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A ‘just war theory’ or a ‘theory of peace’? St Augustine’s real contribution to the debate. See the post at Jericho Tree here.

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When we were on retreat recently I was reading Francis of Assisi: A New Biography, by Augustine Thompson, OP. It sets out to be a historical reconstruction of his life, based on a huge number of historical studies over the last few decades. It’s not written with a destructive spirit, as if Thompson were trying to debunk the often beautiful mythology that has grown up around St Francis over the years. But it is trying to discover the authentic heart of the man, and the life that is presented here is both simpler and much more complex than the standard biographies that are based uncritically on much later and less reliable sources.

assisi

Many things struck me and stayed with me: How Francis’s conversion was inseparable from his first-hand experience of war, violence and imprisonment when he went to battle as a young man; the relationship between psychological trauma and spiritual awakening and healing.

Those beautiful stories about Francis walking into a church and hearing the gospel call to poverty and radical discipleship are true. But they were not the scripture readings of the liturgy of the day. There was a tradition of Christians coming to the priest for guidance, and asking him to him to open the scriptures three times at random, and in this way picking three passages from the bible that would somehow cohere and provide direction for the one who asked. This is how the Lord spoke so powerfully to Francis about the call to evangelical simplicity and obedience.

How difficult his gradual conversion must have been for his family. His father comes across not as a worldly tyrant but as a concerned father who doesn’t know how to react to his son’s apparent psychological disintegration and the consequent implosion of his family business.

How unsure Francis was about his new way of life. It’s very clear from this reconstruction that when he first went to see the pope to have his ‘rule’ approved he had no intention to preach. The preaching mission came from the pope, and he followed it obediently.

It’s true that poverty was a central theme in Francis’s vision and lifestyle. But according to Thompson it was not the theological key. Francis, according to the historical sources, spent far more time preaching and teaching and sometimes writing about the Holy Eucharist and the Catholic priesthood than he did about poverty. He was captivated by the idea that Christ was present in our midst in the Mass and in the reserved Blessed Sacrament in the tabernacles of every Catholic church throughout the world. He showed the utmost respect to Catholic priests, fully aware of their weaknesses, because he believed that they represented Christ sacramentally for the Christian faithful.

He was horrified when he came across a church or chapel that was in a state of disrepair. It he found any altar linen that was dirty he would take it away to wash it. If he found any sacred books that contained the scriptures discarded on the floor he would put them in a more worthy place. When we hear that Francis was called to rebuild/repair God’s church we often think that this was a metaphor for a spiritual renewal of the church, which of course it was in many ways. But we forget that Francis’s first concern, which never left him, was to make the actual church buildings into sacred spaces that would be worthy for the liturgy and the presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament.

And I learnt how much Francis suffered, especially in the last years of his life through sickness. I knew this already, but the extent of the suffering comes across in this biography: the discomfort, the heartache, the sheer agony that Francis often lived through. He was a broken man at the end, but a man fully alive. The joy and the simplicity are there, but in this book they shine out of a very earthy humanity.

I’m not saying these are the central themes of the book or of St Francis’s life. They are just some of the ideas that made an impression on me that hadn’t come across so strongly in other biographies I’ve read. It’s a fascinating book – do read it yourself.

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This is the accusation from Naomi Wolf, in an open letter to Zero Dark Thirty‘s director, Kathryn Bigelow:

Your film Zero Dark Thirty is a huge hit here. But in falsely justifying, in scene after scene, the torture of detainees in “the global war on terror”, Zero Dark Thirty is a gorgeously-shot, two-hour ad for keeping intelligence agents who committed crimes against Guantánamo prisoners out of jail. It makes heroes and heroines out of people who committed violent crimes against other people based on their race – something that has historical precedent.

Your film claims, in many scenes, that CIA torture was redeemed by the “information” it “secured”, information that, according to your script, led to Bin Laden’s capture. This narrative is a form of manufacture of innocence to mask a great crime: what your script blithely calls “the detainee program”.

What led to this amoral compromising of your film-making?

This is Bigelow’s defence:

I support every American’s 1st Amendment right to create works of art and speak their conscience without government interference or harassment. As a lifelong pacifist, I support all protests against the use of torture, and, quite simply, inhumane treatment of any kind.

But I do wonder if some of the sentiments alternately expressed about the film might be more appropriately directed at those who instituted and ordered these U.S. policies, as opposed to a motion picture that brings the story to the screen.

