Monday, October 29, 2018

Something New


We feature each fortnight Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“VIETNAM – AN EPIC TRAGEDY 1945-1975” by Max Hastings (Harper Collins, $NZ39:95)

In one of the photographic sections of Max Hastings’ Vietnam – An Epic Tragedy 1945-75, there is a page labelled “Three images that crippled the US cause in Vietnam”. The images appear in nearly every documentary film or book about the Vietnam War and they have burnt their way into the memories of the couple of generations.

A Buddhist monk immolates himself in protest at both the war and the lack of Buddhist voices in the South Vietnamese government. 

A South Vietnamese police chief summarily shoots a Vietcong after the Tet Offensive. 

A naked little girl and other children run down a road, crying after being hit by napalm. 

All three images were so powerful and so horrible that they intensified protest against the American prosecution of the war and they still dominate the way the war is popularly interpreted. This, our guts tell us, was a brutal and pointless war which achieved nothing.

It is quite possible that this judgment is valid, but three images alone, no matter how powerful, cannot possibly tell the whole truth about a war – and especially the whole truth about a war that was fought, on and off, over thirty years from the first French attempt to re-assert colonial rule in 1945 to the final collapse of South Vietnam in 1975.

A massive piece of work (nearly 700 pages before endnotes, index and very long bibliography) Max Hastings’ Vietnam, An Epic Tragedy 1945-1975 has the virtues of both good history and the best journalism. Hastings gives in detail the major military campaigns of this thirty-year conflict, showing more consideration for tactics, strategy and material facts than many slimmer accounts have done. But he is also aware of the political manoeuvring, the changes in alliances, and the social cost as well as the huge body count. (70,000 French died in their Vietnamese war; the total of American dead in their long engagement was 58,000; and in the whole thirty years of conflict, between 2 million and 4 million Vietnamese died.) As well as consulting all the material in his formidable bibliography, the journalist side of Hastings allows him to draw on many years of interviews with North and South Vietnamese soldiers and politicians, former NLF people (National Liberation Front = “Vietcong”), French colonials, American policy-makers and spooks, and other journalists. While the superstructure is solid history, the book is also heavy with vivid anecdotes and reminiscences.

In broadest outline, the story Hastings tells is a familiar one. From the mid-nineteenth century, French colonial rule of Indochina was generally abysmal. After the Second World War, the French tried for ten years to rebuild their old colonial empire. From 1945 to 1954, during the High Cold War, this doomed enterprise was largely paid for by American money. Finally came the debacle of Dienbienphu in 1954, then partition, to which the North Vietnamese communist government agreed, thinking that it would be a temporary arrangement until the French left. There was relative peace in the late 1950s, as the North Vietnamese had not yet embraced a “forward” policy; but by the early 1960s, conflict intensified. 16,000 American “advisers” were in Vietnam when JFK died. Within a couple of years, the Gulf of Tonkin “incident” gave President Johnson, seeking to show that he was “tough on communism”, the excuse to escalate the war and put boots on the ground . American marines landed at Danang in 1965 and the war intensified as thousands of Americans were now rotated through the country.

The general drift of Hastings’ narrative is that once the US committed infantry, they came to seem an army of occupation by many Vietnamese who would otherwise have been anti-communist. “Many harsh things may justly be said about what communist fighters did in Vietnam,” writes Hastings, “ but their footprint on the ground was light as a feather by comparison with that made by the boots of the American military. The very presence of affluent Westerners, armed or unarmed, uniformed or otherwise, could not fail to exercise a polluting influence on a predominantly rural and impoverished Asian society.” (p.118)

 American attempts to build up a credible South Vietnamese army (ARVN) had very mixed results. Too many ARVN personnel were not really interested in fighting and (justifiably or otherwise) they were often viewed with contempt by American servicemen – exacerbating existing racial tensions. American support for a succession of compliant South Vietnamese leaders led to great moral corruption. Despite the many atrocities carried out by the insurgent Vietcong in the south, largely uncommitted peasantry became alienated from successive leaders in Saigon. Says Hastings:

While the country retained peerless natural beauties, much of it was polluted by the war, in a fashion evidenced by its seventy-seven orphanages and two hundred thousand child delinquents. Some farmers, weary of seeing their paddy fields wrecked by the passage of military vehicles, abandoned growing rice, sustaining the drift to the cities. A permanent chemical pall hung over Saigon and its adjoining military suburbs… Almost every street was rutted and potholed by neglect, excesses of climate and traffic, the last increased from 1967 onwards by a tsunami of Honda mopeds. Piles of cement and rubbish were as ubiquitous as security chicanes, barbed wire and belching black truck diesel smoke.” (p.359) Hastings gives equally unflattering views on the moral corruption of the American forces, the huge use of drugs by servicemen, frequent “fragging” of officers by disgruntled grunts, prostitution on a massive scale in the cities, and other effects of the American presence.

Meanwhile antiwar movements grew in the West. The US leadership’s strategy was too often dominated by considerations of what the American electorate could bear, or what would win a president favour as the next election loomed. So the war stumbled on through Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon until American disengagement and the collapse of the South in the face of North Vietnam’s armies. Despite romanticised versions sometimes heard on the Left, it was not a guerrilla campaign that defeated the South, but a North Vietnamese army equipped with masses of materiel supplied by China and the Soviet Union.

