It’s no wonder I’m not reading as many books when they’re all like this. Let’s get right to it.
Wings – The RAF at War, 1912-2012
I feel like a bit of an idiot. I once saw Dead Aid had a cover quote by Niall Ferguson and kept reading, and not having learnt my lesson, I just finished reading a book with an endorsement from James Delingpole.
Wings, by Patrick Bishop, is bad on a number of levels. It’s structurally flawed, purporting to be a history of the RAF from 1912 to 2012 but essentially just recounting its experiences in the World Wars and then dispensing with sixty years in about as many pages. As history, it is consequently pretty shallow, never really affording anything the time and consideration it deserves. As a consequence of that, it becomes morally really rather flat and stupid.
In particular, I think any work that touches on the role of the RAF during the Second World War can’t avoid addressing the morality of strategic bombing. Bomber Command was such a significant part of what the air war involved that it can’t be ignored. However, I think I would have rather Bishop hadn’t bothered. His assessment of the morality of strategic bombing and of those who criticised it is breathtakingly patronising and weak, and worth quoting in full just to marvel at it.
“proof of the brutalizing consequences” indeed.
This is resolutely not the book to read if you want to be challenged on your feelings on Dresden, etc. – A.C. Grayling and Max Hastings (also Tory) have both published better work on it, with divergent perspectives.
This doesn’t fit into my unfolding critique device here, but it’s also a pretty Tory book. Military history is obviously pretty Tory, and you have to sort of take it as it is, but even within those limits, there has to be some sort of limit to the amount of times you can unironically refer to “the natives” in a serious work of history? And when your prose sounds like it could have been lifted from a Times editorial lionising the RAF on the anniversary of the Battle of Britain or something, take a look in the mirror, tbh.
Even when the prose isn’t politically nauseating, it’s pretty bad. At one point, he refers to a contemporary account as being written in purple prose and you have to sort of put the book down and go for a walk and just consider the cheek of it.
It takes a lot to stop me enjoying stories about bombs and soldiers and that. But this is A Bad Book. Shallow, badly written, morally suspect, and worst of all: Tory.
Cables from Kabul: The Inside Story of the West’s Afghan Campaign – Sherard Cowper-Cowles
Not been a great week for books, tbh. This one isn’t brilliant, either.
Essentially the memoirs of the former UK Ambassador to Afghanistan / Special Representative for Af-Pak, it’s sort of limited in a few ways.
Firstly, it’s not brilliantly written. Either I got used to it or he dialled it down, but the early chapters are burdened with try-hard description, suggesting Cowles was very keen to be Writerly and Literary, and ended up just a bit lame.
As history, I think it’s probably limited by the author’s proximity in time to events (it was written about a year after he left Afghanistan) and also his direct role in them – there’s a frequent sense of him trying to hedge his bets whenever he wants to criticise something or answer for failings of UK policy which is a bit unsatisfying. It’s a very name-droppy book, which is to be expected, as he was in frequent personal contact with Presidents and ministers but there’s no real bite to it. I kind of wanted him to, at least once, go “Yeah the US Ambassador in 2010 was a right bellend”, and he never did – which I guess is what makes him a diplomat.
It is in that last bit that I found the most value in the book, really. While its portrayal of the war and of the discussions etc. etc. might be a bit dishonest/very dishonest/idk, I think there is a fascinating insight into the struggles of this sort of high-stakes diplomacy and the day-to-day life in an embassy that I really enjoyed so now I just kind of need the Foreign Office to give us a ring, really. I’m waiting on the call.