Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Masters & Commanders is a very good book, but...

Masters and Commanders is an excellent, extremely detailed account of the occasionally humorous, often acrimonious, always fascinating interactions between the four principals most responsible to for guiding WWII: Generals Alan Brook (CIGS) and George Marshall (US Army Chief of Staff), and British PM Winston Churchill and US Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Historian Andrew Roberts does a masterful job of telling a very complex tale, relying heavily on the personal diaries on the men directly involved with the determining the Allied strategy for WWII, not just for Europe but ultimately across the entire conflict. Anyone with an interest in how a small group of extraordinary men arrived at the most momentous decisions yet take by the human race, literally concerning the life and death for 10 of millions and with consequences affecting every person live, then and now, will want to read this book.

Roberts is British and while his sympathies are obvious, his writing is fair and he is unsparingly in pointing out the flaws in his principals and their arguments and positions, whether they are British or American. His praise for their good -- often great -- points is likewise fair, genuine and unforced.

So why the "but"?

I think for all its merits, Roberts introduced a structural flaw into his book by virtue of the sources he relies on; the very thing that makes his book unique. Unavoidably, his main protagonist is Gen. Sir Alan Brook -- unavoidable because this is the man with whom Roberts' sympathies most clearly lie and because Brook left a detailed, day-by-day diary of the events narrated. Brook's diary is the thread that holds the narrative together.

Other diarists are also prominently used, but in the main they were members of Brook's staff and reinforce his opinions. (Churchill's doctor is one of the few British voices presented who was not a protégé of Brook's.)

The problem is that Brook's diary casts him in a very unflattering light. He comes across as arrogant, obstructionist, hidebound, narrow-mined, petulant, trapped in the past, and at times even defeatist. He is adamant in his drumbeat that he -- and only he -- has the vaguest notion of what strategy is, both in the abstract and with respect to the war; only his ideas have any value and everyone else is ignorant, foolish, hopelessly incompetent as strategists whatever other virtues they may have, and sometimes even dangerous and mad.

Brook writes this way about everyone from Churchill to Marshall to Roosevelt to the members of the US Joint Chiefs and even to other British officers (though not his personal staff officers). He despairs of the state of the British officer corps, impugns the British fighting man, and is dismissive of Americans.

In fact the only two people who do not raise his ire to near fever pitch are Gen. Douglass Macarthur, the most arrogant and divisive of US generals and -- incredibly -- Stalin; this last despite the fact that Brook was a staunch anti-Bolshevik. This does not inspire confidence in his judgment.

The problem here is that Alan Brook was indeed a very great man and excellent general with a impressive strategic grasp (although I cannot say that this book convinced me he was the brilliant strategist he is usually made out to be.) He was fair-minded, gracious, firm, determined, humane, had an extraordinary grasp of detail, was an excellent administrator and an inspiring leader. His actions on the battlefield just before and during the Dunkirk evacuation were exemplary. The high degree of admiration he inspired in everyone he worked with, British and American and Russian, was almost universal, even among those -- or especially among those -- with whom he had the most bitter disagreements (which seemed to be almost everyone at some point or another) and yet remained on good terms with. The can be no doubt that Brook's contribution to winning WWII was enormous.

Roberts makes all of this clear and shows Brook's very pleasant human side as well, so what is the problem?

The problem is that Brook's diary was his safety valve -- the necessary outlet of an humane man with strong emotions who have been through WWI, the death of his adored young wife in an auto accident that happened while he was driving, and who then, because of his superior abilities, was given the job managing the largest conflict in history. So yes, in his off-hours he got a little cranky.

But this has unfortunate ramifications for the portrayal of Brook. No matter how hard Roberts tries to add balance to the free-flowing invective of Brook's diary, it is quoted at such length in this long book that in the end balance just can't be satisfactorily achieved. We are left wondering which is the real Brook -- the firm and seemingly brilliant leader who is the lynchpin of victory or the small-minded dyspeptic crank who disparages anyone and everyone in his diary? In the end, it seems impossible to say.

The matter is not helped by quoting so extensively from the diaries of those closest to Brook, who often echo not only his conclusions but his emotional views as well. This reinforces the negative view of Brook and seems to suggest that he surrounded himself with people as bitter and flawed as he appears in his entries. Yet, these men too were officers of extraordinary competence and ability and the cattiness, blatantly biased judgments, and intemperate opinions of their private diaries seems never to have manifested itself in pubic or unduly effected their work.