That is the book if seen only as an historical chronicle, but Hastings has particular themes which I can only summarise thus:

First there is the contrast beween a cohesive North Vietnamese communist government, which had the clear, simple and comprehensible policy of uniting the country; and a wavering South Vietnamese government, which did not have the confidence of its people, never worked out any coherent social policies and rapidly came to be seen as a mere tool of the US. Hastings is fully aware of the brutality of the North (of which more later), but he makes painfully clear the “revolving door” aspect of leadership in the South, as Americans nudged a succession of unimpressive men though South Vietnam’s presidential palace. There was undeniable American collusion in the assassination, in 1963, of the South Vietnamese leader Diem and then the dreary succession of “Big” Mihn, then Nguyen Khahn, then Nguyen Cao Ky, and finally Nguyen Van Thieu, none of whom had a democratic mandate and none of whom made any policies that might gain them popular support. Only Thieu deserves some credit for his calm demeanour, although even that cracked as the war neared its end.

Next there is the matter of great deception as practised by American leadership. Nobody now can credibly doubt that the Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964, justifying American intervention, was largely a fiction used by Johnson to boost his popularity before an election. Hastings says his advisers (especially Robert McNamara) did not correct exaggerated misinformation about the incident and “allowed him to elevate into a major drama a brush at sea that could easily and should rightfully have been dismissed as trivial.” (pp.190-191) When the American government realised that the ground war was unwinnable, they stepped up a massive bombing campaign in the hope, not of gaining any military advantage, but of forcing North Vietnam to negotiate. By 1972, when Nixon and Kissinger bargained with North Vietnam over how American troops would be withdrawn, they were basically saving face, claiming to have left behind a South Vietnamese army capable of defending itself. They knew full well that they were deserting an ally, but hoped the North Vietnamese would agree to delay any major offensive for a suitable amount of time, so that the withdrawal could seem honourable.

So far, this account will have many readers nodding their heads and claiming that they already understood all this. But Hastings also emphasises other matters that will damage some people’s received image of the war. He notes the extent to which, from 1954 onwards, the war was a civil war, not just an affair of imperialists against national liberation. There really was strong anti-communist feeling among millions of Vietnamese. Apprehension about the type of state a communist regime would impose was not confined only to Americans and a few privileged lackeys. One million Vietnamese fled from the north and Ho Chi Minh’s government after the Geneva agreement partitioned the country in 1954. In the American phase of the long conflict, over 100,000 defected to the South from the North Vietnamese army and the Vietcong. The North at first expected a massive uprising in the South, led by the Vietcong, to overthrow the government of the South – but the attempt at such a concerted uprising (the Tet Offensive) failed, as the mass of peasants were as indifferent to the communist cause as they were to the Saigon government. As Hastings shows in his final chapters, despite their well-founded reputation for often lacking the will to fight, the ARVN, no longer supported by American troops, fought many battles as the NVA invaded in 1975, and was able to prevail in some. This suggests that many of those ARVN soldiers did not want a communist victory. Finally, despite what some mythology says, not all those who fled (or wanted to flee) in 1975 were bar girls and secret police. Thousands of Vietnamese knew exactly what a communist government would entail.

Hastings does not short-change in relating American atrocities – the burning of hamlets to no purpose; the killing, on mere suspicion, of thousands who were non-combatants; and scandals like the My Lai massacre of 1969. Where he differs from other chroniclers, however, is his readiness to point out the equal, and probably much greater, ruthlessness of both the North Vietnamese leadership and the Vietcong .

The merits of rival causes are never absolutes,” he tells us on the very first page of his introduction,  “… Only simpletons of the political right and left dare to suggest that in Vietnam either side possessed a monopoly of virtue.” (pp.xix – xx)

In the late 1950s, after the French had been ousted, North Vietnam’s communist government did not have a “forward” policy towards the South. It was partly exhausted by the war with the French, and partly still expecting an uprising in the South. In this time, despite all the deficiencies of the rule of Diem, the South prospered and was able to feed itself, while collectivisation in the North caused mass famines. Says Hastings:

While today the failure of collectivisation is apparent in every society where it has been tried, in the twentieth century it was probably historically inescapable that impoverished rural societies, China and Vietnam notable among them, should attempt inplementation of the theories of Marx and Lenin, in order to discover for themselves their unworkability. The human cost was appalling – but so was that of the American attempt to prevent such an experiment by force of arms.” (p.229)

The benign image of “Uncle” Ho Chi Minh belied the reality of a single-minded Stalinist who believed in mass “re-education” for those who did not comply with his state, mass imprisonment for dissenters and total state-controlled censorhip. Yet he did realise that his country was in no condition to pursue all-out war. For most of the war with the Americans, Ho was sidelined by the more bellicose Le Duan and Le Duc Tho and he became little more than a propaganda figurehead. Says Hastings:

Le Duan was the principal personality driving renewal of the unification struggle: it is hard to exaggerate his personal role in what followed. As for his politburo comrades, it seems legitimate to speculate that some favoured war in the South as a means of escaping acknowledgement of the failure of their policies at home; of instilling a new sense of purpose in Ho Chi Minh’s threadbare people. It was their good fortune that the ‘imperialist’ foe, indispensible to such a regime as their own, had harnessed its fortunes to Ngo Dihn Diem, a dead donkey if ever there was one. The war that now gained momentum was such as neither side deserved to win.” (p.108)

