The Wretched of the Earth, by Frantz Fanon

October 13, 2012 at 10:29 (Book Reviews, Highly Rated Books, Historical, Politics, Twentieth Century, War) (, , )

8/10

As a rule, polemics are nasty, complicated things. They exist to provide brief shoutable slogans, and to gather dust in libraries. They are not supposed to throb with such vibrant energy and impassioned rhetoric as Fanon’s last will and testament. They are not supposed to inspire strong feelings in readers decades removed from their context. Frantz Fanon makes himself a difficult man to like, trumpeting loudly in bifurcated absolutes, and frequently presenting conclusions before arguments (if he deigns to argue at all).

“The very same people who had it constantly drummed into them that the only language they understood was that of force, now decide to express themselves with force.”

-The Wretched of the Earth

His book is at its dullest when he describes the problems facing revolutionary groups transitioning into legitimacy, and the correct organisation of a progressive order. Here he becomes another coffee-room radical, prattling about bourgeouise and propaganda, the party, the meetings, the rallies, reactionaries, the doctrine. He is at his most convincing when presenting carefully chosen examples of colonial outrages, always slotted meticulously into his broader worldview, and always ready to support his fiery ultimatums.

“We are all in the process of dirtying our hands in the quagmire of our soil and the terrifying void of our minds. Any bystander is a coward or a traitor.”

-The Wretched of the Earth

As political science this is an imperfect work, but as an intelligent and furious response to the western world in the twentieth century, it is powerful and starkly relevant. Richard Philcox’s translation appears to do Fanon credit; the book’s fluency and inviting tone make it remarkably easy to read through even the most convoluted politispeak, and seize upon the pith of Fanon’s complaint easily. Quick to digest and quick to make an impression, there really is no excuse for avoiding this book.

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What to do with Japan, by Wilfrid Fleisher

August 20, 2012 at 17:38 (Asian History, Book Reviews, Highly Rated Books, Historical, Politics, Second World War, Twentieth Century, War) (, , )

What to do, indeed, with a book bearing such a deliciously arrogant and condescending title? There is something brash and daring about it: the refusal to wonder if anything might be done, but the decision what shall be done. As a piece of history in itself, What to do with Japan is a fascinating prospect, written as an opinion piece by a journalist from the New York Herald Tribune some time in 1945. But it is shocking just how prescient Fleisher’s insights into the allied nations’ looming post-war ordeal actually are. It is remarkable how sage and levelheaded he remains, with no emotional outbursts and few racially-motivated generalisations on the “yellow race”. Even when he does make cultural judgements, they are as much reflections on the Western mindset as they are descriptions of a foreigner. “We know them to be fanatical and vindictive…” he begins, setting the stage for a book in which what America (and the rest of the world) ‘knows’ ought perhaps to be re-evaluated.

“If we expect to be welcomed back in Asia with open arms as liberators, we may experience some rude shocks unless we are prepared to return with a new philosophy…we assume, perhaps too readily, that the conquered peoples are yearning to rid themselves of their Japanese masters and to welcome the return of the occidental Powers.”

-What to do with Japan

Starkly prophetic are his insights into the difficulty of managing a post-colonial world, and of occupying a foreign country in the modern era. From predicting grave trouble between Russia and China in the decades ahead, to warning that any American occupation of Japan must have a clear exit strategy and a roadmap towards responsible self-government, there are entire paragraphs that would not look out of place if they were transposed sixty years into the future.

There are moments where Fleisher makes inaccurate predictions, but these are none the less interesting for their errancy.  He utterly fails to predict the Cold War, and it is deeply interesting and even a little humbling to hear him use the words ‘united nations’ as an adjective and a noun more than as an organisation, several times evoking the sincere belief that the nations of the world would have general consensus throughout the rest of the century, only pausing to solve occasional disputes.

An interesting and manageably brief little book, that stands out from its competition by virtue of the tact, humility and conciliatory nature with which it is written. It is truly rare to find so much good sense packed into such an unassuming form.

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AK-47: The Weapon that Changed the Face of War, by Larry Kahaner

August 4, 2012 at 17:09 (Book Reviews, Crime and Law Enforcement, Highly Rated Books, Historical, Twentieth Century, War) (, , , )

7/10

It is tempting to mentally remove the title emblazoned across the cover of this book and replace it with the legend, “This is a book about guns!!!” If books are to be judged by their covers, then this one is a little embarrassing, a little bombastic, and not the sort of book one would feel comfortable reading on a train. Thankfully the interior is markedly less cartoonish than the jacket, although it is not a deep or penetrating historical work.

