Masters and Commanders

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 November, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 November, 2008, 12:00am

by Andrew Roberts Allen Lane, HK$375

Andrew Roberts' latest work attempts to cover the complex relationship between wartime leaders Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill and their military chiefs George Marshall and Alan Brooke. Roberts admittedly covers some old ground but with the bait of new source material: extensive meeting transcripts and excerpts of illegal diaries kept by a few of the main characters and their inner circles.

In anecdotal style, Masters and Commanders: How Roosevelt, Churchill, Marshall and Alanbrooke Won the War in the West follows the leaders from US neutrality until Roosevelt's death, detailing their intrigue - something the US constantly suspected of the British, often correctly - their violent disagreements and their lives outside their consuming task.

Roberts is clearly enamoured of his subject and has pored over many documents in the creation of the book. While the style precludes extensive use of figures, they are at times used well and inspire the intended awe. Roberts also tries to supply colourful asides, and generally chooses well and with a gift for the absurd. He is also a keen admirer of the fighting men on all sides and is usually on firm ground with operational history.

Including the 'Masters' makes political analysis equally important. Roberts admires Churchill but finds scope for criticism - accusing Commonwealth soldiers of 'coming for rations but not to fight' is 'libel', while Churchill's - and others' - wartime reminiscences can be 'fast and loose with the facts'.

Roberts also discusses domestic political considerations and finds such gems as Churchill on Mahatma Gandhi's hunger strike: 'We should be rid of a bad man and an enemy of the Empire if he died.'

Perceptive readers will also note the American Marshall informing us that 'a democracy cannot fight a Seven Years' War', while there were 'just enough troops in Iraq for internal security'.

Generally though, Roberts fails to grasp geostrategy. He misses some key geopolitical inevitabilities and their resulting - and current - strategic dynamics: see his grandiloquent statements on the empire's stretched-thin peril, rather than recognition of either the great powers' role in sparking the European conflicts of the 20th century or the logical conclusions on the capacities of states and on international relations that should be drawn from this.

Those with an eye for Eurasia will also note the assiduous nature with which Roberts criticises the USSR's actions and perceived duplicity, particularly before and after the war. On referring to Stalin's reputed dislike for Churchill over the latter's attempt to 'strangle Bolshevism in its grave', for example, he does not clarify by mentioning the brutal Allied intervention in the Russian civil war.

His ideological criticism reaches its zenith when Greek communists are considered a nuisance 'insurgency' even though they fought the German occupiers; in China, coverage of the resistance is limited to the sympathetic Chiang Kai-shek. Disappointingly, new material does not prevent the author recycling the well-worn myths of 'the Good War'.

Roberts might not mean to shatter every myth; selective criticism, however, becomes a rod for his back, worsened by the omission of key events that are felt to this day. For those looking for a detailed and sometimes heroic portrayal of the powerful titular actors, the new information and the treatment may well prove satisfying, while the coverage of western strategy through the conflict is comprehensive.

Those interested in a genuinely fresh perspective on this most devastating war, however, should look elsewhere.