The Undiscovered Country appeal: Dublin reflections

Dublin Castle

Across the rooftops to Dublin Castle

This week I’m in Dublin, where, during Easter Week 1916 the Irish War of Independence began. Historians still argue over how necessary or justifiable that war was to achieve Irish independence. But whatever the rights and wrongs of it in the grand, historical scheme of things, at the most basic level it followed a bloody path of ordinary people doing brutal things to each other. As Eamon says in The Undiscovered Country, “even just wars are evil things.”

I learned the evil of war early. One of my earliest memories is seeing a neighbour getting shot. Another is of narrowly avoiding a culvert bomb set by the IRA to attack the British Army. The brother of a classmate at primary school was murdered by the SAS. Ten years ago I discovered that a group of Loyalist paramilitaries had planned, in reprisal for an IRA atrocity, to attack the primary school that I attended to kill all the children and teachers. The plan was eventually vetoed: some things were just too much of a war crime for the war criminals of the North of Ireland.

Some of the the themes of The Undiscovered Country are, unfortunately, as timeless as war itself. Others are, equally unfortunately, very timely. I wrote much of the book as a hard won peace, brought into being at another past Easter with the Good Friday Agreement, came under threat from a neo-imperialist faction of the British Establishment blundering towards a scorched-earth Brexit with utter unconcern for the damage they will cause to erstwhile friends and neighbours. It’s in this context that Eamon and Mick ruminate over chess and pints on the realities of colonialism and some of the absurdities of historical memory.

Thanks to the extraordinary generosity and support of over 150 friends I have now reached 62% funding for The Undiscovered Country. So, with another 40 or so pre-sales, the next big milestone of 70% funding beckons, and with that a step closer to the chance to share with the wider world all this, and more en route to solving a knotty mystery, including the cultural threats posed by mainland Europe’s resealable beer bottles, an assessment of Hamlet as a revolutionary, and the etiquette of buying pints in an Irish pub.

So, if you can see your way to adding your support to this endeavour by following this link

https://unbound.com/books/the-undiscovered-country/

and pledging what you would like, I would send you a hundred thousand and mark your name with gratitude in the book itself.

Very best

Aidan

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The Funeral: an excerpt from my novel, The Undiscovered Country

I am currently working with the crowdsourcing publisher Unbound to publish my first novel, The Undiscovered Country, a book about the hunt for the murderer of a young boy in the West of Ireland, during the War of Independence in 1920. Below is an excerpt. If you like it please consider supporting. Amongst other rewards the names of all supporters will be included in the book.

***

graveyard-black-and-white-100535782-primary.idgeIt was a cold clear morning the next day when the village gathered to bury Liam Finnegan.

The church was full and spilling out into the surrounding graveyard. Eamon and I had got there a quarter of an hour before the start of the requiem Mass, but had still only managed to get standing room at the back of the church. Peter had gotten there earlier and had hence managed to get himself a seat in a pew in the middle of the church.

“Okay”, whispered Eamon to me, “so who do you know here?

“Dr Hennessy, fourth row back”. She was standing briefly in order to let some people past her into the pew in which she was seated.

“In the short time I have known you Mick I have come to admire and respect your capacity for prioritisation. Mind you, she does look good in black, it must be said. Grand arse.”

“Jesus Eamon, we’re at a funeral”.

“A man is most alive when closest to death. You’ll find that out in time Mick. So who else do you know”.

“Commandant O’Riordain”.

O’Riordain was in the aisle halfway up the church, trying to create more space amongst the mourners and directing newcomers into the pews.

“There’s a man born to lead. Can’t even help himself any more.”

“And there’s Dick Bruton.” Bruton was fat man with a purple nose in a plaid suit. He was bald, which Eamon had noted was a blessing for him seeing as he used to be ginger. I had felt a bit guilty at laughing at that as he had always been civil to me on the odd occasion I dropped into his shop.

“And there, as you should know,” said Eamon, “is our local neighbourhood cattle baron, Francie Quinn”. Eamon nodded in the direction of a dark haired man in a dark suit just entering the church with a pleasant looking, chubby woman. He ushered her onto a pew and then found himself standing space against the wall close to her. Quinn I did know slightly. He was one of the local worthies that Peter had convinced to join him in constituting the parish court. So I had seen him from a couple of times when the court was in session but I had barely ever spoken to him.