Kahaner has faced a great deal of undeserved criticism for his apparent aloofness and harsh verdict on what is unambiguously a weapon of the proxy war and of the criminal. He does not set out to write a technical manual, and he does a capable job in surveying both the history of the gun’s inception, the history of comparable weapons, and several case studies of the AK-47’s use, availablity and changing role. Incidentally, all of his case studies are soberly written and entirely germane to his topic.

“The army was enamoured of the complexity and promise of these smart weapons. ‘Despite all the sophisticated weapons we or the Soviets come up with, you still have to get that one lone infantryman, with his rifle, off his piece of land. It’s the damn hardest thing in the world to do.'”

-AK-47

While several of his conclusions are certainly up for debate, and are clearly written as opinions and not as facts, this book is neither an essay on the evils of guns, nor a statistics sheet for gun enthusiasts. It is a very general overview supported by some carefully chosen examples and a brief survey of one weapon’s use in selected twentieth century contexts. Considering that the author was compelled to summarise some sixty years of the history of declared wars, terrorism, criminal subcultures across four continents, and the legal and illegal traffic of firearms in general, it ought to be clear that he has successfully and skilfully distilled an immense amount of information in a very clear and professional manner.

Readers looking for a Tom Clancy sourcebook should look elsewhere; readers looking for a biography of Kalashnikov should read a biography of Kalashnikov; readers looking for a comprehensive and multifaceted study of every conflict and event Kahaner surveys have at least a dozen other books they ought to read. But for what it is, this is an excellent book.

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From October to Brest-Litovsk, by Leon Trotsky

May 27, 2012 at 22:18 (Book Reviews, Historical, Mediocre Books, Politics, Twentieth Century, War) (, , )

4/10

Trotsky’s apologetic regarding one of the least popular pieces of Bolshevik policy is at times ludicrous, at times deeply compelling, at times simpering, but almost always rather dull. For all the man’s attested energy and rhetorical gymnastic ability, he wrote this pamphlet as an intellectual exercise aimed at his allies and enemies in the byzantine tangle of the fledgling Bolshevik government, not for the workers whose rights he constantly trumpets.

“…appealing to all the workers, soldiers and peasants. In this appeal we declared that under no circumstances would we permit our army to shed its blood under the club of the foreign bourgeouise.”

-From October to Brest-Litovsk

Consequently, the argument is convoluted and lumbering. A common ideological base is taken for granted, and as Trotsky attempts to defend an indefensible treaty, it is possible to see him tip-toeing through his precepts and conclusions, almost as if feeling his way as he goes, wary of stepping upon the wrong tail.

His recapitulation of the October Revolution is the most ponderous section of this treatise, and the hardest to wrestle through. Either in an attempt to honour his allies, or else tar his enemies with whatever brush they might use on him, he is positively promiscuous in his scattering of names through his account. Fascinating as an insight into the miasma of Bolshevik politics perhaps, but not thrilling reading. The account picks up considerably towards the end, and there are some genuinely fascinating windows into the three-way diplomatic tug-of-war between the Central Powers, the Triple-Entente, and the Russians; as well as the various puppets of each.

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Hiroshima, by John Hersey

February 29, 2012 at 17:36 (Book Reviews, Highly Rated Books, Historical, Second World War, Twentieth Century, War) (, , )

8/10

This book shines as a piece of primary-source history, and is elevated to excellence by the sterling work Hersey did in editing it. Published immediately after the end of the war in 1946, it contains very little of the sort of analysis or wider political context that many straight history books do, but also manages to veer away from gutter press journalism (despite the fact that these accounts were indeed published in The New Yorker). The story was sensational enough, and Hersey evidently saw no need to sensationalise it any further.

“At exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning, on August 6, 1945, Japanese time, at the moment when the atomic bomb flashed above Hiroshima, Miss Toshiko Sasaki…had just sat down at her place in the plant office and was turning her head to speak to the girl at the next desk.”

-Hiroshima

Instead, he captured the voices of his interviewees respectfully, without embellishment, and simply, editing the stories into compact and powerful narratives that somehow become as cohesive a tale as though he had invented the stories himself. His arrangement of the witness accounts in such a masterful way is impressive, especially given his constraints of telling the story through the eyes of his interviewed subjects.

For obvious reasons, this book is rather shy with statistics and wider analysis, and while that limits its usability in historical study, it does help the reader to see things more through the eyes of the victims, and helps transmit some of the emotional helplessness and fear that otherwise might have been lost by a more comfortable and more distant view. An excellent human-interest book, and an invaluable and unique historical document.