Those of us who work in the arts know that depiction is not endorsement. If it was, no artist would be able to paint inhumane practices, no author could write about them, and no filmmaker could delve into the thorny subjects of our time.

This is an important principle to stand up for, and it bears repeating. For confusing depiction with endorsement is the first step toward chilling any American artist’s ability and right to shine a light on dark deeds, especially when those deeds are cloaked in layers of secrecy and government obfuscation.

And this is Slavoj Žižek’s response to Bigelow’s response:

One doesn’t need to be a moralist, or naive about the urgencies of fighting terrorist attacks, to think that torturing a human being is in itself something so profoundly shattering that to depict it neutrally – ie to neutralise this shattering dimension – is already a kind of endorsement.

Imagine a documentary that depicted the Holocaust in a cool, disinterested way as a big industrial-logistic operation, focusing on the technical problems involved (transport, disposal of the bodies, preventing panic among the prisoners to be gassed). Such a film would either embody a deeply immoral fascination with its topic, or it would count on the obscene neutrality of its style to engender dismay and horror in spectators. Where is Bigelow here?

Without a shadow of a doubt, she is on the side of the normalisation of torture.

I saw the film at the weekend, and I think Wolf is right.

It’s not, as Žižek argues, the supposed neutrality of the depiction; some of the most powerful indictments of evil have come about through stark, cool-eyed, non-judgmental descriptions of the reality of what has taken place – bringing the horror into the moral daylight, even without explicit  moral comment.

Nor is it, as Wolf herself writes, the factual question about whether torture was or was not effective in helping the US to locate Bin Laden.

It’s much simpler, and it’s to do with the nature of film and not with arguments about historical truth. It’s the fact that in the dramatic arc of the film, torture is justified; whatever ethical unease we may have as thinkers and moralists, in cinematic terms, we identify emotionally with the protagonist, the heroine, so that the plot device (in this case torture) becomes – whether we like it or not – emotionally justified.

The plot is very simple: men are captured; men are tortured; some of them give information; Maya, the intrepid CIA agent, won’t give up on her hunt for Bin Laden; some of this information, combined with other information, leads Maya to discover the whereabouts of Bin Laden; Bin Laden is killed. Even if your conscience says that torture is always wrong, even if the horrific portrayal of torture in this film actually makes you firmer in your opposition to torture, at an emotional level you can’t help wanting Maya to find him (this is what we do in films, we root for the protagonist, we long to find the ‘MacGuffin‘), and as a viewer caught up in the chase, you can’t help being grateful that the information was finally found – whatever the means.

As a film, it’s gripping and beautifully produced, but still slightly disappointing. There is very little context or background; we never really understand what makes Maya tick; it’s two-dimensional.

Another moral issue, equally important, gets completely ignored in the film: whether it is right to assassinate someone in these circumstances. Everyone in the film, on Maya’s side, wants to find Bin Laden and kill him; no-one asks whether this is justified, morally or legally. I’m surprised and even worried that reviewers don’t seem to have commented on this (but let me know if you have seen a review that has).

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People are still arguing about the root causes of the riots last summer, but no-one seems to deny that they reflect some kind of profound dysfunction or social malaise. You don’t loot a sports shop or set fire to a furniture warehouse just because you are bored or want a pair of new trainers.

I’ve just finished reading Gavin Knight’s Hood Rat. I found it terrifying and heartbreaking in equal measure. Terror at the realisation that this violent underworld is an ordinary part of so much contemporary urban life. Heartache at the suffering and alienation of the teenagers whose lives are documented here.

It reads like a thriller, and it’s packaged under the label ‘True Crime’, but it’s really a piece of investigative journalism. Knight spent two years ‘embedded’ with the police, talking to social workers, interviewing gang members and disaffected teenagers – slowly building up a picture of life on the margins of British society. The book is written as a non-fiction novel. It speaks about real experiences and real people, in their own voices; although many names have been changed, and one or two characters are cleverly created composites.

Here is the blurb:

In Moss Side, Manchester, detective Anders Svensson is on the trail of drug baron Merlin and his lieutenant Flow, a man so dangerous his type is said to appear only once in a decade. Among the bleak housing estates of Glasgow, where teenage boys engage in deadly territorial knife fights every Saturday night, police analyst Karen McCluskey is on a mission to bring a new understanding to the most violent city in Europe. And in Hackney, 19-year-old Pilgrim has made himself one of the most feared gang-members in East London, wanted for attempted murder and seemingly condemned to a life of crime – until he starts to help kids like Troll, a Somali child-soldier turned enforcer, who runs drugs through the Havelock Estate in Southall . . .

