Warriors: Life and death among the Somalis, by Gerald Hanley

Summary: An exquisite book about an unusual aspect of the Second World War in a part of the world that is still little known and understood

Warriors is Gerald Hanley’s account of his experiences during the Second World War when he was posted to Somalia as an officer with the King’s African Rifles. Somali friends have described it to me as the best book about Somalia written by a foreigner.

Hanley was not a typical British officer. An Irish Catholic from Liverpool, he was politically anti-colonialist, and so had an instinctive sympathy for those on the receiving end of the British Imperial project. He seems also to have had a particular fascination with Somalia and the Somalis. He appreciated their fierce individualism, and perhaps had some sense of kinship with them: the stories he tells, of their raiding, their magic and their poetry, has echoes of the Ulster cycle of legends from Iron Age Ireland.

Later Hanley led Somalis in battle in Burma. He remembered how the Somalis appreciated the Japanese there. They were a rarity: an enemy that the Somalis could go hand to hand with who would not run away. 

The troops of the King’s African Rifles were from many parts of Africa and many different cultures and communities. But they were united by the common usage of “army Swahili” as their medium of communication.

Hanley reflects at one point that this common language and the experience of common purpose and mutual dependence that war brought gave him a glimpse of a community that the British Empire could have been. But of course, he was also aware that the very moment he discerned this possibility it was already too late. Such a vision was already fatally undermined by the British Empire’s original sins of theft, racism and subjugation.

But it’s a reflection that I was reminded of this week when the Scottish elections delivered a decisive mandate for a new independence referendum. In response English politicians and commentators again made assertions that Britain is “better together”. But it is far too late for this hollow argument after half a decade of concerted campaigning and government intent on proving that the UK is a singularly English project in which the hopes and fears of subordinate nations simply don’t matter. English contempt for Irish peace, for the Scots, and indeed for the rest of Europe, apart from Putin’s Russia, is hardly any foundation for a community of equals.

So, fifty years after the first publication of Warriors, the UK looks as doomed as the British Empire. That’s also probably a good thing.

The Splendid and the Vile, by Eric Larson; and Destiny in the Desert, by Jonathan Dimbleby

Summary: Two somewhat contrasting views of Churchill as war leader

I know a lot of people have become passionate about The Splendid and the Vile, Eric Larson’s narrative of Churchill’s first year as prime minister. Drawing on accounts, such as private secretary Jock Colville’s diaries, the book seeks to paint a picture of both the private and the public man during this period when invasion seemed imminent.

Following Larson’s fascinating account of murder during the Chicago World Fair, Devil in the White City, I was warmly disposed to this book. I found it all a bit hagiographic though. Churchill is an interesting biographical subject because he is problematic. A racist and an imperialist contemptuous of the starvation of Indians during the 1943 Bengal famine, he nevertheless played a decisive role in the preservation of democracy in Europe. But Larson’s portrait of Churchill is one without the warts.

Dimbleby provides a much more balanced depiction of Churchill in his account of the north African campaigns. As with his later very fine book, The Battle of the Atlantic, Dimbleby pays lip service to Churchill’s genius. But, as with the fighting in the Atlantic, he shows that Churchill’s choices and decisions in the desert displayed a considerable operational fickleness in part influenced by geo-strategic and political considerations. Nevertheless, in both theatres one gets a very strong impression that Churchill had a tendency to get distracted with other enthusiasms and adventures before finishing the urgent task in hand. For example, he did not finish the conquest of Libya before peeling off troops from the North African armies in a forlorn effort to prevent Greece from falling into Axis hands. This then allowed Rommel’s entry to North Africa via Libya with all the bloody problems that that subsequently caused.

In other words, Churchill was often the author of the very problems that he said caused him sleepless nights. But he was forever adept at blaming others, and the desert generals were a rich source of scapegoats for him to pin the consequences of his own blundering on. Wavell carried the can for the failures in Libya. Auchinleck, in spite of brilliant success in first El Alamein, earned similar disfavour for refusing to launch a premature attack. Finally, Churchill settled upon the repulsive Montgomery who attacked on the very schedule that Churchill had sacked Auchinleck for advocating. 

