From Foreign Affairs
Thinking the Twentieth Century by Tony Judt,Timothy Snyder
The late Judt was among the West’s leading public intellectuals and among the greatest intellectual historians of the West. His gift was to meld the two: his history captured the excitement of past intellectual debates, and his commentary was infused with the perspective of a master historian. The magnum opus he never wrote would have been a grand intellectual history placing in historical context the modern ideologies he studied -- socialism, nationalism, conservatism, liberalism, Marxism, Zionism, European federalism, religious fundamentalism -- and maintaining their relevance for future generations. The closest he came are the series of testimonial conversations contained in this book, conducted with the Yale historian Snyder during the final months of Judt’s battle with Lou Gehrig’s disease. The book highlights his status as a perpetual insider-outsider in France, the United Kingdom, and the United States, which seems to have afforded him a keen appreciation of the peculiar cultural and historical circumstances of each. Yet most moving for the reader are Judt’s fierce commitment to history as an indispensable key to understanding the present and his ability, even when speaking his final thoughts through a breathing tube, to express himself in clear, forthright language. Despite a sometimes meandering conversational form, the result is a volume filled with memorable insights that any educated person will enjoy.
The French Way: How France Embraced and Rejected American Values and Power
This book captures France’s deep ambivalence toward American economics, politics, and culture. After a scholarly lifetime explaining French attitudes toward liberal values, free markets, and foreigners, the political scientist Kuisel is uniquely suited to the task. Many French find the Unites States’ inequality, materialism, populism, and global militarism deeply distasteful. Like so many things French, this response remains paradoxical: Americanization and anti-Americanization coexist together. The French flirt with transatlantic fashions and ideas, from free-market economics to California Cabernet. Some of it sticks, as Euro Disney, 1,000 McDonald’s, and many successful American TV shows attest. The French are more willing to use military force, support high technology, and oppose both communist and Islamist extremism than most other Europeans. Yet in the end, the French remain firmly wedded to views of democracy, family, work, and lifestyle that diverge from those
of Americans, and there is little sign of change. These views are particularly pronounced on the left, but even French business is ambivalent about the United States, seeking more freedom from regulation but remaining suspicious
of moving toward what is perceived as
an underregulated U.S. model. Kuisel unpacks all this, making this book required reading for anyone interested in relations between the world’s two oldest republics.
After the Fall: The End of the European Dream and the Decline of a Continent
Laqueur is a commentator about whom it is hard not to feel ambivalent. On the plus side, as a widely published scholar of twentieth-century history, now retired from Georgetown and London’s Institute of Contemporary History, he brings formidable intelligence and historical erudition to the task of putting Europe’s current predicament into perspective. In contrast to commonplace conservative critics of Europe, Laqueur, when he cites Brooks Adams or Raymond Aron, Prince Klemens von Metternich or Jean Monnet, sounds as though he knows what he is talking about. On the negative side, this book repeats a set of one-sided criticisms about continental Europe typical of the Anglo-American right: it is militarily weak, demographically feeble, economically incompetent, fixated on human rights, overly critical of the United States, morally relativistic -- and, above all, too Muslim. Laqueur searches in vain for the causes of these alleged problems, obsessing about demographics and non-Christian immigration even while admitting they are not the primary factors. When Laqueur advances such arguments, the subtlety and factual basis so evident in his more general analysis desert him. Still, this jeremiad will surely be discussed widely.
Leon Trotsky: A Revolutionary’s Life
Not much new can be added to the story of a man who has been wondered over, lionized, and demonized many times before. The merit of this trim book is that it pulls together all the essentials of the life of Leon Trotsky and the revolution he so significantly shaped into a seamless, intelligent, and wonderfully accessible synopsis. This book is part of Yale’s series of biographies about noteworthy Jews, and its particular angle is to understand Trotsky as a Jew. On the one hand, he scorned the faith of his fathers: “I’m not a Jew; I’m a Marxist internationalist.” On the other hand, he showed a special sensitivity to Jewish suffering in a dying Russian empire and gravitated toward Jewish communities abroad. Such dichotomies defined the man. He was brilliant, compelling, even admirable as a young revolutionary, but brutal, arrogant, and obtuse once in power -- a contrast Rubenstein draws well. In many ways, his life was a metaphor for the Soviet revolution. “The tragedy at the heart of Leon Trotsky’s life,” Rubenstein writes, was that “it had begun with contagious idealism and ended entangled in a murderous dream.”