Our whispered conversation was halted as the appearance of Paddy Toner, walking backwards up the aisle so he could keep an eye on the pall-bearers and make sure nothing untoward happened to the coffin, announced the arrival of the funeral party.

Normally, in my experience, the deceased would have been carried to the church the night before the burial and lain in vigil before the altar. But the family couldn’t bear the thought of leaving Liam alone there. So his body had stayed with them at home until this morning when they would say their final goodbyes.

Liam’s father and three uncles followed Toner up the church carrying the tiny coffin. In their wake came the rest of the family. Liam’s mother and sister seemed barely able to stand, leaning against each other in an A-frame as they walked up the aisle. Tears were pouring down their faces, though they were considerably quieter now than they had been when we had broken the news to them about the death of their son. Immediately behind them another woman, I presumed an aunt of Liam’s though I suppose she might have been a neighbour, carried the baby, who was being remarkably quiet, helped I presumed by a bottle of milk stuck in his gob.

When they got to the front of the church Toner ushered the family into the front rows that had been reserved for them, and Fr Martin Crosby came onto the alter with four altar boys in white soutanes.

Crosby was suitably sombre in his conduct of the Mass and proceeded in this measured way until he came to his sermon which he opened with, what I felt were pretty boilerplate remarks about death and young lives cut short that he would have learned in his “how to conduct a funeral” classes in the seminary. And then his remarks changed and became rather more personal:

“I knew Liam a little from the times he served Mass for me. He was a great young man. A credit to his family. I know he wanted to be a doctor. He was a great reader and used to tell me about what he was reading. The last morning I saw him he was telling me about the adventures of David Balfour after Kidnapped. He never lived to find out how it ended with Catriona. He never lived to find his own Catriona or have his own adventures in his own or other lands.

“The world is a lesser place without Liam, without the person he was and without the person he would have become. That truth will never be felt more than by his own family.”

His mother let out the most mournful yelp I’ve ever heard at that, and her muffled keening started again.

Crosby continued with the standard funereal hopes that one day all pain would be washed away when they were reunited in heaven. He was trying his best but it was plain that his sermon was doing little to comfort Mrs Finnegan, whose keening died down but whose shoulders continued to shudder in grief until the end of Mass.

***

It was a relief to get back out into the fresh air. The church had grown stultifying with so many people in it and I was relieved that, being at the back of the church, we were among the first out after the family and the pall bearers who carried Liam the final few yards to a hole that had been dug for him in the graveyard that surrounded the church.

O’Riordain had organised a guard of honour of Liam’s school friends to walk with the coffin to the gravesite, where Crosby concluded the service with prayers over the coffin and a decade of the rosary as they lowered Liam into the hole.

The normal routine of friends and neighbours lining up to pay their respects to the family was curtailed as Liam’s father led his still weeping wife from the yard. Packy O’Reilly had brought a pony and trap along. As he ushered the sadly depleted Finnegan family on board for the mile or so back to the farm, the grave diggers began filling in the hole. The earth and stones they shovelled echoed off the coffin.

“He’s not a bad oul skin, Packy,” said Eamon, watching as the trap set off out the road as the mass of mourners began to drift out of the grave yard. We lent against the church yard wall and lit cigarettes as we watched folk disperse. Dr Hennessy nodded to us as she passed and began threading her way through the crowd the short distance towards her surgery.

We contemplated the graveyard as we smoked, Eamon nodding greetings to friends and neighbours as they passed. Peter joined us after a few minutes.

“Cigarette, Peter?” I asked.

“Thanks Mick,’ he said and drew one from the packet I was offering him. Eamon struck a match to light him up.

“Sad funeral,” I said.

“Indeed it was,” said Peter. “No parent should every have to bury their child, let alone one so young.”

I could see how this funeral must be dragging up memories of Peter’s own son, obliterated by a shell in some rat-infested trench in France.

“Have you spoken to his parents?” asked Eamon.

“I have,” said Peter, “but its not like there is much comfort I could give them. I told them I know how they feel. I didn’t tell them the pain never goes away or that it can destroy everything you have ever valued in your entire life.”

