Reviewed: Small Wars, Far Away Places by Michael Burleigh

Curiosity deficit.

Biafra.
An image from the Biafran conflict in 1968. Photograph: Getty Images.

Small Wars, Far Away Places: the Genesis of the Modern World, 1945-65
Michael Burleigh
Macmillan, 592pp, £25

In a devastating review of Eric Hobsbawm’s memoir, Interesting Times, Perry Anderson attacked the way Hobsbawm contrasted the massive loss of life in the mid-20th century, especially in Europe, with the postwar “Golden Age”. Whose Golden Age, Anderson asks: “The years from 1950 to 1972 included the Korean war, the French wars in Indochina and Algeria, three Middle Eastern wars, the Portuguese wars in Africa, the Biafran conflict, the Indonesian massacres, the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution and the American war in Vietnam. Total dead: perhaps 35 million.”

The terrible conflicts in the post-colonial world are the subject of Michael Burleigh’s new book. He would surely agree with Anderson except for one thing. The losses were much worse than even Anderson imagined. Between 55 and 65 million people died during Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward, he writes. Add the three million killed during the Chinese civil war and you reach close to 70 million dead in postwar China alone.

Small Wars, Far Away Places is full of such startling statistics. As Africa broke away from empire, “The initial wave of statehood cost less life than the number of Americans killed each year on the roads.” By the end of the Second World War, “Britain owed India £1,321m” – 40 per cent of its postwar debt. At the end of the Japanese-Soviet campaign, “Some 600,000 Japanese civilians and POWs were deported to the Siberian gulags.” Any of these facts is worth a book in its own right.

Burleigh’s book is also bursting with fascinating anecdotes. He has a great gift for bringing history to life. By the time Mao’s army rolled into Beijing, the Communist leader had not been in the Chinese capital for 30 years. “It was the only big city he knew. This was one reason he revived it as China’s capital; another was that there he was closer to the Soviets . . .” Herbert Morrison, who succeeded Ernest Bevin as British foreign secretary in 1951, said that granting black Africans self-government was akin to giving a ten-year-old “a latchkey, bank account and a shotgun”.                              

Burleigh writes pungent, pithy prose. Franklin D Roosevelt “was credulous towards Stalin, regarded Churchill as an outof- date imperialist, detested de Gaulle and reposed great faith in China”. Dwight Eisenhower “was the last US president to be born in rural 19th-century America”. Discussing the Vietnam war, he writes: “Like a primitive man first encountering a screw in a baulk of wood, the US response was to apply more force.” Hardly anyone emerges with credit from his account but he is particularly severe about British governments, Allen Dulles, General MacArthur and the French.

Burleigh turns an illuminating spotlight on an important area of modern history. It’s a terrible journey, full of human casualties and stupidity in almost equal measure. Each chapter summarises a different war from 1945-65 and woven in and out are a number of explanations for why the colonial powers lost. They couldn’t compete with the commitment, sometimes fanatical, of their opponents, who were often better suited to local conditions. In a number of key Asian conflicts, the support of the Soviet Union and China was crucial. Western powers were hampered by domestic political considerations. Think of how Algeria divided France and Vietnam led to conflict in the US.

There are, however, serious and occasionally puzzling absences. There is little rigorous economic analysis. How imperialist were America’s ambitions? Did resources or investments play any part in these expensive wars? There is even less on culture and intellectuals. Why were post-colonial wars so important to the western left? Sartre and Camus, influential critics of the French in Algeria, barely appear. Nor do some colonial powers. This is a book about Britain, America and France, not the Dutch or Portuguese. Indonesia barely appears and there is no background on the fall of the Portuguese empire in the 1970s. Too many important questions go unasked. Would JFK have continued with the war in Vietnam? Why was America there in the first place? Is the domino theory still a valid explanation 50 years on?

More puzzling for a work by a leading European historian are the bibliography and footnotes. They refer almost exclusively to sources in English, so we get no other European perspectives. There are hardly any academic articles and far too much of his account is taken from higher journalism: Frank Giles, David Halberstam, Simon Heffer and the like. Much of the bibliography is old, a large amount (sometimes almost half a chapter’s footnotes) published before 1989. It is too often out of date and parochial.

So, as a result, is the book. Burleigh ends with the obvious contemporary lessons of these dirty colonial wars. Yet the real lesson of this book is that to understand the past and the present we need proper history with updated research, rigorous historical and economic analysis andreal curiosity.