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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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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