The Guns of August, by Barbara Tuchman

Summary: exquisitely written and utterly gripping account of the first weeks of the First World War

My friend Caitlin, a state-level chess champion in her US high school days, once gave me the best tip ever for playing the game: “Remember,” she said, “it’s not just about what you are planning to do, but what your opponent is planning to do as well.”

As with so many things about chess, Caitlin’s tip is important more generally in life. And Barbara Tuchman in The Guns of August shows how it is, perhaps, most vital of all in war.

In the decades before the outbreak of the First World War many brilliant generals across Europe developed many different plans that would grant them decisive victory. Unfortunately these plans tended to rely on opponents behaving in a way that would conform most helpfully with planners’ ambitions.

For example, the German High Command did not anticipate that King Albert of Belgium would actively resist Germany’s brutal invasion of his country. Nor did they expect Tsar Nicholas to uphold his treaty obligations to his Western Allies by mobilising Russian forces. And, as the fighting of the first weeks of the war unfolded, they did not expect the garrison of Paris to sally from the city to attack their flanks and initiate battle on the Marne.

As these things happened, quite contrary to the expectations of the shinny Schlieffen plan that had for so long promised swift victory to Germany over France, the Western offensive of the Germans crumpled into the muddy, bloody stalemate of the trenches.

Much of the focus of The Guns of August is on the machinations of the various high commands as their hopes collide with the realities of European politics on the battlefield. But Tuchman also gives human faces to the warlords who led their countries.

The book has its heroes, notably King Albert who, of all his royal contemporaries, was the only one, Tuchman notes, who achieved personal greatness. Of the other generals it is perhaps Sir John French, commander of the British Expeditionary Force, who comes out of Tuchman’s account worst, as a remarkably hesitant and ineffectual commander.

When they finally met in London in 1922 Michael Collins found French, who he had once tried to kill, a charming and engaging man. It is a sobering thought that it may well be humans’ finest qualities that render them of least utility in war. In other words, as Chaucer realised, the myth of the “perfect, gentle knight” is just that: a myth.

The Guns of August quickly established itself as a modern classic shortly after its publication in 1962. It is a deserved reputation. The book is an elegantly written, gripping, and enormously erudite account of the first weeks of the First World War, ending abruptly, in an echo of Thucydides, on the eve of the critical Battle of the Marne.

Perhaps it is also a book that helped to save the world. Jack Kennedy read it shortly after its publication and, himself a veteran of confused battles and command bungling, was impressed by a key theme of the book – the miscalculations and errors that led to war and battlefield disaster. So, a few months later, during the desperate days of the Cuban Missiles Crisis, Kennedy made very sure to constantly wonder about what his opponents – in Washington, Moscow and Havana – were planning to do.

Say Nothing, by Patrick Radden Keefe

Summary: a devastatingly powerful account of the impact of murder on its victims and perpetrators. One of the finest books ever about the Troubles in the North of Ireland.

In 1972 the IRA kidnapped Jean McConville, a widowed mother of ten. She was never seen alive by her family again. In 2013, following storms, her remains were discovered where they had been buried on Shelling Hill beach in County Louth. She had been killed by a single gunshot to the head.

Jean McConville’s murder by the IRA, on the trumped up excuse that she was informing to the British, was hardly out of the ordinary. Others were also disappeared. Hundreds of innocent non-combatants were killed by the IRA, sometimes by accident, sometimes deliberately. Hundreds more were killed by British Crown Forces and Loyalist paramilitaries. But the IRA’s decision to adopt the tactics of a South American dictatorship and disappear Jean, telling her children that she had abandoned them and that she was a tout, has made Jean’s tragedy one of the most notorious incidents of the Troubles.

It is saying something about the richness and quality of this book that Radden Keefe’s final uncovering of the truth of Jean’s last hours and the name of the person who fired the fatal shot is not necessarily the book’s most important aspect.

Say Nothing draws in part on the “Belfast Project” of Boston College – an attempt at an oral history project on the Troubles so botched that it was easily portrayed, with some justice, as an effort by critics of Gerry Adams to give other critics an opportunity to give vent to their spleen towards him for his imagined betrayal of them by his involvement in the Peace Process. When it was finally subpoenaed by the police it provided them with a rich source of intelligence on historical crimes.

Carefully triangulating the Belfast Project material with his own research and interviews, Radden Keefe focuses on the lives of three of those involved in Jean’s death – IRA members Brendan Hughes, Dolours Price and Gerry Adams – and on the dreadful consequences of the killing on Jean’s children. The result is a devastatingly powerful account of the impact of the squalid, intimate war known on the Troubles on the lives of both its combatants and victims.

Dolours Price and Brendan Hughes were in many ways hugely impressive people: idealistic, extraordinarily brave and self-sacrificing – both endured time on hunger strike, Dolours being tortured through force feeding over a protracted period. But this book details how even these most admirable of human virtues can be twisted in war to enable savagely evil acts.

