Dixon's study of military incompetence deepens the traditional observation that peacetime armies and wartime armies prefer (and promote) very differen...moreDixon's study of military incompetence deepens the traditional observation that peacetime armies and wartime armies prefer (and promote) very different types of officer. Dixon seeks to give this observation an explanation a basis that is rooted in Freudian psychology. The work appears rather dated in its psychology. I doubt many modern psychologists would credit the idea that Field Marshall Haig sent thousands of men to their death on the battlefield of the Somme because his mother had been too strict during his potty training. Besides, Dixon's version of military history, while entertaining, also seems biased towards supporting the conclusions he wants to reach. But it is nevertheless a worthwhile effort to study the character of military commanders good and bad, and even if you don't accept Dixon's interpretation, it at least makes you think about the issue. It has often been observed that few successful generals are nice, uncomplicated men. His classification into autocratic and authoritarian personalities is probably an oversimplification, but still a useful framework that can be applied for many purposes. (less)
The story Drea has to tell is the history of the Japanese army, and that is a complex one, full of contradictions and internal strife. The army was cr...moreThe story Drea has to tell is the history of the Japanese army, and that is a complex one, full of contradictions and internal strife. The army was created in 1853 as a consequence of Japan's violent struggle to modernize itself and adopt Western military technology and traditions, which appeared to be the only hope to safeguard its independence. Symbolically, in 1889 the Japanese army adopted French-style swords, having come the conclusion that the Japanese pattern sword was impractical in modern warfare. Equally symbolically, inspector general Araki re-introduced the Japanese sword in the army in 1933. He was also the man who officially banned the words "retreat" and "surrender" from the Japanese military vocabulary.
This was a force that found it difficult to come to terms with the conditions of its own existence. It blended modern military technology with mythologized, often a-historical interpretations of Japanese traditions. Officially it valued unquestioning obedience but its junior officers regularly conspired against the government and openly flaunted orders. It claimed to serve the nation and the emperor, but its excessive ambitions did a lot to drag the nation down to defeat. Its soldiers demonstrated remarkable courage and willingness to sacrifice themselves, but more of them died through starvation and disease than in combat. Until September 1943, training in Japanese military academies was focused on fighting the Soviet Union, not the Americans.
Drea's account deftly mixes the battles in the field with the bureaucratic in-fighting in the headquarters. He highlights the little documented experience of the Japanese army in Manchuria and China, with less attention to the better documented battles in the Pacific. Without falling into easy simplifications, he documents the factors that made the army into what it became, and explains why it acted and responded as it did. This is not an easy read, if only because of the profusion of Japanese names and confusing internal conflicts, but for people who wish the understand the course of WWII it is a very valuable one.(less)
This is a wide-ranging history of food and food policy during the second world war. It offers a strong reminder that, despite the enormous scale of vi...moreThis is a wide-ranging history of food and food policy during the second world war. It offers a strong reminder that, despite the enormous scale of violence in this conflict, the resulting famines killed even more people. And it describes how different government tried (or not) to cope with the challenge of finding adequate food for civilians and soldiers.
Food shortages and famines during the war can be attributed to a range of causes, which as usual had the worst results when they occurred together. The war often created front lines that acted as blocks to trade, separating food producers from food consumers, starving one group while saddling another with rotting surpluses. This was often worsened by the ruthless confiscation of transport, especially shipping, to meet military demands and compensate for the loss of shipping to enemy action elsewhere. The confiscation of food by armies that lived off the land robbed the local population of their food supply. And finally, starvation was used deliberately as a weapon of war or of genocide.
The British famously joked that the American GIs were "overpaid, overfed, oversexed and over here." The second part of that claim may have had some merit, given that the standard American military ration contained 4300 calories, rising (theoretically) to over 4700 for soldiers on the front line. The US government gave a high priority to feeding its soldiers, and it had to resources to do both that and supply its allies with food through lend-lease, which probably saved the life of many Russians. In contrast, the Japanese government resorted to declaring isolated garrisons "self-sufficient", which often meant that its soldiers had to try to survive on wild grasses and leaves; and many Japanese in the homeland were little better fed. The Nazi regime decided to feed its soldiers in the East by confiscating the food supplies of the Ukraine, calculating that millions of Soviet citizens would starve as a result. The British government actually managed to improve the quality of the food eaten by much its civilian population through its rationing program, but it was unimaginative in its food it supplied to soldiers, and was also guilty of a callously exporting hunger to its colonies, causing famines in India.