All of which brings me to the last major issue with which Hastings deals. This is the major matter of perception. A totalitarian regime, such as Ho Chi Minh’s, has strict and unquestioned control of all mass media, and certainly does not allow news photographers and cameramen to rove relatively freely, reporting what they will. In this respect, as Hastings notes a number of times, we of the television age have a completely unblanced view of where much of the war’s brutality lay. Further, he remarks: “Relative American openness contrasted with the communist commitment to secrecy, in my view constitutes a claim upon a fragment of moral high ground. The egregious error committed by US statesmen and commanders are not that of lying to the world, but rather of lying to themselves.” (p.xxiii) In the terrorisation of peasants, summary executions of those who did not support them, and lack of scruples about forcible mass “re-education”, the communist forces probably exceeded the Americans and ARVNs in brutality. But no cameras were watching them. And what (Western) cameras did see of them was often misleading. By all military measures, the great Tet Offensive was a disaster for the communists, basically destroying the Vietcong and showing the there was no possibility of a mass communist uprising in the South. Hastings notes:

In the aftermath of Tet, morale slumped among the NVA and Vietcong, who acknowledged a military defeat that had cost them twenty thousand dead. Hanoi’s official history concedes ‘the battlefield had temporarily turned in favour of the enemy… Our posture and strength were seriously weakened.’ By the communists’ own estimates, exposure to US firepower had cost some guerrilla units 60-70 per cent of their strength.” (p.413)

And yet television news showed the West images of Saigon under attack, Vietcong breaking into the grounds of the US embassy, and firefights going on across the city. The impression was created that the South had suffered a dreadful reverse and was already defeated. It was at this time that terrible images showed a police chief summarily executing a Vietcong by a pistol shot to the head. As Hastings explains (p.403), the Vietcong in question had personally killed an ARVN officer, his wife, his six children and his 80-year-old mother – but there was no camera around to see these acts.

Hastings is definitely NOT making the case, still heard from some American hawks, that “the media lost the war for us”. As a long-time journalist himself, he applauds the skill and often courage of journalists who penetrated official lies and brought the truth about the darkest elements of the war to public attention. But he is aware that only one side’s crimes were thus exposed, and that even Western journalists of high repute were prone to accepting uncritically official North Vietnamese propaganda. The wastefulness and inaccuracy of many US air strikes in North Vietnam are beyond dispute, but they had far greater effect than was admitted in the handouts from Hanoi that Harrison Salisbury quoted as objective fact in the New York Times. (p.323)

I spent three whole days reading Vietnam – An Epic Tragedy 1945-75 with the same sort of horrible fascination that I read Orlando Figes’ A People’s Tragedy [his massive study of the whole course of the Russian Revolution - and the best single-volume account on the subject] or Laurence Rees’ The Holocaust – a New History. It is shocking, often depressing, and compulsive reading. It will, naturally, cause annoyance to those who wish to see the war in more simplistic terms, whether they are unreconstructed American “hawks” or romantic leftists with sanitised ideas of “Uncle Ho” and how the Vietcong went about its business. I have now looked on a number of websites and seen the diversity of reactions. On the Guardian website alone, you can find one review by Martin Wollacott that fully endorses this book’s panoramic view; and another very grumpy review by Jonathan Steele claiming (inaccurately, I believe) that the book’s main purpose is to “exonerate the US military.”

In other words, it’s a book nuanced enough to force readers to do some thinking.

Footnote: Unlike other (American or British) chroniclers of the Vietnam War, Hastings acknowledges that the US had a few (a very few) allies. He notes the presence of Australian troops and remarks: “They towed in their wake the New Zealand government, which was convinced that no good could come out of the war, but felt obliged to follow the lead of its much larger neighbour.”(p.239)  Later he gives ten pages to “Aussies and Kiwis” (pp.460-470) although all his informants and interviewees for this section appear to have been Australian. His comments on New Zealanders are only generic ones. Perhaps this is fair as, at any time, there were over 4,500 Aussies in Vietnam and only about 500 New Zealanders.

            This has a personal element for me. One of my elder brothers, Piers, a career army officer, (see my eulogy for him here Goodbye Soldier) fresh out of military college, served for a year-and-a-half in Vietnam, I believe mainly with a New Zealand artillery battery at Bien Hoa. It was interesting to me, as a youngster, to see how his attitudes to the war changed. When he first returned to New Zeland, he was still idealistic about the war, being convinced that a rigged “election” held by one of South Vietnam’s leaders was a real sign of democracy. He said “I saw farmers and peasants and middle-class people and prostitutes voting at the booths.” But only a few years later, now out of Vietnam and learning how the war was going, he was much more cynical and said “If the politicians want a bloody war, they can have one.” Still later, as a senior officer, he was, like many other former combatants, an honoured guest in unified Vietnam, and was shown respectfully around battlefields (including Dienbienphu, Keh Sahn and sites further south) by Vietnamese officers who were perfectly happy to discuss their own, and their emeny’s, strengths and weaknesses in tactics and strategy. Like communist China, communist Vietnam welcomes tourists and their Western currencies and has accepted much private enterpise, having ditched dogmatic collectivisation while remaining a one-party stat.

By the way, Max Hastings points out that most US infantry served at most six months with a company before being shifted to staff roles and then sent home. He comments caustically: “Maybe two thirds of the men who came home calling themselves veterans – entitled to wear the medal and talk about their PTSD troubles – had been exposed to no greater risk than a man might get from ill-judged sex or ‘bad shit’ drugs.” (p.249) This crack has caused great offence among some American reviewers, but it squares with my brother’s tales of Aussies and Kiwis doing 18-month stretches in the field while Americans were rotated through active service at a much faster rate.

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.

“WHY THE ALLIES WON” by Richard Overy (first published in 1995)

            There is an idle game which I have sometimes played on the internet.