Churchill used to say history would be kind to him as he planned to write it, which he did. But now there are other books available. So it is possible to obtain a more clear eyed, and interesting, view of the man than Larson manages.

Gettysburg: The last invasion, by Allen C Guelzo

Summary: a fine account of a key turning point of the American Civil War

At the beginning of July 1863 Robert E Lee, commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, invaded Pennsylvania. Lee reckoned that victory in the North, and the final defeat of the Army of the Potomac, would guarantee Confederate success in the war.

He picked his moment well. The Army of the Potomac was in disarray having suffered a major defeat at Chancellorsville in April. This brought about the replacement of that army’s latest commander, Joe Hooker, with the uninspiring George Meade. In addition after years of bloody conflict the people of the North were sick of fighting and Lincoln looked set to lose the 1864 election to a Democrat who would certainly sue for peace.

Lee’s plan was to concentrate his forces close to the town of Gettysburg and then defeat the Army of the Potomac in element as it moved up to intercept him. This would then have opened the road to Philadelphia and even the possibility of capturing Washington DC.

However Lee’s plan was thwarted by one of Meade’s subordinate generals, John Reynolds. Reynolds’ cavalry located Lee and alerted him to bring the rest of his Corps up to Gettysburg to disrupt the Confederate’s concentration.

So began three days of desperate and murderous fighting. One of the first casualties was John Reynolds, killed leading his troops into position. But the Union held the high ground at the end of the first day in spite of Lee’s best efforts. By the end of the day Meade arrived on the field, not exactly gruntled that he was being effectively forced by his subordinates to fight at a place not of his choosing .

Meade’s caution was understandable as the second day of the battle saw the Union almost losing the fight on multiple occasions. Famously Joshua Chamberlain held the extreme flank of the Union lines with an imaginative bayonet charge at a critical moment. But, as Guelzo points out, the fame of Chamberlain’s charge was principally the result of the fact that of the commanders on that flank of the army, he was the only one to survive. Paddy O’Rourke who commanded a New York regiment there, and their brigade commander, Strong Vincent, both made decisive interventions in the fighting but were killed and so did not live to tell the world their stories.

But the “sublime” moment of the battle, as far as Guelzo is concerned, occurred later on the second day when on the orders of another of Meade’s senior subordinates, Winfield Scott Hancock, the 1st Minnesota Regiment under Colonel William Colvill counter-attacked a Confederate assault that was all but assured to overrun the Union positions. Though the Minnesota troops were outnumbered 10 to 1 the impetus of their charge drove back the attackers and saved the day, and with that the Union.

The Union effort over the three days of Gettysburg was a fragmented affair, little coordinated by Meade. Instead the victory was much more a result of the initiative and courage of subordinate commanders and their troops responding selflessly to the crises that they encountered across the field. Guelzo argues that these soldiers knew that the future of the Union would be determined at Gettysburg and proved themselves ready to pay “the last full measure of devotion”, as Lincoln put it, if that was what was required. Eight score years later, it is difficult to reflect on any account of this battle with anything other than horrified awe.

Anatomy of a Killing, by Ian Cobain

Summary: an exceptional work of history and journalism, exploring in careful detail the tragedies and atrocities borne and perpetrated by ordinary people in war

On the morning of 22 April 1978 the IRA assassinated Millar McAllister, a police photographer, in front of his young son. The trigger man, Harry Murray, was one of the IRA’s few Protestant volunteers. A former member of the RAF, Murray had been embittered against the Loyalist community when it had driven him out of his own home early in the Troubles for the offence of marrying a Catholic.

Of course Murray did not act alone, and in Anatomy of a Killing, Ian Cobain presents a horribly gripping account of the operation, not only examining the various roles of those involved, but also their motivations and rationales for their choices, and the strategies, arising in part from history, of both the British and the IRA which led to their actions.

