Category Archives: History

Thinking about warfare, the last 100 years

Martin van Creveld: The Changing Face of War: Combat from the Marne to Iraq , Presidio 2008

Martin van Creveld gained fame for The Transformation of War, a book that should have been read by the USA before venturing into Iraq (see previous review). In this surprisingly succinct volume, he summarizes the changes in thinking about warfare "from Marne to Iraq", showing how war has changed from something conducted in a short and contained spurts by an army via the "total war" first voiced by Ludendorff to today’s prolonged insurgencies, where the perpetrators blend back into the general population and advanced weapons fired from afar only can make the situation worse.

(As a digression, he characterizes the German invasion of Norway as rather risky and badly planned – it worked largely because the Norwegians were unbelievably unprepared.)

van Creveld divides war into two main phases: Before and after the atom bomb. After the atom bomb, total war was no longer possible, since it would mean mutual destruction. Instead, war has (for the most part) become guerilla war, where a militarily equipped power is battling a much weaker enemy, and, because the enemy is weak, become weak themselves.

There is almost no instances military powers successfully fighting insurgents – though since the history of fighting insurgencies are largely written by the losers, who argue that they could have won if not hindered by politicians, the press or lack of resources.

To fight an insurgency, the power in question must be legal, i.e., treat the insurgency like a criminal activity rather than a war (much as the British did in Northern Ireland, where they, incidentally, had a local police force and spoke the language.) Either that (which takes a lot of patience) or they must use cruelly applied force, with openness and without apology (as Hafez Assad did in Syria.) Trying to fight the war from a distance leads to a quagmire, but going in to fight the insurgents with their own means leads to losses and loses the war on the home front.

The book is admirably succinct when it describes the evolution in thinking about warfare up to about 1950 (showing, among other things, the increasing use of the scientific method in weapons and, to a lesser extent, tactics evolution.) It gets a bit repetitive on the question of how to fight insurgency. But the verdict on the US’ fight in Iraq leaves no doubts about what the author thinks about the technical "revolution in warfare" and what it does:

Once the main units of the Iraqi army had been defeated and dispersed, most of the sensors, data links, and computers that did so much to aid in the American victory proved all but useless. In part, this was because they had been designed to pick up the "signatures" of machines, not people. But it was also because these sensors did not function very well in the densely inhabited, extremely complex environments where the insurgents operated. Myriad methods could be used to neutralize or mislead whatever sensors did work. Worst of all, sensors are unable to penetrate people’s minds. As a result, almost four years after the war had started, the American troops still had no idea who was fighting them: Ba’athists or common criminals, foreign terrorists or devout believers. […]

Soaking up almost $450 billion a year, the mightiest war machine the world has ever seen was vainly trying to combat twenty to thirty thousand insurgents. Its ultramodern sensors, sophisticated communications links, and acres of computers could not prevent its opponents from operating where they wanted, when they wanted, and as they wanted; […] To recall the well-known, Vietnam-era song: When will they ever learn? (Ch. 6.5)

van Creveld offers few conclusions, aside from patience, people on the ground and good intelligence, all of which are hard to acquire and maintain. Otherwise, the insurgents will eventually win, if only because the military powers’ only way of winning is not participating.

Henry James taking a bow

David Lodge: Author, Author

I have seen this book described as "tepid", apparently because it does not contain scandals or a hard-hitting plot or whatever, but it is a study in indecisiveness – an author wanting to find money and fame as a playwright, but lacking the will both to shape his work to fit the format and a willingness to commit his best work to it. Many a scientist seeking money as a consultant will recognize the feeling, at least I do….

And it works – the "not quite documentary, not quite biograhy, not quite novel" format gives a great impression of the era moving from Dickens to Wilde, with Henry James wanting the latter’s fame using the tools of the former. Another fascination is the time scale of things, and the easy living – while worried about money and deadlines, James had money for servants, a secretary, and leisurely trips to Paris and Venice for weeks and months to write and contemplate. His meticulousness with language was such that a large expense was telegraph fees for last-minute corrections. One suspects he would have been a great blogger, with infrequent but meticulously crafted, long entries.

Recommended, as is anything by David Lodge.

Arrows and armour

B. H. Liddell Hart: History of the Second World War.

One of my enduring frustrations with books about WWII is poor mapping and relatively little focus on operational strategy. One reason for this, I have now found, is that Liddell Hart wrote the definitive book on the war in 1971, and every book since then either will have to concentrate on more details (such as Anthony Beevor’s books on Berlin and Stalingrad) or take a more “themed” approach (such as John Keegan’s WWII).

