What was won


Edwin Starr’s 1970 Motown hit, War, defined the views of a generation of Americans. Tired of watching their sons and daughters being slaughtered in a seemingly senseless conflict halfway around the world, people adopted the song as a mantra, and the lyrics are still widely known today.

Ian Morris, however, is not Edwin Starr. Something of a celebrity historian and an accomplished author across several genres, he writes powerfully and persuasively about the mechanics and forces that shape humanity and civilisation. Previous books include Why the West Rules – for Now, which was released to significant critical acclaim and has provoked serious examination of how Western powers have dominated the world over the past few centuries.

His latest offering, War, is both provocative and convincing. Morris argues that war — far from being a “…Friend only to the undertaker…” — has in actual fact decreased levels of violent crime, improved living conditions, and made the world a safer and more humane place to live. In meticulous fashion, Morris compiles his argument drawing on evidence spanning thousands of years, including archeological findings, documents and the opinions of other noted historians. The conclusions he draws at times seem controversial, not least being the notion that the USA’s current position as the “Globocop” is not only good for humanity as a whole, but necessary even to prevent more serious international conflict. However, one gets a sense that each idea has been weighed and measured, and there is real gravity to the narrative.

My most serious concerns with the book (as I packed it into my backpack at the beginning of my holiday) were its length and severity of the topic it covers. Is this a tome that a non-history buff should read? Is it worth the many hours and mulling over of ideas that is required simply to get to the end? The answers to those questions are yes and yes. Make no mistake, this is a serious book. And yet, I sped through it despite being on the beach. I found it captivating, thought-provoking and challenging. We are really afforded an opportunity to think deeply about how the fabric of global society has been woven. Morris’s talents not only as a historian, but as an accurate and empathetic writer are obvious.

As Morris argues, conflict is ubiquitous in human culture. As I write this review, several nations around the world are involved in various forms of war. Understanding the origins of war, and how it has played its part in forming contemporary society, is very much a part of the fundamental analysis of human nature. Through War, Ian Morris has delivered a fine a tool to facilitate that understanding.

War is published by Profile Books and is available from Kalahari.com.

Lest we forget, or wonder why


Writing in The Guardian in January 2013, the eminent British journalist Simon Jenkins declared that he needed to “apologise to the Germans. They are about to suffer an avalanche of often sickening Great War memorabilia, often at their own expense”. Then, with the war’s centenary activities already swamping European – and especially British – television viewers and history bestseller readers, Jenkins was already fed up. Not only, he moaned, were there “war horses everywhere”, there were still “four years of it to come”. As he concluded, ‘the essence of the outbreak of the Great War is that it was a sabre-rattling face-off expected to last a month or two… to revel in these squalid miscalculations is gratuitous.”

Returning to this theme in an August 2014 issue of The Guardian, Jenkins again threw up his hands in despair at Britain’s commemoration of the First World War, a literary and visual festival which, in his view, had come to resemble “an indigestible cross between Downton Abbey and a horror movie”. He may well have a point, at least when it comes to endless, vicarious immersion in the gore and the grime of the nightmare world of the trenches.

Still, as even an irritated Jenkins has conceded, the centenary of the global catastrophe of 1914 — 1918 has been marked not only by questionable indulgence. On the upper slopes of a huge centennial literary mountain are new books which tackle what remains one of the war’s more enduring puzzles. They are mostly rather fat, like Margaret Macmillan’s The War That Ended Peace. At a whopping 699 pages, it certainly does go on a bit. And the concern of these volumes is not with the conduct and the experience of the war, nor with its consequences. Instead, what they pick away at is perhaps the most baffling question of all — the causes of that terrible conflagration. Why? Whose fault was it ? How was it that an increasingly educated, prosperous, and advanced Europe could unleash such an unimaginably destructive conflict ? It left millions dead, some of its grandest empires on their knees, countries bankrupted, and parts of the continent either ungovernable or scarcely worth the bother of governing.

