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Mark Stokle (Norwich, UK)

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The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: v. 1 (Penguin Classics)
The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: v. 1 (Penguin Classics)
by Edward Gibbon
Edition: Paperback
Price: £20.00

10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Did Christianity lead to Rome's downfall?, 25 Jan 2012
Gibbon was a genius. He spent practically his entire lifetime writing and researching this book. The mere scope of his survey is astounding, extending from the splendor of the Antonine age to the decadence of Rome in the seventeenth century. This is not only a work about the Roman Empire, but also about Europe and the Catholic Church. It stands as the legacy of a brilliant mind, no doubt one of the great accomplishments of European Literature.

What Gibbon is writing about is the destruction of the classical world, and its replacement by a more authoritarian feudal society. This was a brutal process because it meant destroying an entire civilization. People enjoyed a high degree of social mobility in the classical world. But by the time of the Middle Ages, most of the population were slaves. The Church, in Gibbon's view, was the principal culprit in this upheaval. For this reason, "Decline and Fall" was banned in several countries when it was published.

Gibbon is often called the first "modern" historian, due to his extensive use of primary sources and rigorous methodology. Many of his footnotes contain amusing anecdotes and trivial details. His writing style is elaborate, and he can seriously upgrade your vocabulary! Ironically, most classical scholars today dismiss him as unreliable because he influenced romantic portrayals of classical antiquity. This is a fair criticism; nevertheless, no work of modern scholarship has surpassed Gibbon's masterpiece to date.

Womersley's edition is very well-organized and arranges the narrative's historical chronology as follows:

Volume 1 - covers the Antonine period down to the end of the fourth century. It includes the controversial chapters on the birth of the Church and examines the transition from paganism to Christianity under Constantine and Julian.

Volume 2 - covers the barbarian invasions (including tribes, their leaders and kingdoms), the division of the Roman Empire and subsequent fall of its western half, and the resurgence of Byzantium during the reign of Justinian.

Volume 3 - covers the rise of Islam, the gradual decadence of Byzantium, the Great Schism of the Church, the Norman invasions, the Seljuk Turks, the Crusades, Genghis Khan, Tamerlane, the Ottomans and the fall of Constantinople. It also offers an overview of the medieval papacy, a history of Rome up to the seventeenth century, and the author's conclusions to the entire work.

All history enthusiasts should cherish Gibbon's study. His work displays an unrivaled mastery of its subject, and is written in the graceful prose of a bygone era. Along with Theodore Mommsen's "History of Rome" (which covers the rise of Rome and serves as a useful counterpart), Gibbon's "Decline and Fall" is the all-time modern classic of Roman history.

Crossed Swords: Pakistan, its Army, and the Wars Within
Crossed Swords: Pakistan, its Army, and the Wars Within
by Shuja Nawaz
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £16.93

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Authoritative study of the Pakistani Army, 23 Jan 2012
Weighing in at nearly 600 pages, this is the best in-depth examination of Pakistan's army I have come across. Mr. Nawaz is the brother of Asif Nawaz, the former Chief of Army Staff who died in mysterious circumstances in 1993. His study provides an insider's view of the Pakistani military, and displays extensive knowledge of that institution. The book is arranged chronologically, and presents a detailed history of military affairs since Pakistan's independence. This is a long and complicated story; and it is not intended for readers who are newcomers to the subject. However, those who seek a more profound understanding of Pakistan will find this work invaluable.

Nawaz discusses a wide range of topics which have been poorly recorded by western historians. The 1947 and 1965 Indo-Pakistan Wars over Kashmir are explained in detail. Of particular interest is his analysis of the 1971 war and the crisis leading to the birth of Bangladesh (Sheikh Mujib's civil disobedience movement, "Operation Searchlight", and India's intervention). This bloody episode and its repercussions are crucial to understanding the modern history of the region.