I have gone onto Youtube and have watched many short snippets of newsreels from the Second World War. Then I have been stupid enough to read some of the viewers’ comments that have been added to them. It is always a depressing experience. Most such comments are made by [presumably young] men with ultra-patriotic views and with little real knowledge of the war. Depending on which side of the Atlantic they inhabit, they say that either the British or the Americans won the war, and that we should therefore be grateful to them on all matters for all eternity. British contributors are the most one-eyed, arguing in effect “We fought the war all the way through from 1939, whereas the Yanks and Russkies only joined us in 1941, so we’re the people who really won the war.” There will also be a few comments – most of them, I surmise, inserted by those electronic provocateurs known as “trolls” – saying how wonderful Nazi Germany was and how brave its soldiers were. Comments about other countries (France, for example) will be disparaging and rely on racial stereotypes. And knowledge of the Eastern Front is almost nil.

            What is soon clear from most of this is how much such young men’s opinions are dependent on all the fictionalised movies they have seen. The Hollywood (or Elstree) myth of the Second World War is more potent than the historical reality. John Wayne or Audie Murphy or Dana Andrews (or John Mills or Richard Attenborough or Kenneth More) win the war. All the rest is peripheral.

It was before my engagement with the internet began; but when I lectured on the history of warfare, about a decade ago, I was glad to find a book which clearly and intelligently explained why and how the Second World War was fought, and why it had the outcome that it did have. I recommended it earnestly to my students, I am happy to recommend it earnestly to you, and I would recommend it earnestly to the young men who make chauvinistic remarks on the internet – that is, if they are capable of reading a book.

Richard Overy has had a distinguished academic career in Britain, and at the time he wrote Why the Allies Won he was Professor of Modern History at  King’s College, London. He begins by reminding us that the ultimate defeat of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan was not a foregone conclusion. It is not sufficient to add up the manpower and resources eventually available to the three victorious Allies (the United States, the Soviet Union and the United Kingdom) and assume that weight of numbers won the day. Rather, victory had more to do with how resources and manpower were used, especially as, by 1941-42, Nazi Germany controlled far greater resources than the USSR did, and Japan had rolled up colonial power (British, French, Dutch) in Asia.

Even by the late 1930s, Britain and France were still better equipped than Germany, but they were trumped by the Nazi-Soviet “Non-Aggression Pact” which allowed Hitler to do what the Kaiser had not been able to do – fight a war on one front. By Blitzkrieg tactics – even though Germany was not equipped “in depth” – Belgium, the Netherlands and France were overrun and the British Expeditionary Force was chased out of Europe. (Its “miraculous” evacuation from Dunkirk was largely thanks to the French Army holding a perimeter around the town of Dunkirk in a brave and bloody rearguard action – a matter always ignored in British movies about the campaign.)

Overy says that Britain was saved from similar invasion only by the poor level of German planning for a cross-Channel assault. Yes, the RAF performed magnificently and won the Battle of Britain, but this was a defensive action and Britain had neither the industrial strength nor the ability to carry the war to the enemy. For the first two years of the war, Britain was mired in successive defeats, being driven from Greece and Crete (and Norway) and facing disaster in the ill-conceived Dieppe Raid in 1942. Only when it was backed by American armaments, in 1942, did it win its first (limited) victory in North Africa in the second battle of El Alamein.

After the huge Axis victories in the first two-and-a-half years of the war, including the first year of Operation Barbarossa, why did the tide turn?

Regarding grand strategy, Overy’s book traces those campaigns and conditions that led to victory. First, seapower, which allowed the Allies to roll up the U-Boat threat in the Atlantic and sustain a line of supply to what became the Anglo-American base of Britain. Britain’s main role in the war was to be the platform for the American-led assault on Western Europe.  Seapower was also the key to victory in the Pacific, where most damage was done to Japan by planes launched from aircraft carriers. Then the massive land war in the Soviet Union, where both sides (Nazi and Soviet) were willing to expend millions of lives; and through which Nazi Germany was denied access to oil. Then the one that we prefer not to acknowledge – the huge Anglo-American bombing campaign in the last two-and-a-half years of the war, which really did cripple German industry (while incidentally killing hundreds of thousands of non-combatants). And finally the Allied invasion of Western Europe, via Italy from July 1943 and via France from June 1944.

This is a general overview of strategy, but it does not of itself explain why the Allies won.

While briefly acknowledging the superior quality of Allied military intelligence (the cracking of both the Ultra code and of Japanese naval signals), Overy focuses on the ability of Allied commanders to learn from their mistakes. Stalin’s first response to the German invasion was sheer panic, followed by an attempt to take over military command. But, paranoid tyrant though he was, he soon realised that professional military men (such as Marshal Zhukov) were better strategists than he was, and he basically let them get on with it. Winston Churchill was reluctant to ally with the Soviet Union, but was pragmatic enough to realise that such an alliance was necessary. He also, after the repeated failure of British offensives, understood that coordinated stategy with the Americans and the Russians was required. Both the RAF’s and the USAF’s bombing campaigns were modified when they were found not to achieve the desired results. As Overy notes, Britain’s bombing raids on Germany in 1940-42 mainly missed their targets and had minimal effect on German industry. Even when American airpower was added (with American Flying Fortresses capable of flying at much higher altitiudes than the RAF could), German fighters were still able to prevail until early 1944. It was only when Allied airforces developed long-range fighters that they gained air superiority and were able to cripple the German war effort by destroying infrastructure (especially railways). Incidentally, some revisionists have argued that German industrial output continued to be high until the very last months of the war – but as Overy notes, much of this output now had to be diverted to air defences, and the German armed forces were consequently being starved of materiel, despite all the industrial booty they had plundered from occupied Europe.

