Archive for the ‘militaria’ Category

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Histories of the Hanged: The Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire by David Anderson

2 March 2010

My working knowledge of Britain’s African colonial history comes mostly from my research on Rhodesia before and after the UDI — a case with its own set of peculiar circumstances that do not exactly reflect the British colonial experience its other African possessions. So I’m always interested in books such as the following that may help to fill in the gaps in my education, particularly regarding non-European history.

The London Review of Books, as always, has another good review of this book in conjunction with Caroline Elkins’ more confrontationally named Britain’s Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya.

Histories of the Hanged: The Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire by David Anderson

Histories of imperialism and colonialism frequently run into the difficulty of finding and intepreting source materials in a way that balances the stories told by very local, personalised accounts (such as oral histories) and the much broader and more anonymous archival collections. Both aspects are equally crucial to the writing of history, but blending them into a single coherent narrative is no easy task — especially when the narrative involves a history of startling violence, brutality, and contradictory justifications from all parties concerned. So when a work of colonial history comes along that manages to combine excellent research with fluid storytelling, it more than deserves attention from both historians and general readers.

David Anderson’s Histories of the Hanged: The Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire is one such a book, a tightly-written, hard-hitting account of a particularly grim chapter in Britain’s retreat from empire: the Mau Mau conflict that wracked Kenya in the 1950s and left a trail of killings and brutal judicial and extrajudicial punishments in its wake. Anderson carefully marshals court records, archival materials, contemporary journalism, and other public and private documents such as published memoirs and private letters to shape his history of the conflict. This is no small task, because the Mau Mau conflict’s origins were complicated and multilayered, involving land disputes between and among Kenya’s white and nonwhite populations, an institutionalised regime of racism and tribalism, bitter religious disagreements that dated back many decades, and a general air of semi-benign neglect from the Colonial Office back in London. Anderson manages to pull all of these aspects together in order to depict how long-standing feuds within African communities fueled grudge-killings and guerilla warfare on a massive scale, and how the reactions of the white settlers and British officials only deepened and perpetuated the conflict. This focus on the origins and underpinnings of the conflict ensures that Histories of the Hanged is a highly readable book even for those who are not generally familiar with colonial history.

The Mau Mau conflict — or ‘uprising’, or ’emergency’, or ‘insurrection’, or ‘civil war’, or ‘rebellion’, depending on who you talk to — eventually caused enough concern back in Britain that politicians as disparate in views as Labour MP Barbara Castle and Conservative MP Enoch Powell were united in their condemnation of the colonial authority’s handling of the situation. By the end of the hostilities, about two dozen white Kenyans and several thousand more black Kenyans had been killed in various random attacks and planned massacres, some of which encompassed the inhabitants of entire villages and towns. The justice system added to this number, sending more than a thousand black Kenyans to the gallows — about twice the number executed by the French during their own colonial crisis in Algeria — and rounding up and imprisoning hundreds of thousands of others in squalid detention camps that more than a few historians have called ‘Britain’s gulag’. And yet even though David Anderson adds his voice to those who condemn the atrocities committed by both sides, Histories of the Hanged is not a book that spends all its time pointing fingers and searching for the guilty parties. Rather, it is more interested in examining the conflict of loyalties that created the political vacuum which allowed the Mau Mau to attract its followers, and the reasons why colonial authorities in Kenya were so quickly overtaken by events. It is a bloody and racially charged history, certainly, and it makes for difficult reading at times. All the same, it is a part of British imperial history that has been overlooked (in some cases, deliberately so) until very recently, and a book like Anderson’s is a welcome insight into the often-confusing background and battles of a bitter civil and colonial war.

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A Companion to International History 1900–2001, edited by Gordon Martel

12 January 2010

I believe this is the last of the reviews I wrote for the September 2008 issue of Political Studies Review. The next new review should be ready for posting by next week.

A Companion to International History 1900–2001, edited by Gordon Martel

The intent of the Blackwell Companions to History series is to provide compact collections of writings that address the most important, overarching concepts in particular historical fields and look at the changing ways in which historians have approached these concepts. In that tradition, the contributors to Blackwell’s A Companion to International History 1900–2001 have given the editors a volume of concise, well-written historiographical and interpretive essays dealing with both specific areas of interest and broader themes in twentieth century history.