The book is also excellent at describing how the Pakistani military progressively took power from the political establishment after independence. The different stages of this process are well-documented by the author. He notes the unresolved murder of Pakistan's first PM, Liaqat Ali Khan, and reviews Ayub Khan's military coup in 1958. Khan combined the offices of president and prime minister in a new constitution which was rubber-stamped by the judiciary (the "Doctrine of Necessity"). Nawaz vividly chronicles the struggle for power between Zia ul-Haq and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. The ascent of Zia, execution of Bhutto, and rise of fundamentalism in the security services, are all depicted as landmark events that consolidated the army's hold over power. The ensuing transition from an overt military dictatorship to a facade of 'parliamentary democracy' is well explained, and covers the administrations of Benazir Bhutto (whose later assassination is noted but not discussed), Nawaz Sharif, and Pervez Musharraf. "Crossed Swords" also draws attention to the army's international relations, and provides an excellent discussion of Pakistan's nuclear program and its mastermind: A.Q. Khan.

Furthermore, Nawaz shows the military to be a complex institution that often stands in stark contrast to Pakistani society. It's leadership is mostly secular, well-educated and extremely wealthy. In sum, the very opposite of the average man on the street. It is riddled with competing factions who value ethnic and community ties above loyalty to the state. To achieve its great wealth and political influence, the army has forged foreign alliances and indulged in widespread corruption. The author draws attention to how pensions, real estate, and military contracts play an essential role in the army's racketing of state funds. He also emphasizes the importance of the military's political propaganda, and how the armed forces repeatedly pass themselves off as the guardians of Jinnah's legacy.

In conclusion, "Crossed Swords" is an impressively well-researched and authoritative study. In my opinion, it's one of the most important works on Pakistan's military history in years. Given the all-powerful influence of the army in Pakistani society, this book should be considered essential reading.

Raj: The Making and Unmaking of British India
Raj: The Making and Unmaking of British India
by Lawrence James
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.79

41 of 48 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Glorification of Empire, 22 Jan 2012
This book is a scholarly and well-researched effort. Nevertheless, it's frustratingly orthodox and does not develop a critical perspective. What we have here is an account of the British establishment in India: only one side of the story. Indian society is viewed in the context of this establishment, as a passive subservient actor and not an independent force. As a result, the fundamental effects of British rule on Indian society are overlooked. In his conclusions, Mr. James suggests that the colonization of the subcontinent was a positive development, even for the average Indian person.

In my opinion, several of the author's evaluations are problematic. When describing the initial conquest of Bengal, he fails to properly examine how the British destroyed its manufacturing industry. The East India Company deprived Bengal of its economic independence, in order to transform it into an export market for British goods (cotton). The effects of this policy were devastating, but Mr. James only devotes a few pages to it.

The author's coverage of the 1857 Mutiny is misleading. He correctly points out that this was more a rebellion than a mutiny, but also conveys the impression that Indians were divided in their reactions to it. Although the upper classes of Indian society generally backed the British, these only constituted a minute fraction of the Indian population. James tends to neglect the lower classes and their interpretations of this event. I would also question the description of the Raj as 'resurgent' following the Mutiny, when in fact this crisis proved what a damning failure the Company's administration of India had been up to that point. The effects of the Mutiny could be felt for years afterwards.

Some important 20th-century events are poorly recorded and often misunderstood. The 1943-4 Bengal Famine, for example, was responsible for the death of nearly 3 million people; but it only receives a four-page description. James claims that the British administration was "taken by surprise" when the famine began. Yet there is clear documentary evidence that Churchill deliberately starved Bengal to feed the UK (see Mukerjee "Churchill's Secret War").

Britain's behavior during the process of de-colonization is painted in a generally positive light, with partition described as gradually becoming inevitable. James only devotes a few passages to Churchill, who once said how "delighted" he was at the prospect of Jinnah and his Muslim League sowing division in the independence ranks. Mountbatten is judged sympathetically, even though his decision to partition India ended in complete disaster and a great loss of life.

Overall, this book presents a good assessment of the mentality and objectives of British rulers during the Raj period. Although not overtly biased, its narrative tends to glorify the British project in India - a view most Indians would probably disagree with. Therefore, the work's main theme is also its overriding weakness.
Comment Comments (4) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 7, 2014 6:56 AM GMT

Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism
Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism
by Robert Anthony Pape
Edition: Paperback

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Suicide terrorism is not inspired by religion, 22 Jan 2012
This is the study that finally puts to rest the myth that suicide terrorists do it because they're religious fanatics. Other reviewers have very accurately discussed the pros and cons of the book, so I will content myself with merely emphasizing a few points.

