Some men are born for war, and Winston Churchill was one of them. As Carlo D'Este argues in this excellent book, to understand Churchill as a politiciSome men are born for war, and Winston Churchill was one of them. As Carlo D'Este argues in this excellent book, to understand Churchill as a politician or statesmen is to miss a hugely important, indeed seminal aspect of his character. From his earliest days playing with toy soldiers to his final days, Churchill thought of himself as a soldier - and it is likely few other British Prime Ministers had the experience of war that Churchill had.
He saw action in India in the North West Frontier against Pathan tribesmen; took part in perhaps the last great cavalry charge in the Battle of Omdurman in the Sudan; covered the Boer War as a newspaper reporter and was captured bearing arms and subsequently escaped; and served in the trenches in WW1 after leaving the Admiralty in the wake of the Dardanelles fiasco.
All of these experiences served to give him a singular outlook on military affairs during the war years as Prime Minister, where he combined the military role of defence minister with that of the political role of Prime Minister. This combination of the military with the political had its defects as well as its benefits: to the end of his days Churchill retained a somewhat outdated Victorian vision of war, despite his endeavours not to repeat the mistakes of WW1, and his enthusiasm for getting involved in military and strategic decisions often led to the micromanaging of campaigns and the interference in command decisions on the ground.
D'Este really seems to understand Churchill, and this book is no hagiography - he doesn't hesitate to highlight Churchill's frequent bouts of intransigence, egoism, petulance, ignorance, wilful self-delusion and rashness. But he recognises that Churchill combined such petty qualities with true greatness, and as he writes, "his romantic view of war and his inability to understand various aspects of its prosecution notwithstanding, Churchill nevertheless was the only man in Britain who could have led his nation from the dark hours of defeat with unwavering vision and bulldog tenacity."...more
It has been more than fifty years now since that tragic day in Dallas in 1963, and yet the public fascination with JFK shows no sign of abating. DespiIt has been more than fifty years now since that tragic day in Dallas in 1963, and yet the public fascination with JFK shows no sign of abating. Despite a presidency of just over a thousand days he is consistently ranked up with the greatest of American presidents; books, articles, documents, films, video games continue to pour out every year; and few policy initiatives or presidential campaigns have been complete without some kind of Kennedy endorsement.
In this truly engrossing book, Larry Sabato sets out to explore that Kennedy legacy, looking first at his campaign for the presidency, his brief tenure in the White House and his assassination in Dallas on 22nd November 1963. He then explores the conspiracy theories surrounding Kennedy's death and the various investigations, primarily the Warren Commission and the House Select Committee on Assassinations.
The second half of this book is devoted to the post-Kennedy presidents and how they variously tackled the ghost in the White House, with both Democrats and Republicans consciously positioning themselves as Kennedy's successors, invoking his actions, speeches and legislation as precedents and justification for their own actions. From LBJ who consciously set out to carry out Kennedy's legacy, Bill Clinton who hero-worshipped him, and Obama, whose campaign echoed some of the rhetoric of hope and vigour that was so redolent of the New Frontier, JFK has been consistently cited and evoked far more than any other President, more than Washington, Lincoln and Jefferson.
Assassination, Sabato concludes, made JFK untouchable - and that lack of any definitive answer to the question of 'why?' has only strengthened the legend. It made him mythical, casting his brief presidency in a rose-tinted glow that will never fade, can never be tarnished, and can never be equalled. JFK will always be held up as the ultimate 'might-have-been'; his presidency always a nostalgic 'what-if'. For JFK, like Lincoln, there can be no slow decline, no gradual disillusionment and disappointment, no partisan post-presidency analysis and criticism. JFK will eternally be young and handsome and energetic, will always be the embodiment of America in the hopeful early days of the Sixties, a promise that was destroyed before it could be betrayed....more
This was one of those books that I thoroughly enjoyed, whilst at the same time being a little bit disappointed that it wasn't what I was expecting. IThis was one of those books that I thoroughly enjoyed, whilst at the same time being a little bit disappointed that it wasn't what I was expecting. I was hoping for a more general overview of the Yukon Gold Rush, a...well, a history book, to be honest.
What this book really is, is an intertwined biography of three individuals all connected with the Yukon Gold Rush - George Carmack, a deserter from the Marines who was adopted by an Indian tribe and was the first to find gold in the Yukon River Valley; Charlie Siringo, a cowboy detective working for the Pinkerton Detective Agency and investigating a mysterious series of thefts from a gold mine; and Soapy Smith, a con man and effective mob boss preying on the miners hoping to strike it lucky.
