Clausewitz On War, by Hew Strachan

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

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

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

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

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

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The Red Moth, by Sam Eastland

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

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

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

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

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

The First World War, by Hew Strachan

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Wonga Coup, by Adam Roberts

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Great Siege: Malta 1565, by Ernle Bradford

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

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

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

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

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

Free State of Jones: film review

Free State of Jones, got rather mixed reviews when it was released. Having finally watched it I cannot really understand why that should be. Perhaps, paradoxically, because it is a serious movie which tells an important story that eschews many of the normal Hollywood cliches?

The movie focuses on a little known aspect of the American Civil War in which a guerrilla army of former slaves and deserters, drove the Confederacy out of a portion of Mississippi. Matthew McConaughey plays the guerrilla leader, Newton Knight, a Confederate deserter disgusted by the pointless brutality of the civil war who decides he is no longer going to fight for a system that he does not believe in. What begins initially as a flight from the authorities in which he finds refuge with a small group of runaway slaves slowly grows into a rebellion against the brutal and corrupt Confederacy as Knight begins to transform his small group of fugitives into an increasingly potent army.

The climax of their military campaign, as depicted in the film, was the capture of the town of Ellisville, after which they haul down the flag of the racist Confederacy that is flying over the Jones County courthouse, and raise the Stars and Stripes instead. That’s the bit that made me cry. I found it a particularly poignant moment given the intent of so many of Donald Trump’s acolytes to figuratively and literally replace the US flag with the Stars and Bars of the Confederacy instead.

One would normally expect the movie to end there on that triumphant note. But it does not. Instead it follows the characters through the post Civil War betrayals of their dreams of justice, and the resurgence, through Ku Klux Klan terrorism and federal government failures, of the systems of segregation which replaced the systems of slavery.

It might be the most honest movie yet about the Civil War and its aftermath. In short it is a sombre and downbeat movie about the betrayal of brave patriots who deserved much better from those they fought for.

But for all that the movie is not without hope: the love and friendship between the central characters played with great subtlety and conviction by McConaughey, the always sublime Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mahershala Ali and Keri Russell, is something, the film asserts, that the world will finally recognise as shaming the the corrupt and the racist.

It is a fine movie that deserves to be recognised as an important one and seen by many more people. Whether that happens or not it will remain a rich credit to everyone involved in its making.

The Other Side of Silence, by Philip Kerr

It’s 1956 and Bernie Gunther, social democratic Berlin detective, and former whipping boy of Heydrich and Goebels, is living incognito on the French Rivera, working as a hotel consierge with only a regular bridge game by way of diversion. However, as usual, trouble, in the form of a former Gestapo acquaintance intent on blackmailing the English novelist, Somerset Maugham, finds Bernie.

While the main action in this novel relates to the Cold War, significant parts of what happens find their origin much deeper, in Nazi era Germany, and in particular the 1945 Battle of Königsberg that has featured in other novels of the series, in which Bernie was captured by the Soviets. For Bernie “the past is not dead, it is not even past,” as William Faulkner put it elsewhere.

The same can also be said for the character of Somerset Maugham in this novel, whose clandestine life as a British agent and as a homosexual comes back to haunt him.

The Bernie Gunther series is a particularly rich and wry meditation on history. This instalment is no exception, and as always Bernie remains an engaging guide though Europe’s shameful past. True he has become morally diminished by years of war and bloodshed, but he still struggles to hold on to a sense of humour and some modicum of basic human decency in the midst of it all. And that, sometimes, may be the best any of us can hope for.