In Hood Rat these narratives interlock to create a fast-moving experience of a contemporary British underworld that ranks with Roberto Saviano’s bestselling Gomorrah. Gavin Knight was embedded with frontline police units and has spent years with his contacts; here he tells their stories with sharp observation and empathy.

Knight has been criticised for his style (present tense narrative; short sentences; jumping between viewpoints), for the lack of social context, and for the fact that this kind of ‘factional’ documentary writing is more fictional than it cares to admit (the composite characters, etc) – see these thoughtful reviews from the Guardian and the Scotsman. None of this ruins it for me: I like the urgency of the style; I think the aim is not first of all social context but seeing the reality of individual lives, and then drawing some wider conclusions from that; and he is honest about the creative element in the writing. It doesn’t take away from the authenticity.

It’s been more than a good read or an eye opener for me; it’s disturbed something deeper inside me. It’s made me see how naive I am about the reality of day-to-day life for many young people and families in my own city, and in other cities around the country. And it’s made me wonder what on earth can heal this kind of social disintegration, and what can help the ordinary families trapped in these cycles of dysfunction and despair. There is very little hope in the book, despite the last chapter about pioneering work from Boston to help deal with gang crime in Glasgow.

Andrew Anthony gives you a taste of what the book is about:

Throughout history, young men have fought senseless territorial battles, but over the past two decades Britain has seen an alarming growth in lethal youth gang violence. Stories of drive-by shootings and teen killings, once thought of as distantly American, now arrive with dispiriting regularity from our own inner cities.

In the majority of cases the perpetrators are male and black (as are their victims) and almost without exception they are products of dysfunctional backgrounds with poor expectations and limited education. Often the most reliable employment for young urban Britons is the illicit drug economy, with all its inflationary brutality and social corrosion.

But once these bald facts have been established, where can the story go? There are arguments to be made about reforming drug laws, improving housing, raising educational standards and fostering a stronger sense of social inclusion. But what can be said of the gang members themselves, their core values and codes of behaviour, that doesn’t simply rehash gangsta rap cliches?

Gavin Knight’s Hood Rat is an unflinching account of life and death in the sink estates of Britain. It penetrates environments that most of us only glimpse in local news reports, and addresses the kind of people that we fear encountering on a dark night or, indeed, a bright afternoon. The question is, does it amount to genuine insight?

The book contains plenty of shocking anecdotes but few if any surprises. Anyone, for example, who followed the recent case of Santra Gayle, the north London 15-year-old who was hired to kill a stranger for £200, will be aware of the phenomenon of teenage hitmen. That’s no reason not to look deeper into the circumstances and motivations that lead adolescents to become assassins, but Knight seems less concerned with depth than focus.

He writes in an elliptical, impressionistic style, jumping around, stealing into the minds of young men and their police pursuers (we’re given access to a drug dealer’s concerns, a hitman’s internal monologue, a cop’s marital crisis). The book strives for a kind of urgent authenticity. The sentences are short and simple and framed in a relentless present tense that makes few compromises to chronology.

Knight is at his strongest in offering a gang member’s eye-view of the world, the sense of danger a street in the wrong postcode represents, the need to present a confident front, and the self-glorifying yet self-nullifying acceptance that career prospects are a choice between prison and death.

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You expect an organisation like Aid to the Church in Need to document the persecution of Christians in the Middle East – which it does assiduously. See their News Section for various updates, e.g. the ethnic cleansing of Christians in the Syrian city of Homs, which has created a forced exodus of over 50,000 people to the surrounding towns and villages; e.g. fears voiced by ACN-UK Director Neville Kyrke-Smith that ‘the Arab Spring is threatening to turn into a disaster for Christians in the Middle East – and Western indifference is making the problem worse’.

So it is reassuring, at least a tiny bit, that there seems to have been a gradual increase in reporting on this tragedy and its implications in the mainstream media.

I cut out an article from January’s Prospect, by Rachel Aspden, writing about post-revolutionary Egypt.