The essays in this volume cover the full span of the twentieth century, looking back to the early years of the century to examine the origins of the First World War and continuing all the way through to the events of 11 September 2001. Broader themes explored include nationalism and imperialism, as well as the changes wrought on the diplomatic world by the shifting balances of power and ideological realignments of the past 100 years. The more area-specific essays look into the topics that are the staple of most any international history survey — the crisis periods of the two world wars and the Cold War, overviews of pre-war and inter-war European alliances and post-war European integration, regional studies of the roles played by Southeast Asia and the Middle East in the post-war world, and even several essays on post–Cold War politics and the effects of globalisation and terrorism. The guides to further reading, located at the end of each chapter, provide briefly annotated lists of selected books and articles for those who are interested in going deeper into a particular subject.

Many of the contributors will be familiar to those who have made a study of contemporary international history, and the quality of the contributions is uniformly excellent. In a collection of such first-rate work, it is difficult to highlight any one or two individual entries as particularly worthy of note. Overall, the Companion to International History is another welcome addition to Blackwell’s high-quality series, suitable not only for students who are just beginning to explore the complexities of international history but also for established scholars who require a handy desk reference for teaching, research, or simply for a quick refresher on major historical themes of the previous century.


First published in Political Studies Review Vol. 6 No. 3 (September 2008): 433–434.
The definitive version is available at www.blackwellsynergy.com.

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Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II by John Dower

17 February 2009

Another particularly good review of the following book can be found as part of the Institute of Historical Research’s collection of book reviews.

Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II by John Dower

On 15 August 1945, nine days after the first atomic bomb exploded over the city of Hiroshima, the Japanese government unconditionally surrendered to the Allied powers and brought World War II — known to the Japanese as Daitōa Sensō, or the Greater East Asia War — to an end. For the next eight years, Japan would be occupied by the Allies, led by the United States under the supreme command of General Douglas MacArthur. As the general history goes, the occupying authorities issued various edicts and reforms to root out the oppressive militarism and fanatical emperor-worship of the war years, all in the name of bringing modern democratic ideals to Japan. The Japanese, for their part, seemed to accept the new social and political order with humble gratitude, as well as profound thanks for the victors’ benign guidance in building a democratic society on the ashes of defeat. Yet as in so many cases, this simplistic reading of historical events glosses over years of bitter political struggles and social upheaval, of little children mimicking their elders by playing ‘prostitute and GI’ and sly satirical poetry published in literary magazines and more than a few Japanese politicians committing suicide out of despair and shame. In short, the story of the occupation of Japan is seldom told from the perspective of the Japanese — an omission that John Dower’s Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II seeks to rectify.

Embracing Defeat begins, understandably, with the defeat, and the earth-shattering effect it had on many ordinary Japanese people who had been prepared to give their lives for the emperor and for their homeland. Japanese society had been shaken to its foundations, and people had to reinvent their lives and reevaluate their ways of thinking even as they scrabbled for enough food to stay alive. Dower describes the various subcultures that sprang up under the occupation, from the illegal trades of the prostitutes and black marketeers to the growing influence of left-wing writers and thinkers, many of whom benefited from the fact that they had spent the war in prison or exile and could not be accused of sympathising with the wartime regime. The remnants of that regime also had to come to terms with the occupying authorities, whether in the war crimes tribunals or in the painful negotiations over the status of the emperor and the shape of the country’s new constitution. Dower devotes several chapters to analysing the various battles that Japanese politicians had with the occupying authorities over the details of the reinvented political system, even as General MacArthur’s subordinates seemed to go to inordinate lengths to curtail ordinary people’s attempts to express their opinions in a more free and democratic fashion — whether through strict censorship, strike-breaking, or other curbs on popular protest against the government. Embracing Defeat includes many similar incidents where the tensions between prewar Japan and occupied Japan had to be worked out in careful compromises, and Dower’s equally careful analysis shows how these compromises shaped the Japan that emerged from defeat and sought its own place in the postwar — by that point, the Cold War — era.

Perhaps because of the wider availability of documents from the Japanese national archives and the occupation’s Tokyo headquarters, Embracing Defeat dwells on life in Tokyo and a few other major cities at the expense of a more detailed look at life across Japan. (Granted, a survey of the particular circumstances of the occupation of Okinawa would require a separate book of similar length.) The jumps between social history and political history can also seem jarring at times, even though the wealth of insightful anecdotes helps to make up for the transition problems. Overall, Embracing Defeat is both far-reaching and thoughtfully written, especially when it comes to Dower’s familiarity with the subtleties of the Japanese language. Many of his most informative passages explore how a certain word choice or English-to-Japanese paraphrasing altered the effect of a notable statement or idea, whether it involved the concept of the Japanese imperial family’s descent from the goddess Amaterasu or the politically charged nuances of possible Japanese translations for the word ‘democracy’. In a sense, Dower’s emphasis on translation and word choices is central to the main themes of Embracing Defeat — the ability of language to shape political and social thought, the reinvention of old traditions and the creation of new ones, and the complex relationships between victors and vanquished that were never absent from everyday life in occupied Japan.