Europe’s march towards a world war in 1914 is, of course, a well-ploughed field of historical questioning and debate. For, while there is broad agreement about the consequences of the conflict, its causes have always been a proverbial bone of contention. As we are reminded by Macmillan’s elegant and absorbing account, at the end of the hostilities the victorious Allied states put all the blame on Germany at Versailles. In more recent years, some scholars have blamed France and Britain for an encirclement or a squeezing of Germany. In central Europe a restless and dynamic German nation found itself hemmed in by European rivals who were blocking its ambitions for greater world power. By 1914, Berlin had had enough of being painted into a corner and tried to gain the upper hand, embarking on a war of conquest which aimed at surrounding Germany with Germany.

Today, the consensus over the causes of the war seems to be that there is no real consensus, aside from acceptance of one or other degree of particular German responsibility. Accordingly, even though The War That Ended Peace does not blame Germany alone for what happened, its author suggests that although the ridiculous Kaiser and his scheming generals clearly had more power than anyone else to have prevented disaster in July 1914, they chose to release the dogs of war. In leading us to an understanding of how that fateful choice was made, the twenty chapters of Macmillan’s hefty, sprawling book make up three big themes. Roughly the first third of this volume plots what its author calls “the great diplomatic realignment of Europe”, as the Entente Cordiale of Britain, France and Russia squared up against the Central Powers of Germany, Austria and a puny and unreliable Italy.

The second chunk explores an ambitiously wide political and social environment, one of rampant and increasingly poisonous nationalisms, blind patriotism, and popular beliefs in life as a lethally competitive jungle in which only the fittest would survive. One such belief was that war was not only inevitable but also necessary. For it would purify countries, arrest their slide into moral degeneration, and would renew their national virility. The final third of this gripping story charts the immediate pre-1914 crises of imperialist Europe, like the Franco-German tussle over Morocco and, above all, over the volatile and vicious circumstances of the Balkan countries.

At the heart of a scholarly book bulging with detail, and composed in a reflective and elegant style, are human weaknesses, stupidities, wilfulness and self-delusions. For Professor Macmillan, the signs of these were all around, and they matter greatly when it comes to pointing fingers at those who, despite always having a choice between peace and war, chose war without seeing what it could mean. Thus, Tsar Nicholas II was too weak-willed to stand up to Russia’s generals, who despised him and got their way regardless. The absurd Kaiser Wilhelm was an infantile and “puerile” figure, whose idea of a joke was to smack the bum of the king of Bulgaria in public or to pull the ears and pat the bald heads of other foreign statesmen. General Alfred von Schlieffen, architect of the famous clockwork Schlieffen Plan which was supposed to produce German victory in double-quick time, had both age and injury against him. Already 75 in the decade before the war, he was kicked by a friend’s horse and was laid up for months, dreaming of a retirement that was slow in coming. With men such as these lies a colossal failure of imagination, an inability to sense the disaster to which their actions were leading.

Richly detailed and insightful, The War That Ended Peace is history on an epic scale. Digesting it all may require the stamina for a lot of chewing. Arguably, too, anyone with an interest in the First World War may find themselves marching across some fairly familiar ground. That notwithstanding, the story of what led to this fundamental tragedy of the 20th century has perhaps never been told before in so sensible, so meticulous, and so enthralling a manner.

The War That Ended Peace is published by Profile Books and is available from Kalahari.com.

Life beyond satnav


Geography is becoming fashionable again. Last year, an earnest American writer named Robert D. Kaplan published The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate. Deserving of a prize for the world’s least obscure book title, it is about how the nature of their physical geography has shaped the history of countries and places, and of how the consequences of being flat or mountainous, wet or dry, coastal or land-locked, will determine the fortunes of wherever it is we live now. If you are worried about whether your national fate is to prosper or to perish in the wars to come, check the map to see if you need to stock up on tinned soup.