Collingham tells the story of a complex interaction between geography, natural resources, agricultural and nutitrional science, politics, and military action. Her book is rich in information, but not easily digestible. Fortunately it is well structured and well written. (less)
The Crimean war is today mostly a dim memory from a bygone age in politics and warfare: Most people faintly remember something about Florence Nighting...moreThe Crimean war is today mostly a dim memory from a bygone age in politics and warfare: Most people faintly remember something about Florence Nightingale, the charge of the Light Brigade, incompetent leadership and much human suffering. And perhaps there is much to be said for that summary.
One thing Figes does is tell that story in more detail, doing more justice to those who lived through the bitter conflict. But he also adds a lot of context to this war, explaining why the governments chose to send men to fight in the Crimea -- all for their own reasons. It is a grim insight in the history of the Balkans, baring the roots of conflicts that have lasted to this day. It is a sad story, but one that deserves to be told.
Figes also makes a case for the lasting influence of the Crimean War as one that helped to redraw the map of Europe. This is less convincing. The Crimean War certainly had a lasting cultural legacy, famously inspiring writers such as Tennyson and Tolstoy, and fundamentally changing the life of the latter. But the direct consequences of the war, political and military, were limited and soon overturned. It was just one phase in a long process that changed the Europe of 1815 in the world of 1914: Probably one that was disproportionally more bloody than it was decisive.
This book aims to tell one side of the long and complex battles for Guadalcanal: That of the US Navy, and specifically the surface forces of the US Na...moreThis book aims to tell one side of the long and complex battles for Guadalcanal: That of the US Navy, and specifically the surface forces of the US Navy. In this its succeeds. It omits many other aspects of the fighting on these South Pacific islands, but for the good reason that there are many other works describing them.
As an European, I felt that Neptune's Inferno is written from a very American outlook, and that goes beyond what side of the battle in 1942 that the author describes. There are outbursts of patriotic rethoric, and there is the odd contrast between Hornfischer's embracing of the gory details of battle (the blood and body parts almost spray from the pages) and his extremely circumspect treatment of issues of "race" -- you have to read between the lines to understand that there were black sailors on WWII USN warships and that they were discriminated against. He is also rather too inclined to indulge in a personality cult, especially of admiral Lee.
The author does a good job of describing both the physical and mental suffering of the men in the battle zone, and the different but nevertheless significant strain felt by the admirals in their distant headquarters. He also successfully blends the human and the technical aspects of war, describing the evolution of radar and gun aiming, and the effect these technologies had on the result. And he accounts for the local fighting within the global US strategy. However, the reader does need some background in the relevant parts of history to understand everything, because the book does not provide much background material.
Allowing for the remarks above, it is a very readable book. At times you feel the need for an list of "dramatis personae" to remind yourself of what ship a particular witness was on, but that doesn't detract much from reading. A reader with a too strong imagination may feel inclined to skip some of the most bloody parts!(less)
A good companion to works such as Tooze's Wages of Destruction and Collingham's The Taste of War, this work investigates British attitudes towards a w...moreA good companion to works such as Tooze's Wages of Destruction and Collingham's The Taste of War, this work investigates British attitudes towards a war that was thought to be determined by modern technology. The British Empire was notable for its reliance on its powerful industrial basis.
Perhaps Edgerton's book is not as thorough as the two studies mentioned above. The book has a stronger political slant, as Edgerton argues that later historical interpretation of the war was strongly colored by the rise of British nationalism and post-war political thinking, which displaced the strongly internationalist outlook of the was years. This gave rise to the myth of Britain "standing alone" against the might of Nazi-occupied Europe, which in turn fed many small myths. This work makes a strong effort to replace myth with facts and figures, and describe the reality of the war years. The result is laden with information both on industry and on the important personalities of the period.