For the last three decades the Copts have had a stable, if not cordial, accommodation with the Mubarak regime. In late January [last year], Pope Shenouda III, the head of the Coptic church, appealed to anti-Mubarak protesters to return home—before quickly expressing his support for the revolution two weeks later, after the president had departed. “We suffered discrimination under Mubarak, but at least we knew he would protect us and the rest of the country from Islamic fundamentalists,” says Samia [a 70 year old Egyptian Coptic Christian]. Now the old certainties have been shattered.

Since the military council, known as Scaf, took power in February, the Copts’ situation has worsened. Attacks on churches and congregations in Cairo and Upper Egypt were followed by the killing of 27 protesters, mostly Christian, by security forces at Maspero, Cairo in October. Like many Copts, Samia now believes the army has a clandestine power-sharing deal with the Muslim Brotherhood—and is willing to sacrifice the rights of minorities to secure it.

In the small flat where she lives alone, Samia worries about the future. On her bedside table, silver-framed photos of her daughter Nisreen sit next to a picture of the pope and an icon of the Virgin Mary. After Samia’s husband died 15 years ago, Nisreen emigrated to the United States. Samia joined her for eight years. “But the homesickness became too much and I had to return,” she says. “Many of my Christian friends here are securing foreign passports now. I have a green card, but I’ve decided I will live and die here.” Although many lack the will or means to emigrate, the Egyptian Federation of Human Rights estimates that 93,000 Copts have left Egypt since March [last year].

And last week there was a long article by Douglas Davis in the Spectator about how more generally Arab Christians are being driven out of their homelands. He gives some of the shocking statistics.

[Look at] the dwindling Arab Christian minorities in the region who believed their arabness would trump their Christianity — the Copts and Chaldeans, the Maronites and Melkites, the Latin Rite Catholics and Protestants, the Armenians, Syriac Orthodox, the Assyrian Church of the East and others. They have paid a high price for hanging on. Christian Arabs constituted 20 per cent of the region’s population a century ago; today, they represent about 5 per cent, and falling.The remnant of the 2,000-year-old Christian population is being decanted from the Arab world.

Take Iraq, whose liberty was won at the cost of thousands of soldiers from the Christian West. When the Americans invaded in 2003, about 1.4 million Christian Arabs called Iraq their home. Since then, some 70 churches have been burned and about 1,000 Christians killed in Baghdad alone. Three quarters of the community have fled, leading the Catholic Archbishop of Baghdad, the Revd Jean Benjamin Sleiman, to lament ‘the extinction of Christianity in Iraq and the Middle East’.

Across the border, a war-within-a-war is raging in Syria. While Homs has been besieged by the army of Bashar al-Assad over the past two months, Islamist fanatics from the ranks of the rebels found time to root out the city’s 50,000 Christians and force them to flee. The Christians of Homs, having abandoned their homes and their belongings, are now sheltering in mountain villages about 30 miles from the city. They are unlikely to return.

The Catholic News Agency reports that Syria’s Christian community has suffered terrorist attacks in other cities, too. Last month, a car bomb exploded in the Christian quarter of Aleppo, close to the Franciscan-run Church of St Bonaventure. ‘The people we are helping are very afraid,’ said Bishop Antoine Audo of Aleppo, who is overseeing a Catholic aid programme. ‘The Christians don’t know what their future will hold.’

If the Christians of Iraq and Syria are being ‘persuaded’ to leave by Islamic extremists who bomb their churches and murder their priests, so, too, are the Copts, who have lived in Egypt since the days of the pharaohs, well before the arrival of Islam in the 7th century.

Last year, some 200,000 Coptic Christians — such Christians once made up about 10 per cent of Egypt’s 80 million population — fled their homes after being subjected to killing, beatings and church-burnings in Alexandria, Luxor and Cairo. On New Year’s Day last year, 21 Copts were slaughtered in their church in Alexandria; a further 27 died in clashes with police in Cairo.

This week, the Coptic Orthodox Church announced that it was withdrawing from talks on a new Egyptian constitution because Islamist domination of the process has made its participation ‘pointless’. The haemorrhage continues. There are no such problems in the Gulf, of course, where Christians, virtually all ‘guest workers’, have no chance of becoming citizens. The Saudis have gone one step further to preserve their ethnic purity: churches and Christian worship, in line with the opinion of Sheikh Abdullah, have been outlawed (the small, isolated community of Syriacs are forced to live as ‘catacomb Christians’ and worship in secret).