I remembered how Peter’s wife had died shortly after they received news of their son and I had no idea how to respond. I was pretty sure that Eamon was at a loss too. But Peter wasn’t looking for a response or for sympathy. He was just telling us the truth, as he knew it, of how an untimely and violent death could devastate a family and the lives of all those left behind. Knowing Peter, he was also probably still wracking his brain for some fragment of his own experience that could help alleviate the grief and pain of the Finnegans.

We stood in silence for a while smoking, watching the crowd. Francie Quinn hailed Peter as he left the church gate with his wife. Peter waved back. “He can be a grumpy fucker, can Francie, but he’s got a decent soul,” Peter muttered to us as we watched him walking up the street with his wife’s hand hooked into his elbow. Then we heard the scrunching of hob nailed boots behind us and Jack O’Riordain joined us, having come out of the lower gate of the church yard.

“How’s it going, Peter?” he asked, hale fellow, well met, even in the grim circumstances we found ourselves.

“Not so bad Jack. And yourself?”

“Can’t complain. Sure no one would listen to me. Are these two behaving themselves?” he asked, referring to me and Eamon.

I expected Peter to make some casual joke, about not being able to get good help these days. But he didn’t. He took a final drag on his cigarette, then dropped it on the ground and ground it out with his foot and looked Jack straight in the eye. “They are exemplary,” he said.

“Good to hear it,” said Jack. “I wouldn’t want the good name of the battalion damaged by less than their best.”

The children who had attended the funeral were dispersing now too. “That was a nice idea, the guard of honour,” said Peter.

“I wanted to make sure the children were involved in the funeral, and I thought it was a way we could show Liam’s family the regard the whole school held him in.”

“Aye. It was a nice gesture,” said Peter. “Did you give the kids the day off school as well?”

“I did,” said Jack. “You can imagine that they are all still very upset. But kids get over such things fast, I’ve found.”

“You’ve seen much of this sort of thing, Commandant,” I asked. “The deaths of children, I mean.”

“Regrettably yes,” he said. “Particularly when I was teaching in Dublin. The carnage from tuberculosis was dreadful. The conditions in the tenements there are a breeding ground for disease, and the malnourishment of the children makes them easy prey for it.”

“So, you’re at a loose end yourself then today as well?” Peter asked.

“If only that were so. I have a host of battalion matters to be dealing with, as well as some school administration I’ve been falling behind on.”

Eamon had been quiet up to that point, but I knew he couldn’t help himself. “Some more unarmed peelers to be shot, Jack?” he asked.

I saw anger darken O’Riordain’s face and the muscles in his jaw clench.

“For fuck sake, Eamon,” said Peter.

“No,” said Jack, his voice low and controlled, irrespective of how angry he was. “It’s sticking in his gut, let him get it out. I imagine that Eamon’s military record is unblemished and earns him the right to judge. Isn’t that the case, Eamon?”

Eamon said nothing.

“That’s right,” said O’Riordain, “your hands are not clean either. I remember you telling me about that, didn’t you Eamon? About young Germans crying for their mothers before you and your British pals put bullets in them and left them in mud.”

“I wasn’t the officer giving orders,” said Eamon.

“No,” said Jack, “I was. But you can take a little credit for what we did at the barracks.”

“What do you mean?” asked Eamon. “I refused to participate.”

“You did,” said Jack, “and loudly too. I never knew you had studied the Geneva Conventions so assiduously. That was the point at which I knew you were no use to the battalion any more as a fighting man. But that is not what I meant.”

“What then?”

“The tales you have told me of the Crown Forces have left me with little doubt as to their ruthless efficiency. It confirmed what we learned when they shelled the civilian population of Dublin and left the second city of their empire in flames, let alone the savagery they showed at Amritsar. Now look at our lot. Weekend soldiers. In the past year these fellows have had less training than the greenest Tommy. And it is with them that I am meant to confront an empire. Those police in that barracks were traitors to their country. And their treason cost the lives of James Flynn, John McKenna and Paddy McCaul, remember? It was harsh what I did. But it was necessary. It was necessary to get the rest of the boys used to killing. It was necessary because I thought that it might save their lives in the months to come when next in the presence of the enemy. So when they are in action again they are inoculated to the revulsion of killing, and to not hesitate at the moment of truth. Remember Eamon?”

He paused and looked at Eamon with something close to contempt.

“I didn’t enjoy what I did that night,” said O’Riordain. “I will have to live with the sound of their pleading every day until I die. But I would do it again, for the good of the men under my command and for the chance of a country of our own.”