Both Price and Hughes ended their lives embittered opponents of the Irish Peace Process. They believed that what they had done in war could not be justified by the peace deal that their former commanding officer, Gerry Adams, had signed up to. While they were wrong about the Peace Process they were both probably right that many of their actions could never be justified, not least because so much of their armed struggle was pointless.

On the signing of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) in 1998 Seamus Mallon, Deputy Leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), described that agreement as “Sunningdale for slow learners.” It’s a line that rankles the Provos to this day. Mallon was referring to a power-sharing agreement in 1974 that had similar constitutional provisions to the GFA, but which Sinn Fein and the IRA, along with the far-Right Democratic Unionist Party, had opposed. This led, in part, to the bloody continuance of war for another two decades until we ended up in more or less the same place.

Jean and some of her children

Peace has been good to Gerry Adams – the man who, as an IRA commander, according to Price and Hughes, ordered the death and disappearance of Jean. He is now something of an elder statesman, basking in the glow of the Peace Process and apparently untroubled by his bloody IRA past. Of course he always denies having been a member of the IRA, a barefaced lie that stoked the fury and deepened the embitterment of both Price and Hughes, subordinates who had only been following his orders.

Both Price and Hughes went to early graves consumed by the guilt and trauma of what they had done to Jean and others like her. Doubtless when they died they were still trying to convince themselves of the rightness of their actions. Doubtless also they tried not to think of the consequences of their actions on Jean’s children: Her lonely murder at night on the shores of the Irish Sea led to the break up of the family, the institutionalisation of several of her children, and the devastation of the lives of that next generation.

Say Nothing is a remarkable work of journalism and history. It is one of the finest books ever written on the Troubles. It is vital reading for anyone glib about the value of the Peace Process or with any romantic illusions about revolutionary war.

Nights in Armour, by Sam Thompson

Summary: a fine novel of ordinary people at war and the horrendous consequences of violence

There’s an echo of Hill Street Blues, the seminal 1980s cop show, in this book. Like that series this book also encompasses a teeming cast of characters, police of all ranks and paramilitaries, to paint a portrait of what it was like to be a peeler in the North of Ireland in the shadow of the 1981 hunger strikes.

Thompson does not paint a heroic picture. His characters are flawed. Some are bigots. Some are fearful. All are human, living cheek by jowl with violence and death. Traffic accidents, riots, assassinations, attacks on themselves all take their toll as the British Government’s “Ulsterisation” increasingly places them in the forefront of the conflict and hence on the receiving end of the paramilitary offensive.

Thompson’s descriptions of violence are particularly striking. A former cop himself he writes these with the forensic clarity of someone who has seen what firearms and explosives do to human beings and human bodies.

Nights in Armour is a fine novel of war in all its ghastliness. It should be read by every young Irish person with romantic notions of what the Troubles were actually like. And it should be read by every English politician prepared to jeopardise the fragile peace in Ireland for their ludicrous dreams of reclaiming faded British imperial grandeur.

Shadowplay: Behind the lines and under fire – the inside story of Europe’s last war, by Tim Marshall

Summary: a fine journalistic account of war and power politics in the Balkans

img_1613The war correspondent is something of a non-fiction counterpart to crime novels’ gumshoe: a guide through the dark and bloody places that most of us would never dream of personally approaching but still are fascinated by from a few steps removed. Journalistic accounts of war also provide even the most venial of hacks the opportunity to present themselves as heroes of their narratives.

Tim Marshall, author of an outstanding book on geo-politics, Prisoners of Geography, avoids that particular egocentric trap by casting himself very much as the anti-hero. Here he is generally the blundering foreigner dependent on his savvy Serbian colleagues to obtain understanding and avoid dangers.

It is a generous approach and illuminates with flashes of warmth and friendship this, often bleak, account of bloodshed and power politics during the war in Kosovo and the democratic revolution in Serbia.

After the Second World War,” Marshall notes, “the West Europeans gradually invented the European Union as their attempt to prevent them from killing each other again. The Serbs and their neighbours had Yugoslavia, Communism and Tito. The EU survived, and the other three didn’t. When Tito died, the ties that bound their neighbours, almost as brothers, frayed and then snapped.

Marshall may, on occasion, display a regard for the British Army that can really only be shown by someone who has never had their country occupied by them. But otherwise he is impressively clear-sighted about the atrocities and bloody blundering of all sides in these wars, including NATO.

Like much of history, this is not a book with a happy ending. Both Serbia and Kosovo currently sit outside the European Union, their economic and democratic development stunted, with many of their young people abandoning their countries in the hope for a better life elsewhere. Neither will be admitted so long as there is a continuing “bilateral dispute” between them.

This seems rather short-sighted however. Both the UK and Ireland entered the EU in 1973 with a de-facto “bilateral dispute” relating to the North of Ireland, and it was common membership that provided the framework for ultimate resolution of that “dispute” with the Good Friday Agreement – something Brexit now fundamentally threatens. Given Europe’s abject failures in relation to the Balkan wars of the 1990s perhaps we should relook at the opportunities for enduring peace that all the Balkan nations accession the the EU could provide.

“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.

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.