Hitler, meanwhile, did not learn from his mistakes, still not allowing more professional military commanders to work out a combined strategy (as Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill had done), still regarding himself as a military genius, and still insisting that generals were answerable only to him.

Perhaps just as telling as learning from mistakes was the better industrial organisation that the Allies had. There is no doubt that, despite vaunted German efficiency, the USA was the major industrial powerhouse of the world at this time. Even before the USA was fully engaged in the war, it was propping up the British war effort with generous lend-lease arrangements. Once it was fully engaged, it was able to supply military equipment, aircraft, materiel and ships (such as the Liberty Ships) in much greater quntities than any other combatant. It probably helped that mainland USA was out of range of any Axis bombing. As Overy points out, the great majority of trucks used by the Red Army in the Second World War were American-made; and Soviet soldiers were regularly provisioned with tinned American spam (which, apparently, they ironically nicknamed “Second Front”).

Though not as efficient as the capitalist assembly lines, Soviet war industries were also better organised than Nazi German ones.  With industral centres shifted beyond the Ural mountains, especially Magnitogorsk, where German bombers could not reach them, the Russians turned out huge numbers of very basic but very robust tanks and aircraft. By contrast, Germany concentrated too much on craftsmanship and experimental designs. In the later stages of the war, the best German tanks and fighter-planes were far superior to Soviet designs – but the problem was that there were too few of them, and so many different designs that it was not easy to maintain them in battle conditions when they were damaged and disabled. Where could parts and replacements be found when there were so many competing designs? The more functional Soviet designs might not have been as technologically advanced, but as they were used by the Soviets on all battle fronts, they were easier to maintain or replace. 

Finally, Overy notes that there was a moral (and morale) aspect to the Allied victory. Despite the fact that the Western Allies were tied to Stalin’s totalitarian regime, and despite the fact that nuclear weapons were eventually part of the story, the Allies still had the moral high-ground in defeating Nazism and expansionist Japanese militarism. Also, Allied governments were overwhelmingly supported by their populations. America’s isolationist movement evaporated after Pearl Harbour and there was minimal anti-war sentiment in Britain. Despite high rates of coercion and the use of terror by Stalin’s regime, there was still mass support in Russia for the fight against Germany. The Russian people were not fighting for an ideology. This was not “The Great War to Defend Marxist-Leninism”. It was, and has continued to be named by Russians, “The Great Patriotic War”, fought for nationalist and patriotic reasons in the same way that the war against Napoleon was fought. By contrast, the Italian population entered very unwillingly into war and tried to exit from it long before the fight was over. Hitler’s regime was briefly popular in Germany after the initial victories of 1940-41, but this early euphoria rapidly evaporated, to be briefly revived when the war was rebranded as defence against Russia post-1943. During the war, notes Overy, over 15,000 German soldiers were executed for mutiny and insubordination. To put it simply, there was an underlying realisation in Axis countries that they were being asked to support expansionist – and dare one say, evil – regimes.

Learning from mistakes, better industrial organisation and morale – these are the keys to the final Allied victory.

Taking Overy’s thesis another way, I could summarise it thus – it was American industrial power, Russian manpower and British resilience that won the war, with Britain eventually having to accept, even if reluctantly, that it was the junior partner in the coalition.

My summary here has been simplified, but I would still hope that this book could serve as a corrective to the small-mindedness on this issue that I have seen expressed on line.

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.


I have just been considering military matters on this week’s posting, with comments on two books by English authors – Max Hastings’ Vietnam, An Epic Tragedy 1945-1975 and Richard Overy’s Why the Allies Won. I might as well make comments on military matters in the “Something Thoughtful” section too, especially as I want to talk about something that has often disturbed me

It is the matter of physical courage.

When we see fictionalised war films, or read war novels, or even when we watch documentaries and read non-fiction works concerning war, we cannot help but admire those soldiers who display physical courage - the guy who single-handedly takes out the machine-gun post, or who is the first to charge into a heavily-defended position or who gives his life to let others get away. And there is a good reason for us to admire them. We are aware that in similar circumstances we would be highly unlikely to act with the same degree of courage. Such people really do deserve our admiration.

But there is a problem here. What we read and see on screen often suggests that bravery is confined to those who fight in a righteous cause. Older and crasser works of propaganda would have us believe that while “our” fighting forces are the model of courage, “their” forces consists of cowards, sadists, buffoons etc.

The simple problem is, that this is not true. Fighting men can behave with exemplary courage for the worst of causes as well as the best. This holds true for ancient wars as much as for modern ones.

I have recently been reading Caesar’s Commentaries on his Gallic wars. He tells many stories concerning the courage of his soldiers – the centurion who encouraged his hesitating comrades to face the Briton hordes on the beach, by jumping into the surf while clutching the standard of the legion; the cohorts, greatly outnumbered by besieging Gauls and allied Germans, that held out in their camp until reinforcements arrived; the messenger who passed through dangerous enemy lines to get necessary information to a general. In fairness to Caesar, he also frequently commends the courage and fighting spirit of the various Gallic and Germanic tribes whom he fought. Even so, the righteousness of Roman forces is always assumed. And yet, despite Caesar’s bland justifications for his actions, it is plain to see that most of his Gallic wars consisted of unprovoked attacks upon peoples who did not wish to be conquered, or battle with peoples who were rebelling against his conquest. In other words, Caesar was engaged in an aggressive, expansionist war – building an empire largely to gain greater power and prestige for himself.