We were all quiet. “Anything else to say, Volunteer Gleason?”

“No, Commandant,” said Eamon.

“Okay so,” said O’Riordain. “I’ll be on my way then. And you’ve work to do to, so don’t let Mr McLaughlin down the way you did me.” He turned to Peter. “Take care of yourself, Peter,” he said and shook his hand. Then to us, “Volunteers,” and he turned up the street.

“Commandant,” I said by way of farewell. Eamon said nothing.

We watched O’Riordian go. Then Peter turned to Eamon, “For fuck sake Eamon,” he said. “Do you always have to antagonise him.” Peter was more exasperated than angry, but only just.

Eamon was uncharacteristically quiet, and looked a bit shame-faced. “We have a bit of history, I suppose,” said Eamon, eventually.

“Well it’s not fucking helpful at the moment, so can you get it under control?”

“I can,” said Eamon.

“Look boys,” said Peter, “I meant it when I said you’ve been exemplary in your duties to the Parish Court. So don’t make a liar of me at this stage in my life.”

“We won’t Peter. Sorry if I’ve embarrassed you,” said Eamon.

“That’s enough of that oul shite,” said Peter. “Now I’ve given ye an enquiry to conduct, which, I shouldn’t need need to remind you, is of the most sensitive nature imaginable, so tread lightly from here on will ye?”

“We will,” said Eamon.

“Good. Now I need to be getting back to the office, so can I leave ye to be getting on with it without fucking something up?”

“You can,” said Eamon.

“Good. I’ll leave ye to it, so, and I’ll see ye later.”

“Right Peter,” said Eamon.

“Take care,” I said.

He said nothing and turned and walked up the street towards his office. We watched him as he went, his shoulders hunched in the way of the worried, carrying the burdens of the world.

There were a a few remaining knots of people still chatting or smoking in the graveyard or on the street, but most had gone back to the normal routine of their lives. Myself and Eamon remained smoking by the church yard wall until everyone had left, Eamon brooding over the scene..

“That was kind of Peter, speaking up for us with O’Riordain,” I said.

“’Twas,” said Eamon. “He’s like that, is Peter. Always championing the underdog. It’s why he loses so much money on the horses.”

In spite of the lambasting he had just taken I could sense that Eamon’s spirit was returning. “Did you hear that fucker, O’Riordain?” he asked, “’Can’t complain, sure no one would listen.’ Anyone not paying attention to O’Riordain’s little gripes would run a serious risk of getting plugged in the nut.”

I grunted a laugh. I might have laughed more but the thought that O’Riordain had been contemplating, however vaguely, that very thing, putting a bullet at the base of my skull, rendered the image disturbingly real and took some of the humour out of it.

***

If you would like to support the publication of my novel, please visit my page at Unbound 

https://unbound.com/books/the-undiscovered-country/

Saladin: the life, the legend, and the Islamic Empire, by John Man

When a European army took Jerusalem in 1099 at the climax of the First Crusade, the slaughter of Muslim combatants and of Muslim and Jewish non-combatants, women, children and men, was so great that it was said the conquerors’ horses waded up to their bridles in blood. A century later when Saladin retook the city for Islam there was no such carnage. Instead Saladin allowed most of the city’s Christian population to depart in peace after paying a ransom.

Of course, as a man of his times, Saladin was not always so merciful. After inflicting a crushing defeat on Crusader forces at the battle of Hattin, Saladin had the Hospitaller and Templar survivors executed by inexperienced swordsmen whose clumsy hacking to death of the prisoners provided much sanguinary amusement for his more experienced troops.

John Man’s fast-paced, entertaining and informative biography of the great Muslim leader recounts the life and times of this legendary Kurd from relatively humble origins to enormous military and political power in spite of the the efforts of an obscure Islamic sect, the Assassins, to kill him. Over time Saladin managed to unite much of the hitherto squabbling Sunni Islamic world, welding them into a sufficient force to be able to confront the disparate Crusader states.

The peak of Saladin’s career, the battle of Hattin, opened the way to Jerusalem for him, but did not deliver him the prize. One of the few Crusader survivors of the battle was the knight Balian of Ibelin, who afterwards sought refuge in the city of Tyre while Saladin began his moves towards Jerusalem. This is where Balian’s wife resided.

