31 December 2007

A Crashing Rotten Structure

Over the holidays, watching an episode of The World At War being broadcast on on UKTV History, I was reminded of an incident in my publishing career from twenty years ago. I was working on what was my favorite of all my partwork projects ever, a flop called "Battlefield". Only three issues saw publication, but we got up to about eight or nine in some form of preparation.

The idea behind Battlefield was to create an alphabetical illustrated encyclopedia of photographed conflict. It was a brilliant concept in the context of partwork publishing, since there would be considerable opportunities for reusing material, and full credit for this concept should go to the man who launched my career in publishing, Ashley Brown. Issue three included a short, six-page article on Operation Barbarossa, which happened to be the same subject as my episode of The World At War.

I had a ruck with Ashley Brown over this article, which I thought was preposterous. Barbarossa was too vast a campaign for it to be covered in six pages. (We're talking about the whole shebang, from 22 June 1941 to 8 December 1941.) In the end, once the article had been assembled and gone off for repro, the editor (Reg Grant) confided in me that the article was indeed slim by comparison with our fairly extensive coverage of Second El Alamein or Amiens in 1918 or Arras in 1940.

My World at War viewing reminded me of this episode in my personal history, as well as my experience of writing Chronicle of War. I now think that coverage of Barbarossa, as understood by the "intelligent general reader" during the 1970s and 1980s, was highly misleading because it didn't focus on the individual battles during the campaign, but on the wider objectives of Hitler's daring thrusts. This sentiment is partially reflected in Chronicle of War.

Things are not as bad as they were, as the Wikipedia entry on Operation Barbarossa indicates. But I'm still not clear whether the idea that the Red Army defeated their German counterpart, fair and square, has entered into general understanding. I started drawing up a detailed chronology of Barbarossa, which I thought would help build a book or other project, while writing Chronicle of War, but the actual work of providing 150,000 words prevented me from taking this idea far enough to turn into something practical.

28 December 2007

Wartime Assassination

I like to look at events from different angles, and yesterday's assassination of Benazir Bhutto made me think about assassination as a military operation. My memory cannot come up with a single assassination attempt sponsored by a government at war with its target prior to 1942 (with the possible exception of some events during the American Civil War). While those fighting a propaganda war may choose to depict Benazir Bhutto as a non-combatant, she was only a non-combatant in the same way Thomas Dewey was a non-combatant as he campaigned against Franklin Roosevelt in 1944. Bhutto was seeking to become a key political leader in a country at war with both dissidents in its own country and the former government of its neighbor, Afghanistan.

If the assassin was connected with the Taliban, al-Qaeda or even the combatants in Waziristan, then this was an act of war, not a political assassination such as that of Gaitan in Colombia. If that's the case, you have to wonder how much responsibility rests at the feet of Ms Bhutto and her political associates, who perhaps should have been more cautious about security arrangements in a war zone.

But more noteworthy to me is how political leaders have become legitimate military targets according to the laws of war in the 21st century. This is a bad, not a good, thing. It's one thing to exile a defeated military leader, and another to seek to kill him or her anywhere but on the battlefield.

23 December 2007

Naughty Computers, New Book

My silence has been imposed in part by my computers, all of which decided to give me headaches during the past ten days. (I've also been working on my other blog, a rather more primitive affair.) I managed to sort all my problems out myself, thanks to one of the two always being able to connect to the Internet, save for one day when my broadband connection went down for some reason. It's amazing what you can accomplish with a little knowledge of using the command line, patience and an Internet connection.

More interesting, I hope, is that I've got a new commission, to write a short book on the American Revolution for children aged 10-13. I'll post some of my experiences over the coming weeks. The deadline is very soon, so I've got a full plate just now.

01 December 2007

Mosier vs the British: Round Two

An anonymous commentator on this blog post about John Mosier's old book The Myth of the Great War sent me back to the library to check out a copy.

Mr Anonymous basically rehashes the criticisms deployed by what he describes as ‘The "BEF Party Line"…the John Terraine/Gary Sheffield school’. The key points he makes are

(a) The book is riddled with serious errors.

(b) ‘He can't seem to resist passing up any opportunity to denigrate the British, even to the point of dismissing acres of research with which he does not agree in sneering footnotes. This reeks of the glib undergraduate essay, not a serious book.’

(c) ‘Mosier exaggerates the US battlefield role in 1918.’

The problem with all the reviews I've so far read about Mosier’s work (which are not that many, to be honest), is basically summarized in the statement, which could be the theme of this blog, that ‘history, especially the history of war, is politics by another means.’ Perhaps in no war is this more the case than in the First World War, which even at the time saw a protracted argument at high cost that set ‘Easterners’ against ‘Westerners’ in both Allied and Central Powers’ camps. The continuing rage against the British high command has its origins in 1915, and it may not be far wrong to say that the great monuments scattered around the Commonwealth and in Belgium to the war dead are an attempt to offer some kind of palliative to this anger.

Furthermore, Mosier is an American, and there remains a profound undercurrent of Anglophobia in the United States for which the trope of Bungling Butchers of the Western Front is meat and drink. Mosier, like any good barrister, ignores the inconvenient facts and exaggerates the convenient ones to make his case. But while the BEF/Haig Lobby turns purple with outrage at the many mistakes in Mosier’s polemical account, they continue to avoid engaging the essential points of his book. In other words, they are being good barristers for their own clients.

Mosier’s essential points are:

(a) The German Army started the war both doctrinally and materially superior to the Allies.

(b) The German Army had been winning on the Western Front until the American Army intervened.

(c) ‘No British or American account deals adequately with the war between France and Germany on the Western Front.’ - his preface

The question to my mind is whether the merits of his contributions on these points outweigh his mistakes and exaggerations elsewhere. I’ll call this round a draw because for me, as well as Mosier’s bringing into view the considerable extent of American support for the Allies prior to April 1917, point (c) in particular is very important indeed.