“Broadsword calling Danny Boy”: on Where Eagles Dare, by Geoff Dyer

This is a book that is so silly in its concept that it’s actually brilliant. It is a scene by scene discussion of the movie Where Eagles Dare, a movie that has somehow come to occupy a “unique place in the consciousness” of the author.

The book reminded me in a strange way of another film, The Grand Budapest Hotel. That film pretended to be a whimsical farce, but ended up touching quite profoundly upon life and history. In this book, Where Eagles Dare allows the author to entertainingly digress on all manner of subjects, from Richard Burton’s drinking, to Mary Ure’s pioneering work as action heroine – a proto-Buffy, if you will – to Clint Eastwood character’s disturbingly sadistic preference for killing with a knife when in possession of a perfectly good silencer. In the course of this the author also touches upon youthful hope, life, and war.

I’m never going to be 15 again watching this for the first time with my family at Christmas. But this book brought back the memory of that pleasure, if only for a fleeting moment.

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Churchill, by Roy Jenkins

Summary: Churchill – both a hero and a villain

321F9220-5CD0-49CB-9EC9-689E793FD92FIn Brexit Britain one’s attitude towards Churchill is something of a faux-patriotic touchstone. Recently shadow chancellor John McDonnell caused frothing indignation amongst the perpetually offended right-wing of British society when in response to a silly question, “Churchill: hero or villain?” he responded, “Villain,” citing Churchill’s behaviour, when Home Secretary, towards striking miners in Tonypandy.

Of course, one of the reasons that Churchill attracts so much biographical attention is that he is a complex figure.

Considerable portions of Churchill’s career, most notably his resistance to Nazism, are the epitome of heroism. At a human level he was also very funny and impressively magnanimous. For example, he formed a close friendship with Smuts, who he had fought against, and been imprisoned by, in South Africa. Jenkins also suggests, probably correctly, that Michael Collins would have become an enduring friend if he had lived, and one can only regret the consequences to Anglo-Irish relations that he did not.

But other aspects of Churchill’s character and leadership are markedly less attractive. For example his deep grained racism and his unreconstructed imperialism are manifestations of the very worst aspects of British history and society.

That these positive and negative elements resided in Churchill simultaneously, for example catastrophically worsening the Bengal Famine in 1943 while playing a central role in formulating strategy against Hitler, makes him an altogether more interesting and problematic personality than either his acolytes or his detractors might prefer.

Roy Jenkins’ biography of Churchill goes a considerable way towards exploring this complexity across the course of Churchill’s career from youthful imperial war-junkie, to young Conservative MP, to Leftish Liberal cabinet minister, to rancidly bigotted opponent of Indian independence, to prophetic voice against the rise of Hitlerism, to heroic war leader and after. Jenkins also details Churchill’s parallel career as a voluminous writer, a career that ultimately brought him a, somewhat controversial, Nobel Prize for Literature.

There are omissions – there is no discussion of the Bengal Famine – the gravest stain on Churchill’s record, dwarfing even his civilian bombing policy against Germany, his startlingly naïve fawning towards Stalin, and his complicity in the betrayal of Poland to Soviet tyranny, all issues which Jenkins discusses in some detail,

It is very much a political biography focusing on Westminster and Whitehall machinations, and the deliberations of high summitry amongst the “Great Powers.” So it would probably benefit a reader to have some extant knowledge of events in the wider world as they affected ordinary human beings, particularly the struggle for Indian independence, the course of the Second World War, and the Suez crisis.

The book is enriched by Jenkins’ insider knowledge: his early parliamentary career overlapped with that of Churchill; and before rising to the presidency of the European Commission Jenkins was also British Chancellor and Home Secretary, two posts Churchill also held.

Nicholas Soames, currently a Tory MP, tells the story of how, as an eight year old he once intruded on Churchill with the question, “Grandpapa, is it true you are the greatest man in the world?”

“Yes,” said Churchill. “Now bugger off.”

Ultimately Jenkins shares this conclusion, that Churchill was the greatest human being ever to hold the office of British Prime Minister. It is perhaps an easier assertion for a Briton to make than for any citizen of a nation that suffered the bloody consequences of his racism to accept. But Jenkins certainly provides a rich portrait of this compelling personality, one who did so much to shape the Twentieth Century, particularly in relation to the triumph of European democracy.

Arnhem: the battle for the bridges, 1944, by Antony Beevor

Summary: a thorough, and thoroughly bleak, account of what happens when Europe is divided

Much like XXX Corps in this book I stalled on the Neder Rijn: I must confess to finding this account of the infamous Allied defeat in the Netherlands so bleak that I had to set it aside for a couple of months before finishing it.