The book is cold-blooded and argumentative – with a focus on maneuver (nicely mapped) and evolving tactics. Liddell Hart spends more time on tank battles (in particular Rommel‘s campaigns in North Africa) than strictly necessary, and frequently introduces footnotes about his own role, pointing out how he had written critically about various weaknesses in British and US defenses long before anyone else. Then again, he has the right to do so – many of the newer tactics such as the Blitzkrieg and the “indirect approach” were developed or inspired by Liddell Hart’s pre-war writings. This is war from the viewpoint of a professional soldier, with the benefit of hindsight and not a little admiration for the other side’s competence and fortitude.

Liddell Hart is opinionated – he contends that the war could have been prevented if Britain and France had displayed more fortitude towards Hitler in the beginning, and that it could have been shortened if, among other things, Eisenhower had allowed Patton to surge towards Berlin. He also contends that the Allied policy of demanding an unconditional surrender prolonged the war both towards Germany and Japan, and that the dropping of the atom bomb was unnecessary, since Japan, having had all supply lines cut, was facing starvation and was actively looking for peace at the time they were dropped. I certainly am no historian, but his viewpoints seem very sensible, even with 35 years’ worth of hindsight.

Liddell Hart’s book is the one book every other historian refers to, and it is easy to see why. Indispensable reading. Go get it (I got mine on sale at Borders, so there.)

Military intelligence

Keegan: Intelligence in warKeegan, J. (2003). Intelligence in War: Knowledge of the Enemy from Napoleon to Al-Qaeda. London, UK, Pimlico.

Case stories of intelligence (from the Battle of Abukir, Shenandoah Valley, German-English sea battles in WWI, Crete, Midway, the U-boat war, and the hunt for the V-1 and V-2) and its strategic importance in warfare.

Main point (p.23):
"It is the intrinsic difficulty of communication, even, indeed above all, for the agent with ‘access’,  which limits his – or occasionally her – usefulness in real time. By contrast, the enemy’s own encrypted communications, if they can quickly be broken, will, of their nature, provide intelligence of high quality in real time.
The history of ‘how, what, where, when’ in military intelligence is therefore largely one of signal intelligence. Not exclusively, human intelligence has played its part and so, latterly, has photographic and surveillance intelligence. In principle, however, it is the unsuspected overhearings of the enemy’s own signals which have revealed his intentions and capabilities to his opponent and so allowed counter-measures to be taken in time."

On keeping the Napoleonic expedition to Egypt a secret: "Gossip helped to refine the picture. Some of the academics who were to accompany the expedition began to boast, a notorious failing of clever men leading unimportant lives."

From the conclusion (p398):
"[…] it strikes this author that the organization of intelligence-gathering and subversion within the same body is undesirable. Subversion is a weak way of fighting, differing from conventional warfare by the total unpredictability of its results; moreover, in a democracy, it is always liable to disavowal by legitimate authority and denunciation by authority’s political opponents. Intelligence-garhering, by contrast, can yield conflict-winning outcomes and , if securely and soberly conducted, is an activity only those of ill-will can condemn.
      Yet, in the last resort, intelligence warfare is a weak form of attack on the enemy, also. Knowledge, the conventional wisdom has, is power; but knowledge cannot destroy or deflect or damage or even defy an offensive initiative by an enemy unless the possession of knowledge is also allied to objective force."

The Wealth and Powerty of India

Gurcharan Das. (2002). India Unbound: From Independence to the Global Information Age. New Dehli, Penguin Books.

India Unbound is fascinating – a combination of autobiography and an essay series, where Gurcharan Das reflects on the various stages in his life and how what he learned changed his views on India, its politics and economic development. Das is a commentator and an essayist, and the book is colored by this: It repeat itself and belabors the same point from many angles. For a novice of Indian it is useful, best read with access to a computer so you can look up words and places like "haveli" and "octroi" as you go along. Das’ language is fluent and content-packed, with an elegance reminiscent of Landes’ The Wealth and Poverty of Nations (whom, incidentally, he criticises, rightly, for an overly simplistic explanation of India’s lack of progress).

Highly recommended. This essay borrows much from the book. Check out his columns here.

