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.

Shameless self promotion

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.”

John Hume: reflections on a life well lived

History says, Don’t hope
On this side of the grave,
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up
And hope and history rhyme.- Seamus Heaney, The Cure at Troy

One of my earliest memories is watching a neighbour being shot. Another was of almost being caught, while on my way to primary school, in a culvert bomb attack launched by the IRA on the British army. The brother of a classmate was murdered by the SAS. A few years ago, I discovered that a bunch of loyalist paramilitaries had planned to massacre the children and staff of my Belleeks primary school. Fortunately for all of us, this was called off. Some war crimes were even too much for the war criminals of the North of Ireland.

I repeat these brushes with violence not to suggest that I am special in any way, but because these were typical life experiences for people living in the North of Ireland during the 70s and 80s. Indeed I was very lucky. Aside from a nasty kicking I once got from Shinners for having the temerity to canvas for the SDLP in West Belfast, my family was notably unscathed by the squalid little war that engulfed the North until John Hume finally managed to organise its ending.

I met John Hume a couple of times, but I doubt he ever remembered my name. I was a minor student activist in the SDLP, gone after a couple of years and never to return. So, it doesn’t matter much in the grand scheme of things that, from the first moment I heard of them, I was in favour of the Hume-Adams talks. It was, it seemed to me, an honourable effort towards peace and the logical extension of the philosophy of dialogue and persuasion that Hume had always advocated and that I had bought into early.

It is true that I did not think that the peace it ultimately brought would lead to Sinn Fein’s regrettable electoral ascendancy, as other more astute observers, such as Seamus Mallon, feared. But even in retrospect I think it a price worth paying. As has been said before: there are people alive today because of what Hume did to obtain peace. As Hume argued at the time, that is more important than the electoral success of any party.

Since his death some commentators have not even been able to wait until Hume was at rest in his grave before resurrecting the attacks that they began on him when he first sat down to talk with the Provos and that bore so heavily on him throughout those ghastly days. The thrust of their attack remains: because the peace process is imperfect, it is reprehensible. 

It is easy to be glib about war when it is not something that is likely to cut short your life or that of someone you love. That is something that the relatives of those butchered at Greysteel understood when one of their daughters told Hume they had prayed over her father’s coffin that he would be successful in his efforts with the Provos so that other families would not have to suffer as they had. 

Today it’s easy to indulge in the sort of maudlin glorifications beloved by Sinn Fein and the British Establishment of those who have taken up arms on their behalf. But I remember war too well to buy that nonsense. Ballymurphy, Bloody Sunday, Bloody Friday, the Miami Showband massacre, Kingsmill, the Shankill Butchers, La Mon, Enniskillen, may be selectively remembered still. But they were just larger examples of the “exchange of murders”, as Malachi O’Doherty once accurately described them, that typified the conflict.

In truth I’ve never found war anything other than a squalid matter, whether practiced in the North of Ireland, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Afghanistan or Angola. The scales of conflict in each place were different. But across the globe and through history each have in common that they enmesh ordinary people in systems of increasingly brutal inhumanity towards other people. This is true for just and unjust wars alike.

Of course as Bono noted in his bleak, beautiful lament for those massacred at Omagh, “hope and history don’t rhyme”. But they do have an assonance: a half rhyme.

Even a failed poet like me knows that the line “sometimes hope and history are in assonance” doesn’t have the quality of Heaney’s phrase or that of Bono. But that is where we are, and it is better than where we were. Musicians no longer have to worry about being targeted for playing to the “wrong” crowds. Dog fanciers no longer have to worry about being burned to death while having an evening out. Protesters for civil rights do not have to worry about being shot down in the streets by a foreign army. 

John Hume understood that imperfect peace is preferable to any war. His monumental life’s achievement in wresting that from the most nihilistic of conflicts is but another stepping-stone to a better society, to a better agreed society. 

It is for the rest of us to continue that journey now, remembering, as John Hume showed us, that no matter how bleak the moment, or imperfect the circumstances, if we put the sweat in, we also can overcome.

East West Street: on the origins of genocide and crimes against humanity, by Philippe Sands

Summary: an lucid and important exploration of the personal consequences of atrocity, and the origins of international human rights law.

East West Street is something of a hybrid of a book. It is part family memoir: Sands’ maternal grandparents were survivors of the Holocaust, but never spoke about their experiences. And while loving people, they never smiled much, something that becomes more understandable as their biographies are painstakingly revealed.

In part the book is a history of the philosophy of international law. The book is also a joint biography of the originators of key concepts of human rights: Rafael Lemkin postulated the idea of “genocide” – the destruction of groups of people based on their identity; Hersch Lauterpacht formulated the idea of “crimes against humanity” – atrocities against individual civilians, often by their own governments.

What binds all this into a remarkable whole is the strange coincidence that, like Sands’ grandfather, Lemkin and Lauterpacht had deep ties with the city of Lviv, currently in Ukraine, previously known as Lemberg when it was in the Hapsburg empire. It was there that Lemkin and Lauterpacht originally studied law, and may well have come to know each other, though they do not seem ever to have become friends. Lemkin was a solitary and spiky soul. Lauterpacht had deep concerns that the concept of genocide would drive human beings deeper into their group identities and hence perpetuate the roots of genocide, if not its actual manifestation.