Nevertheless there is much to recommend in this book. First, in its ability to make a more critical assessment of the main protagonists in the battle, it has a more rounded view of them than could be obtained from either Cornelius Ryan’s gripping account, A Bridge Too Far, or Richard Attenborough’s celebrated film of the same name.

Second, both these depictions of the battle obtain their narrative drive by focussing on the efforts to relieve the paratroopers in Arnhem. But, in truth, as Stephen Ambrose discerned when writing Band of Brothers, and as Beevor also shows here, the entire plan was woefully conceived as it was almost impossible to secure the road against German counter-attacks to ensure sufficient support and supply to the advancing armour to ever make the seizure of a bridgehead across the Rhine, the objective of the operation, a realistic objective. That the advance got as far as it did was in spite of the plan, not because of it.

American general Jim Gavin saw this from the outset but kept his mouth shut and distinguished himself during the battle as arguably the most gifted commander. Polish general Stanislaw Sosabowski, in a vain effort to save lives, made the mistake of pointing out to the British what a dumb, stupid plan this was. Hence, in spite of the courage he and his men showed in the fighting, including in rearguard, he was scapegoated by British generals Browning and Horrocks when their incompetence became apparent. (It is clearly a tradition in British public life for incompetents to blame the perspicacious, particularly when foreign, for their own inadequacies).

The book also pays tribute to the courage of Dutch Resistance and civilians in the course of the battle and notes how they bore the brunt of German fury after the Allies had been forced to withdraw.

For my money Antony Beevor’s best book is the Battle for Spain. But this book is a timely reminder of the shocking brutalities of European civil war that the establishment of the European Union finally rendered obsolete.

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.

The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien

Summary: a profoundly moving American meditation on the war in Vietnam, rightly regarded as a classic

The Things They Carried is an extraordinary book. An exquisitely written, deeply moving, sometimes extremely funny, sometimes simply horrifying, collection of linked short stories revolving around the soldiers in “Alpha Company”, including one called Tim O’Brien, who after the war becomes the author of this book.

The Vietnamese are generally only minor characters in this book. But while the book is a tender portrait of American troops in Vietnam, it does nothing to glorify the US engagement in that war, which is clearly seen as pointless and immoral. O’Brien’s first encounter with a dead Vietnamese is with an old man killed by an indiscriminate air bomardment of a village called in reprisal for a brief and ineffective sniper attack on O’Brien’s own platoon.

The terrorism that the Americans practice upon the Vietnamese is so routinised that it is almost unremarked upon, frequently considered by the troops as little more than youthful hi-jinks. O’Brien reminds the reader that those doing this, the American GIs, are just kids, mostly conscripts barely out of high school, unleashed from the bounds of civilisation and morality, desperate just to survive and unconcerned about those who die in order to ensure their survival.

But of course not all survive. Vietnamese action repeatedly bleeds the Americans, and vice versa. In one chapter O’Brien meditates on the humanity of a dead Vietnamese soldier, killed in his ambush, and, like his killers, someone who probably wished he was somewhere else, living his own young life rather than being involved in ending the young lives of others.

The Things They Carried, since its publication, has come to be regarded as a classic of American literature and O’Brien as one of the finest writers of his generation. The accolades are deserved.

Turbulence, by Giles Fodden

Summary: Weather as a metaphor for war as a metaphor for weather

It’s 1944 and the Allies are preparing for the largest amphibious assault ever mounted to retake Europe from Nazi tyranny. What might thwart their cunning plans though, even more than the Germans, is the weather. A sufficient period of decent weather is essential to land all the troops and equipment necessary to establish a robust beachhead on the coast of North-Western France. Hence inordinate pressure falls upon the weather forecasters to provide the necessary information to the generals to make a decision upon which the lives of untold thousands and the future of Europe itself depends.

Giles Fodden’s novel follows, in flashback, a brief portion of the career of its fictional protagonist, Henry Meadows. Meadows a physicist turned metrologist in wartime service, is sent to Scotland to try to extract the secret to a more accurate forecasting method from a brilliant reclusive, and pacifist, metrologist, opposed to giving any assistance to the war effort.

Meadows, an intellectually brilliant but socially naïve character, is our guide through both the complexities of the science and the chaos of the war. It’s an engaging read, even though some of the discussions of weather forecasting can be confusing. It conveys the awful weight that the planners of the D-Day landings had to bear and how in brutal ways the randomness of war echoes the randomness of the weather.

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.