In Cobain’s account the IRA’s adoption of the tactic of “close quarters assassinations” was in response to the revulsion caused by the burning to death of 10 civilians on an evening out at La Mon House hotel. This atrocity was directly facilitated by spectacular incompetence in issuing a warning by the IRA unit who planted the blast-incendiary devices on the hotel’s dining room. But this sort of bloodshed was almost an inevitable outcome of the campaign of “economic warfare” which the IRA in their dubious strategic wisdom had fixed upon.

So rather than risk the bad publicity that outrages such as La Mon provoked, the IRA leadership decided that it was a more moral course to focus on members of the state forces. McAllister was mistakenly believed to be a special branch detective, so this, combined with the opportunity of carrying out an attack in the garrison town of Lisburn led to him being targeted.

Of course the idea that such a killing would have any influence upon establishing a more just British policy in the North was as deluded as the idea that “economic warfare”, the destruction of Northern Irish businesses, would shift British thinking.

The Northern Ireland Secretary at the time, Roy Mason, was a rancid anti-Irish bigot, bone-headedly enamoured with tough talk and aggressive military action. Callaghan’s Labour government, as so often with British Labour misjudging the imperative moral issues of the day, was preoccupied by Britain’s economic travails, rather than any effort to create a just and lasting peace in Ireland.

In other words, both Callaghan and Mason displayed a similar contempt for Irish peace as Stanley Johnson, the father of “Boris”, who in a 2018 interview dismissed the risks to Ireland posed by Brexit: “the Irish will shoot each other if they want.”

Hence Callaghan and Mason were promoters of “Ulsterisation”, the policy that the brunt of security responsibility in the North of Ireland should fall to people from there. People like Millar McAllister, rather than to English, Scottish or Welsh soldiers whose lives Callaghan and Mason valued more highly. Hundreds more ordinary people died as pointlessly as McAllister did until John Hume and others managed to organise a flawed but vital peace process – something that might no longer exist if the European Union had not stopped Stanley’s supercilious son from vandalising it.

Anatomy of a Killing is an extraordinary work, informed by careful research, interviews with the, usually unrepentant, perpetrators, and a proper understanding of the pity of war. It weaves together discussions of both state and paramilitary “high” strategy with unflinching descriptions of its squalid and tragic consequences. It is one of the finest books yet written on the Troubles, and is a vital contribution to writing on the histories of Ireland and Britain at this bleak moment in our shared history.

V2, by Robert Harris

Summary: a fine cat-and-mouse style thriller set in the final bloody days of a European civil war

Towards the end of the Second World War the Germans launched a rocket assault on the UK. First with V1 “doodlebugs”, a sub-sonic flying bomb, lethal but possible to be brought down by fighters or anti-aircraft guns. The subsequent V2 rocket however was a different beastie altogether. A supersonic rocket carrying a one tonne warhead, the V2 was impossible to intercept once launched and would strike London without warning and at random. While not as murderous as the RAF’s civilian bombing campaign on Germany, they still had the capacity to wreak a particular brand of lethal terror on a war weary population.

As with his recent book, Munich, Harris takes this historical background and foregrounds it with his own fictional creations: on the British side, a young Women’s Auxilary Air Force (WAAF) officer, part of a team trying to locate the launch sites of the V2 rockets in the Low Countries; on the German side, a rocket engineer, dreaming of space flight but trying to survive the war by causing the needless death of hundreds, an atrocity he finds increasingly troubling. Sympathetic as these characters are, the war means that their allotted roles are to spend its last days trying to kill each other.

V2 is a fine war-time thriller that also offers a melancholic exploration of this most horrific of European civil wars. Nevertheless, unlike the bleak, bleak vista of his last book, The Second Sleep, V2 does carry a glimmer of hope at the end.

Covid-19: lessons from war and humanitarian response

Summary: With COVID-19 Boris Johnson has been faced with a once in a lifetime crisis. He has failed the test.