Some quotes:

On India after independence: There were two competing visions. Mahatma Gandhi had a vision of self-reliant villages, with a reinvigorated agriculture and craft production. He opposed modern urban industry because it dehumanized man. Jawaharlal Nehru had a modern scientific mind, and he was much impressed by the economic gains of the Soviet revolution; but he was also committed to democracy. He had a vision of democratic socialism with the state leading the process of industrialization. He spurned capitalism because it exploited and it created inequalities. Both Gandhi’s and Nehru’s ideas were flawed, however, and we have spent a long time chasing after them. Gandhi distrusted technology but not businessmen. Nehru distrusted businessmen but not technology. Instead of sorting out the contradictions, we mixed the two up. We have to deal with holy cows: smal companies are better than big ones (Gandhi); public enterprises are better than private ones (Nehru); local companies are better than foreign ones (both). They so mesmerized us that the succeeding generation, whose job was to jettison these foolish ideas, failed to do so and did us incalculable harm. (p.11) 

When ordinary human beings err, it is sad, but when leaders do, it haunts us for generations. (p. 51) 

If America is a melting pot, India is a mosaic. (p. 72)

The economists, it seems, turned out to be hopelessly optimistic about the ability of poor countries to transform their economies through investment in import-substituting manufactures and overly pessimistic about their ability to export. (p.75)

The more rules there are, the less people will do on their own, and the more effort they will spend in getting around the rules. […] The ordinary person will generally do the right thing, left to his or her own devices. The important thing is that people believe that only results will win them rewards.

In Hindu society the Brahmin (priest, teacher) is at the top of the four-caste hierarchy, followed by the Kshatriya (variously landholder, warrior, ruler). The Vaishya or bania (businessman) comes third, and the Shudra (laborer, artisan) is last. Below the four are casteless "untouchables" and tribals. The three upper castes constitute roughly 15 percent of India’s population, and have ruled th ecountry for three thousand years. About half of India is laboring or Shudra caste, divided in turn into hundreds of subcastes. [occupational or geographic]. More than 20 percent of the population are the casteless or "untouchables" and tribals for whose uplift Mahatman Gandhi worked all his life. The remaining 15% of India belongs to other religions: 11 percent Muslim; the rest Sikh, Christian, Parsee, etc. (p.140)

Modern India’s tragedy is not that we adopted the wrong economic model in the 1950s, but that we did not reverse direction after 1965. 

Businessmen are fine producers of goods and jobs, but they are cowards and do not speak out. 

Guilt and slavery

Slave ship deckIt is approaching 200 years since the slave trade was abolished in Britain (and thereby, effectively, in the world). The Economist has an excellent analysis of the slave trade and what brought it down, comparing it to the Holocaust in the ability of the "normal" society to disregard what was going on. The campaign against slavery was remarkably successful, but depended on many factors, not least the gradual understanding that slave rebellions eventually would bring down the practice, at least in the West Indies. Once England abolished slavery, it became the chief enforcer against it.

I remember, from a business history class, another analogy to the Holocaust – the fact that most free people in the United States did not understand the suffering of the slaves because their picture of it was skewed. In terms of numbers, most of the slaves were at large farms where they were driven like cattle by forement with whips. But to most of the free population, the slaves they met were more likely house slaves – tenants and workers of small farms. These were treated better – and so the perspective of slavery was even more polarized between the slaves and the free than the judicial distinction would imply. Just like the Holocaust, the worst parts of the system were hidden from most people, who instead saw the less unacceptable side of separatism and (at least on the surface) only slightly worse conditions.

The article is interesting because it cool-headedly analyzes the slave trade and its abolishion as phenomena, and does not shrink pointing at some unwelcome facts, such as the involvement of African chiefs, or from drawing connections to the present times. Recommended.

And the wall came down

Berlin wallI am putting together material for a discussion of Tom Friedman’s "flatteners", including the fall of the Berlin wall, and found this excellent personal account, by Andreas Ramos, of what happened. I didn’t get to see this myself, but my parents went to Berlin for New Year’s 1989 and told stories of thousands of people – some in suit and tie – chipping down the wall by hand. And I remember a German systems developer we had working for us, who sat all day by the radio with tears streaming down his cheeks.

What a day, what a moment.

Microsoft is 30

Microsoft is 30 today, officially entering "middle age" (at least for a software company).  I was called up by a journalist from the Norwegian version of Computerworld wondering if I thought MS would be stronger or weaker 10 years from now. Of course, it would be hard to get much stronger than what MS is now, but I could quote myself:

Middle age enters when it becomes clear to you that you are not the person that you want to be, when you realize that the skills that took you to where you are now will not take you further, when you need to switch from increasing your space to tending to what you have. I think Microsoft is entering middle age, whether it wants to or not (and who wants to, or even admit to it happening). Unlike people, however, companies can have youthful parts — and they need to be free to grow.

