I have an immense respect for the works of Alistair Horne. I've read A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962 (New York Review Books Classics) twice, as well as his trilogy on the Franco-German conflicts The Fall of Paris: The Siege and the Commune 1870-71, "The Price of Glory, Verdun, 1916" and To Lose a Battle: France 1940, and three others. I am in good, if widely disparate company: George W. Bush, the journalist Robert Fisk, Ariel Sharon, Nelson Mandela, and numerous others have referenced and admired his work. This book, however, is a dramatic outlier from his life's core achievements.
As Horne indicates in his preface, the title is derived from a competition among the sub-editors of "The Times" (of London) to find the most boring headline, with the winner, "by a comfortable margin" being: "Small Earthquake in Chile; Not Many Dead." He used the headline to underscore the general indifference, and lack of interest in the Anglo-Saxon world (even that term is a bit dated) to events in Latin America. This often translated into having one correspondent for the entire continent. Yet, Horne appears unaware of the irony of his trip to South America. Much like that lone correspondent, he stops off for unspecified briefs period in Columbia, Peru, and Bolivia, and then writes a chapter each on his insights, before he arrives in Chile, when Salvador Allende was in power. Even the sub-title seems to convey that one correspondent undifferentiated point of view to the continent: "Classic Account of Allende's South America." Really? Allende ran the whole continent?
And then there is the matter of Horne's "fellow travellers," one quite literally. There is a Montgomery of Alamein, actually the son of the much more famous general who won the battle, who writes in the foreword, for the 1990 re-release, that: "Although not reflected in the international press, Pinochet has enjoyed quite extraordinary popularity until quite recently across a wide spectrum of Chilean society. There is clearly an underlying feeling of gratitude to him for saving the nation from the chaos left by the Allende government." And his literal travel companion is none other than William Buckley, the prominent conservative pundit who founded "The National Review." Turns out Buckley and Horne were roommates at the Millbrook School, in New York, in 1942. Presciently, Buckley comments that Horne is likelier to write his obituary, than the other way around (Buckley died in 2008, in part due to the reason's Buckley foresaw: "I smoke cigars." Horne is still with us.)
No question that Horne possess an erudition which is a pleasure to behold, and will almost certainly nudge back the limits of your own. And certainly a degree of humility. Consider: "Lord Bryce, one of the more perceptive tourists to South America at the beginning of the century, commented that of the visitors of his day `few of those who have read have travelled and few of those who have travelled have read.' I have read voraciously, both before and afterwards; yet, at the end of it all, I am horribly aware of having neither seen enough nor read enough to understand completely the complexities of even one South American country, let alone four." Horne met "Comandante Pepe" in Chile, and compared him to Strelnikov in Doctor Zhivago Anniversary Edition (Blu-ray Book Packaging) (p. 177). And Horne reveals the "feet of clay" of a personal hero of mine, Costa-Gavras, (of Z fame) who supported the banning of his own film, L'Aveu (The Confession) in Chile, under Allende, because it was a "delicate" period. Telling, also, he titles a chapter with the words of Latin America's first revolutionary, Simon Bolivar: "He who serves a revolution ploughs the sea..."
Ah, but that "perspective" that he and his "fellow traveller" share. Horne denounces the "knee jerk" reflex of all of Latin America when, for example, the United States invades the Dominican Republic, but never addresses the WHY of American actions in the first place. Similarly, in writing history starting on the second page, he documents the "chaos" of the Allende economic "reforms," but never looks at that first page: why were such measures necessary in the first place. And then he does note that some of the subsequent "economic reforms" carried out by the "Chicago Boys" (apostles of Milton Friedman) did not work out too well (British understatement, that!) but never comes close to the searing indictment of Naomi Klein's, in The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism
Horne had access, and in one of the two chapters added to the 1990 edition, he relates his meeting with General Pinochet. Horne says: "Then, looking me straight in the eye, he declared, `There has not been torture...' Horne says that he found the statement "hard to accept." This portion of the book is related in an incisive interview of Horne in Salon, by Gary Kamiya, in 2007. In this article, Horne relates a similar experience with Donald Rumsfeld, in 2005. Horne had been invited to the Pentagon, but the meeting was cancelled after he arrived. He left Rumsfeld a copy of "A Savage War of Peace" with some portions concerning torture highlighted. Subsequently, Horne relates about the note he received from Rumsfeld: "As you well know, we do not believe in torture."
The quintessential historian, completing an episodic account of events in one continent, from a flawed perspective. Still, it IS Horne, and I am surprised that this is the first review posted, either in the USA or the UK. 3-stars.