But, for an educated, spirited and thoughtful account of maps and their stories, who needs a Washington messiah from something called the Center for a New American Security? Turn, rather, to the enthralling English writer, Simon Garfield — altogether more stylish, more witty, more whimsical and nice rather than threatening. He has already written with fluency and authority on a gloriously eclectic range of subjects, from the invention of synthetic coloured dyes to wrestling, to the stylish print world of fonts or type-faces. Now, in On the Map, Garfield excels at explaining the significance of maps in history, from the third century BC to a 2010 Facebook map of the world, manufactured to plot the digital universe created by its hundreds of millions of exhibitionist followers.

There is an inevitable element of randomness in the author’s choice of maps to be explored, those in modern travel guidebooks, for instance, or a bizarre seventeenth-century depiction of California as an island, a misconception which was still appearing on Japanese maps in the nineteenth-century. It had been manufactured in 1602 by a Spanish monk who may have had one bottle of brandy too many on a voyage along the west coast. Yet the arbitrary assortment of maps on display is one of this book’s great attractions, for it enables Garfield to ask questions of them that are of universal relevance. In other words, what applies to The Times Atlas of 1955 applies to Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1881 Treasure Island map. What stories do maps tell viewers, and why? What stories are to be told of who made them, and of why they were made? When and why are they inventions or fabrications? How can a map come to be seen as an agent of making history? Do maps help us to understand history more easily, or are they simply making it all up?

Some part of a very general answer is provided by a small masterpiece of mapping on the front and rear inside cover of On the Map. This is the classic London Transport Tube map, superimposed on an outline of the world with the names of cities. In this ingenious picture of coloured lines, West Brompton on the District Line is replaced by Cairo, and Vauxhall on the Victoria Line becomes Delhi. Clearly, it is a clever way of depicting the grid of London’s underground railway. Equally, in some imaginative and intuitive ways, it is more than that. It reflects a sense of speed and movement, the fast pace at which things move around a dynamic contemporary world. It may also illuminate global integration, how countries and societies have become knitted together. Lastly, London is imprinted on the world, showing not only how it was once the capital of the modern world’s largest empire, but conjuring up its living legacy, the enormous spread and influence of English right around the globe.

In many ways this book is not merely an informative, detailed and consistently entertaining account of maps of every conceivable kind — even of American film stars’ houses in the head of a tour bus guide — but also of the frequently manipulative intentions and disastrous consequences which could ensue when the ambitious and the powerful got excited over cartography. The grimmest example of this was the dubious colonial map of equatorial Africa in the later nineteenth-century. As Garfield shows in Chapter 11, “The Legendary Mountains of Kong”, it had big blank spaces that King Leopold II of Belgium could not resist filling in with his version of a civilising lightness. Behind the illusion of a colourful and orderly map lay the deepening misery of Leopold’s Congo Free State, a place of wild looting of ivory and rubber and of the brutal enslavement of Congolese Africans. Without preaching, the author conveys the raw truth in writing which is rich in historical irony and is unsparing of human cruelty and stupidity.

Superbly-researched, copiously illustrated and written with panache, On the Map is an utterly engrossing read. We are, as Simon Garfield puts it, searching souls and satnav can only take us so far. For when we have a map in view, of any kind, from any time, it is still only then that we find ourselves touched by nothing other than history and an awareness of ourselves in it.

On the Map: Why the World Looks the Way it Does is published by Profile Books, R349, and is one of AERODROME’s WinterReads.

BILL NASSON is Professor of History at the University of Stellenbosch and most recently the author of the Jacana Pocket History, South Africa at War: 1939-1945.

GIVEAWAY: Win a copy of On the Map by Simon Garfield. To enter, email competition(at)aerodrome.co.za, with the book’s title in the subject line. In the body of the email please include your full name, contact number and physical address (including area code). Only readers resident in South Africa are eligible. Entries close at the end of July.

EXTRACT: On the Map by Simon Garfield

Simon Garfield

And the other is a map of equatorial Africa, the region once known as Congo Free State, which shows Stanley basically doing the same thing. Stanley’s magnificent achievements as an explorer – not only the successful location of Livingstone, but the confirmation of Lake Victoria as the source of the White Nile – have been undermined by his participation in what may be the worst humanitarian disaster ever conceived by colonial hubris and greed.