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The English Civil War: Papists, Gentlewomen, Soldiers, and Witchfinders in the Birth of Modern Britain by Diane Purkiss

16 December 2008

I’ve been exceedingly remiss in writing up and posting reviews of books I’ve read recently, owing to a slew of end-of-year commitments that have cut back on my free writing time. I hope to have at least a few more reviews posted before the end of 2008, if nothing else.

The UK edition of this particular book has the far simpler title The English Civil War: A People’s History. I’m not entirely certain why the title was changed for the U.S. edition (too similar to Howard Zinn’s magnum opus, perhaps?), but the U.S. edition is the one being reviewed in this post.

The English Civil War: Papists, Gentlewomen, Soldiers, and Witchfinders in the Birth of Modern Britain by Diane Purkiss

The English Civil War — or rather, wars, if you break down the overarching conflict into various sets of skirmishes from around 1642 to 1651 — is a classic example of a historical event that has been moulded over the years to fit many different kinds of historical narratives. The Whig historians scrutinised by Herbert Butterfield tended to regard the war as a struggle for power between Parliament and the monarchy, with the former championing the natural rights of the people and the latter attempting to reassert the traditional spiritual and temporal authority of the sovereign. The Marxist historians of the mid-20th century viewed it as a class war, a bourgeois revolution against the aristocracy that prefigured the greater radicalism of the American and French Revolutions. Other historians have played up the religious aspect of the conflict, framing it in the context of the Catholic-Protestant schisms that had never quite fully healed since the days of Henry VIII. Still others have suggested that regional politics are really at the heart of the matter, and that the war can only be truly understood by looking into the particular political, religious, and social situations in Scotland, Wales, Ireland, England (with London as its own separate region), and to some extent Cornwall. Generally speaking, most of these historiographical approaches focus on the larger picture or the top-down factors, often at the expense of the far more personal stories that are so often at the heart of any civil war. In that context, Diane Purkiss’s The English Civil War: Papists, Gentlewomen, Soldiers, and Witchfinders in the Birth of Modern Britain is an attempt to provide a more intimate perspective that both reflects and challenges the overall understanding of the conflict.

Purkiss strives to bridge the gap between academic and popular history, drawing on a wide variety of sources to include the perspectives of individuals and groups that frequently are neglected in the more sweeping general histories. Women in particular play a prominent role in her narrative, from the aristocratic ladies who were caught up in the politicking and social intrigues within the court of Charles I and Henrietta Maria to the working-class women who often embodied the Puritan religious movement that wished to eradicate Catholic elements from their way of worship. She also takes pains to show the effects that the war had on family life, with accounts of fathers and sons taking opposite sides and wives defending their homes while their husbands were off fighting alongside the King or the Parliament. Above all, Purkiss strives to illustrate the confusion and disorder of a ‘world turned upside down’ by the war, the reality that was often (both not always) exaggerated by the hysterical accounts of atrocities carried out by both sides. The English Civil War ends with the execution of Charles I and the exile of the Stuarts, a suitable stopping-point that allows Purkiss to tie up the loose ends of the stories that make up this people’s history.

That said, The English Civil War has a few disappointing aspects that detract from its generally engaging tone. Purkiss tends to speculate a little too freely on the thoughts and motivations of the individuals she profiles; even if her speculations are drawn from suitably accurate sources, they still inject a little too much fancy into the history. She also could have done a good deal more with the ‘witchfinders’ part of the history — her account of Matthew Hopkins and the witchcraft trials of the 1640s and 1650s feels like an afterthought, as if it had been crammed into the text in a hasty attempt to include something that had been left out of early drafts. Considering the use of witch trials as a social and political weapon during the Civil War years, especially against women, and the frequently invoked connections between witchcraft and the rituals of Catholicism and Laudian Anglicanism, a more in-depth look at the witchcraft angle might easily have occupied a sizeable portion of the text. But The English Civil War‘s main problem is that it seems to assume that its audience is a good deal more familiar with the history of the conflict than might be expected — even a dramatis personae or a simple timeline at the back of the book would have been invaluable for a reader coming to the subject for the first time. These weaknesses do not make the book unreadable — far from it — but they do encourage the reader to consult the extensive ‘Further Reading’ section at the back of the book for a broader selection of works to supplement Purkiss’s own.

