Small Wars, Faraway Places

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Pat Holscher
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Sat Feb 15, 2014 10:28 am

Like 1914, reviewed below, this book isn't strictly horse related, and I haven't finished reading it, but I'm finding this new book by Michael Burleigh to be in the hard to put down category.

Burleigh is best known for his excellent book The Third Reich: A New History. In Small Wars, Faraway Places he takes on the Cold War in the 1945 to 1965 time frame. That's a daunting task, but he does it excellently. Some of the topics he addresses (which aren't all wars) are well known, like the Korean War, but others aren't as well known. For example, he takes a look at the Huk insurgency that the US successfully addressed in the 1945-50 time frame. And he addresses the little known South Korean civil war that was fought just before the Korean War.

This book was sort of timely for me, as I'd been discussing the topic of the Cold War backchannel here recently and had noted that I wished there was a good book on the topic, after which I read a review of this book in the New York Times. The Times author wrote his review as if this book was sort of a leftist interpretation of the Cold War, leading me to wonder if he'd read the same book as it definitely is not. It's a pretty straight forward history, so far (I'm just up to the Suez Crisis now), so I'm not sure how the reviewer came to that conclusion. Indeed, one of the things that I think demonstrates my earlier point that a history can't really be written until several decades have passed since the events discussed is demonstrated by how Burleigh handles the problem of Soviet agents in the U.S. government. Burleigh is not an American (he's British) and he's quite critical of the UK and France for not grasping more quickly that the curtain had closed on their colonial days, but he also is really frank in noting that usually it was impossible, in the early Cold War, for the US to surprise the Soviets in anything, as they had so many agents in the US government. To come from a straight forward academic, British, historian takes that out of the shouting match that usually such statements create. Likewise, Burleigh does a good job of distinguishing some colonial fights that were not Communist insurgencies, while also acknowledging those that had heavy Communist influence or that became Communist insurgencies. He does as good of job as any historian in sorting out the early mess of French Indochina, for example.

So far, a pretty good read.
Pat

Animadvertistine, ubicumque stes, fumum recta in faciem ferri?
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Pat Holscher
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Sat Mar 08, 2014 8:07 am

Just finished yesterday (going from the Congo to the concluding chapter on US participation in the Vietnam War on airplanes and in airports yesterday) and I highly recommend.

I don't know that I fully would endorse Burleigh's concluding comments, which are made in the interesting context of a British academic commenting on the US of today (i.e., from a classic imperial power commenting on a current world power) but the book is a great read. Quite a bit more cynical, oddly enough, than The Third Reich, A New History it is still packed with interesting information.

One thing that's really interesting is that Burleigh gives an unvarnished view of not only the various small wars he addresses, but his own views on the actors and participants. That'll drive some readers nuts, I'm sure, and it also makes this book very difficult for average book reviewers to handle and there's no earthly way that a person with a hard and fast agenda will come away feeling Burliegh agrees with them on one thing or another. Critical, for example of some European post World War Two colonial wars, and arguing that the Western powers failed to appreciate the rift between the PRC and the USSR early on, he none the less clearly feels that wars directed against Communist opponents, save for Vietnam, were justified. French efforts everywhere take a huge bruising. British efforts some where are praised and elsewhere condemned. The US gets low marks for getting its act together so slowly after World War Two and his discussion of clandestine efforts should make any American queasy. Liberals will have kittens over Burleigh's treatment of John F. Kennedy,although I sure feel vindicated as my various comments about Kennedy that get me in trouble with some folks are mild compared to Burleigh's who states that Kennedy had "the morals of an alley cat" and was an intellectual lightweight.
Pat

Animadvertistine, ubicumque stes, fumum recta in faciem ferri?
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