First, this is a thorough empirical investigation which takes into account every single known and recorded incident of a "suicide terrorist attack" up to its date of publication. It's scope is well-defined and authoritative. The author's research indicates that most suicide bombers come from middle-class backgrounds (as indeed do most terrorists), are well-educated, and strongly identify with their own communities (which have been violated).

Second, it proves in a conclusive manner that suicide terrorism is motivated by the will of its perpetrators to end what they regard as the foreign occupation of their countries. In effect, it is one of the few direct forms of struggle which can be employed by national liberation movements when confronted by superior force. It is not a creation of religion or Islamic extremism, and Pape correctly points out that most religions (including Islam) generally condemn suicide. He further argues that the act of a terrorist blowing himself up for his cause is similar to that of a soldier sacrificing his life to save his fellow companions on the battlefield. In general, the author's theory is well-argued and impeccably researched.

Thirdly, the book is not without its shortcomings. It fails to discuss in any detail the possibility that terrorists are drugged before they commit suicide attacks, and that they themselves could actually be innocent victims. Recently, the Afghan Taliban have been known to employ such methods, intimidating and drugging those who carry out their attacks. There is also very little on Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City bombing (although this only represents one - albeit important - 'suicide' attack).

Finally, the last chapter is a mess and needs to be taken with a grain of salt. It makes no sense advising the American government to withdraw occupation troops from the Muslim World without linking that policy to a change in US-Israeli relations. Clearly, Pape is catering to a certain audience in his conclusions.

Nevertheless, this is a groundbreaking study in the field that should be read by all those who are interested in terrorism and international relations. Five stars despite the reservations.

The Longest War: The Iran-Iraq Military Conflict
The Longest War: The Iran-Iraq Military Conflict
by Dilip Hiro
Edition: Paperback

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent but not the definitive account, 22 Jan 2012
In my opinion, the definitive account of the Iran-Iraq War has yet to be written, and in fact probably never will be. The destruction of Iraq (including much state/historical documentation), and the difficulty of interviewing major participants on both sides of the conflict (several are already dead), have made this a near-impossible task.

Nevertheless, Dilip Hiro's book provides an excellent source on the conflict. He bases most of his research on newspaper articles, official documents and speeches, and his own extensive war reporting. His account therefore relates an insider's view of the war, written by someone who witnessed the course of events on the ground. The book is organized on a chronological basis, offering first a reflection on the causes of the war before moving on to a detailed recounting of events, and ends with a final chapter of personal conclusions. Hiro does not hesitate to supplement his historical narrative with personal analysis. He does a good job of backing up his interpretations by using statistics, charts, economic data, etc. The maps he provides are adequate but by no means exceptional. There is also a section of approximately thirty photographs; however their print quality is extremely poor and diminishes their analytical value.

The author attempts to remain neutral in his work, and generally tries to base his investigation on facts. The war is clearly portrayed as having been triggered by Iraq, with the tacit support of the US and its allies in the Gulf. Hiro makes it clear that this constituted an attempt to smother the Iranian Revolution, and that it ended up seriously backfiring. Instead of inspiring the Iranians to oust Khomeini, the war had the opposite effect and united the population in support of his new regime. Saddam also seriously underestimated the manner in which the Iraqi Shia population would react to the war - a mistake which nearly ruined him, and partially explains his resort to chemical weapons. Two chapters are devoted to Iraqi and Iranian perspectives, detailing the political, social and military aspects of the war in each country.

This work also vividly illustrates the scope of foreign meddling and interference in the war. The author produces a very thorough assessment of the conflict in an international context. Iraq reprized the role previously held by Iran in America's network of client states in the region (this lasted until the first Gulf War). Iran was systematically hampered in achieving its objectives due to its very low prestige on the international scene (its main trading partner was West Germany). The Soviets - who had originally planned to ally with both Iraq and Iran to stabilize the Afghan situation - were increasingly worried about US intervention, and gradually adopted a policy of containment towards the Iranian Revolution. All these points are elaborately discussed in the book.

Moreover, Hiro does an excellent job of emphasizing the central importance of oil and weapons sales. Attacks against tankers (the 'Tanker War') in the Persian Gulf are well-documented, as are the nepotism and corruption of western governments. Unfortunately, the famous photo of Rumsfeld shaking hands with Saddam in December 1983 is not included. I was also slightly disappointed by the rather cursory explanation of the Iran-Contra Affair. Apart from these minor drawbacks, the book is generally impartial and does enough to serve its purpose.

