Book Reviews: The Last Lion; The New Digital Age
Like many baby boomers I can’t help being fascinated by WW2. The war was a constant subject of TV and movies in my childhood, from Combat to Rat Patrol to Where Eagles Dare to Hogan’s Heroes. As I got older and my taste for actual history grew, I started reading accounts and perspectives of the war. Among the things I read – we are talking 20 years ago or more – was Winston Churchill’s The Second World War, a memoire in 6 volumes.
This lengthy work filled me with questions: Who was this man I’d formerly known only as a pudgy cigar-smoker, who shuttled across 4 continents in the midst of the most furious conflict in human history, meeting world leaders and crafting the conduct of the war, all the while downing copious volumes of brandy and painting the occasional water-color? Who was this man who, in addition to his famous remark, “Yes madam, but in the morning I’ll be sober,” also observed, “When you have to kill a man it costs nothing to be polite.”? Who was this great politician who was also a great author, so much so he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1953?
Motivated by these questions, in the 1980s I read the first two volumes of The Last Lion, William Manchester’s biography of Churchill. Entitled Visions of Glory and Alone, they were published in 1982 and 1988 respectively. It would be 24 years until volume 3, Defender of the Realm, would be published, 10 years after Manchester’s death and co-authored by journalist Paul Reid.
Though it has been decades since I read the first two volumes, it seems to me the tone and pacing of Defender of the Realm is markedly different. Whether this is due to the change in authorship or the subject matter is hard to say, but DOTR reads much more like a weekly newsreel of the war than an examination of Churchill the man.
Perhaps that is how it should be. One of the key messages of DOTR is that Churchill, molded by more than forty years of political and military experience, and having had a perfect vantage for the great events of the first half of the 20th century, was the very man Britain needed in her hour of need. Aristocratic but not royal, old and not young, Churchill was nonetheless the nation’s Henry V when he famously said:
… we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.
When we look back at history, events oft times seem pre-determined; we can’t resist the assumption things could not have turned out any other way. But something that comes though, in many places, in DOTR is that things could have turned out much, much different. In movies, of course the Germans always lose. Well, they weren’t losing in 1940. The German army of that time was savage, innovative, and gigantic. Taking no losses of note, the Germans had neutralized and then defeated a combined French, English and Belgian force that numbered in the millions, driving the English to evacuate at Dunkirk. In June 1940 by no means was any victory over Germany pre-determined. Most English expected Germany to invade, and to overwhelm and pacify England just as they had France. In preparation for this, Churchill carried cyanide, intending never to be taken alive by Hitler.
But, they didn’t invade. The reasons were many and even today uncertain: Logistics, Germany was spent after the Battle of France and needed time to consolidate; Oceans, in that invasion required a Channel crossing, but Britain still had the most powerful navy of any European power; Uncertainty, in that if the Germans did manage to land, they rightly believed the English, as an island race, would defend their country to the last man, woman and child; and Politics, as Hitler fully expected England, in the face of obvious defeat, would sue for peace. Manchester/Reid write:
The Fuhrer has assumed that invasion would be unnecessary. After the fall of France he considered the war over. In the East his pact with Stalin assured continuing peace as long as neither side abrogated it, which Hitler intended to do once the English came to terms. When Hitler ordered the demobilizing of forty divisions, he told Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, commander in chief of the Luftwaffe, that all war plans could be scrapped; we would reach an “understanding” (Übereinkommen) with the British.
Hitler clearly had no understanding of Churchill and, by extension, of the English. Churchill’s refusal to accept the European common wisdom of accomodation, as manifested by the French with the Vichy Regime, was his great accomplishment. If not for this principled and obdurate stance on Churchill’s part, things would have turned out much, much different, and what seems pre-destined now might never have happened. If you still can’t evade the feeling the outcome of the war was predetermined, try to envision an American president of the last 40 years carrying cyanide and preparing to use it in the case of total defeat. I don’t think so.
