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.

Advertisements

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.

7AD36993-D93D-423A-8524-7BAA1F3D2603

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.

Road of Bones: The Siege of Kohima 1944, by Fergal Keane

Summary: War is cruelty, and so is reading about it sometimes

In 1989 Alan Clarke and Danny Boyle made a short film for the BBC called Elephant. There was little dialogue, and little narrative. What there was instead was a reenactment of a series of 18 killings based on real incidents from the Troubles in the North of Ireland. The film did not seek to explain the causes of the conflict, which still had almost 10 years left to run when the film was broadcast. Nor did it endeavour to posit what political processes may be needed to end it. Instead it sought only to provide a visceral account of some killings. The cumulative effect of this relentless depiction of deliberate butchery of was one of horror.

I was reminded of that film about half way through this book, which has, as its centrepiece, an account of the siege of Kohima, a bloody portion of a wider battle on the borders of India and Myanmar in 1944. At Kohima the Japanese sought to break through Allied defences and cut loose into North Eastern India. Meanwhile a combined forced of British and South Asian troops, with limited supplies of ammunition and water attempted to thwart these plans from hastily constructed defences.

It’s tough reading: pieced together from diverse accounts of both Allied and Japanese soldiers these central chapters are essentially an anthology of killings. As with the film Elephant the effect, I found, was ultimately one of numbed horror.

I am not sure if this was the intent of Keane with this portion of the book. I found it difficult to make sense from the account of any grand, or even basic, tactical vision of either the defenders or attackers. Certainly the account he presents here reflects the experiences of the soldiers fighting for their own lives and those of their comrades. But the officers who also left accounts were tasked with managing the battle and must have had a broader perspective.

In contrast with the organised chaos of the account of the bloody fighting at Kohima Keane does go to some lengths to place the role of this siege in the wider strategic considerations of Slim, the commander to the British 14th Army, and Mountbatten, the Allied Supreme Commander in South East Asia. He also does a fine job of explaining the British efforts in South East Asia in the context of the geopolitics of the time, including Churchill’s grubby imperialist pretensions.

There is much else admirable about the book, not least Keane’s efforts to bear witness to the story of the Naga allies of the British, a tribal people who stood with the British in their darkest hour at Kohima only to be betrayed by them shortly after when they were no longer needed. Admirably Keane also gives voice to the humanity and experiences of the Japanese who fought in the battle, while never overlooking their brutality and atrocities. The passages describing how the starving Japanese fared in retreat are some of the most powerful of the book.

Ultimately, perhaps as one would expect of Fergal Keane, a veteran correspondent of some of the nastiest conflicts of the past 30 years, he writes of the pity of war and the humanity of those compelled to fight. It is a book that bears witness to Sherman’s blunt observation, “War is cruelty,” and, consequently perhaps, it is at times a gruelling reading experience.

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

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

Summary: An entertaining biography of the great Kurdish leader who, in the midst of war, introduced chivalry to the West

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.