Ghosts of Afghanistan: The Haunted Battleground
Steele, a veteran foreign correspondent for The Guardian, frames this exploration of the past three decades in Afghanistan by comparing the intervention of the Soviet Union in the 1980s with that of the United States in the first decade of this century. Both were ill conceived and should have been avoided, Steele argues, but the Soviets showed a better ability to cut their losses than have the Americans (and their NATO allies) thus far. Steele sets out to debunk “thirteen myths about Afghanistan,” including the false notions that the Afghans have always defeated foreign armies, that the Soviet invasion was an unprovoked attack, that the Taliban are much more oppressive than previous regimes (an admittedly low bar), and that the Taliban do not have any popular support. Steele views the forces of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the anti-Taliban commander assassinated two days before 9/11, as no better than their opponents and offers a relatively positive appraisal of the period (1978–92) when Afghanistan was ruled by Afghan Communists, who, after all, did represent urban modernity. This eminently readable book is surely the most compelling revisionist history available of Afghanistan in the modern era.
Arrows of the Night: Ahmad Chalabi’s Long Journey to Triumph in Iraq
This is the most thorough telling of the story of Ahmad Chalabi, the scion of an upper-class Shiite Iraqi family who spent most of his life in exile but played a significant role in convincing the administration of George W. Bush to invade Iraq and overthrow Saddam Hussein in 2003. It is, equally, the story of the domestic American roots of the war. Bonin reconstructs the relationships between Chalabi and his now-famous (or infamous) neoconservative allies in the Bush White House and also examines the roles played by members of Congress (Democratic and Republican), academics, and journalists eager for a scoop. The dwindling few within the Beltway who maintained that Chalabi and his opposition movement enjoyed more support along the Potomac than the Euphrates proved to be correct, but only after the fact. Arrows of the Night is a first-rate case study of both Middle Eastern émigré politics and the American way of dealing with the Middle East.
Iraq, Its Neighbors, and the United States: Competition, Crisis, and the Reordering of Power
Ten seasoned experts take their turns describing the changes wrought by the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and the changes still under way, nine years into the post–Saddam Hussein era. Individual chapters are devoted to the Iraq-related diplomacy of the Gulf states, Iran, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Turkey. Concluding essays address Iraq in the context of Arab political reform and consider the U.S. role in Iraq. This book bears out the dictum, expressed some decades ago by an Arab diplomat but still valid, that in the Middle East, everything is linked to everything else. According to the editors, the United States should pursue “increased engagement with Iraq’s neighbors” and avoid heavy-handed involvement in the region, which could “undermine steps Iraqis and the neighbors need to take to reconcile.”
Turkey and Its Neighbors: Foreign Relations in Transition
This book brings together American, European, and Turkish experts on such diverse subjects as “reclaiming Turkey’s imperial past,” the country’s move “from confrontation to engagement” in the Middle East, Turkey’s relations with its Black Sea neighbors, Turkish energy policy (including pipelines being planned or built), and Turkey as a possible model of democratization for other Muslim polities. Subjects usually given separate chapters in books about Turkey -- for example, Greek-Turkish relations and Turkey’s relationship with the EU and the United States -- are here woven into larger themes. Buttressed by many tables and figures and thus a bit ponderous at times, the book nevertheless offers many aperçus, including this one from Tocci and Walker: “Oddly, Turkey has quickly become more European, more democratic, more Islamic, and increasingly more nationalist simultaneously.” The book covers developments only prior to mid-2010, but it provides a useful background for taking the measure of issues that emerged later, such as Turkey’s changing relations with Israel and Syria.
