. As with the film Elephant the effect, I found, was ultimately one of numbed horror.

I am not sure if this was the intent of Keane with this portion of the book. I found it difficult to make sense from the account of any grand, or even basic, tactical vision of either the defenders or attackers. Certainly the account he presents here reflects the experiences of the soldiers fighting for their own lives and those of their comrades. But the officers who also left accounts were tasked with managing the battle and must have had a broader perspective.

In contrast with the organised chaos of the account of the bloody fighting at Kohima Keane does go to some lengths to place the role of this siege in the wider strategic considerations of Slim, the commander to the British 14th Army, and Mountbatten, the Allied Supreme Commander in South East Asia. He also does a fine job of explaining the British efforts in South East Asia in the context of the geopolitics of the time, including Churchill’s grubby imperialist pretensions.

There is much else admirable about the book, not least Keane’s efforts to bear witness to the story of the Naga allies of the British, a tribal people who stood with the British in their darkest hour at Kohima only to be betrayed by them shortly after when they were no longer needed. Admirably Keane also gives voice to the humanity and experiences of the Japanese who fought in the battle, while never overlooking their brutality and atrocities. The passages describing how the starving Japanese fared in retreat are some of the most powerful of the book.

Ultimately, perhaps as one would expect of Fergal Keane, a veteran correspondent of some of the nastiest conflicts of the past 30 years, he writes of the pity of war and the humanity of those compelled to fight. It is a book that bears witness to Sherman’s blunt observation, “War is cruelty,” and, consequently perhaps, it is at times a gruelling reading experience.

Journey Without Maps, by Graham Greene

Summary: the title is the best bit.

Journey Without Maps is Graham Greene’s account of a hike he took through West Africa in the mid 1930s. Some, notably the writer Tim Butcher, have suggested that his purpose was “espionage”, investigating reports of forced labour in Liberia by the Firestone Rubber Company on behalf of the Anti-Slavery Society. So as a former Director of Anti-Slavery International, the current name of the Anti-Slavery Society, I was curious about the account.

Greene’s report on any atrocities he encountered, if ever there was one, appears to have disappeared. There is a story in Anti-Slavery’s journal of a presentation that Greene gave to an Annual General Meeting on his return to the UK, but I could find little else when I searched the archives of the organization. Still, whatever he communicated on his return was sufficient to get him declared persona non grata by Liberia, and hence posted to Freetown, Sierra Leone, instead of Monrovia, as an MI6 officer during the war.

The depredations of Firestone are alluded to in this text, but not addressed directly. Instead Greene provides an episodic account of his journey, with frequent reflections on life, religion, colonialism, and “native girls’ breasts,” possibly his favourite theme in the entire book.

I came to the book as a great admirer of Greene’s writing: The Quite American, Monsignor Quixote, The Comedians and The Honorary Consul are amongst my favourite novels. Even Stamboul Train, which Greene heartily dismisses in the pages of Journey Without Maps as a potboiler dashed off for money, is an interesting, and barely disguised, meditation on the Passion of Christ.

But this book I found tiresome and uninteresting. The blurb on the cover describes it as one of the greatest travel books of the 20th Century, which rather puts me off all travel books for the rest of my life.

Greene was generally a political progressive – though not in relation to women: he was a notorious connoisseur of brothels his entire life, and one wonders if the description here of a London acquaintance who liked to order women from a Piccadilly bordello as one would a “joint of meat” betrays something of his own attitude. But in spite of his leftish and anti-colonial tendencies the language he uses in this book and the attitudes he displays to local people are tainted by the poisonous and supercilious racism of British colonialism.

I think he probably grew out of much of this: his later work is marked by much greater subtly and maturity. Perhaps the visit to West Africa ultimately helped him find this: an introduction by Paul Theroux notes that Greene himself in later life described this journey as life changing. But while, as a text, it may be important for biographers, I find little to recommend it.

Munich, by Robert Harris

Summary: a tense journey to the heart of banal darkness

As Hitler masses his troops on the border with Czechoslovakia, threatening an invasion that will draw Britain and France into a general European conflagration, Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister contemplates how to avoid war. Surely the sacrifice of a small nation to a tyranny is a reasonable price to pay?

As the leaders of Germany and Britain circle each other two relatively low level civil servants on either side, Hugh Legat and Paul Hartmann, one-time friends at Oxford, begin to renew contact in a bid to avert what is coming.

Harris’ latest thriller is based around the infamous 1938 international conference in Munich. But its most powerful theme for me was the empathetic exploration of the nascent German Resistance. Hartmann, a character who bears a striking resemblance, physically and biographically, to the real Resistance leader Adam von Trott, seems a little mad to his old friend Legat. But Hartmann has seen the true face of Nazism and understands the “power of unreason” that has gripped Germany. So he does not share the British delusions that Hitler is just another politician who reasonable men can do reasonable business with.

Harris has written “counter factual” thrillers, such as “Fatherland” set in a 1960s Germany in which Hitler has won the war, as well as ones more scrupulously rooted in fact, such as the superb “An Officer and a Spy” about the Dreyfus Affair. Consequently one isn’t too sure exactly how this particular story is going to turn out.

The result is a fine and tense exploration of this historical moment, and how even the best of motives can result in the most catastrophic of consequences.

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

Summary: An entertaining biography of the great Kurdish leader who, in the midst of war, introduced chivalry to the West

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.

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

Summary: An impressive attempt to cut through Adam’s lies, obfuscations  and pseudo-intellectualism to understand more properly his role in war and peace-making

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 like Mary Travers, or a single mother like Jean McConville, or burning civilians alive, such as at the La Mon 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 a quasi-divine right to wage war that this may give rise to a culture in which individual members regarded their personal right to use violence as a logical continuation of that mystical claim. 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.

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.