At times one does get the feeling that the author is overreaching a bit. But this is a very interesting work, which may change one's perspective on a period about which all already appeared to be known.
The legend of the Guise family portrays them as ultra-Catholic radicals who stoked the civil war in France. Stuart Carroll goes a long way to modify t...moreThe legend of the Guise family portrays them as ultra-Catholic radicals who stoked the civil war in France. Stuart Carroll goes a long way to modify this image. The Guise family certainly wielded major power through the church, as several generations of younger sons became cardinals who acquired an enormous income through the collection of numerous benefices, a practice frowned on by the reformation and counter-reformation alike. But despite that, many Guises were moderate in their religious practice, and far from die-hard conservatives. If the Guises contributed to the civil war, it was because of their thirst for power, not their religious radicalism. And, in the case of the Duke Henri, a thirst for revenge, as he held Coligny and the Montmorency clan responsible for the murder of his father.
This is a story of hubris, of a clan who aspired to royal power and got very close to it, but lost everything by their political recklessness. It is generally well written but would have benefitted from more thorough review and editing, because some annoying grammatical errors disrupt the flow of the text. It is also a book full of intrigue, conspiracy and war, and it is easy to be confused by this array of French nobles, with their extended families, inherited titles, and complicated links by marriage. But if one is reduced to wondering what side a particular personage was really on, this probably only replicates how people felt in the 16th century.(less)
This is the story of a clash between two civilizations. One was represented by the white settlers who migrated westward over the North American contin...moreThis is the story of a clash between two civilizations. One was represented by the white settlers who migrated westward over the North American continent, with a clear intent to have it all for themselves, and who brought with them the tools, knowledge, manpower and firepower of an industrial society, even if most of them were farmers. And the other was represented by the Comanches, a few thousand people leading a nomadic existence in one of the most inhospitable areas on the continent, with an extremely simple material culture based on horses and hunting for buffalo, and very little political organization. But instead of being wiped out quickly, which was the usual fate of native peoples in such a situation, the Comanches fought a long, bitter and cruel conflict with the advancing settlers, and on several occasions managed to roll back the frontier. Their final defeat, of course, was never in doubt.
The cover of the book may be misleading, as this book is as much a general history of the Comanches as a biography of Quanah Parker. Arguably, that is a necessity, as it would be impossible to describe the man outside this context. But the problem also is, as the writer admits, that Quanah was reluctant to talk about his early life and his career as a warrior, because this was impolitic to discuss in his later years. Thus the biographical account is sketchy and somewhat speculative about his early years. We have no choice than to assume that his actions were those of a typical, young Comanche male: Perhaps, but Quanah Parker was an many ways an unusual man. Only of his later life, after the fighting had ended, have we some more information.
Today, the American past is a political minefield, which can still call up strong emotions. Gwynne appears to make a good effort to tell an accurate history: The book does not shy away from the cruelty of the warfare as practiced by the plains Indians, nor from the brutality to which the US Army and its native allies resorted to in retaliation. There is plenty of blame to go around, but Gwynne chooses to state the grim facts as they were, without being too judgmental.
This is a fascinating, highly readable history of the complex negotiations between the "Big Three" at the end of WWII and start of the Cold War. Our m...moreThis is a fascinating, highly readable history of the complex negotiations between the "Big Three" at the end of WWII and start of the Cold War. Our memory of 1945 is often a skeletal framework and a caricature; Michael Dobbs put some flesh back on the bones of history and does it best to correct post-war distortions. His ample citation from letters and documents written at the time creates a convincing impression.
The structure of the work is interesting, as we get to see history through a kind of prism, rotating from one viewpoint to another every time when the author introduces a new character one stage and gives us a portrait of the person as well as a sketch of his views and role. A side effect of this approach is that it focuses on a limited number of people and their role, while omitting others. But it is an interesting and illuminating approach.
There are few statements in the book that raise eyebrows and that a good editor should not have allowed to pass. For example, the battle of Stalingrad did not involve "fleets of fighter jets" (page 308), because at the time only a handful of jet-powered aircraft were in existence, and that existence was a closely guarded secret. This kind of technical error does not necessarily harm the political story that Dobbs is telling, but of course the absurdity of the anachronism does damage his credibility.