Nevertheless, both “genocide” and “crimes against humanity” are now important concepts in international human rights law. However, it was a struggle to get them accepted at Nuremberg. The US and the UK did not like the idea of genocide having been formidable practitioners of it themselves in the past. The Soviets, whose own campaign in the East had been marked with atrocity, including mass rape during the conquest of Berlin, did not like the concept of “crimes against humanity.” Nevertheless, Lemkin and Lauterpacht’s advocacy, and the interventions of Robert Jackson the chief US prosecutor, and Hartley Shawcross, the British Attorney General, eventually got them included.

The book builds considerable momentum towards its climax at the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals. Here the personal, political and legal strands of the book are drawn together into what must be the most important courtroom drama in history. Sands focusses particularly on the case of Hans Frank in this trial. Himself a lawyer, as Governor General of Nazi occupied territories in Poland, Frank was ultimately responsible for the murders of many of Lemkin’s and Lauterpacht’s families, as well as members of Sands’ own family. 

In the course of writing this lucid and important book Sands became friends with Frank’s son, Niklas. Together in the courtroom where his father was sentenced to death, Niklas described it as a “happy place.” Later Niklas explained further that he was against the death penalty, but not for his own father. 

East West Street is a mighty book.

A Thousand Ships, by Natalie Haynes

Summary: a gripping, exquisitely written retelling of the tales of Troy and the aftermaths of war

Conceptually A Thousand Ships is similar to Pat Barker’s stunning retelling of the Iliad, The Silence of the Girls. Both focus on the Trojan war from female points of view and consequently give radical new perspectives on these ancient tales and on the pity of war itself. But whereas Barker focuses on one woman, Briseis, Natalie Haynes ranges much more widely across time and dramatis personae.

Parts of the book are very funny – notably Penelope’s letters to the absent Odysseus, and the shenanigans of the gods for whom, like contemporary geo-political strategists, humans are mere playthings. Parts of the book, such as the stories of Iphigenia and Polyxena, are particularly bleak. But in giving voice to Hecuba, Andromache, Cassandra, and the others Haynes reminds the readers of how war reverberates across geographies and generations, and that its casualties are not confined to the battlefields.

Haynes describes the book as a novel and it certainly has the unity of purpose and vision that one would expect of a novel. But the shifting focus and tone as it moves between the various narrators and protagonists also put me in mind of Tim O’Brien’s superb collection of inter-related short stories of the war in Vietnam, The Things They Carried

However one wishes to classify the book’s structure, the result is extraordinary. It may not carry the same ultimate emotional punch as The Silence of the Girls, which comes from spending so long with one person, but the tragedies of Polyxena, Cassandra, Andromache, Iphigenia and the rest are still hauntingly portrayed. And at the bottom of the carnage some hope glimmers still.

The Silence of the Girls, by Pat Barker

 

Summary: “Of course, the deaths of young men in battle are tragic. But that is not the worst fate.”

History tends to be kind to men because, until quite recently, we tended to write all of it. Hence the literature on war has emphasised the courage, camaraderie and sacrifice of the combatants, rather than the plunder and rape they have so often indulged in after the battles.

This pattern was set from the outset with the Iliad. It tells us that Briseis was Achilles’ slave taken when he stormed one of many Trojan cities. But the depth of the brutality of her experience is not explored. It is a mere footnote on the Iliad’s central concerns of Achilles’ rage – at Agamemnon’s affront to his honour, and at Hector’s killing of Patroclus in battle.

With The Silence of the Girls, Pat Barker refocuses the story of the Iliad onto the civilian victims of war, the women and children raped, and then enslaved or murdered by the “heroes” of the Iliad. With this focus on violence against women, it is perhaps something of a fictional counterpart to The Five, Hallie Rubenhold’s extraordinary account of the lives of the women murdered by Jack the Ripper.

In many ways this is a faithful version of the Iliad. The famous events, and some of the dialogue of that classic are all here. But the shift of focus of the narrative from Achilles to Briseis results in a wholly arresting and new work of literature. It is her unflinching descriptions of the horrors she and the other captured women and girls endure, and her cool assessments of the incidents and personalities she encounters, that forces us to think anew about this story.

The casualties of war are not distant memories to Briseis, but brothers, neighbours and a husband. The women reduced to chattel slavery by the war are not footnotes to the main story, but her friends, a last source of tenderness in the midst of all the cruelty and carnage.

War has made Briseis wise beyond her years, with any illusions, if she ever had them, about martial glory stripped away and replaced by a profound understanding of human nature in this nightmare. Briseis sees through the facades of “honour” to the truth of the combatants’ characters: Patroclus, in spite of everything, a kind man; Achilles, a warrior since childhood, now a traumatised bundle of rage; Agamemnon, the worst of the worst, a greedy venial despot who has “forgotten nothing and learned nothing,” as Briseis puts it.

I cannot recall being as consumed by a book since I first read Ernie O’Malley’s classic memoir of war, On Another Man’s Wound, when I was about 16 – and I have read many, many great books in the decades since.

The Silence of the Girls is an exquisitely written, unflinching and stunningly beautiful meditation on endurance amidst the horrors of war. It is quite simply a masterpiece.