The recent reorganizations seem more like a firming up than any sign of change in strategy to me – and the company seems tied to exploiting its dominance on the desktop in any other market it can enter. It could be argued that this is, long-term, a risky strategy, but then again, it seems to work.

But, as I asked in a conference panel about six months ago – what can Microsoft offer me if I am a large company that has just decided to go Linux on the desktop. Server, middleware, database, even office applications – when Windows is not there to provide that well developed link in?

Oh well. My computers are still running Microsoft. Most of them at least. 

A scientific history lesson

This summer’s holiday was spent in Italy – some of it in Rome, where I stood in line for one hour and a half to get into the Musei Vaticani. It was worth the wait. This museum, mostly known for the Sistine Chapel and Rafael’s frescoes, is huge and has treasures on almost any wall. It is quite fascinating to watch the Athens School in the original, for instance.
The items most interesting to me, however, were these two unassuming monters found in the library section, opposite a stand selling postcards. They are mechanical demonstrations of two world systems – the heliocentric system of Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo and Newton, and the geocentric system of Ptolemy and Aristoteles. (After writing this, I have to confess I am a little uncertain about the monter on the left – I am pretty sure it is Ptolemaic, with some modifications. Experts?)
Two world systems from the Vatican museum
The monters stand there, without sign or commentary, unmentioned on the audio guide that otherwise will tell you about each room in tedious detail. Yet they represent the Catholic church’s loss of scientific legitimacy: As the Church clung to the increasingly untenable position that the Earth was at the center of the universe, scientists increasingly ceased to see the church as a legitimate sponsor or even legitimate actor in scientific endeavors. Science and church split – and what science remained in the church was increasingly limited to increasinly obscure theological interpretation – while science went on to triumph based on what Leonardo da Vinci called “the addiction to experience.”
According to Richard Tarnas (in The Passion of the Western Mind,) a “unique and potent combination of circumstances” led the church to reject the heliocentric hypothesis. Quite a few of the high clerics were ready to accept Galileo’s proposition that the earth rotated and circled around the sun – the Pope was a friend of Galileo, and one cardinal wrote about the necessity to “proceed with great circumspection in explaining passages of Scripture which appear to teach the contrary, and rather admit that we did not understand them than declare an opinion to be false which is proved to be true.” (p. 260ff.)
However, the church (already under pressure from the Reformation) had participated in the elaboration of the spherical theories of Aristoteles and Ptolemy, to the point of assigning responsibility for the movement of some of the planets to specific arch-angels. So, if Galileo (who wrote in vernacular Italian and was of the “vitriolic personality” so often found in innovators) was not necessarily contradicting the bible, he certainly was contradicting centries of increasingly refined theologically founded natural philosphy, and by accepting Galileo’s propositions, the church would have to admit being wrong – hard to do in a climate where the church was also battered by charges of corruption and with a decided lack of enthusiasm for the divine powerty espoused by increasingly numerous charismatic movements.
This rejection of heliocentrism failed, of course. Tarnas again:

That decision caused irreparable harm to the Chruch’s intellectual and spritual integrity. Catholicism’s formal commitment to a stationary Earth drastically undercut its status and influence among the European intelligentsia. The Church would retain much power and loyalty in the succeeding centuries, but it could no longer justifiably claim to represent the human aspiration toward full knowledge of the universe. […] In Galileo’s own forced recantation lay the Church’s own defeat and science’s victory.
And, quietly and unassumingly the little monters stand, silent witnesses to the dangers of believing theory in the face of evidence.

Chessboard WWII

Keegan: WWII front coverJohn Keegan: The Second World War, Penguin 1990

I am currently unpacking books from storage crates and finding many a jewel for rereading. This is one of them.

This relatively short (600 pages) book is a strategic and military history of WWII – John Keegan, lecturer at Sandhurst, concerns himself with maneuvres, logistics, weapons and the thoughts and deliberations of military and political leaders about how to conduct war. Largely missing from the story is partisan warfare, the Holocaust, resistance movements, and the political and ideological side of the conflict. This is WWII as seen from military headquarters, where deaths are counted in the thousands and losses deemed acceptable based on percentages.