(In addition: I generally agree with the statements and conclusions given in Gavin Robinson’s extremely detailed review of the book, though my review mostly approaches the text from the perspective of one who is not nearly as ‘genned up’ on the existing literature of the English Civil War as he happens to be.)

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The Looking Glass War by John Le Carré

12 October 2008

I read this shortly after I finished Call for the Dead, and it’s quite interesting to see how Le Carré’s writing style developed between his first book and this one. There are still one or two more of the ‘early’ Le Carré books that I’d like to read, including A Small Town in Germany and possibly A Murder of Quality — they’ll appear in this blog if I happen to get around to them.

The Looking Glass War by John Le Carré

During World War II, the British intelligence services were organised into a number of different divisions responsible for different aspects of espionage and analysis. For reasons of security and inter-departmental propriety, the divisions responsible for political intelligence and military intelligence were kept separate, and known only by their generic codenames — the ‘Circus’ dealt with political affairs, the ‘Department’ dealt with military matters. Even though both agencies operated in Nazi-occupied areas, their remits were distinct and their staffs only collaborated when necessity demanded collaboration. After the war, however, the Circus and the Department found themselves competing in bureaucratic turf wars for government funding and support, and the better-organised Circus outflanked the Department and won the lion’s share of both. The Department was left to fend for itself, as its senior staff spent most of the time dreaming of their glory days and its new recruits muddled along as best they could. Yet when a Department courier is found dead on the side of the road near a small airport in Finland, and a less-than-reliable source passes on information about the possible movement of Soviet nuclear missiles to a site in East Germany near the border with the West, the old hands of the Department frantically work to recruit and retrain a formerly active agent to be infiltrated behind the Iron Curtain — a final push against an old enemy.

The Looking Glass War was John Le Carré’s fourth book, published two years after his best-selling The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, and it was nowhere near as successful as its predecessor. Le Carré himself, in the introduction to later editions, considered that much of the reason for the book’s poor reception had to do with the fact that it was very much the antithesis of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. The Looking Glass War is the story of failure, failed men and failed plans, an intelligence service that cannot remember whether it is fighting the Russians or the Germans and can only scrouge up cast-off agents and hopelessly outdated equipment for a haphazard, suicidal mission. Le Carré, in retrospect, claimed that he had not gone far enough in his critical appraisal of British intelligence in the novel. In his eyes, a proper tale of the British intelligence community of the 1960s could not be written without reference to ‘its internecine feuds and betrayals, its class distinctions and its obsessive vision of the American oaf, trespassing on our precious colonial turf‘ — in short, an unrelentingly bleak vision of Britain after Suez, sleepwalking its way into an uncertain future.

Le Carré claimed that The Looking Glass War was his most realistic spy novel, at least in the sense that it was based on the intelligence community that he knew and in which he briefly served. He finds space to give George Smiley, his best-known character, a minor role as an unwilling liaison between the Circus and the Department, though Smiley plays only a small part in the larger plot. (There may be the faintest hint of foreshadowing of the events of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, although that book would not be written for another decade.) The story dwells on the main themes that crop up quite often in Le Carré’s books, including the nature of betrayal and the toll that espionage work takes on the private lives of those who are involved in intelligence circles. As a spy novel, it is indeed unrelentingly bleak, greyer and grittier than even Le Carré tends to be in his writing. Even so, it seems uncomfortably authentic in the morbidness of its plot and characters; it may be an exaggeration of reality, but there are enough echoes of truth in it to allow our imaginations to take care of the rest.

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The Struggle for Europe: The Turbulent History of a Divided Continent by William I. Hitchcock

3 September 2008

I tend to review very specialised, subject-specific books, mostly because I am often dissatisfied with a lot of the broader survey books that are out there. So when a good example of a well-written survey book lands in my reading pile, it’s that much more enjoyable to review.

The Struggle for Europe: The Turbulent History of a Divided Continent by William I. Hitchcock

Attempting to write a good general history book about Europe after World War II presents any number of challenges to a prospective author, the most common of which tends to be the prominence of the Cold War in that postwar history. Cold War-era histories cannot help but dwell on the roles of the superpowers, and depending on the author’s own nationality, many promising books on postwar European history end up giving the United States or the Soviet Union too much ‘screen time’ at the expense of their actual subject. A book that is able to keep the focus squarely on the European experience is worthy of note — and history professor William Hitchcock’s The Struggle for Europe: The Turbulent History of a Divided Continent manages this feat with alacrity.