Boris Johnson does love his military metaphors. They are intrinsic to his whole cod-Churchillian shtick. So, this past nine-months, at least after he finally bothered to show up to the COBRA crisis meetings, he’s been “wrestling” Covid-19, “whacking” it, “fighting” and “doing battle” with it.

Covid-19 doesn’t seem that bothered. Because it’s a virus. In these circumstances Johnson cosplaying a war leader is rather like, to borrow from Milan Kundera, attacking a panzer division with a mime troupe.

In truth, unlike other “natural disasters”, such as an earthquake or a tsunami, the effects of Covid-19 do bear some resemblance to a war induced emergency. Like the Troubles in the North of Ireland, or the civil war in Angola, wars ebb and flow like this pandemic. At different times they are more lethal in some places rather than others. Like this pandemic, wars also tend to be protracted crises in which we have to learn how to survive until a solution is in place.

Some research scientists working on treatments and vaccines, and the health professionals working in critical care, are fighting the virus. But the rest of us are effectively bystanders, just trying to survive it until, hopefully, the efforts of these professionals bear fruit. Unfortunately, in my experience, as we await a solution some people will always court risky behaviour as they become bored with the restrictions on life that health or human security concerns impose.

So the role then of a sane prime minister in these circumstances must be more akin to a humanitarian manager, trying to keep as many people alive until a resolution comes, rather than a general confronting an enemy. In such circumstances the language of battles and campaigning becomes redundant. Instead the priorities of humanitarian response are the relevant ones: Avoidance of risk and protection from harm, first for critical workers, then for the rest of us.

Jacinda Arden seems to have understood that. Boris Johnson has not. Arden has led by example. Johnson, with the not inconsiderable assistance of his father and Dominic Cummings, has shown that he expects different rules to apply to his coterie than to the rest of us.

Hence Johnson’s leadership in this crisis has been typified by muddle and confusion. Whenever there has been a hard choice to be made, he has routinely fluffed it. It is ironic that the government that so fetishized control of its borders in their fevered flight from the European Union, did not, unlike just about every other country in the EU, close its borders to prevent reimporting of the virus. Like the last lock down Johnson will show up to the next one three weeks late and, it appears, millions of dollars short.

The Covid-19 pandemic has thrown into sharp focus the fact that Boris Johnson is in possession of the single most dangerous trait in any leader: He wants to be popular. Hence he will tell any lie, fudge any choice if it just buys him another fleeting moment of the illusion of popularity. Every time a lie or an inadequacy is exposed he simply tells another, bigger lie to distract from his last failure. Hence his escalating promises of “world-beating” testing, track and trace. Lying having worked to deliver Brexit, it’s a trait that now seems to pervade the government with lethal consequences for the vulnerable.

When Johnson was just a philandering journalist this sort of behaviour only hurt those unfortunate enough to have loved or trusted him. As prime minister this has directly resulted in the UK having the highest death toll in Europe and the worst economic performance during this crisis.

As we are now poised on the brink of a second surge in Covid-19 infections it is critical that the UK government fundamentally rethink their approach to this crisis, learning from New Zealand, and the countries of South East Asia how they have managed to keep their populations safe from this disease.

Certainly, one critical issue, as Jacinda Arden has shown, is leadership. When human lives are at stake, any credible humanitarian response demands serious leaders for whom this will be the overriding priority. Johnson has failed in that test already. He should resign.

Lyndon Johnson, volume 2: Means of Ascent, by Robert A Caro

Summary: A detailed guide on how to appear a war hero and steal a Texas election

Robert Caro describes there being two threads running through Lyndon Johnson’s life: a bright one of commitment to public service that he displayed as a young teacher of poor Hispanic Texan students, or as a young congressman driving rural electrification for poor Texas communities; and a dark, selfish one, concerned with his self-promotion and personal enrichment without the least care as to who he hurt to achieve this.

In this volume of his biography of Johnson, covering the years from his war service to his election to the US Senate, Caro notes that only the dark thread is visible.

