Jonathan Sumption

From the latest Spectator: The good war?

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Here is the lead book review from the latest issue of the Spectator: Jonathan Sumption reviews Max Hasting's history of the second world war, All Hell Let Loose.

The second world war is still generally regarded as the ‘good war’. In the moral balance, the cause of the Axis powers was so unspeakably bad that their adversaries have rarely had to justify themselves. But there is, perhaps, more to it than the moral balance. The second war has gained in public esteem by being everything that the first war was not. It was fought for recognisable and, on the whole admirable, objectives. It did not begin, as the first had, among the conspiratorial fumblings of European chanceries. It did not become an object in itself.

Casualties among combatants were relatively light among the western allies, whose historians have tended to set the agenda, whereas everyone’s image of the first war is one of squalid mud trenches and pointless military massacre. The second war was a war of movement, of grand strategy, of decisive battles, where the first was one of slow attrition and painful stalemate. Above all, the second war produced heroes, according to our own measure of these things, whereas the leading figures of the first war now seem dated, heartless, unimaginative and personally rebarbative.

Of Max Hastings’s nine books about the second world war, this is the one with the broadest sweep and most relentlessly pessimistic message. Like so much recent writing on the second world war, it tries to correct the triumphalist and self-righteous clichés by pointing to the black side: the ‘cynicism’ (his word) of going to war for Poland when there was nothing to be done to save her; the myth of a united Britain defying Hitler; the bondage in which Britain is said to have held her colonies in order to extract the maximum of resources for a war which was no concern of theirs; the strategic errors and tactical incompetence of the armed forces, especially that familiar target of Hastings’s earlier invectives — the British army; the occasional incidents, such as the shooting of prisoners, which would have ranked as war crimes if done by the Germans. He hardly has a good word to say about the top allied field commanders apart from for Slim and Patton.

Above all, Hastings sets out to deglamourise the experience of war. His title says it all. As portrayed here, it was ‘all hell’. The common experience of contemporaries, says Hastings, was the emptiness of military glory and strategic ambition, and the universal perception of war’s barbarity. ‘The authentic expression of war,’ as Tolstoy wrote, ‘is not beauty, order and formation, but blood, suffering and death.’

These are fair points, within limits. But the picture which emerges from Hastings’s pen is exaggerated, and does scant justice to the variety of human experience at a very complex crisis in its history. Part of the problem is that he tries to portray the war through the words of countless lowly individuals. The anecdotes and quotations with which he illustrates his themes are often fascinating. They give immediacy to his narrative. The extracts from letters home taken from the bodies of men who died in action are profoundly moving.

But the letters and diaries of those who were at the sharp end of the war often give a distorted view of great events. The outlook of individual soldiers or airmen is inevitably partial and often ill-informed about the wider picture. The author’s selection gives undue weight to those whose experience was particularly intense or articulately described, and therefore quite likely to be untypical. Lord Carrington was certainly not the only man who remembered his war service in the army as a ‘happy time’. My father, who served in submarines, regarded his war years as the finest in his life and all that followed as a disappointment. As a young man, I met many people of his generation who thought the same. Who is to say whose experience was truly characteristic of so vast an event? The realistic answer is none of them. Generalisation is meaningless.

Generalisation is, however, very much Max Hastings’s forte. His judgments, crisp, dogmatic, and sweeping, add greatly to the interest of his book and make it highly readable. But they are often wrong, or at least not as invincibly correct as he makes them sound. Three random, and very different examples may illustrate the point. First, Britain and France did not declare war to defend Poland, but to defend the principle which Hitler’s invasion of Poland violated. They were not cynical about helping Poland, for they had always known that it was indefensible. They hoped that the mere threat of war would persuade Hitler to pull back. It was a reasonable calculation, which might well have worked if he had not dismissed it as a bluff.

Second, it is not true that outside the Indian princely states all educated Indians resented England’s involvement of their country in the war. Many did, but others did not. The issue split the Indian National Congress. Even Nehru (often quoted here) was ambivalent about the official position of his party. Four million Indian volunteers served with loyalty and distinction in the army on the Indian frontier, in Burma, North Africa, Italy and Northern Europe.

Third, Churchill’s failure to sack Harris, head of Bomber Command, does not make him responsible for Harris’s follies. The government would have liked to sack him and came close to doing so in the winter of 1944/5, when he refused to comply with the policy on targeting oil installations. But he was unsackable because he was worshipped by his air crew, whose morale would have suffered a serious blow by his dismissal. Many other examples could have been chosen. In each case, there is an arguable point to be made, which is spoilt by the author’s incomplete analysis, unqualified statements and exaggerated manner.

It would, however, be unfair to end this review on a sour note. Max Hastings writes with verve and elegance. His range is truly impressive. All Hell Let Loose has a remarkable global range. And even prejudice and error have their place. There are now too many books about the second world war for reheated platitudes to find readers. At least Max Hastings makes his readers think.