Reviewed: Small Wars, Far Away Places by Michael Burleigh

Curiosity deficit.

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.

An image from the Biafran conflict in 1968. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit