Book: Small Wars, Faraway Places, by Michael Burleigh

Michael Burleigh, Small Wars, Faraway Places: The Genesis of the Modern World, 1945–65 (Macmillan 2013), 608pp

In short: this is a dreadful book.

There is, of course, no such thing as an unbiased work of history, and the most biased authors are generally those who think they’re unbiased but are instead just blind to their own preconceptions. Burleigh, despite (or because of) his claim to have ‘little ideological and even less nostalgic investment in the events described’, displays a deep-seated antipathy for anyone who could remotely be described as left-wing. While it’s true that he’s not outright defending imperialism, those who opposed imperialism are, in his portrayal, either pathetic figures worthy of nothing but contempt, or comic-book villains worthy of both contempt and demonization.

His usual method, it seems, is to describe atrocities committed by both sides in the hope that this constitutes balance. It does not: those perpetrated by imperialists, and by the right in general, are described dispassionately, while those committed by the left are always presented in more emotive terms. Thus he reports calmly that thousands of South Korean police, assisted by US forces, rounded up and murdered suspected Communists in Pyongyang; but the reverse is committed by the North Korean ‘secret police’ (a term never used of equivalent bodies in capitalist states). Stalin becomes, inexplicably, ‘Generalissimo Stalin’, although his military rank was never (so far as I’m aware) more than honorary (in the same way as Queen Elizabeth is commander-in-chief of the British armed forces); presumably it’s mere oversight that stops him according Eisenhower (an actual general) the same title. He talks with disdain of the “mindless nationalism” that is supposedly unique to China and North Korea, a claim so stupid it’s hardly worth pointing out the counterexamples. Mere paragraphs after reporting that women suspected of being nationalist supporters in Algeria were routinely raped by interrogators, he complains that “the liberal press ignored [Algerian] nationalist barbarity”; French nationalists in Algeria killed 14,000 people in a single year, 80% of whom were Muslim, but it’s the Algerian independence movement whom he describes as having ‘death squads’.

Coinciding with these double standards is a constant assumption of bad faith on the part of any and every left-wing movement. He disparages the Americans for their supposed monolithic view of Communism; yet he suffers from the same weakness, continually contrasting “nationalists” with genuine desire for independence with “communists” who always have some ulterior motive. Reporting on the Viet Minh’s literacy campaign, for example, he suggests that the reason behind it is that “one needed to read to understand their propaganda.” Indeed, on the occasions when it does become impossible to accuse a left-wing revolution of being incited by Moscow (or perhaps Beijing), Burleigh is shocked that they are able to think for themselves. This cognitive dissonance extends to being able to cite the CIA’s finding that 80% of South Vietnamese citizens would have voted for Ho Chi Minh, that the Viet Cong won support “through a genuine understanding of their concerns and by simple but effective measures”, and yet still consider them brutal terrorists and support for them as fundamentally inexplicable. Americans in the Philippines apparently simultaneously wanted to prevent electoral fraud and ‘ensure a favourable outcome’ (using $500,000 of CIA funds). In Iran, Mossadeq is presented as a comic figure (with vaguely racist undertones), but more concerningly, one who brought about his own demise by failing to abandon the policies that upset British and American oil interests (MI6 and CIA interference is, presumably, a force of nature in these circumstances, which can’t be avoided except by doing what they want). In Malaya, Burleigh consistently refers to the independence movement by the British propaganda term CTs (“communist terrorists”), even in sections predating the introduction of this term in practice (i.e., both biased and anachronistic).

It was clear within a few chapters that I wasn’t going to agree with the author’s politics, but it soon became impossible to even trust it as a factual description of events, since he’s incapable of separating fact from opinion; for example, when discussing the post-war British economy, it’s stated without question that full employment was ‘suffocating’ and unhealthy, as if this were no more controversial a claim than stating that the earth is round and that gravity makes things fall downwards. On the contrary: it’s nothing if not a political claim, and Burleigh is either ignorant or intentionally misleading.

As the book progresses he makes even less effort to hide his politics: British ‘Special Branch’ police are ‘heroes’, both in Malaya and in Northern Ireland (a conflict which is otherwise outside of the scope of this book); he classifies French colonists in Algeria as being unfairly demonized by the black-and-white thinking of the left, along with (among others) the apartheid regime in South Africa. By this point he’s ceased to pretend to be apolitical: all his political complaints are specifically directed at straw leftists (yet, without a trace of irony, dismisses as ‘ahistorical advocacy’ works that might suggest that imperialism was bad, or that imperialists can be blamed for it).

I only read as far as I did out of sheer annoyance, and even that got boring towards the end. I skimmed the last few chapters; Castro, like Mao, is presented as a comic-book villain who apparently had no motivation except for a desire for power; in Mao’s case, this interpretation is based on the flimsiest of sources, whereas by the time the book reached Castro I’d long lost faith that the book could be trusted.

Don’t bother reading this book. Try Odd Arne Westad instead, who can at least make criticisms of the USSR grounded in something like reality.

Addendum: I got so caught up in addressing the content of the book that I completely overlooked the failings of form. Burleigh is attempting to address a period of 20 years, over most of the world, involving multiple empires each fighting multiple overlapping colonial wars. As he rightly points out, this presents a problem in terms of structuring the book in order to be readable. Unfortunately, I don’t think his solution succeeds. He attempts to address each conflict in more-or-less individual chapters, and then orders the chapters roughly chronologically; however, this doesn’t avoid the significant overlap  between chapters, such that we encounter individual participants late in their career towards the end of one chapter, and then a few chapters later they’re introduced at an earlier stage of their career. He also tries to make some sort of point in the introduction about a geographic logic to the structure; I don’t see it. This is, perhaps, not really Burleigh’s fault, but a natural result of the source material. A stricter chronological ordering would have meant confusing leaps back and forth between multiple theatres; a stronger geographical focus would have meant even greater confusion of the chronology. Either way, the result is a confusing structure.