But then, how many people today know that at the end of 1945, Stalin tried to hold on the Northern Iran as "Southern Azerbaijan"?
In recent years it felt as if this entertaining series of historical detectives was tapering off slowly, as Falco's travels to various historical spot...moreIn recent years it felt as if this entertaining series of historical detectives was tapering off slowly, as Falco's travels to various historical spots in the Empire were insufficient compensation for plot patterns that became a bit stale. Happily, Nemesis breaks that trend. Again set in Rome, this regains the gripping quality of earlier works. It is also one of the darkest books in the series, as Davis engages Falco in activities that might cost him the sympathy and understanding of the reader, as well as his wife. (less)
This account of the achievements (and errors) of evolutionary biologists before Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace highlights the struggle of early sci...moreThis account of the achievements (and errors) of evolutionary biologists before Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace highlights the struggle of early scientific observers to understand what they saw. As one commentator put it, "the theory of evolution explains the fact of evolution." Many of the people described in this book understood that both living species and fossils showed evidence that species had changed in a way that made them better adapted to their environment, but they did not understand the mechanism of natural selection as Darwin did. There is tragedy in the efforts of Lamarck, flawed but brave, to understand how animal species could have changed.
The great charm of this book is that it takes us back to the great age of "natural philosophy", when amazing discoveries were made both in the rainforest of the Amazon and in a Dutch garden pool, and the latest scientific discoveries created a buzz in the salons of the intellectual and social elites. The author perhaps goes a little too far, for a book of non-fiction, in attributing feelings and experiences to the people who feature in this story. But the descriptions of the exciting process of discovery and debate convince. And we are reminded forcefully that Darwin had a reason to keep his insights hidden from almost everyone for many years, as we read how his precursors suffered persecution at the hands of a wide range of authorities, from the French censor to the Evangelical church.
The selection of Darwin's precursors that is discussed here may be a little bit odd at times, including as it does philosophers, artists, teachers, publishers, doctors, poets, and scientists, often enough with several roles combined in one person. But for a reader interested in the history of science, and especially in some of the derelicts that modern science has left behind, this is a very interesting book.(less)
This story is far more interesting than the rather obscure subject seems to promise. Colin Smith has managed to write an account that weaves together...moreThis story is far more interesting than the rather obscure subject seems to promise. Colin Smith has managed to write an account that weaves together the personal experiences and recollections of the men at the front with the grand strategy of the men in government, never losing sight of the human perspectives. It probably helped that the scale of the conflict between Vichy France and Britain was often small, involving thousands of men at a time when millions fought on other fronts. But many of these battles still resulted in absurdly unnecessary death and destruction, caused by the warped sense of honor of officers who somehow felt obliged to sent their men to die for a cause that was both bad and lost. Smith is sharp in his condemnation of such behaviour, but otherwise conveys insight in and sympathy for many of the men who played out their role in this story. It was an odd conflict, in which men who had been allies in a recent past and might soon be allies again, fought each other with a murderous politeness that Louis XIV would have considered rather quaint. And afterwards many preferred to forget about it completely, but it should not be, and Smith tells the story well.(less)
This book ends with the comment of Marlborough's opponent Bolingbroke, that the late duke had been such a great man that Bolingbroke preferred to forg...moreThis book ends with the comment of Marlborough's opponent Bolingbroke, that the late duke had been such a great man that Bolingbroke preferred to forget his flaws. That seems to sum up Holmes' attitude as well. While his biography of John Churchill does mention the criticisms of his enemies, this is a deeply sympathetic work. In this it may be a bit unfair to the duke's contemporaries. It is a very enjoyable book. The War of the Spanish Succession and its campaigns are now in a distant and murky past, unfamiliar to the modern reader and not easy to find order or sense in. Holmes manages to create a narrative that provides a good framework for Marlborough's campaigns and battles. His description of Marlborough's victories is as clear and concise as can be expected from an experienced military historian. But the personality of Marlborough remains enigmatic, despite the many quotes from his voluminous correspondence. It is hard to say whether this is a failing of the biographer, or unavoidable because the great commander always kept in mind that his letters might fall in the wrong hand. Evidently, Marlborough was not very inclined to explain or defend his own actions, and it is to Holmes' credit that he showns restraint in trying to fill the gaps. (less)
With Nemesis, Max Hastings has contributed a very well written history of the last year of the war, on all fronts where the Japanese were fighting, an...moreWith Nemesis, Max Hastings has contributed a very well written history of the last year of the war, on all fronts where the Japanese were fighting, and by this stage, also certainly losing the war. Deftly mixing grand strategy with personal anecdote, he manages to convey the grim reality of this savage conflict as well as any writer could. Not least of the many merits of this book is the attention that it gives to many secondary, and now forgotten, but often just as bloody fronts. Few people know, for example, that the short but violent conflict between Japan and the USSR persisted for several days after the Japanese surrender, making WWII a bit longer in reality than it officially is.