Even Johnson’s military service is problematic. Despite his commission as a Lieutenant Commander in the US Navy Reserves Johnson gave little impression that he was really interested in active duty as he had promised in various speeches. Eventually though concerns about future electoral credibility compelled him to participate in a mission to the South Pacific as an observer. In this role he participated, again as an observer, in a single, terrifying combat mission, for which he was awarded the Silver Star. While he did display a certain coolness under fire, it was notable, Caro observes, that the actual aircrew he was flying with, who risked their lives in dozens more missions, were not considered for bravery awards. As is still the case, who you know matters more than anything else. So, as a congressman on the naval affairs committee, Johnson knew General McArthur who recommended him for the award, no doubt thinking that Johnson might be a useful ally on Capitol Hill.

A considerable portion of the book focusses on Johnson’s senatorial election. This was a revolutionary campaign. It was the first in which a candidate used a helicopter. This Johnson used to ferry him from town to remote Texan town, brandishing his Silver Star while he told the crowds gathering to see this strange new flying machine exaggerated stories of his war. The quantity of Johnson’s usage of radio as a campaigning medium was also unprecedented.

Johnson had already shown himself to be a superb organiser of elections from his management of the national Democratic congressional effort in 1940. However when all the electoral innovations that he brought to bear on this election still came up short, Caro argues convincingly that Johnson resorted to the old-fashioned expedient of stealing the election from the former governor Coke Stevenson, an ultra-conservative Democrat.

Caro clearly has a soft spot for Stevenson, undoubtedly an extraordinary individual, which has perhaps led to him skating somewhat over his reactionary views. Not that Johnson was a progressive champion. His liberality was always only skin deep, something worth appearing when Roosevelt was president, but shed quickly when campaign financiers demanded he dance to a different tune. Perhaps Johnson felt justified in stealing this election having had his previous effort to become a US Senator stolen from him by another former Texas governor, Pappy O’Daniel.

With Volume 2 of his biography of Johnson, Caro again provides a compelling portrait of Johnson, his times, and his place, with fascinating insights into Texas politics and history. I’m already looking forward to reading volume 3.

The Undiscovered Country

The tree was in the river and the kid was in the tree… The kid couldn’t have been more than ten or eleven. He looked like a ragdoll caught in the branches.”

So begins my novel, The Undiscovered Country, which, after a long road to publication, is finally out in time for Second Lockdown/ Christmas. The Irish Times has called it, “‘A smart and pacy debut that details a historical period that deserves further exploration.”

For Hamlet, the “undiscovered country” was death. That lurks within these pages alongside reflections on Dutch people’s relationship with beer and cheese, the origins of the idea of the rule of law, and the true meaning of red-headed women in Renaissance paintings. These ruminations are my protagonists’ equivalent of whistling in the dark as they try to get to the truth about a murder that they stumble upon in the midst of a war for another “undiscovered country”, the emergent Irish republic in 1920.

Try it, you might like it. 🙏

It’s available on Hive https://www.hive.co.uk/Product/Aidan-McQuade/The-Undiscovered-Country/24931562

and on Amazon, https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/1783528079/ref=cm_sw_r_cp_api_i_rSTAFbSQ8WKS0

Night of the Bayonets, by Eric Lee

Summary: Georgian-Soviet tensions coming to a bloody reckoning in the last European battle of the Second World War

In their various books both Timothy Synder and Max Hastings have endeavoured to demonstrate how the good versus evil myth so beloved of British Second World War nostalgists, rings very hollow for the peoples of central and eastern Europe. For countries like Poland and Ukraine, for example, the experience was rather to be caught between the monstrous regimes of two of the Twentieth century’s greatest murderers: Stalin and Hitler.

With Night of the Bayonets, Eric Lee focuses in on one small but hugely illuminating example of this bleak reality. 

In the early hours of 5 April 1945, Georgian soldiers serving with the Wehrmacht on the Dutch island of Texel rose up against their German comrades, butchering many of them with knives and bayonets as they slept. 