The courage of the soldiers was real, but ultimately the cause was not a justifiable one.

I could ramp this argument up by referring to more recent wars. I am convinced that many Confederate soldiers fought and died bravely for the cause of defending the institution of slavery. I recall seeing the very good German film Der Untergang (Downfall), made in 2004, depicting the last days of Hitler. The film emphasised the fanaticism and folly of both Hitler and the last defenders of his regime. But it also showed scenes of what can only be called great courage. Hard to imagine a more reprehensible figure than an SS doctor, but one sequence [based –as the whole film was – on factual events] had such a doctor running, through heavy shellbursts and gunfire, to get necessary medical supplies. Great courage in a rotten cause.

At this point I could go off topic and talk about reprehensible behaviour in good causes (yes, there are verifiable atrocity stories of Allied soldiers in the Second World War), but I will continue with another apect of genuine courage.

If we criticise a foolish strategic decision, or the poor planning of a campaign, or the idiocy of commanding officers, I sincerely hope that we are not implicitly criticising the men caught up in these things. In the First World War, the first day of the Somme was lunacy of the first order – an idiotic offensive ordered by general staff. But the men who marched into slaughter under machine-gun fire were not cowardly. The Gallipoli campaign was simply not worth undertaking, but this is not to question the tenacity of British and Anzac forces who managed to hold on before the inevitable evacuation. In the Second World War, God forgive the nitwit who dreamt up the Arnhem offensive without bothering to research adequately the obstacles – but the stories of battlefield bravery are real. If I regard the much-vaunted “Dambuster” raid as more a propaganda coup than a real crippling blow to the enemy, it does not mean that I am doubting the nerve of Guy Gibson and his crews. Nor am I an “armchair critic” who thinks he could have done better in the circumstances.

So here are two things I conclude about wartime and battlefield courage. One, it is a matter of individuals, not of the worthiness or otherwise of the causes they serve. Men can be brave (or cowardly) in bad causes as well as good ones. Two, to question strategy and decisions made by commanders is not to belittle the courage of fighting men.

I am not one to go “making mock of uniforms”.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Something New


We feature each fortnight Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“FIGURE AND GROUND: POEMS 2012-2018” by Robert McLean (Cold Hub Press, $NZ19:95); “LUXEMBOURG” by Stephen Oliver (Greywacke Press, $NZ29:99); “THERE’S NO PLACE LIKE THE INTERNET IN SPRINGTIME” by Erik Kennedy (Victoria University Press, $NZ25);

Five years ago on this blog, I considered three volumes by one of New Zealand’s most underrated poets, Robert McLean (look up the 2013 posting Robert McLean). I find myself quoted on the blurb of McLean’s latest publication Figure and Ground, but I don’t mind in the least. As I’ve said before, McLean is an erudite poet with a wide knowledge of Western culture. He writes on the assumption that his readers share, or are able to access, a similar knowledge. Unlike most other poets who are his contemporaries, he provides no explanatory end-notes or footnotes when he deploys a literary or historical reference. Apparently he is well-versed in postmodernist literary theory, but I would describe his preferred style as High Modernist. He works hard at the form of his poems, often using traditional metres and rhyme, but he is no blind traditionalist. History and received culture are quarried stone to be whacked and shaped into something significant for us here and now.

In Figure and Ground, McLean sometimes makes specifically New Zealand scenes his topic. “The Terminal” is a sad, elegaic poem about flying out from Christchurch; and “Autumn, Island Bay” is a kiwi paysage moralise. But two other poems referencing New Zealanders place them in exotic settings, to wit the two poems about New Zealanders who fought in Europe in the Second World War,  “Indexes and Libations” written in memory of Dan Davin (whose poems, collected as A Field Officer’s Notebook, were edited by McLean) and “John Mulgan in Greece”. 

Most often, however, McLean’s inspiration is far from home. In “Jacopo’s Vision”, Dante’s son explain the origins of his father’s work. “Alberti’s Complaint” has the Renaissance architect Leon Battista Alberti considered the pressures of patronage and hardship of building. “Housekeeping” comments piquantly on the nunnishness of Emily Dickinson. There is a poem on the heterosexual chauffeur and secretary whom Marcel Proust adored.

None of this is mere dabbling in High Culture, however. Where he comments, McLean questions, and at bottom his questions are searching ones about faith or no faith; aesthetics; the making of legends, and the paradox of the simultaneous necessity and mendacity of legends. “Lines on Tarkovsky” references the Russian director’s film Andrei Rublev, about the medieval icon-painter, and exhorts a boy to  “Embrace your absent father / in light of celluloid. / To salve the aching void / embrace your absent father. / You’ve got no other.”  There is a whole tension between types of literature in the poem “Lie Easy, Walter, or Lie All the Same”, concerned with Walter Savage Landor’s place in Italy. It is ostensibly an anti-romantic poem, telling us “Sightseers swarm Barrett - / Browning’s chintzy resting-place, / love’s stronghold. Landor’s grave / sinks deeper: this terminal garret / where the stoic saved face, / whom playful souls never forgave.” And yet it relents to suggest there is a form of idealism that is not to be disparaged. Quite brilliantly, I think, “In Memory of Anne Sexton” manages at once to celebrate the suicidal, confessional poet while undermining any glamourised ideas of Anne Sexton as prophet. Suffering is suffering – it is not pretty or to be emulated. There’s a simlar two-edged swing to “Hell on Earth” in which McLean is emphatically not debunking the legend of Troy (he wouldn’t be involved in such a foolish and obvious game) but is cautioning us about the blood-soaked truth that lies behind the legend.