Earlier this year, the Saudis demonstrated once again they mean business when they deported 35 Ethiopian Christians, mostly women, for ‘illicit mingling’. Their crime was to attend a prayer service at a private home in Jeddah. Before being deported, Human Rights Watch reported, the women were strip-searched by religious police and the men beaten up to chants of ‘unbeliever’.

When I visited the then-mayor of Bethlehem, Elias Freij, about 30 years ago, he happily boasted that about three quarters of the population of his town, the birthplace of Christianity, was Christian. Today, after a reign of terror which included land theft, intimidation and beatings by recently arrived Islamic extremists, the figure is estimated to be down to 10 per cent. The Christians of Bethlehem, under pressure from the new Muslim majority, are quietly finding new homes wherever émigrés are permitted safer havens.

Bethlehem is a microcosm of a phenomenon that is evident throughout the Palestinian territories. Against a drumbeat of harassment, which has included calls by Muslim extremists to slaughter their Christian neighbours, half of the Palestinian Christians of Gaza have fled their homes since the Hamas putsch in 2007. In the West Bank, Christians, who once accounted for 15 per cent of the population, are now down to less than 2 per cent.

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I love the new statue on the fourth plinth. It is well worth a visit whenever you are passing through central London.

Ostensibly, it’s about innocence, joy, hope, and (as one of the artists says) ‘looking to the future': a young boy, slightly older than I expected (is he about six or seven?), leans back in delight on his golden rocking horse, held in suspension before he lunges forward again.

But there is the rub: ‘looking to the future’. What future? It’s impossible not to compare the rocking horse with the military horses that adorn various other plinths round London, and with George IV’s horse on the third plinth just the other side of Trafalgar Square. And that sets up three implicit meanings to the statue that perpetually jostle with each other and create an incredible hermeneutical tension.

Is it saying: Forget the military heroism, the cult of the strong leader, the violence of war – there is something simpler and purer here, the innocence of childhood, which should lead to a brighter future without the disfigurement of war?

Or is it saying: Look at the heroes around you, the iconic warriors, and all they have done – for good or for ill. Look at them, and see how they were once as innocent as this young boy. See how innocence can be corrupted. See how quickly childhood disappears.

Or is it saying: Look at the heroes around you, the warriors, the liberators, the tyrants, the demagogues, the nameless horsemen who have led others into battle over the centuries. Look at them, and see how they were never innocent, because their aggression and their posturing started in the nursery, when they played at soldiers, and when their mock heroics – like this rocking horse moment – cast a psychological mould and set them on a trajectory that would lead to a thousand battlefields.

In other words, do you see in this boy an innocence that need never be corrupted, or an innocence that will one day be tragically corrupted, or a faux innocence that hides a corruption that has always been there and will one day wreak havoc?

In theological terms: Do you believe that there is no such thing as the Fall (that we live in and will continue to live in a time of Original Blessing), or that since the Fall we are prone to corruption and affected by it in different ways depending on our circumstances and our reactions, or that we are fundamentally corrupted by the Fall and without innocence or hope from the very beginning?

In psychological/sociological terms: Do you think that the harm we suffer or do is avoidable, or the inevitable result of our nurture, or the inevitable result of our nature?

Is it anti-war or pro-war or pre-war or indifferent-to-war or post-war or just a boy on a rocking horse?

Aside from these slightly heavy puzzles and provocations, it is an absolutely beautiful object, a joy to behold! And if you want to forget all the references to war and corruption and the Fall and just enjoy it as a celebration of the innocence of childhood – that’s fine…

Some words from Mark Brown’s article:

The 4.1-metre golden boy was unveiled on the fourth plinth on Thursday to whoops, aahhs and confused looks from foreign tourists in passing coaches. The reaction from Scandinavian artists Elmgreen & Dragset was one of immense relief.

“You’re not allowed to make tests, so it is a bit of a gamble,” said Ingar Dragset. “It’s installed the night before – it’s nerve-racking.”

The boy’s formal name is Powerless Structures, Fig 101, and he sits on top of a plinth designed to host a bronze equestrian statue of William IV by Sir Charles Barry, which was never installed.

More than 170 years later the boy becomes the latest in a series of contemporary art commissions that has included Marc Quinn’s pregnant Alison Lapper and, most recently, Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle by Yinka Shonibare.

The statue was unveiled by Joanna Lumley who said she was thrilled to be revealing what was a “completely unthreatening and adorable creature” to the public.