The Struggle for Europe works hard to balance the little details and the broader themes of postwar European history, and as a rule it does not dwell too long on one subject, country, or historical figure. Both sides of the Iron Curtain are represented, and the often neglected countries of southern Europe — Spain, Portugal, and Greece — have a separate section devoted to the history of their respective transitions from right-wing authoritarianism and military governments to democratic participation in the European Union. Individuals like Margaret Thatcher and Charles de Gaulle, who can easily overwhelm historical writing by the sheer force of their presence, are prominent but kept in proportion — most often, in proportion to the amount of trouble they caused their neighbours. One of the more notable sections of the book is Hitchcock’s comprehensive coverage of events in the Warsaw Pact countries during the 1980s and 1990s, from the Solidarity strikes in Poland to the gruesome execution of Nicolae Ceaucescu and his wife in Romania, which avoids treating the end of the Cold War as a fait accompli in the way that so many other Cold War history books do. This leads nicely into an overview of the breakup of Yugoslavia and the Bosnian wars, as good a place as any to bring a history of postwar Europe to a close.

Hitchcock’s writing style is smooth and flowing, not exactly conversational but nonetheless free from the stiffness that might make it sound too much like a straight classroom lecture. There’s little in the way of social history or commentary on demographic and other trends, which might make the history seem a little dry for some yet manages to prevent the narrative from meandering off on random tangents. (Personally, I would have liked a little more structure to the end-notes, but I know that some readers find end-notes off-putting and Hitchcock clearly has taken this segment of his intended audience into account.) Overall, The Struggle for Europe hits all of the right points that a basic, general survey history book should have. Those who are looking to brush up on the events they lived through and never appreciated, or learned about in school and never understood, likely would find it a very useful place to begin.

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Instructions for British Servicemen in France, 1944

24 August 2008

I ought to have posted this shortly after I finished my review of the 1941 Home Guard Manual, or perhaps saved it for Remembrance Sunday, but I was flipping through it the other day and remembered how much I enjoyed it — so my review’s going up now.

Instructions for British Servicemen in France, 1944

In 1944, a new British Expeditionary Force was being assembled to make the first push into occupied France, and a writer on secondment from the Intelligence Corps to the French Section of the Political Warfare Executive was drafted to write a ‘little pamphlet’ which would be issued to troops preparing for the invasion. The little pamphlet serves as an introduction to France and the French people, and as an explanation of what the BEF soldiers should expect to find on the Continent — and as a result, it contains a good deal of advice and caveats about what kind of behaviour would and would not be appropriate. The Bodleian Library has reprinted the little pamphlet (as well as Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain, 1942, a similar set of instructions issued to American GIs stationed in England) in a serviceable green hardback booklet, and as historical documents they are both fascinating and deeply sobering.

The theme that is stressed most of all is the great suffering of the French people under the occupation and in the Vichy-governed territories. The pamphlet gives figures on the number of French civilians who have been deported to Germany for forced labour or imprisoned in concentration camps, and adds that at least 5,000 Frenchman are shot every year for active resistance — an average of one every two hours, it states. But it also states that even with the killings and the deportations and the general anti-British propaganda, ordinary French people still regard the British as allies and it is imperative for British soldiers to respond in kind:

We must always remember that we have twice fought together in this century on the soil of France: British cemetaries, if you see them, are a permanent reminder….We owe it to our self-respect as British soldiers to show ourselves really well-behaved in every way. But we, unlike the Germans, can be naturally friendly, seeing that the French are naturally our friends.

To that end, British soldiers are advised to remember that the French have been having an even more difficult time of it than the soldiers might have found at home. General warning is given to not take advantage of the meagre hospitality of the French people, and not to purchase things from French shops, because doing so might well mean that some poor French civilian must go without. Particular warning is given about proper conduct toward French women, and how it can affect the war effort: ‘If you should happen to imagine that the first pretty French girl who smiles at you intends to dance the can-can or take you to bed, you will risk stirring up a lot of trouble for yourself — and for our relations with the French.‘ Very sensible advice, that. The back of the book also includes a short phrasebook section, with phonetic (or near-phonetic) translations of French for a soldier’s general use. The pronounciations are a little wince-worthy for someone who has even a smattering of experience with the French language, but in a pinch the phrasebook likely would have served a very useful purpose.

This little book is commonsensical and plain-spoken, and does the best it can in the few words it provides. It would not be easy to determine what kind of impact these instructions might’ve had on the ordinary British soldier going over to fight in France, but it would be nice to think that it helped smooth the transition and possibly even prevented real problems in that crazy, uncertain time when all of Europe was turned upside-down.