Allan Mallinson

Fighting other people’s battles

And are these volunteers ever effective? They’re certainly a massive headache for today’s security services, says Nir Arielli

What’s the point of a cover if not to judge a book by? One look at the image on the dustjacket of From Byron to Bin Laden, one of my favourite statues in Rome — Anita Garibaldi, pistol in one hand, babe in the other, galloping side-saddle to escape an ambush — and I said ‘yes please’. This was clearly going to be an invigorating read.

But the index proved to have just a single reference to Anita. And the text is not light on PhD-speak: ‘The shared characteristics and commonalities across the generations discussed here clearly illustrate that foreign war volunteering constitutes a distinct diachronic phenomenon.’ I sighed, and thought again of my favourite equestrienne statue (which, incidentally, I could find no reference to, though it might appear in the many pages of notes). What on earth was I in for? So much for judging a book by its cover.

When a few pages in I saw that ‘Readers who are contemplating voluntary, “non-state” military service abroad should either stop reading now or skip forward to [the final] Chapter 8’, I was sorely tempted to close the book and drop a postcard to ‘Colonel’ Mad Mike Hoare of Congo fame (or infamy), who is still alive and well, aged 98, though Nir Arielli excludes him from his study as ‘a blatant example of mercenarism’.

But that would have been a mistake, and not just the postcard. For all its vexations, this is a fascinating book, at times a very literary survey of the history of foreigners in military service, and their motivation. And if Anita Garibaldi is simply cover bait, her husband — Eroe dei due mondi — and their sons and grandsons certainly get full measure, Arielli deftly unpicking fact and legend in their operatic story.

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