It's a fun read, written in a light, lively, almost conversational style, and I fairly rattled through it. But anyone looking, like I was, for a more academic historical look at the Yukon Gold Rush, had best look again. That said, I would definitely recommend this for a lighter look at the gold seekers, whores, pimps, crooks, soldiers, detectives, Indians and greenhorns all caught up in the last major Gold Rush of the nineteenth century....more
Like many men (and women) of his era, Walt Whitman was defined and shaped by the Civil War. The four years he spent in Washington, nursing and tendingLike many men (and women) of his era, Walt Whitman was defined and shaped by the Civil War. The four years he spent in Washington, nursing and tending to the sick and wounded soldiers in the hospitals of the capital, 'saved' him, in his own words - gave him focus and reason and purpose. His entire life, by his own admission somewhat wasteful and aimless until then, became subsumed in his ministration to the poor boys of the Union, and sometimes the Confederacy too.
This is an immensely poignant read. Whitman devoted his life to his soldiers, his boys, bringing them candy and tobacco and books, writing their letters for them, holding their hands through sickness and suffering, talking to them, listening to them, sometimes doing no more and no less than simply be there at their side. It is no wonder many of the soldiers were devoted to him, staying in touch years after the war, naming their sons after him, calling him 'dear friend', 'dear brother', 'dear father'. That Whitman could feel and inspire such love for men he scarcely knew is only to his credit, and it is a capacity that also shows in his regard for Abraham Lincoln, a man he saw many times and yet never spoke to.
Morris clearly feels an intense sympathy and tenderness for Whitman, and it shows in every page. There is a lyricism to his words very much in keeping with his subject. I could have wished this book to be twice as long as it is....more
Like many a young girl before and since, I grew up with Little Women: Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy March were the friends of my childhood, and like most readLike many a young girl before and since, I grew up with Little Women: Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy March were the friends of my childhood, and like most readers of course I identified with Jo. What young girl wouldn't identify with Jo's struggles with her temper, her desires for wealth and fame, her siblings, her position as a girl in a man's world? And I always knew, vaguely, that much of Little Women was autobiographical, that Louisa May Alcott, just as the rest of us, identified herself with Jo.
Indeed, so much have the characters of the author and her most famous creation been conflated, that it is often hard to separate the two. And this is where this book is a joy and revelation, allowing Louisa May Alcott to step out from Jo March's shadow, revealing the woman herself and her own remarkable turbulent family, most particularly her father. It is curious that Bronson Alcott's alter ego, Mr March, is so absent from Little Women, when Bronson himself played such a large and enduring role not just in his daughter's life but in the lives of many other famous names - Thoreau, Emerson, Hawthorne - and in the transcendentalist movement of New England.
Louisa and Bronson led curiously parallel lives - being born on the same day, achieving literary success at the same time, dying less than two days apart - so it seems apt to tell their stories as a joint biography. Indeed, reading this wonderful book, it seems any other approach would do them both a disservice, so closely intertwined were the lives, so fundamental was their relationship to one another. This is no hagiography - it is hard to feel anything but frustration at Bronson's selfish selflessness in his younger years, and Louisa herself comes across as often wilful, fiercely and unnecessarily independent and stubbornly blinkered to her own support network. Indeed, Bronson becomes a more sympathetic figure as he ages, Louisa the reverse. But they both led fascinating lives in the perhaps most turbulent era of their country, brushing paths with some of the most famous names and in their own way leaving a permanent imprint on American literary and cultural history. And this superb biography more than does them justice. I cannot rate it highly enough....more
Many people would regard the phrase 'laws of war' as an oxymoron - the idea that anything as destructive and barbaric as war could operate within a leMany people would regard the phrase 'laws of war' as an oxymoron - the idea that anything as destructive and barbaric as war could operate within a legal framework with rules and limits would seem laughable, and pointless besides. Prior to the Enlightenment that would have the opinion across much of the world. War was hell, war was brutal, in war anything was justified in the name of a righteous cause - and who would go to war without believing their cause was righteous? And yet how could both sides be righteous and just, how could God support both causes? It was in the wake of this philosophical dilemma that the idea of laws separating justice from humanity came into being. If both sides believed the ends justified the means it would only lead to ever-escalating brutality - but if justice was set aside and humanity to take its place, both sides would benefit.