Man recounts the story of how Balian sought a parole from Saladin to go and retrieve his wife, which Saladin granted. On entering Jerusalem the citizens begged Balian to remain and lead the defence of the city. Given their desperate state – most of Jerusalem’s garrison had been killed at Hattin – Balian sent a message to Saladin asking to be released from his parole, a request which Saladin again granted.

This story is one of many – alongside, for example, the one of how Saladin, in the midst of battle, sent two horses to King Richard to replace the one that had been just killed beneath him – that are frequently presented to demonstrate Saladin’s enormous chivalry. However it has always struck me as evidence of something perhaps more intriguing.

Man notes how Crusader and Muslim populations lived so close to each other that trade and even friendship often grew up. This story seems to suggest to me that what actually happened may have been less to do with abstract chivalry and more to do with a politically astute commitment to mercy. Perhaps what was really going on was an arrangement between Saladin and his friend Balian to mount a defence of Jerusalem that, after a decent show, could lead to a negotiated surrender of the city to the Muslim forces without the necessity of storm and the inevitable massacre that would result.

Whatever the underlying truth this is what ultimately happened. And the contrast between the atrocities of the Crusaders and the vastly more moderate approach of Saladin has helped to rightfully make the Muslim leader such an enduring legend in the hundreds of years since his death.

Gerry Adams: An Unauthorised Life, by Malachi O’Doherty

In her book, Every Secret Thing, Gillian Slovo’s magisterial memoir of her parents, Ruth First and Joe Slovo, she reflects on the nature of clandestine life, how deceit becomes an all pervasive thing, a way of existence and a habit of living rather than something that can be easily compartmentalised.

This phenomenon may go some way towards explaining the inscrutability of Gerry Adams, a man who has lived much of his life clandestinely: while he has always denied even membership of the organisation most observers of the North of Ireland, myself included, believe him to have been a long-time leader in the IRA, including a period up to the atrocious La Mon bombing as Chief of Staff.

Malachi O’Doherty makes a serious effort with this book to understand what makes Gerry Adams tick. While he follows a straightforward biographical narrative the book is also something of a philosophical and psychological reflection upon the man and his choices to make war and to make peace.

Throughout his entire career there seems to be one constant with Adams: his belief in the IRA as a moral absolute. Any individual who had committed themselves to this is therefore entitled to unquestioning respect irrespective of what they have done, whether it is murdering a young woman teacher like Mary Travers, or a single mother like Jean McConville, or burning civilians alive, such as at the La Mon Hotel. Anyone who criticises the perpetrators and their actions renders themselves politically suspect and morally indefensible in Adams’ eyes. It is as if Pope Urban’s promise of forgiveness of all sins for those who went on Crusade in the Eleventh Century has been purloined wholesale by Adams in his perspective on those who waged his armed struggle.

Other leaders and generals, Adams’ own description of himself, have similar perspectives on their troops. Theresa May’s stated intent to remove the British military from the scrutiny of the European Convention of Human Rights suggests a similar attitude to another group of professional killers.  Perhaps they share the understanding that, as Sherman pointed out, “war is cruelty”. So, having asked men and women to wage it, it is perhaps hypocritical to demand limits on their cruelty once it has been unleashed in what one regards as noble purpose.

I don’t agree that war should ever be unconstrained and believe that those who make war criminals of themselves should be held accountable. But this book does remind us how many of those who were caricatured as evil villains during the Troubles were enormously courageous and self-sacrificing. But courage is not the highest of human virtues – I would say compassion is. And a further thing that this book reminds us is that the dark side of courage is how it can facilitate atrocity.

I was never an admirer of Adams during the Troubles. I found his thinking at best shallow and at worst cock-eyed. I found his justifications for war glib. Adams never seems to have recognised that having claimed for his army a quasi-divine right to wage war that this may give rise to a culture in which individual members regarded their personal right to use violence as a logical continuation of that mystical claim. Nor yet does he seem to have recognised that such a culture might have some relationship to the “unauthorised” operations – murdering civilians and covering up those murders – and the sexual violence that some members indulged in, and in which the leadership seems to have acquiesced.

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John Hume and Gerry Adams

I know that Adams has the reputation of being an intellectual amongst the IRA. But true intellectualism resides in rigorous engagement and testing of your ideas with alternative concepts and perspectives. Adams never had this until he began to sit down with John Hume in a protracted dialogue that gave rise to the peace process.

