War of words

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Peter Stansky reviews Max Hasting’s Winston’s War: Churchill 1940-1945 at the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review here.  Churchill was a man of war, and of a war fought in good measure by words.  As Stansky explains:

Through his determination and more particularly through his speeches of extraordinary eloquence, Churchill was largely responsible for the British determination not to give in. Through his language he almost created what in many ways was the unwarranted assumption that they would not lose the war. It was Britain’s “finest hour.” Hitler did not achieve air superiority, without which he would not invade. It was highly possible that if Churchill had not spoken and acted, Britain would have caved in. For that achievement, which ultimately would lead to victory, the world owes him an immense debt.

“When the war was ending, he tried desperately to protect the Poles from Russian dominance and even contemplated, in Operation Unthinkable, the possibility of turning against Russia militarily” — well, tried, but no cigar.  As Yoda said, “Do, or do not. There is no ‘try.'”  The Allied leaders had a pretty good idea who did the Katyń murders, yet forked over Hungary, Romania, “Yugoslavia,” and others to the Soviet maw.  For half of Europe, there was no triumph.

Interestingly, Stansky points out that in the 1930s Churchill “was something of an outsider, distrusted, wrongly, because of his harping on the need for rearmament and, rightly, for his vehement opposition to any concession toward self-government for India.” He began to lose favor with the invasion of Russia — in fact, his moment of greatness lasted from May 1940 to June 1941.  Surprising how the whole mixed-bag of a life can come together, needle sharp, in a single point of time.  Enough so to get himself hailed, by Hastings, as “the greatest Englishman and one of the greatest human beings of the twentieth century, indeed of all time.”

Meanwhile, the New York Times Book Review ain’t what it used to be.  Perhaps it never was.  Dwight Garner seems a little over his head with Jack Rakove‘s Revolutionaries here. To wit:  “He [Pulitzer prizewinning Rakove, that is] sounds like an interesting man, the kind who sometimes gets his boots muddy. He has been an expert witness in Indian land claims litigation. What’s ‘new’ about Revolutionaries? Well, you have to squint to grasp the subtleties, which will mean more to scholars than to an educated general reader.”  Nicholas D. Kristof writing on Ayaan Hirsi Ali‘s Nomad, in an article patronizingly entitled “Gadfly,” is out to sea here.  To wit:  “If the rapid transformation of a Somali girl into an outspoken black, female, immigrant member of Parliament seems extraordinary, it was just the beginning. Soon her critique of Islam was leading to death threats, her citizenship was threatened by Dutch officials and she moved to a new refuge in the United States. Even now, she needs bodyguards. That’s partly because she is by nature a provocateur, the type of person who rolls out verbal hand grenades by reflex.”  Perhaps it also had something to do with the murder of her colleague friend Theo van Gogh, who was gunned down on the streets of Amsterdam with an open letter to Hirsh Ali stabbed to his chest, launching her fatwa ordeal — a relevant detail not mentioned by Kristof; without the incident she would probably have been happy to remain an offbeat figure in Dutch politics.  Historian Andrew Roberts writing at The Daily Beast here, called her “one of the bravest women of her time, who displays a quiet, personal, committed courage that Kristof shrugs off…”  Alas, this one is falling again in the chasm of right-wing, left-wing politics, ignoring the human rights issues that should trump them both — Paul Berman weighs in on the topic here.


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