Encouraged by Stanley’s heroics along the River Congo between 1874 and 1877, Leopold II, King of the Belgians, coopted him to take part in a rather less ‘scientific’ venture. Leopold had seen the blank maps and wanted a piece for himself. In a period that saw Britain, France, Italy, Germany and Portugal carve up the continent in a wild imperial looting expedition, the conquest of land through a mixture of industrial ambition and religious divination might have seemed merely like the natural order of things. Leopold made his intentions clear at a geographical conference in Brussels in 1876, proposing the establishment of an international committee with the purpose of increasing the ‘civilisation’ of Congo natives ‘by means of scientific exploration, legal trade and war against the “Arabic” slave traders.’

He claimed a higher goal: ‘To open to civilisation the only part of our globe which it has not yet penetrated, to pierce the darkness which hangs over entire peoples, is, I dare say, a crusade worthy of this century of progress.’ But his ideas of progress and scientific methods were cruelly unconventional, involving as they did brutal enslavement, a military dictatorship and the ruthless control over the ivory and rubber trade, an ambition only made possible initially with Stanley as his entirely respectable agent, buying up vast areas for Belgian control with sweet-talk and trinkets. To what extent Stanley knew of Leopold’s intended subterfuge has long been the subject of debate, but the king reportedly informed him, ‘It is a question of creating a new state, as big as possible, and of running it. It is clearly understood that in this project there is no question of granting the slightest political power to the Negroes. That would be absurd.’

Leopold (and Stanley’s) conquest of the Congo was one of the prime motivations behind Otto von Bismarck’s Berlin Conference of 1884-5, an attempt to divide the rightful ownership of this recently blank continent. (In Heart of Darkness, Bismarck’s Berlin Conference becomes a parody: the ‘International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs’.) The subsequent map looks colourful and ordered enough, and suddenly full again. But the new appearance of King Leopold’s massive Congo Free State heralds one of the truly dark periods of colonial rule. And the bright new partitions on the rest of the map at the start of the twentieth century – French Algeria, Portuguese Angola, Italian Libya, German Cameroon and British South Africa – show only the ability of maps to conceal what’s really there, and to mask the misery to come.

A quarter of a century after Conrad’s Heart of Darkness first appeared, and in the year of the author’s death, a private press published the author’s own thoughts about the lightness and darkness of maps. Like Charlie Marlow, Conrad was a map fan. He had to be: he had led such a peripatetic life on land and sea that they were the only way he could find his bearings. In Geography and Some Explorers he wrote of how ‘map-gazing, to which I became addicted so early, brings the problems of the great spaces of the earth into stimulating and direct contact with a sane curiosity and gives an honest precision to one’s imaginative faculty.’ He was aware he was living through a revolution in which ‘the honest maps of the nineteenth century nourished in me a passionate interest in the truth of geographical facts and a desire for the precise knowledge which was extended to other subjects. For a change had come over the spirit of cartographers. From the middle of the eighteenth century on, the business of map-making had been growing into an honest occupation, registering the hard-won knowledge, but also in a scientific spirit, recording the geographical ignorance of its time. And it was Africa, the continent of which the Romans used to say “some new thing was always coming,” that got cleared of the dull, imaginary wonders of the dark ages, which were replaced by exciting spaces of white paper.’

What really excited him about maps, he realised, was a simple thing: ‘Regions unknown!’ Not defined certainty, but the opposite – the mystery, and the life-enhancing possibility of discovery.

Extracted from On the Map by Simon Garfield, published by Profile Books, R349. The book has been selected as one of AERODROME’s WinterReads.

GIVEAWAY: Win a copy of On the Map by Simon Garfield. To enter, email competition(at)aerodrome.co.za, with the book’s title in the subject line. In the body of the email please include your full name, contact number and physical address (including area code). Only readers resident in South Africa are eligible. Entries close at the end of July.