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Inside the Third Reich, by Albert Speer

August 29, 2011 at 19:18 (Biography, Book Reviews, Highly Rated Books, Historical, Second World War, War) (, , , )

9/10

Albert Speer is a convincing and likable writer: and therefore any discerning reader would do well to resolve to dislike him and remain utterly unconvinced. This was harder than it sounds, possibly because it is easy to want to find some wholesomeness even in the darkest and vilest of pits. Speer’s apparent willing martyrdom in Spandau and his bleating and repetitive urges for the reader to realise that he considers himself guilty (even as he coolly explains why he was not guilty) are winsome, appealing and ultimately dangerous.

It is impossible to read this book and remain a sceptic. It is impossible to read this book and consider Speer to be entirely deserving of his harsh sentence. It is almost impossible to read this book and understand the full horror behind such clinical phrases as “imported workers” or “forced labour”. The stinking body count and the ploughed mud of Europe’s cities seem utterly irreconcilable with Speer’s gentleman’s war. Quite besides his genteel and sympathetic self-portrait, he presents a Hitler both familiar and new. Even forty years after this book’s publication, Hitler is still spoken of by serious historians as a tactical genius (a madman, naturally – but a genius nonetheless).

“…the chaotic command structure made it possible for men of good will to limit chaos in the future.”

-Inside the Third Reich

If Speer is to be believed (and he is no less convincing here than when protesting his own innocence) Hitler was an utter idiot. A lucky idiot, but a poltroon of poltroons. Besides the intimate portraiture of the Fuehrer, Speer provides his true judgement in a comic facade of buffoonery and incompetence at every level, and gives a convincing argument for the Third Reich’s hypothetical triumph under steadier hands. Speer’s memories can be questioned; his motives even more so. But if this is not after all the true inside story from a true inside penitent, then it is at least the inside story that a man who thought he was penitent, thought was true. A priceless historical document and a deeply interesting memoir.

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World’s War Events (Vol. I), by Francis J. Reynolds and Allen L. Churchill (Eds.)

August 19, 2011 at 20:04 (Book Reviews, Highly Rated Books, Historical, Twentieth Century, War) (, , , , , , )

7/10

The pedantic and stuffy compendium World’s War Events is difficult to rate as a whole, chiefly because of the incredible variety of styles and penmanship in the various articles contained. These range from exciting journalistic accounts by men who write as though bullets were currently whipping over their heads, droll pulpy pamphlets of propaganda discussing very earnestly the ‘Hunnish character’ or the ‘excitability of Asiatic Mohammedans’, and at least a few dry and crusty accounts of the movements of this-or-that regiment, with dutiful accounts of near-identical death-or-glory charges into the teeth of machine guns. The account of the Invasion of Belgium or the two chapters on the Battle of Ypres are two of the worst offenders, whereas the articles on mountain warfare and the history of the Emden are deeply interesting and vividly written.

“But a victory by Turkish arms would probably instantly change the situation and might loose the pent-up fanaticism of the most intensely emotional of the Oriental races.”

-World’s War Events (Vol. I)

As a primary source (some of the articles were written during the War itself) this volume is deeply interesting; and readers will be amazed at the prescience shown starkly alongside jingoistic nonsense, and the unique mixture of pathos and insight with arrogant wrongheadedness. The book is poorly annotated, with very little said about either the individual authors of the pieces or their own histories, but to identify a strongly British bias would be generous in the extreme.

Even considering the staunch onesidedness of this history it ought not be written off as useless as a picture of the acts besides the thoughts. Indeed, some of the driest and most bureaucratic pages contain a depth of detail lost to many well-rounded histories, proving that this is one of those rare things indeed: a blend of the myopic fact and the fantastic theory. A very valuable tool, and at least the half of it very easy and pleasant to read.

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The Sinking of the Lancastria, by Jonathan Fenby

July 21, 2011 at 11:39 (Book Reviews, Historical, Mediocre Books, Second World War, War) (, , , )

5/10

Reading this book, it’s easy to see that Fenby has not really left behind his background of journalism. The formula of “find an event, slap a scandalous title on it, and interview as many people as possible who were remotely connected” is really the pith of this book. In contrast to Fenby’s much more meticulous work on the life of Chiang Kai Shek, it seems an extremely poor hash of a harrowing and tragic story.

“…a man swimming past a flaming patch of oil towards the float on which he sat. Suddenly, the man’s hair caught fire. He began to scream. His head went under, and the oil closed over him.”