Of course this is probably an unavoidable problem when trying delve into the minds of great men operating under pressures exceeding that anyone else has ever experienced. It is literally mind-boggling. Brook and his officers are not just extremely smart and dedicated, they are complex human beings. We cannot know how much of what they privately wrote was just hyperbole and to what extent it reflected their actually beliefs. Of course, to adequately convey this complexity in a book is a daunting prospect, and Roberts deserves just praise for doing as well as he does.

But there is a larger problem here: Brook is juxtaposed most directly with the two other leaders with whom he worked most closely: Churchill and Marshall.

Churchill is character of Jovian stature -- a vastly large-than-life genius who seemed to eclipse almost everyone and everything around him. Churchill's talents are the stuff of legend, seemingly uncontainable and uncontrollable. Brook found himself chained as it were to this colossus, constantly battling Churchill's wilder flights, boundless ideas, expansive vision for the war (Churchill was himself -- and knew himself be -- no mean strategist) and bombastic temper. Brook considered the hardest part of his extraordinarily hard job to be "keeping Winston on the rails," (something he did very well).

If Churchill comes across as incredibly charming, engaging, infuriating; a titanic intellect with an ego to match, equally capable of the most dismissive cruelty and the most beguiling grace and boundless affection, Gen. George Marshall is something of a different order altogether: the only General Churchill was ever afraid of.

Marshall seems to be the undoubted hero of the piece: the omni-competent, eternally gracious, unshakeable and unflappable leader, seeing farther and deeper and more incisively than anyone else into the prodigious morass that was the problem of WWII. It was Marshall, not just more than anyone else but almost uniquely, who was thinking and planning for the aftermath of WWII while he still fighting it. After the Allied victory, it was Marshall who, as Secretary of State, put his plans into effect and literally remade a shattered world.

Against Brook's private rages is set Marshall's phenomenal strength and calm: perfectly modest, completely selfless, unfailingly gracious, guiding but never bullying, rarely raising his voice and never losing his temper; seemingly unaffected by stress or the incredible rigors of his job, moving through the cataclysmic events of WWII with a natural ease and overriding command that are seemingly Not Of This Earth.

So what's wrong with this picture? Only this: Churchill wrote volumes, all of the highest literary quality, unmatched as a wartime memoir by anything except perhaps Caesar's Commentaries, and (like Caesar's Commentaries) essentially political documents that tell us nothing the author does not wish us to know (and fudging a few things along the way, as Caesar did.)

On the other hand, Marshall wrote nothing at all (he was offered $1 million for his memoirs but turned it down). We have no window into his soul as we do with Brook; we do not know how he dealt with the enormous pressures he was under, by what private means he maintained his Olympian calm and perfect focus.

( As an aside, it also does not help us see Marshall the man that he is so often and unavoidably juxtaposed with Adm. King, CNO USN, who was nominally his equal on the Joint Chiefs, and who was described by his daughter as the "most even tempered man in the Navy -- he is always in a rage". Moreover, set against Marshall's manifest virtues are King's well-known vices: intolerance, liquor, and seducing other men's wives. But King was also brilliant strategist and a fighting admiral with few equals in WWII or any other war. )

Had Marshall kept a dairy, we might see him revealed as being as human and fallible as we see Brook. If Brook had not, we might see him as a man of the same stature as Marshall (as in fact many did at the time). So the narrative is inherently unbalanced. No matter how the author plays up Brook's virtues, which were many, and points out Marshall's shortcomings and mistakes (which are debatable) it never quite convinces and is all too easily forgotten in the dense wealth of details.

Thus, Roberts's sources and his desire to extract and assess the maximum amount of data from them, which he does masterfully, drive his narrative and in the end -- and I think quite inadvertently -- make his protagonist look small; a mere mortal trying desperately to deal with titans.

Perhaps there is something of an old heroic romance in that, but I do not think it was what Roberts intended. Even if he did, these men were peers and while as a group they were peerless, I would have preferred to see them considered more on the same plane.

I also have minor technical quibbles with a couple of the author's assertions, but all the same, Masters & Commanders is a very good book.

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