Military books: tales of heroism and horror to entice the non-reading male this Christmas

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The Independent Culture

When publishers want the great unreading male public to pick up a book at Christmas time, they send for the SAS. This year, The Regiment: The real story of the SAS, by Michael Asher (Viking 20) recounts the history of the men in black and dwells on the darker side of the popular heroes. By now, the unit must be the world's least secret organisation. As one veteran complained, after the televised success of the Iranian Embassy siege: "We were turned into a performing circus, demonstrating our techniques to any interested member of the Royal family and their corgis. Our standards dropped appallingly."

The war correspondent Tony Geraghty's Guns For Hire (Portrait 20) contrasts the activities of the old dogs of war with today's Private Military Contractors in Iraq. This excellent book has many good things to say about the latter. As well it might, for they certainly have higher moral standards than UN peacekeepers. No PMCs have been caught running paedophile rings in areas supposedly under their protection. It is no wonder that for many experienced NCOs, the solution to the Government's stinginess is to leave the forces and replace their 2,000 a month pay with 14,000 in the private sector.

Probably the best military memoir of the year is that of a man who never wanted to get involved, but who at 108 years of age now finds himself the country's last surviving veteran of the trenches. "I wasn't at all patriotic," says Harry Patch in The Last Fighting Tommy (with Richard Van Emden, Bloomsbury 16.99), "I went out and did what was asked of me and no more." Perhaps to his credit he did rather less. His machine gun team made a pact not to kill anyone, and when bayonet-charged by an enemy soldier, Patch drew his revolver and shot the man in the leg to spare his life. He was later blown up and survived an operation on his stomach without anaesthetic before participating in a mutiny. He seems to have a superb memory, so there is no reason to doubt him when he says that he and his comrades never criticised Field Marshal Haig.

In The Good Soldier (Atlantic 30), Haig's new biographer, Gary Mead argues that he was not a crude butcher but a dedicated officer "who was born in one era but had to fight his most important battles in another". You can say that again. It is amazing that someone who had trouble using a telephone was eventually persuaded however late in the day of the merits of tank warfare. Haig's work on behalf of ex-servicemen is hardly in keeping with his heartless image, and there was widespread public grieving at his death. It is odd that Mead's view of the man as "neither butcher nor saint" should be an extremist opinion today.

Norman Stone's superbly readable WWI: A short history (Allen Lane 16.99) shows a conflict made inevitable by the imminent collapse of Turkish power and the threat of a German century. The political climate in both countries is conveyed better in this pocket gem than in most far longer works. Much pain could have been avoided if we had known that there was an easy way to bankrupt Germany all we needed to do was hand over the entire British Empire to her stewardship. Knowing the Kaiser, however, the result may have mimicked the Napoleonic imperium which was, as Charles Esdaile says in Napoleon's Wars: An international history 1803-1815 (Allen Lane 30) "bent on nothing more than exploitation". The culprit receives the reverse of the Haig treatment; his megalomania exacerbated the existing tensions in Europe at the time and prolonged wars that should have long been over.

Much of the warfare conducted in Europe by the Allies in the Second World War was attritional, but nowhere more so than in Italy, where the fighting was compared to that of the Great War in ferocity and pointlessness. These qualities come across in The Day of Battle: The war in Sicily and Italy 1943-1944, by Rick Atkinson (Little Brown 25). The author also argues that control of the Mediterranean meant that no Allied merchantman would be sunk there for the rest of the war, while bombers gained airfields closer to Germany's Romanian oil refineries.

The Israeli scholar Avi Shlaim pays respects to the late King Hussein in Lion of Jordan: The life of King Hussein in war and peace, (Allen Lane 30), which shows that the British are not the only race to yearn for heroes among the opposing ranks. The king was good friends with Saddam Hussein, treated the treasury as his personal bank account and spent a fortune on women and trinkets, but let it not be said that he was a hypocrite for he also tolerated widespread abuses among his officials with little complaint. However, when it came to peace with Israel, the king was a kind of "good German" in a kefiyah. It is partly due to King Hussein's lasting influence that in 2005, Jordan was the scene of the world's first Muslim mass protest against terrorism.

The rise of the British Empire is usually a story of profit supplemented with naval might. To the historian Brendan Simms it is one of statesmanship. According to Three Victories and a Defeat: The rise and fall of the first British Empire, 1714-1783 (Allen Lane 30), the neglect of European alliances allowed the loss of the American colonies. The victories of the title the wars of the Spanish Succession, the Austrian Succession and the Seven Years' War came of leading international coalitions against France. The defeat came from allowing France to lead one against Britain. This is an insightful book that will make even jaded readers think differently about an entire century.

Nigel Cawthorne intends to promote forgiveness in Reaping the Whirlwind: the German and Japanese experience of World War II (David & Charles 14.99), a patchwork of first-hand accounts from Axis soldiers of all ranks. Here we have German officers declining to throw Russian peasants out of their homes as this would condemn them to death in the freezing conditions something that the German soldier "does not do". At the other end of the war, when Soviet soldiers were systematically raping German women, one of the Ivans is fended off with a poker and then ordered to apologise by his commanding officer. Another band of Russians finds a stash of petrol hidden inside beer bottles, which they promptly drink. The German owners fear that they will be executed, but instead the Russians return the next day to ask for more. On the Japanese side, one is struck by the naivety of the troops. For example, they complain that they were duped by propaganda into believing that the Americans would murder them if they were taken prisoner. But this assumption was plausible only because they expected the Americans to share their own barbaric standards. If accounts such as these are to encourage forgiveness, they will need to contain more by way of apology.

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