Another aspect of Churchill that comes through in DOTR is the combination of his wildly active mind and his leadership style. To his subordinates Churchill seemed constantly out of control. Alan Brooke (later Lord Alanbrooke) observed “It is a regular disease he [Churchill] suffers from, this frightful impatience to get an attack launched” and that Churchill “… never had the slightest doubt that he had inherited all the military genius of his great ancestor Marlborough!”
But their was method to Churchill’s madness. He understood he was waging a global conflict that would set the course of history for a hundred years. To focus on any single thing, a single strategy or a single front, would have led to disaster. Instead he pursued a strategy of many fronts and many activities and was always ready to bolster those that succeeded and stop those that stalled.
To concentrate on a single thing was very much what Stalin wanted the Allies to do, in his constant demands to open a Western front. Stalin understood that Germany, arrayed against the combined industrial might of the entire world, could not prevail. His desire was that the Allies spend their strength in head-on encounters with Hitler’s most powerful forces. This would allow Stalin more time and space to expand his own empire, and to insure the forces of the Allies would be depleted when he eventually turned against them. Churchill’s strategy of first confronting Italy and Germany in North Africa, and then in Italy itself – something by no means initially supported by Roosevelt and his advisors – was intended to keep the Nazis off balance, but also to create a presence in the East, so that the Allies could take positions in Eastern Europe when the time was right.
Alas, it was not to be. American Generals like John Lucas and Mark Clark were too cautious in the Italian campaign, completely wasting the surprise at Anzio and generally focusing on annihilating Germans face to face rather than neutralizing their ability to fight. Churchill had a vision of taking Rome by April 1944, and from there striking quickly into the Balkans and thence to Austria. Instead the Italian campaign stabilized and the Allies devoted all attention to Overlord in Normandy. When in May 1945 the Americans, British and Russians finally joined forces in a conquered Berlin, the Red Army had already taken Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and much more of Eastern Europe – essentially the territory marked by the Iron Curtain Churchill would later describe in his famous speech of 1946:
From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an iron curtain has descended across the Continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia, all these famous cities and the populations around them lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere, and all are subject in one form or another, not only to Soviet influence but to a very high and, in some cases, increasing measure of control from Moscow. Athens alone — Greece with its immortal glories — is free to decide its future at an election under British, American and French observation. The Russian-dominated Polish Government has been encouraged to make enormous and wrongful inroads upon Germany, and mass expulsions of millions of Germans on a scale grievous and undreamed-of are now taking place. The Communist parties, which were very small in all these Eastern States of Europe, have been raised to pre-eminence and power far beyond their numbers and are seeking everywhere to obtain totalitarian control. Police governments are prevailing in nearly every case, and so far, except in Czechoslovakia, there is no true democracy.
As writing, I found Defender of the Realm to have a good pace, constantly weaving in Churchill’s views and activities with the unfolding events of the war. The later chapters on Churchill’s post-war life and accomplishments are slower moving, but the links that were made to the younger Churchill – the writing, the socializing, the continued brandy and cigars – all serve to show how Churchill’s authentic self was always there. The war did not make him – he made the war.
I’ll leave off this part of this long post (sorry for that) with my favorite image from DOTR:
Smoking a long cigar and stroking his cat, Nelson, he [Churchill] prowled the corridors of No. 10 wearing a soldier’s steel helmet (called by all a “tin hat”), a crimson dressing gown adorned by a golden dragon, and monogrammed slippers complete with pom-poms. Sometimes he carried on anthropomorphic conversations with Nelson (including an admonition to be more stouthearted after the cat flinched in an air raid).
Churchill was one of the architects of the modern world, a world where we in the West enjoy the benefits of tolerance, democracy, and capitalism. What have we done with the world Churchill bequeathed us? One answer to that, at least, comes in The New Digital Age, by Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt and Google “Director of Ideas” Jared Cohen, a quasi-futuristic view of how information technology will transform daily life around the world in the coming decades.