Lumley said the plinth was great because it gets people talking. “What I love about this plinth, which is extraordinary because it’s empty, is that everybody is waiting to see what comes next … and everybody becomes an instant art critic. Everybody knows what should be there, what’s better than last time, what’s marvellous, what’s wonderful, what’s dreadful.”

Michael Elmgreen said it was deliberate that you have to walk around the square to meet the boy’s eyes and to see his expression – he is looking away from George IV “because he is afraid of him”.

While the other statues in the square celebrate power, this work celebrates growing up. He is a “more sensitive and fragile creature looking to the future”, said Elmgreen. The hope is that it might encourage people to consider less spectacular events in their lives, ones which are often the most important.

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My bedtime reading for the last few weeks, between Teresa of Avila’s Foundations, has been Max Hastings’s All Hell let Loose: The World at War 1939-1945. It’s almost too disturbing to read late at night, which is why I moderate it with some Carmelite spirituality.

No-one would deny how much the Allies suffered in the Second World War, on the front line and at home; but what comes across to me from the global perspective that Hastings offers is the breathtaking scale and unimaginable horror of war on the eastern front, as the Red Army clashed with the Nazis. I was mostly ignorant of this whole reality, and over-influenced by the British/American perspective.

I won’t try to summarise the book. If someone has asked you for a late Christmas present suggestion then get it for yourself. But here are a couple of statistics that made me stop in my tracks about war in the east.

On Sunday, 23 August, the Germans heralded their assault [on Stalingrad] with an air raid by six hundred aircraft: 40,000 civilians are said to have died in the first fourteen hours, almost as many as perished in the entire 1940-41 blitz on Britain [p308].

By the end of 1943, the Soviet Union had suffered 77 per cent of its total casualties in the entire conflict – something approaching twenty million dead [p395]

And to put in perspective the relative Allied losses:

The Soviet Union suffered 65 per cent of all Allied military deaths, China 23 per cent, Yugoslavia 3 per cent, the USA and Britain 2 per cent each, France and Poland 1 per cent each [p324].

Hastings is at pains to explain that you can’t compare one form of suffering with another, and that the knowledge of someone’s tragedy on another side of the globe does not in any way diminish or trivialise your own. But the scale of tragedy on the eastern front almost defies comprehension.

Part of the interest of the book lies in how Hastings manages to weave personal accounts of the war into the overall story, without ruining the flow. So in the midst of a section about grand strategy there are illuminating human passages from a letter sent home from the front line, or a diary found in the rubble of a besieged building.

I don’t know enough about the war to judge his judgments, but it’s a gripping story, and a sobering reminded of the tragedy of war. Despite the stories of heroism and daring, very little romance remains – at least in my own mind.

Here is the blurb from Waterstones, if you need any more persuading:

A magisterial history of the greatest and most terrible event in history, from one of the finest historians of the Second World War. A book which shows the impact of war upon hundreds of millions of people around the world – soldiers, sailors and airmen; housewives, farm workers and children.  Reflecting Max Hastings’s thirty-five years of research on World War II, All Hell Let Loose describes the course of events, but focuses chiefly upon human experience, which varied immensely from campaign to campaign, continent to continent.  The author emphasises the Russian front, where more than 90% of all German soldiers who perished met their fate. He argues that, while Hitler’s army often fought its battles brilliantly well, the Nazis conducted their war effort with ‘stunning incompetence’. He suggests that the Royal Navy and US Navy were their countries’ outstanding fighting services, while the industrial contribution of the United States was much more important to allied victory than that of the US Army. The book ranges across a vast canvas, from the agony of Poland amid the September 1939 Nazi invasion, to the 1943 Bengal famine, in which at least a million people died under British rule – and British neglect. Among many vignettes, there are the RAF’s legendary raid on the Ruhr dams, the horrors of Arctic convoys, desert tank combat, jungle clashes. Some of Hastings’s insights and judgements will surprise students of the conflict, while there are vivid descriptions of the tragedies and triumphs of a host of ordinary people, in uniform and out of it.  ‘The cliche is profoundly true’, he says. ‘The world between 1939 and 1945 saw some human beings plumb the depths of baseness, while others scaled the heights of courage and nobility’. This is ‘everyman’s story’, an attempt to answer the question: ‘What was the Second World War like ?’, and also an overview of the big picture. Max Hastings employs the technique which has made many of his previous books best-sellers, combining top-down analysis and bottom-up testimony to explore the meaning of this vast conflict both for its participants and for posterity.

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