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.

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.

Clausewitz On War, by Hew Strachan

Summary: A difficult introduction to a complex work

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.

The First World War, by Hew Strachan

Summary: Forget about those working class oiks in the trenches

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.

Reflections on St Patrick

For many, if they think of him as anything other than an excuse for a party, St Patrick, a Fifth Century priest, may seem a remote figure. But his life still has some powerful contemporary resonances.

Patrick was not born Irish. He was a Briton. Different parts of Britain claim him, but he came from a Romanised family somewhere on the west coast. As a young man he was kidnapped by an Irish raiding party and trafficked across the Irish Sea into slavery. After six years he escaped and returned to his family, and his studies, in Britain. Eventually, after study in other parts of Europe, he became a priest.  His story would probably not be one that is remembered by history but for the fact that after this, in a remarkable display of personal magnanimity, he decided to return to Ireland, the land that had enslaved him, as a missionary.

There are many fanciful legends associated with Patrick, including how he rid the country of snakes. But he left two written documents: his Confessions, a spiritual auto-biography from which many of the details of his life are known; and his Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus, a furious protest against the murder and enslavement of members of Patrick’s congregation by a raiding party of pirates, probably composed of Patrick’s fellow Britons. The anger of this protest was doubtless further sharpened by Patrick’s own bitter memory of the violence of slavery.

There are many powerful echoes from Patrick’s life with the contemporary world: For example, in a world where poisonous xenophobia seems to have taken hold in so many places the story of Patrick’s transformation from immigrant to an emblem of the country he adopted as his own stands in counterpoint. And in his protest against the war crimes of Coroticus and his men Patrick, the former slave, gave nascent voice to the ideals of human rights and anti-slavery in Western Europe.

Across the world today other immigrants work to make their adopted countries better places, other slaves and former slaves resist the systems of slavery that still persist. St Patrick’s Day is a good time to remember them, and remember that after today’s parties a long struggle lies ahead of us to fulfil some of the ideals that they, and Patrick, represent.