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.
JESSICA NELSON/MOMENT OPEN
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The fisher bird that unites levity with strength

We think the planet's fish are rightfully ours. But the brown pelican is known to snatch fish from other birds in mid-air.

If ever there was a time when I was unaccountably happy, it was the day I first saw the Pacific. I had just started working at an office near San Jose and, three days in to my first week, a colleague drove me south and west on a back road that seemed to run for hours through dense stands of Douglas fir and redwood, not stopping till we were just shy of the coast, the firs giving way to wind-sculpted specimens of California cypress and Monterey pine.

Here we parked and walked the rest of the way, coming over a rise and finally gazing out over the water. The Pacific. The idea of it had been part of my mental furniture since childhood, though I didn’t really know why, and what I saw both confirmed and confounded the image I had of that great ocean. But the thing that struck me most, the true source of my unaccountable happiness, was a long flight of brown pelicans drifting along the waterline, just ten yards from the shore, more elegant than I could have imagined from having seen pictures and captive specimens in zoos. This is not surprising, as what makes the brown pelican so elegant is how it moves, whether diving from astonishing heights in pursuit of fish or, as on this first encounter, hastening slowly along a beach in groups of thirty or forty, head back, wings tipped up slightly, with an air of ease that would give the term “laid back” a whole new definition.

The brown pelican: it’s a slightly misleading name, as the predominant colour varies from cocoa-brown to near-grey, while the breast is white and the head is brushed with a pale citrus tone, rather like the gannet, to which it is related. The birds breed on rocky islands off the Central American coast and travel north to hunt. In recent years, concern has been voiced for the species’ long-term safety: first, because of an observable thinning of the eggs, probably caused by pesticides, and second because, as recently as 2014, there was an alarming and inexplicable drop in the birthrate, which some observers attributed to huge fish-kills caused by Fukushima.

On an everyday level, though, pelicans, like cormorants and other coastal dwellers, have to be protected from those among the human population who think that all the fish in the ocean are, by some God-given right, unaccountably ours.

But none of this was in my mind that day, as I stood on that white beach and watched as flight after flight of pelicans sailed by. Out over the water, the sun sparkled yet the sea was almost still, in some places, so the bodies of the passing birds reflected in the water whenever they dipped low in their flight. What did come to mind was a phrase from Marianne Moore’s poem about another member of the Pelecaniformes family – the “frigate pelican”, or frigate bird, which she describes as “uniting levity with strength”. It’s as good a description of grace as I know.

Yet grace takes many forms, from the absolute economy with which an old tango dancer clothes her unquenched passion at a Buenos Aires milonga to Jürgen Schult’s world-record discus throw at Neubrandenburg in 1986, and we have to learn from birds such
as the pelican what we mean by “levity”, and “strength”.

How else to do that, other than by closely observing how the natural world really operates, rather than how we think it does? Later, in her poem about the frigate bird (an accomplished flier and an even more accomplished thief, known to pluck fish from another bird’s grasp in mid-air), Moore extends that notion of levity: “Festina lente. Be gay/civilly? How so?” and adds a quote from the Bhagavadgita that, to my mind, gets to the heart of the matter: “If I do well I am blessed/whether any bless me or not . . .” The lesson we learn from the noble order of Pelecaniformes is exactly this: of the many prizes we may try for, grace transcends all.

Next week: Nina Caplan on drink

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times