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.

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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.

Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson

102B1280-1D11-4621-BBAA-F47CE042B218Summary: the gripping interwoven tales of an architect and a murderer in 1890s Chicago

The largely now forgotten World Fair in Chicago in 1892 changed the world. Amongst other things it gave us the first large scale testing of electric lighting from alternating current, a vision of how beautiful cities could be instead of the squalid, dirty things they often were, and the Ferris wheel. 

Devil in the White City is a compelling account of how the Head of Works for the Fair, Frank Burnham, a Chicago architect, marshalled the resources of the city to overcome an overwhelming set of organisational, technical and bureaucratic obstacles to deliver this world changing event.

If the book were only about Burnham and the World Fair it would be a compelling, though perhaps niche interest, work. Everyone who was anyone, except Mark Twain, seems to have been involved somehow with the Fair: President Grover Cleveland opened it. Buffalo Bill Cody put on a show there attended by Susan B Anthony; Theodore Dreiser escorted a party of schoolteachers who had won their trip from his newspaper. And amidst the crush of new visitors to Chicago, a doctor and pharmacist by the name of Herman Webster Mudgett, murdered and robbed dozens of innocent men, women and children, unbeknownst to the Chicago Police Department.

Devil in the White City is a combination of social and architectural history interwoven with a tragic and horrific story of a murderer and his desperately sad, trusting victims.  It is an extraordinary work quite unlike anything else I have ever read. 

Apollo 8: the mission that change everything, by Martin W Sandler

Summary: up close to the raggedy edge of human exploration

In 1968 a rocket blasted off from Cape Canaveral in Florida. Its crew were tasked with testing if Jack Kennedy’s ambition of putting a human on the moon before the end of the decade was at all feasible. So untried was the technology they were using and so enormous was the task they had been set, no one was quite sure if everyone on board was going to come back alive.

Human beings at the cutting edge of exploration is a recurrent theme of Marty Sandler’s work, and Apollo 8 is a gripping addition to his oeuvre. It tells the story of the first humans to break the ties of Earth and travel to the orbit of another planet. It is, as one might imagine, filled with incredible drama. But it is also, as Sandler very convincingly argues, a journey which changed the course of human history.

For many space programmes, such as Apollo, seem extravagant wastes of money given the challenges of hunger and poverty that face so many on Earth. Jack Kennedy’s own brother Edward made this very observation in the early 1970s. But, as they orbited the moon the crew of Apollo 8, Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders, became the first humans in history to witness the Earth rising over the horizon of the moon. The photos they took of this captured the public imagination and conveyed in a way that words could not, the fragility of human existence in the vastness of the universe. Consequently it became an impetus for the environmental movement.

Apollo 8 tells the whole story of this extraordinary journey and its implications in Sandler snappy prose style. And the photographs that accompany the text are glorious.

Inglorious Empire: what the British did to India, by Shashi Tharoor

 

World’s Best Taoiseach

Summary: a scathing reminder that treating people with racism and brutality does not generally make a country many friends

A while ago I had a conversation with a South Asian friend about Leo Varadkar, the Irish Prime Minister. “It’s noticeable”, my friend said, “how Leo is being much tougher with the British than his predecessor. Do you know why that is?”

“Why?” I asked.

“It’s because Leo is also Indian,” which indeed he is – his father is from Mumbai. “So when he talks about famine, he is not just thinking of the Irish Famine but also of the British manufactured famines though the history of the Raj, including the appalling one in East Bengal in 1943. When he talks about partition, he is not just thinking of Irish partition, but the much, much, much bloodier British engineered division of the sub-continent into India and Pakistan.”

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Refugees during the Partition of India

Whether or not Leo is thinking about these things as he tries to negotiate with an increasingly disfunctional British government unfettered by reality, Shashi Tharoor, an Indian politician and intellectual certainly is. He details all these atrocities, and more, in his book Inglorious Empire, based upon a celebrated speech to the Oxford Union that he gave in 2015, in which he exposed some of the fundamental truths of Empire that the British conspire so aggressively to forget.

At the time at which the British first began their invasion, India represented over one-quarter of the global economy, dwarfing the UK. Over the subsequent centuries Britain reversed this through systematic transfer of India’s wealth to Britain through an undisguised looting of the sub-continent (“loot” being an Indian word). Violent theft and punitive taxation were the order of the day. Britain also employed an aggressive policy of deindustrialisation, destroying the competition from, among others, India’s shipping, textile and metallurgy industries which, at the beginning of the 18th Century were the most advanced in the world.

Tharoor does acknowledge certain benefits of British colonialism: “tea, cricket, and the English language.” But otherwise his book is a forthright repudiation of the deceitful arguments of hard-Right ideologues such as Niall Fergusson who seeks to recast the brutal, racist project of colonialism as some sort of philanthropic endeavour.