And that is OK, for the book makes no pretence at trying to be anything else – and as a military history, it is brilliant. The best part of the book are careful analyses of some of the great battles (particularly Crete, which taught both the Germans and the Allies some important lessons, is well described). Where Ambrose describes the hardships of the individual soldiers, Keegan makes us understand the importance of decisions at the strategic and tactical level – how politicians and generals depend on communications, intelligence, rapport with subordinates and peers, and luck. In particular, the book counters the rather disparate view of Montgomery espoused by Ambrose. Montgomery was more careful with his men and more calculating than the American generals – but Britain had exhausted its supply of manpower and could not depend on hordes of enthusiastic young men to be flung against entrenched and experienced Germans.

Keegan does not moralize either this way or that: He evaluates decisions made based on the information available at the time and leaves judgment largely up to the reader, based on his careful and understated analysis, delivered in logical rather than chronological chapters. He discusses Hitler, Stalin, Churchill, Roosevelt and their generals largely in terms of decision style and strategic insight (or delusion).

Read this book for the understanding of technology and maneuver and the decisions faced by military leaders. Highly recommended.

The war in the war

Book Cover: The Spanish Civil War by Antony BeevorAntony Beevor: The Spanish Civil War is highly readable, as are all his books (Stalingrad and The fall of Berlin are the most well known.) The Spanish Civil War was a war that is often described as a prelude to and training ground for WWII, with an elected democratic Republic fighting a Fascist army, the latter with decisive German and Italian support – especially the Condor Legion, German pilots who notoriously bombed the Basque town of Guernica, rendered famous by Picasso’s painting of the same name. The history of war is written by the winners, says Beevor, but for this war, the story was written by the losers – and the reason they lost is rather complicated.
The Fascist side was called the Nationalists, an insurgence led by Franco in a conservative alliance between officers, landowners and the Catolic church (which really has some explaining to do and excuses to make for their role in the conflict.) The Republicans, on the other side, consisted of Socialists, Anarkists and Communists, the latter of whom were better organized than the others and managed to co-opt both the Anarkists and Socialists organization, sometimes to the point were there was a “civil war inside the civil war.” Most of the time, it seemed the Communists were more interested in that they would win that that the opposition should lose, so weapons were withheld from allies and tactics were decided for progaganda reasons rather military, resulting in grievous losses for no military purpose.
The Spanish Civil war was a conflict between centralization and decentralization, feudalism and socialism, and religion and secularism. The Nationalists managed to keep their internal feuds internal (mostly by clever maneuvering by Franco), whereas the Spanish Republic never was more than a coalition of groups united only by their opposition to the Nationalists, and sometimes not even that. Extremism won out on both sides, resulting in tragedies and atrocities both during the war and after – events that haunted Spain for the rest of the century.
One aspect that struck me is that in the story of Spain lies much of the key to how Hitler could come into power in Germany – the opposition on the left was destroyed to a large degree by their own internal strife, allowing an initially small group (Franco started with 30,000 legionnaires from Morocco) to take over a country because the majority was split into groups that would rather lose than see any of their allies get credit for a victory.
I wonder if not the Spanish Civil War should be taught more in schools – its is more overviewable and allows less for demonization of the enemy than that of Germany. The political forces and internal machinations are more visible and more understandable. Extremism wins out when centrism cannot offer a unified and clear voice – a dilemma which we still haven’t found out how to counter, at least not in the short run.

Guns and sails and what they did

Cipolla, C. M. (1985). Guns, Sails and Empires: Technological Innovation and the Early Phases of European Expansion 1400-1700. Manhattan, Kansas, Sunflower University Press.
This excellent study documents how the evolution of artillery (many, small and flexible guns) and naval shipbuilding (oceangoing, maneuverable, guns in hull, non-imposing) enabled the Europeans – particularly the English, Portuguese and Dutch – to expand their empires at the expense of the Arabs and Chinese, who used different technologies that could not be removed without disturbing social order and power relationships. A stellar example of the disruptive technology process at work – comparable to Barbara Tushmann’s A Distant Mirror or James Utterback’s description of the Norwegian/New England harvested ice industry (in Mastering the Dynamics of Innovation), not to mention Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel. Highly recommended.
Excerpts:

To admit the new role of field artillery in battles of movement and to adopt new strategies accordingly, the Mamluks had to sacrifice the role and prestige of their feudal cavalry, namely the social position and prestige of the dominating class. This in its turn presupposed the disruption of feudal structures and a profound social revolution for which the kingdom was totally unprepared. Before accepting Western techniques, the Chines had to undergo “a wholesale change of the world-view, a Copernican revolution of a minor order”. Powerful socio-cultural factors were opposing the assimilation and diffusion of Western technology. In Europe the situation was vastly different. The European knights of the early Renaissance nourished ideas in regard to fire-arms which were not different from those of the Mamluk horsemen, but by 1500 European affairs were coming more and more under the control of new social groups that had a taste for organization rather than splendour, for efficiency rather than gallantry. And such groups could count on an increasingly numerous class of craftsmen with a taste for mechanics and metallurgy. the very factors that had originally favoured the development of the new technology continued to operate and fostered its further progress powerfully: as has neen indicated in the previous chapter, European shipuilding and manufactur of ordnance moved rapidly ahead during the centures that followed the first direct contact of the Portuguese with the peoples of Asia.
     It has also to be said that with few exceptions, when an innovation is first introduced, its advantages over established traditions are not always very obvious [my emphasis]. The first European field guns were certainly not conspicuous for their efficiency. The attitude of the Turks toward early field artillery, as the attitude of the Venetians toward the early galleons, cannot be simply discarded as a piece of human stupidity. At their first appearance, innovations are less valueable for their actual advantages than for their potential of future developments and this second quality is always very difficult to assess. [my emphasis]
     The result of the interplay of all these and other factors and circumstances, whatever their respective weight, was one and unequivocal. After the end of the fifteenth century the original “disequilibrium”between Europe and the rest of the world grew larger instead of levelling out. And for the less “developed” countries things turned progressively for the worse.” (pp. 130-131)

e-t-a-o-n-r-i Spy and the F.B.I.

The following story by Les Earnest is one of my favorite pieces of writing on codes and cryptography – and is worth repeating for the uninitiated. Les Earnest has also written a number of other interesting accounts of early computer systems and organizational dyfunctionalities associated therewith – but let’s start with this one:

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What if certain battles had ended differently?

Just finished an interesting collection of musings by historians on what could have happened: Cowley, R., Ed. (1999). What if? (Amazon).
The subtitle is “Military historians imagine what might have been”, and that is just what this book is – analysis of important historical battles, showing how little it would have taken to make them come out differently, and what the consequences might have been. For instance – what if the US had lost at Midway (they very nearly did); what if Hitler had struck against the Persian or Iraqi oil fields through Turkey rather than undertaking operation Barbarossa; what if a number of things had happened during the American Revolution (which was a very close-run thing with a lot less public support than one thinks about afterwards.)
The book discusses Salamis and the Spanish Armada, but I found the more modern examples more interesting. In particular – what would have happened if the D-day invasion had failed (it would only have taken a little worse weather)? The plans would have been known, and Roosevelt would probably have to atom bomb Germany to keep up with the Russians. Moreover, what would have happened if Moltke had kept his nerve and followed the Schliessen plan in WWI? Germany would have won and dominated Europe, but there probably would not have been a WWII.
Well, one can only speculate…..and that is where I gradually became a little disappointed, because, while a neat idea in principle, speculative history is just that, and what might have been is more interesting in principle than in practice. Another issue is that the book is very US-focused (always discussing the consequences for the US, and gets more speculative the further back it goes – but a good read nevertheless.

Rifleman Bowlby

The Recollections of Rifleman Bowlby by Alex Bowlby (Amazon) is a small book I picked up at Heathrow (funny how all my book buying is done at airports these days), and is, as the title hints, a memoir by the English version of a grunt during the 1944 Italian campaign.
This is fairly low-key as war memoirs go, written by a “gentleman” who chose to remain a regular soldier because he was, among the Cockney soldiers, “accepted for what he was rather than for what he was supposed to be.”
Two aspects of this book made an impression: First, the everyday manner in which people die, making a profound impression on the others – not the death of one individual, but the gradual way in which this takes a toll on the participants. Secondly, the number of soldiers who desert or refuse to go into battle, and how this is dealt with by the officers, who, rather than having them automatically court martialled, will give them a rest and let the pressure from the other soldiers get them back into service.
You get the impression of a book written entirely honestly, by someone who was a little too young to understand what was going on, and who aged fast.

Interesting times? (or, the political correctness of scientist superstition)

I am about 3/4 through Eric Hobsbawm’s autobiography Interesting times (Amazon, Google search.) I picked this up at Heathrow airport on a lark (buying almost random books leads to unexpected discoveries.) Hobsbawm is a highly respected and famous historian – respected for his books, famous for remaining a Marxist to the bitter end.
The book makes me a bit uneasy. One one hand, it makes me want to buy some of his books – notably The Age of Extremes (Amazon), a history of the years 1914 to 1991, which I haven’t read yet and look forward to. On the other hand, something about Robsbawm’s recollections disturbs me.

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