In conclusion, I would strongly recommend this work to those who are interested in the Iran-Iraq War. It offers the best general survey of the conflict I have come across. If you wish to concentrate on military matters, then Efraim Karsh's book is probably better. Both works should be complemented by articles from academic journals for further in-depth analysis.

The Crusades Through Arab Eyes (Saqi Essentials)
The Crusades Through Arab Eyes (Saqi Essentials)
by Amin Maalouf
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.39

2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Love or hate it you cannot ignore this book, 19 Jan 2012
Don't be put off by the negative reviews of this work. It is incredibly-well researched and has become an important contribution to our understanding of the Crusades. Those who dismiss it fail to comprehend the magnitude of the task Maalouf sets out to achieve, and do not realize how scarce reliable Arabic sources on the Crusades really are.

When Steven Runciman wrote his "History of the Crusades" and first condemned these wars for the money-grabbing thievery that they were, he too was denounced as a poorly-researched non-conformist. But no serious historian today disputes the fact that when Jerusalem was sacked in 1099, it witnessed the massacre of its Jewish and Muslim inhabitants by Godfrey de Bouillon's troops.

This book covers the 11th to 13th centuries, and details similar anecdotes such as the spate of cannibalism that took place during the siege of Ma'arrat al-Numan. It does an excellent job of explaining why many Arabs still view the Crusades as an act of "rape" against their societies; and although you may not agree with this view, it is nevertheless one which deserves serious consideration.

It's also worth keeping in mind that Maalouf is Christian and not Muslim. Given the high level of antagonism between these two faiths in the Middle East, I would say that the author has produced a maturely-reflected and thoroughly enlightening read.

A Savage War Of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962 (New York Review Books Classics)
A Savage War Of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962 (New York Review Books Classics)
by Alistair Horne
Edition: Paperback
Price: £11.99

7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars I'm French and would still say this is the best book on the subject, 19 Jan 2012
Sometimes the French and English have a bizarre relationship. France is known for its wines, but the world's best wine-tasters are English! Modern France has a rich and complex history; but one of its greatest historians happens to be British.

The Algerian War of Independence is still a controversial subject in France. In fact, the French prefer to call it the "Algerian War". It just goes to show what a dark chapter this was in our history. After reading this work, you can rightly scoff at French claims to be the "country of human rights". They pulled off that mask in this conflict.

As a Frenchman looking at Horne's book, I would say the following. His knowledge of the French and FLN political and military establishments is magisterial. His understanding of the Pieds Noirs astounding. Keep in mind that he spent several years meticulously researching this book, and interviewed many of the story's main protagonists. His treatment of Albert Camus I found particularly fascinating, given that Camus was a towering "humanist" who spoke out against torture but nonetheless supported French Algeria.

What is important in Horne's assessment is that he understands this conflict was a political opportunity exploited by De Gaulle to regain power in France. It is often said that De Gaulle inaugurated the Fifth Republic by a "coup", and this is perfectly well illustrated in Horne's book. He also correctly identifies the Soummam Conference as the pivotal event in the success of the FLN. Had the FLN not succeeded in establishing a united command and purpose, the French would have blown them away as they did Abd el Kader.

There is one very important shortcoming to this book, which has to do with the people who run Algeria today and could not be foreseen by the author. When this work was written, Houari Boumediene was still the President of Algeria. But when his successor Chadli Benjedid came to power in 1979, his authority was gradually undermined by powerful generals in the Algerian army. These officers - people like Larbi Belkheir, Khaled Nezzar and Mohamed Lamari - had once been soldiers fighting in the French army during the War of Independence, and only changed sides to join the FLN late in the conflict. The Algerian population despised them as traitors, but they were kept in the army due to the severe shortage of trained officers. Horne's book fails to identify this fact. When Boumediene died, this "French" faction of the Algerian army seized the opportunity to take power. It was these same officers who later ordered the machine-gunning of protestors during the 1988 riots and organized the military coup of 1992.