This book must also be a warning to the fantasists of the Brexit movement whose warm fuzzy beliefs about the British Empire are unconstrained by facts or any imaginative understanding of what it meant to those subjugated by its depredations. In the years to come, as Britain becomes the sort of third-rate power that its exit from the European Union entails, ordinary Britons can only hope that, now the boot is on the other foot, India will act towards Britain in future trade and others dealings with a measure of justice that Britain never showed India.

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Bengal famine, 1943

Brexit, Trump and Vladimir Putin’s assault on European and US democracy: The Road to Unfreedom, by Timothy Snyder

img_1459Summary: A terrifying and convincing account of the assault of Russian fascists and their useful idiots upon Western democracy 

Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands, like Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton, is a book that makes you fundamentally rethink your understanding of history. With The Road to Unfreedom Snyder makes us fundamentally rethink our understanding of the present.

The recent political success of far Right elements in the UK, Poland, Hungary and the US are not mere fluctuations in normal politics, Snyder argues. Nor are they solely a product of domestic political turmoil. They are also a consequence of a deliberate and aggressive foreign policy pursued by Vladimir Putin in order to undermine the systems of rule of law that underpin the democracies of the US and the European Union.

Synder argues that since 2010 Vladimir Putin has embraced a particularly Russian brand of fascism, with its pronounced homophobia, as a way in which to entrench in Russian society the kleptocracy over which he presides. Richard Evans, the distinguished British historian takes some issue with this, noting that Putin’s favorite thinker, Ivan Illyin, was a conservative ultra-nationalist rather than a fascist.  However the authoritarianism that Putin has established, like fascist regimes of the past, defines itself by its enemies, and for enemies Putin has chosen the European Union and the United States. Snyder notes that this is not because of anything that these have done, but rather because of what they are. The EU in particular stands as a telling contrast to the Russian Federation. Russia’s thieving oligarchs have made it the most unequal country on earth. On the other hand the EU has provided a better standard of living for its people within the frameworks of human rights and the rule of law, ideas anathema to Russian fascism.

Authoritarianism arrives, Synder notes, “not because people say that they want it, but because they lose the ability to distinguish between facts and desires.” Hence much of Putin’s assault has been in the realm of cyber-space: weaponising systems like Facebook to direct focused, usually fictional, racist, homophobic and anti-democratic propaganda to the users in a way that distorts their perceptions and bolsters their prejudices; or surreptitiously hacking vital information systems, such as those underpinning the US and Ukrainian electoral systems. These cyber-warfare processes are assisted by an array of corrupt “assets” and “useful idiots” who publicly advocate Russia’s desired outcomes even while Putin is attacking their own countries. These include former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, the Czech President Milos Zeman, former Polish Defence minister Antonio Macierewicz, Marin le Pen, the French Far Right leader, Nigel Farage, the disgusting former leader of the UKIP, Seumus Milne, Jeremy Corbyn’s current communications and strategy director, and, of course, Donald Trump and many of his inner circle.

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Putin and his boy

The success of Russian disinformation can be seen in the pages of even the Guardian, which has published puff-pieces for Putin by supposedly Left-wing journalists such as Milne and John Pilger, whose opinions have been untroubled by actual reporting. It is enabled further by the refusal of British and US Republican political leaders to acknowledge the effectiveness of Putin’s undermining of their democracy.

Carol Cadwalladr’s investigations for the Guardian have turned up probable corrupt links between, in particular, the Brexit establishment and Russia. Robert Mueller‘ s investigation in the US hints at exposing further, perhaps treasonous, criminality. But, Synder notes, much of the information about Putin’s web of influence, and his destructive intent is publicly available. Putin has not made his embrace of fascism a secret, frequently citing Ilyin in his speeches, passing aggressive homophobic laws, trampling roughshod over rule of international law with this invasion of Ukraine, and his sneering attitude toward the corruption of the US election.

The invasion of Ukraine is something of a pivotal event in this book. The Russian processes of disinformation and cyber warfare that corrupted both the Brexit vote and the 2016 US elections, bringing the neo-fascist Trump to power in spite of the popular vote against him, may have come into sharp focus with Mueller’s and Cadwalladr’s investigations. But the warning signs were there to be seen with the Russian invasion of Ukraine – a warning that most of Europe and the US failed to heed.

That so much of this has been missed and mis-reported must arise from a lack of proper journalism commissioned by editors with sufficient international awareness to understand emergent trends and geo-politics, and conducted on the ground by investigative journalists fluent in the languages of the countries they are reporting on. Synder dedicates this book to reporters, and it is the investigative journalists of Russia, Ukraine, Poland and elsewhere who have provided much of the raw material upon which Synder constructs this vital history of our times.