I have to say that now having read TNDA, I get what he meant. Schmidt and Cohen lay out a world where smartphones and pervasive internet, well, just make everything all right. An example:
The future will usher in an unprecedented era of choices and options. While some citizens will attempt to manage their identity by engaging in the minimum amount of virtual participation, others will find the opportunities to participate worth the risk of exposure they incur. Citizen participation will reach an all-time high as anyone with a mobile handset and access to the Internet will be able to play a part in promoting accountability and transparency. A shopkeeper in Addis Ababa and a precocious teenage in San Salvador will be able to disseminate information about bribes and corruption.
Or, how about this:
People who try to perpetuate myths about religion, culture, ethnicity or anything else will struggle to keep their narratives afloat amid a sea of newly informed listeners.
The main point of this book seems to be dishing out relentless naiveté to the effect that, whatever social ill is on your mind, the internet will magically fix it. To be truthful, the book is not 100% internet rah-rah. Here and there Schmidt/Cohen chill the fragrant sponge of fermenting digital dough with a few colder observations:
As part of their virtual containment strategies, states will undertake a series of transparency gestures, releasing crumbs but withholding the bulk of information they possess. These states will be congratulated for exposing their own institutions and even their own past crimes … Manufacturing transparent-looking documents and records will not be difficult for these regimes – in the absence of contradictory information (such as leaked original documents) there’s little hope of proving them false.
Jared Cohen seems a serious guy – before his Director of Google Ideas gig he was a Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and staffer to both Condoleeza Rice and Hillary Clinton. But I have to say, despite the subject matter he and Schmidt undertake – Identity, Government, Revolution and Terrorism – this is not a serious book. Despite the various cautionary notes like that above, everything in TNDA is too pat, too suffused with the notion that technology always works out for the best.
One obvious example that shows how information access is not an unambiguous benefit is climate change. What Schmidt and Cohen would have us believe is, if you are concerned, just Google it and you’ll find the answer. However every reasonable person on the planet knows the “internet” has no such “answer”. What you do find is different sides of the debate using the tactics of the digital world to promote their information and to suppress or discredit contrary information. Does anyone think a regular follower of foxnews.com will suddenly be enlightened by something they read on npr.org? Without getting into my own views on climate change, if you tried to distill down what you get from the internet on this topic into a real answer, it would take years and you would end up being close to a climate scientist yourself. So, yes, it’s faster than checking out dead-tree books from the library. But it is not fundamentally better.
Really what this book is, is a commercial for Google. Internet, phones, and information – with tasteful, well-selected ads, of course – is what they sell. And, like a weapons-supplier, they sell their stuff to anyone who can pay. Google wants us to feel everything is fine, and for us to keep giving our information to them, to Facebook, to retailers, and to the government.
I don’t think everything is fine. I love tech, I make my living from tech, but no tech is an unalloyed benefit. I do think individuals need to take action, but not by “participating” as Schmidt and Cohen would have it, but by taking control of what they can.
An FB friend recently shared a link on this very topic, the Surveillance Self-Defense Project, or SSD. SSD is an Electronic Frontier Foundation project that informs the public on how better to contain personal information. A vast amount of data about each one of us is in the form of “business records” – information that is publically or government-accessible because we have disclosed it, either explicitly or in the context of a transaction. SSD has some good guidance on how to manage all that so you at least know what you are disclosing. It will be efforts like SSD that really enable the benefits that TNDA talks about, not just the raw existence of technology itself.
To wrap up, the best I can say about TNDA is that much of what they foresee is indeed possible and to be hoped for – but hopin’ don’t make it so.
Perhaps you wonder why I chose to review these 2 books together? Churchill was motivated by understanding of foundational truths, about Democracy, Totalitarianism, Tolerance, Opportunity and above all, about Power. He was an ardent believer in technology – he was the father of the tank, after all – but not bound by it.
What would Churchill say to our challenges today, of government transparency, of economic inequality, of worldwide poverty and repression? Would he erect a few cell-towers and make an app for that?
I think he would say: Never surrender.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to get my tin-hat and bathrobe. And who knows? when the monsoons abate I may get a few cigars.