With Our Backs to the Wall: Victory and Defeat in 1918;
The Beauty and the Sorrow: An Intimate History of the First World War
The suddenness with which World War I ended had lasting effects, not least the belief, later exploited by Adolf Hitler, that the only explanation for Germany’s defeat was a “stab in the back.” Rather than the deadly stalemates of the trenches, which still dominate popular views of the war, 1918 saw fast-moving offensives. The Germans went first. With Russia out of the war, extra German divisions were available. But they had little time and were anxious to strike before the Americans applied the full weight of their power. Germany’s spring offensive made rapid gains, pushing the Allies back, leading to British Field Marshal Douglas Haig’s famous order to his troops to continue fighting “with our backs to the wall,” from which Stevenson draws his title. But Germany and its army were exhausted. The offensive petered out, and the Germans were soon in retreat. Stevenson’s book is a masterful, lucid analysis that does not simply tell the tale. It also considers in detail the factors of technology, morale, supply, economics, and politics that contributed to Germany’s defeat. The tactics of the Allies were more imaginative, the blockade they imposed made life miserable for their enemies, and their leaders were more astute and attentive to the need for stability at home.
In a completely different book about the same war, Englund offers no comprehensive overview but instead reconstructs the conflict through the stories of a diverse cast of 20 people who lived through it. The book is an “intimate” history because Englund not only uses his subjects’ own words but also provides his own, sometimes sardonic commentary, supplying the background the reader needs to understand the characters’ situations and preoccupations. The cast includes a French civil servant who never heard a shot fired but wrote wry reflections on how a denial of the reality of war sustained morale in Paris. Another subject is a German seaman posted on a battleship that never saw combat; his only action came at the war’s end, when he participated in a mutiny. Others are engaged in the war far from their own countries: a Venezuelan cavalryman in the Ottoman army, a Canadian married to a Polish aristocrat, a British nurse in a Russian military hospital. Like no other, this book brings out in a poignant and effective way the meaning of World War I for those who lived through it, and allows them to speak
to us almost a century later.
Leningrad: The Epic Siege of World War II, 1941–1944;
The Battle of the Tanks: Kursk, 1943
Compared with southern and western Europe’s experience of World War II, the course of the war in the East has been far less thoroughly researched. But the East is now catching up. The end of the Cold War gave researchers access to Soviet archives and survivors and has made it possible to consider this epic struggle free from the ideological distortions of the communist years and also to describe some of the human stories behind the staggering statistics, as these two books do. Reid begins on the first day of the 1941 German siege of Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg), in which some 750,000 people died as Hitler sought to starve the population out of existence. During the first winter, in particular, the search for nutrition became desperate, descending even into cannibalism, which Reid describes in grisly detail. Meanwhile, the Communist Party and the secret police continued to manage the city in the spirit of prewar purges and propaganda, ready to blame defeatists and traitors for the people’s privations and never their own incompetence. Quoting from diaries, memoirs, and interviews, Reid brilliantly explodes Soviet-era myths and constructs a harrowing, unrelenting account that demonstrates how extreme human behavior can become in a struggle for survival.
Clark describes the Battle of Kursk of July 1943, the last great German Wehrmacht offensive, which was an attempt to recover from the defeat at Stalingrad, five months earlier. The scale was enormous: four million men, 13,000 tanks, and 12,000 aircraft. The Soviets took heavier loses, but the Germans could not complete a decisive breakthrough and thereafter found themselves on the defensive. Clark puts the battle in context, explaining how Hitler’s strategic misjudgments frustrated even his most loyal generals, who coped with the consequences as best they could, often with great tactical skill. Like Reid, Clark makes excellent use of firsthand accounts. Many of those who fought tell of an expectation of imminent death, as tanks fired into one another at close distance. “It wasn’t a battle,” reports a Soviet T-34 tank commander. “It was a slaughterhouse of tanks.”
The Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade
Until 2001, Feinstein was a member of South Africa’s parliament for the African National Congress. He resigned in disgust at the bribes paid by arms manufacturers to senior party figures as the country modernized its military. Arms acquisition by governments is a reliable recipe for corruption: massive contracts for equipment that might never be used, all surrounded by the secretive, protective aura of national security. “Merchants of death” have long been blamed for feeding war frenzies and profiting from misery. But in Feinstein’s telling, the entire trade is a conspiracy between greedy businesses and kleptocratic elites, counterproductive for the selling nations (because the weapons often fall into the wrong hands) and for the buyers (because arms contracts use up scarce funds without doing much for security). One might argue that there are genuine defense needs that cannot be met any other way and that the trade is not always as distorted as Feinstein contends. But the book is not trying
to be balanced, and Feinstein makes his case with an impressive amount of detailed research and a gift for narrative that makes his findings hard to dismiss.