I will now do the forbidden thing in reviewing a collection of poetry and nominate my favourite. “The Discovery of Pluto” is dedicated to the British poet Geoffrey Hill, who was deeply enmeshed in philosophy and Christian theology. Here the poet stands against the universe, knowing that it can be perceived only through our limited consciousness, and taking as his inspiration the recent “demotion” of Pluto from planet to large asteroid. “It was a planet. Now it’s not. In / our strictly unblinking cosmos, / thick with dark matter, to be forgotten / is never to have been…/”. Given our serial fallibility about the universe, it is fitting that the next poem is about Giordano Bruno.

Challenging but stimulating – a fine collection.

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I admit that I came to Stephen Oliver’s poetry late. I was first aware of him four years ago, when I guest-edited Poetry New Zealand in its old format  (issue #48, March 2014) and enjoyed writing a brief notice on Oliver’s collection, Intercolonial – a kind of loose epic linking Australia and New Zealand, where tales of discovery jostled with vivid childhood remembrance. This is significant because the blurb of his latest [of nineteen!] collections, Luxembourg, describes Oliver as “Australasian”. Born in Wellington, the man has lived twenty years of his life in Oz before a recent return to Newzild, and he is happy to identify with either country. Or both.

Luxembourg is a capacious collection [nearly 100 pages] of what Oliver has been writing in the last four years.

Much of it references specific New Zealand landscapes. “Tracking Rupert Brooke” is a fantasia set in an earlier New Zealand, about what the Georgian poet might have written has he not been so coy about expressing passion. The poems “El Nino”, “Dilapidated Dream” and “Green Asterisk” comment on Te Kuiti, the King Country and the central North Island. The sequence “Road Notes” is a long collection of short stanzas following the Waikato. Sometimes the attitude to this country is jaded. “Undercover” tells us “Absent twenty years, I left a country of sheep,  / returned to a country of cattle; rivers / wheeze through an iridescent landscape, / gorged on nutrient-rich run off.” It sees the King Country as “run-down rentals / and mouldering hatreds, hobbled by small / town boredoms

Oliver also references topical or longstanding political situations, sometimes with the eye of a satirist, as in “The Great Repression” or “Scarecrow”, which is more-or-less an anti-Anzac Day poem. “Streets of Kiev” is specifically an anti-Vladimir Putin poem. (“His favourite cocktail, / Polonium-210, he serves up to those who dare oppose.”). “Impress” concerns refugees, and has the same sort of resigned melancholy tone that Ewin Muir used to strike in the 1950s, with such poems as “The Good Town”

What seems to concern Oliver more often, however, is an apocalyptic collapse of poetry and sense into tribalism  (“The Map”) and an apocalyptic collapse of belief systems into anomie (“Testament”). This sense of desolation is also found in the portrait of a single woman in a tumbledown house (“Lace”). There are in this volume so many poems about mental disintegration, unease, and the inability to articulate something meaningful, as in “Nocturne” where  “There is nothing but grainy silence. / A hissing sound, and the darkened objects of the room / surounding me.” The three prose poems “Dark Matter”, “Domes” and “Choristers” are attempts to fit human beings into the universe, given what we now know of its immeasurable vastness, and attempts to harmonise our moden knowledge with ancient, mythic views of  the universe. While Oliver often tries to consider things on a vast, cosmic scale, this can lead to overblown rhetoric, as in the poem “Titan Love Song”. Could this overstatement indicate real insecurity on the poet’s part? Often Oliver’s uncertainty [about self; about time] is palpable, as in “The World’s Basement”, “What Angels Throw” and “Breaking Straws”. Nadir of not really knowing what he values must be the poem “Worry Beads”, where he wants to pray to something or someone, but in the end affirms only the sound of his own words.

Oliver’s attitude towards women is strangely Romantic. “Sister to the Sphinx” comes across as an overstated tribute to a former model, but then one remembers that even the likes of Yeats could go silly and gaga over a pretty face. The later poem “Stone Lintel” is almost as embarrassing from its opening lines’ assertion that  “The gift of slowing time belongs exclusively to / beautiful women and the space they inhabit…”  For the record, seeing good-looking women as beacons of inspiration seems to be part of this poet’s modus scribendi. As best I can decipher it, the title poem, “Luxembourg”, was inspired by the sight of a model on a billboard. She graces the cover and is obviously deemed important enough to have a German language translation placed next to the English language original in this book. Yet these elements of unlikely romantic worship are atoned for by the hard veracity of “The Lost German Girl”, concerning refugees. It has the same sort of straightforward truthfulness as “The Journey”, about a minor poet’s dedication to his work; or as “Broken”, a factual trbute to a trusty old typewriter the poet once cast away. It is when Oliver is not striving too hard for the Grand Gesture that he is at his best.

If I picked a highlight for this book, it would be the six-page tour de force called “Open-Learning Workshops” in which Oliver lays down ironically “rules” for poets, publishers, novelists, academics, book-festival organisers etc on how they should go about their business – and in the process, deflates their pretensions and displays a great deal of worldly wisdom in these fields. This is satire which, an opening notes tell us, is influenced by Auden and Cyril Connelly, but none the worse for that.

Annoyingly necessary footnote: As I have explained before on this blog [see the posting Who is This Ghost Who WalksBeside Me?) I am not the only person from New Zealand, with some literary connections, who is called Nicholas Reid. There is another Nicholas Reid (no relation), an expert on Coleridge and romantic poetry, who started an academic career in New Zealand and has now relocated to Australia. It is this “other” Nicholas Reid who is referenced in Stephen Oliver’s poem “Building Code” and [at least according to one of the publisher’s websites] it is this “other” Nicholas Reid who had a hand in editing Luxembourg. He appears to be a fine chap of good taste, but then so am I, so doubtless the confusion will continue.