This was the point in history when the United States was born - and legal arguments about the rights and wrongs of actions in war went hand-in-hand with the course of the Revolution. Indeed, the fascinating thing about American history is that, by virtue of its youth as a nation, it has run the full gamut of positions in terms of the laws of war: from using them as a defence against a stronger nation in the Revolution, to adapting them to serve its own purposes when facing a similar rebellion in the Civil War, to arguably defying them in the war in the Philippines, to, to a certain extent, being hamstrung by them now in its position as the only superpower left.
The heart of this book is about Lincoln's code, hence the title - the General Orders No 100 issued during the course of the Civil War that updated and codified the laws of war as the American government saw them at the time. These laws were a sterner, fiercer updating of the laws of the Enlightenment - whilst putting poison, assassination and torture beyond the pale, it did allow military commanders a vast amount of discretion in the name of 'military necessity'. It also codified a number of hitherto tenuous or contentious issues - paroles and prisoners of war, the treatment of non-combatants and neutrals, the punishment due to outlaws and guerillas versus recognised soldiers. It was these General Orders that hugely influenced the nations of Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries - adopted and adapted by most of the major nations of Europe, they formed the subsequent basis of the 1864 Geneva Convention and the 1899 Hague Convention and hence form the basis of the international laws of war as we know them today. When troops in Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib are condemned and prosecuted under international law, it is Lincoln's code at the heart of it.
As the length of this review attests, this is a dense and complicated book, and the amount of research that must have gone into it is daunting. And yet despite being on a topic as thorny as international law, this book is never dry, dusty or obtuse. It is not a 'law book' designed for a dusty afterlife on the shelves next to case reports and statute books, read only by judges and law students. I wouldn't be surprised to see this as a set text in some university reading list - it well deserves to be a pioneer in the field of American legal history....more
At the close of this book, the authors relate an anecdote regarding a Chinese General commenting casually on the fact that the United States had foughAt the close of this book, the authors relate an anecdote regarding a Chinese General commenting casually on the fact that the United States had fought the longest war in history. Whilst not generally considered as such, reading this book it is hard to see America's conduct towards the Native Americans as anything but a war - for land and resources on the one side and for survival on the other.
Red Cloud, the subject of this book, bears the distinction of being the only victorious 'general' of the Indian Wars, the only Native to bring the United States to sue for peace. Others may have won skirmishes or battles but Red Cloud waged a strategic, systematic war against the whites, creating alliances between tribes known for decades of enmity, bringing the Native nations together and wreaking such death and destruction that for the only time in its history of conflict on the High Plains the United States was forced to admit defeat.
It's a tragic tale, of course, and even Red Cloud came to realise the futility of his actions. There was no way for the Natives to win the war in the long-term, and towards the end of his life Red Cloud turned away from the warpath, realising it would only result in the extermination of his people.
The book is written in a lively and engaging style, and the pages fairly fly by. The authors don't shy away from the gruesome details, and there were plenty of gruesome details. There were no laws of war on the High Plains. They draw the tale out, putting all the events in their overall context, hence the relative length of the book, but it doesn't flag or fail for a moment, drawing inexorably to the tragic end for Red Cloud's people and all the Natives of the High Plains....more
This is quite a light entertaining look at the concept of monsters throughout human history - the evolutionary reasons for our fear of certain thingsThis is quite a light entertaining look at the concept of monsters throughout human history - the evolutionary reasons for our fear of certain things (snakes, predators, the dark etc.), whether such creatures could ever have existed and what in reality might have inspired the ancient myths and stories that are the foundations of a lot of monster stories. There's no great depth to it, little of anything new, but it's fun enough.
What I found quite interesting was the evolution in the relationship with monsters, gods and humanity. In the very early monster tales found in Persian, Greek and Roman myth, most of the monsters were created by the gods, usually to punish humanity, as those civilisations had no other way to comprehend the inexplicable other than via divine intervention. During the late Middle Ages and Renaissance myths involving the corruption of humans began to arise (vampires, werewolves, demon possession), possibly going hand-in-hand with the increase in plague epidemics and the slow advance of medical knowledge. In the Victorian and more recent era, monsters are usually created by scientific endeavour (think Frankenstein, Jurassic Park, The Island of Dr Moreau, Terminator and so on).
And perhaps finally, we ourselves have become the monsters we fear. Kaplan argues that as scientific knowledge advances and demystifies the previously unknown, the fears fall away, to be replaced with the next unknown. We came out of jungle, explored the seas, climbed the mountains, plumbed the oceans, advanced into space - what is left? Only the mystery at the heart of ourselves. The greatest threat to humanity left is our own worst impulses and behaviours....more