O’Doherty shows that Adams was indispensable in making the peace. So in spite of all his sins and flaws he does indeed deserve the gratitude of the peoples of Ireland and Britain. Certainly when history judges him, it should be more favourable to him than to those self serving clowns in the British Establishment who, at time of publication of this gripping and elegantly written book, have put the peace at risk with their thoughtless blundering.

PT 109: An American Epic of War, Survival, and the Destiny of John F Kennedy, by William Doyle

Summary: A gripping war story that gets to the heart of important truths about both war and Jack Kennedy

In 1945 John Ford made a cracking war movie called “They Were Expendable” about the exploits of a motor torpedo (PT) boat unit, including, of course, John Wayne, defending the Philippines against the Japanese onslaught.

The thing about the movie though, was that the capabilities of the PT boat therein portrayed were horseshit. The PT boat was a lousy weapon. Its torpedoes were close to useless as, due to technical flaws in their design, they rarely hit their targets let alone detonated. Few of the PT boats were equipped with radar though they were expected to fight in the darkest of nights. And these mahogany constructions were sent into conflict against much more heavily armed and steel armoured destroyers. This was only slightly more hopeful, in military terms, than sending a mime troupe to attack a panzer division, to borrow from Milan Kundera. Indeed in this book William Doyle notes that of the three confirmed sinkings of major ships by PT boats during the Second World War, one of them was American.

This was the branch of the Navy that Jack Kennedy, millionaire son of the former US ambassador to the Court of St James’s and best selling author of Why England Slept, joined in the Solomon Islands in 1943. It made him president.

Dave Powers, a friend and aide to Jack, once commented that, “Without PT 109 there would never have been a President John F Kennedy.” The legend of Jack’s fortitude and leadership following the sinking of his boat during a small battle in which 15 ill-equipped PT boats were sent to ineffectually attack a convoy of Japanese destroyers, was the foundation upon which Jack’s political career was built. But the story of this relatively brief episode in Jack’s relatively brief life is more important for a number of reasons, not least, after over half a century of muck raking and character assassination, it has proven pretty close to impossible to tarnish this truth of his heroism during those days.

Certainly it has been tried. Doyle notes the simmering accusation that it was Jack’s incompetence as a boat skipper that led to his boat being sunk, the only PT boat to have been sunk by ramming during the course of the war. However Doyle’s account of the ill-conceived battle in which the sinking occurs offers evidence that this is an unfair charge and that it was ill-luck on Jack’s part exploited by an imaginatively aggressive Japanese commander, Kohei Hanami, that led to the sinking. Later Kennedy, in a comment that gains enormous retrospective poignancy, noted his thoughts just before the moment of impact: “This is how it feels to be killed.”

He didn’t die then and went on to play a decisive role in saving the lives of his surviving crew. Doyle notes: “The longest Olympic swimming event staged before then, the men’s 4,000 metre freestyle race, was held only once, in 1900. Fourteen of the twenty-eight competitors… “did not finish” and the distance was promptly retired. On the afternoon of August 2, 1943, John F. Kennedy covered the same distance, plus a mile more, over open water, behind enemy lines in broad daylight…All the while he bit on a strap and towed a badly burned sailor along with him. Simultaneously … leading nine other men.. towards safety… it was an astonishing feat his crewmen never forgot.”

Once rescued with the crucial help of courageous Solomon Island scouts and an Australian Coastwatcher, he refused the option to return to the States but remained in the combat zone for months more. During that time he helped save the lives of 10 more Americans before ill-health forced him home.

For all his other flaws, these events, and those of the Cuban Missiles Crisis, more starkly than any others, show the greatness at the heart of Jack Kennedy. Indeed, it was almost certainly his experience of the chaos of warfare in the Solomons that stiffened Kennedy’s moral courage to face down the hawks in his administration and save the world from nuclear annihilation during that Crisis.

PT 109 is a gripping book about war, endurance and a young man leading in the most horrendous of circumstances. Would that there was someone with the qualities that Jack Kennedy displayed then in the White House today.

Clausewitz On War, by Hew Strachan

Summary: A difficult introduction to a complex work

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.

The Red Moth, by Sam Eastland

Summary: So, apart from the genocide, tyranny, and the purges, Stalin really wasn’t such a bad old stick

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.