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Is whimsy the thin cloak worn by despair?

I’ll leave that conundrum hanging in the air while I perform yet another manouevre forbidden in academically-respectable (i.e. dishonest) poetry criticism. I am going to divide Erik Kennedy’s debut volume There’s No Place Like the Internet in Springtime into the good and the bad. And because I want to end on a positive note (there are many, many good things in this collection, after all), I will begin with the bad.

It’s this ironical whimsy stuff.

Take the title poem – the very first in the book -  “There’s No Place Like the Internet in Springtime”. It could be understood (as I understand it) to mean that springtime is not a place like the internet. Therefore it could be taken as a criticism of the internet. But the poet commits himself to no clear viewpoint – so ambiguous whimsy it becomes. A companion poem “Uninstall Your News App and Join a Hiking Club” could be read as a straightforward exhortation to do just that, but again the tone the poet strikes is laid-back hipster irony. Selecting other poems in this collection, I note that “Mailing in a Form Because There’s No Online Form” sees bureaucracy as the new means to confuse and control people as was once the role of war (getting close to conspiracy theory, folks). “You Can’t Teach Creative Writing” offers its title ironically, but then says nothing to refute the title statement as literal truth. Even a straightforward story about the poet’s great-uncle’s footballing career has to have a title that belittles it -  “The Family Lore Poem” – as if to say the poet is sick of family lore poems. Less evasively, “Poem in Which, in Which, in Which” is a harmless bonbon in which the poet ridicules the pomposity of chapter headings in many eighteenth- and nineteenth-century novels.

Here’s the whimsy-irony thing in relatively innocuous form, but it skirts close to despair in other poems – hence the question with which I began this critique. “Four Directions at the Beach” uses the imagery of a beach to suggest there is no truth in any direction, and the best one can do is to abandon any search for truth and surrender to idle contemplation of the sky. “I Am an Animal Benefitting from Climate Change” is intended as cool irony, but reads as a surrender to the inevitable. In “I Can’t Even” we are schooled with the idea that human creativity is built on sorrow and disaster and may simply be a survival mechanism. “I Rank All the Beautiful Things There Are” has a bit more heft, saying that any form of categorisation is provisional and our tastes change.

I hear your objection to what I have said so far. I appear to be criticising the poet for the What rather than for the How, and we all know that great poems can be made out of very dodgy philosophical ideas, so the What is often less important than the How. But I am considering the How, namely the tone of irony that so often reads as affectation.

Right. I’m glad to have got all my negative comments done with. As I said, There’s No Place Like the Internet in Springtime has many very good things in it and I’m happy to note them. Rather than poking the ironical borax, “Your Grandfather’s War Stories” gives a larger and more thoughtful possibility of the repeated cycles of history. “Public Power” is a vignette of the first town in the world (Godalming in Surrey, England, in 1881) to have a public electricity supply; and “The Great Sunspot of 1947” is another vignette, this time about how people once interpreted things.  In these three poems, Kennedy sets aside arch irony and looks at things compassionately.

Quite wonderful in this respect is “An Abandoned Farm Near Lockhart, New South Wales”. Like the world’s best poems, it lets its ideas creep up on you rather than bashing you over the head with them. On a superficial level, it is simply a description as its title declares – but note how the poet lets those matters of time, utility and decay enter into it, unforced and unironically.

I have used the term “irony” in a such a negative sense that you may assume I dislike irony in any circumstance. Not so. When it pairs with real wit, irony can work wonders. Take Kennedy’s witty “Georgics” which are , after all, satirical, as they produce such couplets as “A lambent light it is that fill the pastures, but it’s too dark to read. / The wise farmer rises early  to get the best broadband speed.” And “You can ride a tractor from, as the Italians say, the stable to the stars. / The tractor’s GPS is more powerful than the computer on the ship that, some day, will take men to Mars.” Yet also, in a non-solemn way, this witty sally comments on the hardship of farming in a dying economy, even if the farming is industrialised.

Much of Kennedy’s political satire is transparent, clear and pungent, such as  “The Paris Agreement” concerning prevarications over the climate change accord. Sometimes, though, the targets are unclear and the meaning opaque, as with “Growing Fears That the Leadership Contest Has Been Hijacked by Far-Left Infiltrators”. It might have had some immediate topical application as, according to an end-note, it was first printed in a Poets for Corbyn pamphlet. Without such context, its meaning is very unclear indeed.

And, showing how well irony can be used, may I commend the amiable, easy, ironic canters of “Love Poem With Seagull”, the wired couplets of “Amores” and the particularity of “How a New Zealand Sunrise Is Different from Other Sunrises”. As for complete laid-backness, “The Contentment Poem”, about leaving lawn-mowing incompleted, takes the prize. It’s hard not to notice, too, that Kennedy, an expatriate American, in the poem “Remembering America” is very ambiguous about his country of origin, but comes down on the side of rejection.  

Lawks a mercy, but I’ve been very contradictory about this one, haven’t I? This thought occurs to me – often the best volumes of poetry, and the ones you remember longest, are the most provocative. There’s No Place Like the Internet in Springtime certainly provoked me and annoyed me at times – and at other times made me admire the poet’s skill and insight. This is a way of saying that it is very uneven and that it will probably affect you differently.
What an interesting collection.