The book also has weaknesses. Hasting's biographical sketches of people often verge on the caricatural, and his sweeping codemnations of people's errors and weaknesses show little respect for the many personal tragedies. Perhaps inevitably in a book of this wide scope, people flit in and out of the story, produce a few soundbites, and then vanish again. As a writer, Hastings does not reach the level of a Cornelius Ryan, but it still is an enjoyable book. (less)
The Wages of Destruction is a brilliant contribution to our understanding of events in the 1930s and 1940s. It destroys many of the myths in which the...moreThe Wages of Destruction is a brilliant contribution to our understanding of events in the 1930s and 1940s. It destroys many of the myths in which the Nazi regime has been wrapped, and shows that it was neither the miracle of efficiency claimed by apologists for dictatorships, nor the irrational buffoonery projected by some of its critics. Tooze documents how Hitler's government was driven to some of its most desperate actions by economic constraints, and highlights how cold economic logic was combined with extremist ideology to drive some of the worst atrocities in history. As so many large conflicts, the Second World War was decided by economic factors as much as by the force of arms.
Despite its great body of dense text, this is a well-written and quite readable book. I would have liked to see more hard data in the form of tables or graphs, but those that are provided are very illustrative. There are some errors or dubious claims, but probably fewer than could be expected in a book with such a wide scope. If you want to understand the history of Nazi Germany or WWII, this really is essential reading.(less)
The thesis defended by Bix is, as he states on page 683 of the paperback edition, that emperor Hirohito was "the vital energizing leader of the war."...moreThe thesis defended by Bix is, as he states on page 683 of the paperback edition, that emperor Hirohito was "the vital energizing leader of the war." But in this he does not convince. Bix' hostility to his chosen subject and his lack of sympathy for the monarchical institution in any form frequently appear to lead him astray, drawing conclusions that reach too far beyond the available evidence. Crucially, the portrayal of Hirohito as an effective, authoritarian war leader conflicts with the observation, familiar to those who have studied the Japanese war effort between 1931 and 1945, that the Japanese forces operated with an astonishing lack of collaboration or even coordination, indicative of the absence of effective leadership. Even Bix has to concede that as late as 1945, Hirohito's operational suggestions were completely divorced from reality. It's probably more accurate to say that because of the structure of the Japanese state, Hirohito was required to be the "energizing leader", but he was far too weak and hesitant to rise to this role, and thus created a power vacuum at the top.
Bix makes a much stronger case for holding Hirohito morally responsible for a war in which Japanese forces committed frequent atrocities, unmitigated by any attempt of the higher authorities to restrain them. This ethical responsibility exists regardless of whether an intervention would have made any difference, because as Saint-Just remarked, one cannot reign and still be innocent. Sadly, as Bix relates it, the education of the emperor was controlled by courtiers and politicians who molded Hirohito into a pliable and useful political tool, without much moral courage or independence of thought, although dutiful and reasonably intelligent.
This biography certainly is interesting and provoking. It's too polemical to be a definitive biography, and in many places too much based on conjecture, arguably because important archives are still closed to researchers. Nevertless it contains a lot of interesting information, and is worth reading.