-The Sinking of the Lancastria

For Fenby to take this dreadful event and try and squeeze a cheap conspiracy theory out of it seems rather cynical (the subtitle is, “The twentieth century’s deadliest naval disaster and Churchill’s plot to make it disappear”), and the disjointed journalese simply does not lend it credibility as a historical account (one might reasonably expect to see the individuals’ ages printed in brackets after their names). Needless to say there is not the slightest piece of evidence presented in the book to justify this book’s bombastic title, and surprisingly little attention given to either the Dunkirk evacuation (to which Fenby constantly references in passing but never in detail, and frequently with derision) or any contextual information detailing naval warfare, the legitimacy of troop ships as targets, or other peripheral essentials.

With those damning shortcomings, it has to be said that the quality of the interviews is second to none, and that if this book is useful in any regard, it gives the reader quite a good idea of what it would be like to survive a bombed ship during the Second World War. It is short and easy to read, and if the hyperactive claims and conspiracies are ignored then it is quite a useful source book.

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A Special Mission, by Dan Kurzman

June 21, 2011 at 18:34 (Biography, Book Reviews, Highly Rated Books, Historical, Second World War, War) (, , , , , )

8/10

As a piece of investigative journalism this work is almost unparalleled, with a remarkably detailed story accompanying a melodramatic and unbelievable title: Hitler’s Secret Plot to Seize the Vatican and Kidnap Pope Pius XII. Kurzman’s interviews with Vatican archivists and with General Wolff himself are indeed a coup for him, and this book’s premise is almost as stunning in premise as the incredible capers of Otto Skorzeny or Hanna Reitsch.

Kurzman’s disclaimer that all information is taken directly from memoirs or interviews is important, as his tale is intricately detailed and painstakingly constructed, with intimate depictions of the likes of Himmler, Hitler and the distasteful nest of Nazi diplomats, SS troopers and intriguers lurking in Rome. It is exceedingly difficult to judge the book’s authenticity, and it must be kept in mind that the history’s chief character related most of its material points. Kurzman is usually good about mentioning whether a particular part of his story has documentary evidence or corroboration, but third-party verification remains the largest problem for this book.

What Kurzman provides, true or false, is an elaborate treasury of inside conversation and confession (which is valuable in its own right). He does a marvellous job in putting it all together in a readable format that is full of opinion, but which stops short of forcing conclusions or judgements down the reader’s throat. After reading what is essentially a biography in extreme brevity, independent biographies on Pius, Zolli, Weizsäcker and others are almost essential reading as supplements to Wolff’s moment in history.

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Chiang Kai-Shek, by Jonathan Fenby

April 3, 2011 at 20:07 (Asian History, Biography, Book Reviews, Highly Rated Books, Historical, Politics, Twentieth Century, War) (, , , , , )

9/10

A remarkably coherent and deeply focused look at Chiang, and a surprisingly comprehensive study of China through the first several decades of the last century. Fenby spends a judicious amount of time devoted to the background of China, including the Warlord Period; the life, philosophies and influence of Sun Yat-Sen; foreign activity in China (from the Western Concessions and the eventual meddling of the League of Nations all the way down to petty despots carving out miniature fiefdoms). While Chiang does not appear on the scene for some time, Fenby dedicates enough time to make his reader feel intimately acquainted with the country Chiang took over, without sacrificing anything in the way of either quantity or quality in his study of the Generalissimo himself.

Considering the vast scope that Fenby allows himself, it is surprising he has the stamina to stay on track and (regardless of cliffhanging international events) bring things back to Chiang without doing any disservice to the communication of the big picture. Perhaps it is simply Fenby’s good fortune that Chiang was so often at the centre of the key events – or, like Tehran and Yalta, then at least wishing he was at the centre. Whether through good fortune or skilled writing, the end result is a startlingly hollistic view of the early twentieth century, and while (as always) a grounding in the politics of the time is invaluable, this book almost precludes the need for familiarity with its subjects.

When considering the outright hostile contempt present in the subtitle–China’s Generalissimo and the nation he lost–it would be entirely natural to expect this book to be riddled through with lingering sentiments regarding the ‘yellow devil’ and his innate inability to carry out his own manifest destiny, and the crying shame it was that the good old boys of Western Europe and the Americas were not able to pull his chestnuts out of the fire in time (the latter a phrase that Chiang, of all people, frequently uses!). Fortunately, this book seems to be refreshingly free of condescension, and if Chiang and Mao (not to mention the warlords) are painted as belligerent, stupid and arrogant men at times, then the same treatment is given to the depressingly mad Patrick Hurley, or the tired old George Marshall, or the senselessly squabbling Stilwell and Chennault. It is a tragicomic mix of megalomaniacs and tyrants, of fools and slaves, of greed and mass murder; but one feels that (whatever this account’s actual failings) Fenby has certainly gone to some effort to depict his chosen slice of history fairly.

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