I intended to get some reading done over the summer break and set an objective of five particular books – John Buckley’s ‘Monty’s Men: the British Army and the liberation of Europe’, Emma Sky’s ‘The Unravelling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq’, David French’s ‘Military Identities: The Regimental System, the British Army and the British People 1878-2000 ’, Orlando Figes ‘A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891-1924’ and Azar Gat’s ‘War in Human Civilization’. A progress report as of mid-August only gives me a solid B however, having scorched through the fist three titles but then abandoning Figes’ effort partway through in favour of John Bew’s ‘Relpolitik’, which itself is suffering my stuttering attention. The reason is that, having simultaneously got my teeth into Gat’s monumental work I’m unwilling to let go of that particular masterpiece just yet.
Monty’s Men is straightforward military history, and seeks to redress a prevailing narrative that has infected our appreciation of the British Army’s tactical performance during the NW Europe campaign 1944-5, namely the hoary old trope of a tired, unimaginative and inflexible fighting organisation whose reputation stands in unflattering contrast both to its German opponents and its US Army ally. The reason for reading it was to see if there was anything within that might add to my understanding of the NW Europe campaign from the British perspective, so as to better aid me in the delivery of the numerous staff rides that I conduct there for the College and other units. The results were mixed. There were certainly some tactical level doctrinal matters raised by Buckley which, when delved into, made more sense of the British Army’s behaviour and overall he made a thoroughly convincing case for the appropriateness of its tactical and indeed operational methods during the campaign. The problem in my eyes however was that those points could have been condensed into a sizeable article. Instead we have a lengthy and largely orthodox narrative description of the NW Europe campaign which focuses so heavily upon events in Normandy that it sacrifices better understanding of the immensely tough operations that took place over the winter of 1944-5 in the Netherlands and the Rhineland. A bit of a missed opportunity in that respect, I felt.
Emma Sky’s The Unravelling is her account of her service as a POLAD (Political Advisor) to US forces in Iraq 2003-2010, firstly with the 173rd Airborne Brigade around Kirkuk, and then subsequently as an integral part of General Ray Odierno’s team in Baghdad as they sought to shape a functioning politico-military entity out of the rubble of post-Saddam Iraq. I first read parts of the book a few months ago in order to lend weight to some of the arguments I made in a recently published research article, but always wanted to go back and complete my reading of her account. Perhaps the most revealing sentence in the book comes in the opening paragraph where she states that ‘nothing which happened in Iraq after 2003 was inevitable’ – a blindingly simple yet utterly necessary corrective to those who believe that there is some sort of thoroughly unambiguous line linking the events of April 2003 with, for example, the establishment of the ‘Islamic State’. In contrast, Sky leads the reader through the multiple decision points that occurred over the course of her decade in-country, identifying how Iraq’s various alternative futures may have been secured but for the intransigence of certain key figures at certain key points. And for those who blame G .W. Bush (somewhat understandably) for the farrago that has subsequently unfolded, they might wish to take a much closer look at the Obama administration’s handling of the Maliki question – in fact of the entire Iraq question – from 2010. If anyone can be held responsible for the rise of ISIS, it’s a dead heat between Maliki and his sponsors in the Democratic administration in Washington DC who exhibited an absolutely unforgivable keenness to wash their hands of Iraq at an absolutely critical juncture. So I recommend Sky’s book as a reminder that historical trajectories which we perceive as ‘fixed’ were never so.
Where to begin with David French’s Military Identities? He’s the sort of military historian who defines the subject, treating war as a social and cultural as well as political, diplomatic, economic and strategic phenomenon. He covers every inch of every base to such an extent that once he’s tackled a subject then it’s game over for the rest of us poor saps who may have entertained ambitions to write on it ourselves. So be it where Military Identities is concerned. If anyone ever wanted to understand why the British army looks, thinks, fights and behaves in the way that it does need look no further. This book paints such a vivid portrait of the late Victorian, Edwardian, wartime and, ultimately, modern British Army’s social, cultural, doctrinal and war-fighting DNA that it’s difficult to comprehend why this isn’t compulsory reading for every British Army officer, and the rest of us who might be curious as to why it’s such a peculiar organisation.
Lastly, I’m about halfway through Azar Gat’s epic War in Human Civilization. Doing exactly what it says on the tin, this book leads us though the emergence and entrenchment of warfare as a phenomenon in human society. An unbelievably ambitious project, it commences with broader philosophical enquiries as to the nature of the human condition in terms of our supposedly warlike nature, debates the evolutionary and genetic explanations for the utility of conflict, and tracks its shifting forms through early hunter gatherer and farming communities, the emergence of Empires and of the state, machine age warfare and the eventual dominance (as of 2006, when it was published) of liberal democracies and their ‘ultimate’ weapons. So far I’m beginning to consider it to be one of those works that any individual interested in or professionally concerned with the business of war should read at some point, sooner rather than later (Later in my case, unfortunately). Prone to veering off at apparent although always hugely interesting tangents, this is nonetheless a genuinely fascinating piece of work that showcases a polymathic grasp of the subject across a multitude of its fascinating aspects. Highly recommended.
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