As Eric Lee explains, the Georgians may not have been enthusiastic Soviets, Georgian independence and democracy having been strangled in the cradle by the Bolsheviks. However, they were unlikely to have been enthusiastic Nazis either. Politics was probably less a factor in them turning their coats than survival. Having been captured by the Germans earlier in the war, donning the German uniform seemed one of their few chances of survival, the alternative being death by a swift bullet or by starvation and disease in a prison camp. 

With the approaching end of war however, the Georgians were pitched onto the horns of another dilemma: how would they be received back in Stalin’s USSR having served in German uniforms. Stalin had already declared surrendering Red Army solders to be traitors. The Georgians must have been aware that if they returned to the Soviet Union they would likely end up liquidated or in a Gulag. 

So, insurrection must have seemed a reasonable gamble, demonstrating their continued loyalty to the Allied cause, and by allying themselves with Dutch communists, with the cause of the Soviet Union. 

It was only after battle was joined that the Georgians found out what other resistance fighters, from Warsaw to Prague to rural France, also discovered: that they were expendable as far as the Allied high commands were concerned. As in Warsaw the Germans also realised this, and so they decided to take their time in exacting revenge on Georgian fighters and Dutch civilians alike. It was not until late May, long after VE day, that Canadian forces landed on Texel, ending the battle.

Other books – most famously Cornelius Ryan’s description of the fall of Berlin, or Stephen Harding’s account of the extraordinary action at the Schloss Itter in Austria – have claimed to be accounts of the “last” battle of the Second World War in Europe. However, Lee’s account of this “last battle” is important not as a historical curiosity, but because it also illuminates so much of contemporary Europe, not least in explaining something of the origins of the ongoing tensions between Georgia and Russia.

Night of the Bayonets is an elegantly written and important work of history, In providing a non-Anglo-American perspective on the Second World War in Europe, it may usefully punctures some of the contemporary myths of the Second World War that still pervade attitudes in the UK. For this, and for much else, it deserves a wide readership.

Catch 22, by Joseph Heller

Summary: Yossarian’s sanity almost drives him mad.

I once had a boss who had to vacate his office in favour of his superior because the said superior had discovered that his own office was two square feet smaller than that of my boss.

Anyone familiar with the world of work will have similar stories to tell about the petty jealousies and mindless bureaucracies that can blight this aspect of our lives. But such stupidities rarely threaten our lives – unless of course you are a health care worker depending on Boris Johnson for PPE during a global pandemic.

Mindless bureaucracy and petty jealousies are rarely the central themes of fictional portrayals of war, even though they are a frequent discussion in military history: Grant and Lee’s arguments over protocol at Cold Harbour, for example, that cost the lives of so many wounded. Or General Mark Clark’s career of incompetence during the Second World War’s Italian campaign.

Catch 22 sought to remedy that however. Bureaucracy, pointless protocol, military etiquette, get rich quick schemes dominate the narrative because it is these that dominate the priorities of those who don’t have to risk their lives.

However for the novel’s anti-hero, John Yossarian, none of these things matter. He just wants to survive. Unlike his superiors, Yossarian knows what flack can do to a human body. He just wants the unrelenting terror of operations to end and to go home. However Yossarian discovers no matter how often he braves the guns of the Herman Goering division, he still has to fly. His superior’s dreams of martial glory leads him to keep pushing up the mission count in the hope that this will help him to become a general. Yossarian, like his pal the Chaplin, does not have the comfort of insanity or selfishness to cushion him from the pity of war, and so hovers perpetually on the edge of breakdown.

Catch 22 is a sprawling book, hopping amongst characters and their diverse but interconnected misadventures. Such is its complexity that George Clooney’s exceptionally fine television version of the story required robust editing of the narrative elements.

It is often described as a satire, and it certainly is rich with black comedy. But Joesph Heller was himself a veteran of 60 combat missions, like Yossarian, as a bombardier in the Italian campaign. So the horror of that experience is never far from the surface, and is something that moves centre-stage in the final chapters of the book.

Some years after Catch 22 was published a reporter put it to Heller that he had not written anything as good since. “No,” said Heller. “Neither has anyone else.”