In conclusion, I would say this is a great work of historical scholarship. There are of course other books you could use to complement it, such as the memoirs of General Paul Aussaresses ("Services Speciaux: Algerie 1955-1957"), who was the first high-ranking French officer to admit the widespread use of torture (he was also an instructor at the notorious School of the Americas). When you consider that the current minister of defense in France (Gerard Longuet) was once an extremist Pied Noir thug, and has recently proposed to have Gen. Bigeard's remains moved to the Invalides, it is clear to see that this war still has dramatic ramifications.

Testimony: Death of a Guatemalan Village
Testimony: Death of a Guatemalan Village
by Victor Montejo
Edition: Paperback

5.0 out of 5 stars Paramilitary violence in Guatemala, 19 Jan 2012
I came across this work doing research for a graduate paper at university and was thoroughly blown away by it. It's short, concise, and utterly devastating. This pamphlet reveals all the dark sides of man's reptilian nature, and records a terrifying experience of survival.

For ten years, Victor Montejo was a schoolteacher in the rural Mayan village of Tzalala in north-western Guatemala. In July 1982, the government announced the formation of "civil defense groups", ostensibly to ward off rebel "guerrillas". The inhabitants of Tzalala resisted this coercion as best they could; until one day their village militia accidentally fires upon an army patrol, unleashing a deadly cycle of events...

In just over a hundred pages, this book takes its reader through almost every stage of the de-humanization process: fear, panic, terror, interrogations, torture, humiliation, executions, the list seems endless. Yet the simplicity with which these are all conveyed is mesmerizing. You realize that once confronted by agents of the killing machine, your every word could mean the difference between life and death.

Montejo relates facts as they occurred, without any editorial comment. He refrains from judging anyone and allows his readers to formulate their own opinions. Throughout his entire ordeal, he never once loses hope. His courage and dignity in the face of barbarism arouse great admiration.

This is one of the best first-hand accounts I have read about violence in Central America during the 1980s. Strangely enough, it does not seem to be well-known outside the academic field. All the more reason to acquire a copy of this extraordinary book.

Monuments of Syria: A Historical Guide
Monuments of Syria: A Historical Guide
by Ross Burns
Edition: Paperback

5.0 out of 5 stars A stupendous book!, 19 Jan 2012
Having lived and worked in Damascus for two years, I must say that this book is in a league of its own. In Syria it is a respected work. The number of monuments covered by the author, along with the historical expertise he displays, are very impressive. Entries for each site are thoroughly referenced, listing possible alternative names in Arabic, the historical period to which the ruins belong, and directions about how to get to them (these generally assume you have a vehicle and do not give much info about shared taxis).

As this is an historical guide, there is no information regarding hotels and accommodation. It is therefore vital that you complement it with another guidebook (footprints probably remains the best). In any case, don't be afraid of getting stuck somewhere as the Syrians are wonderful people who are always ready to help you out.

I wouldn't hesitate to say that reading this book constituted an education in itself. It certainly allowed me to discover a fascinating country whose history is often overlooked and poorly understood. No wonder there aren't that many other historical guides to Syria on the market!

An historical guide to Afghanistan (Afghan Tourist Organization publication)
An historical guide to Afghanistan (Afghan Tourist Organization publication)
by Nancy Hatch Dupree
Edition: Hardcover

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Still indispensable for any visit to Afghanistan, 19 Jan 2012
This remains a remarkable book despite its age (first edition 1970). It was written in a time when Afghanistan was the most developed country in Central Asia, and still a popular destination on the hippy trail.

Nancy Dupree is one of the leading American authorities on Afghanistan. She has traveled and worked on archaeological excavations in the country since the 1950s. Her guide contains some excellent historical discussions about the numerous monuments and colorful cities of Afghanistan. It is impressively well-researched and documented. The section dealing with the Jam Minaret is particularly interesting; as are those devoted to Nuristan and the now destroyed Buddhas of Bamiyan. As you might expect, much of the statistics and logistical information she provides are today obsolete. However, the itineraries described are still of some value.

The principal strength of this book resides in its social and cultural depictions of the Afghan people. Clearly, Dupree knows the Afghans intimately and loves their country. She is also an accomplished anthropologist, and does a great job of presenting their ethnic diversity and cultural richness in a simple and concise format. How amazing it is that 30 years of war have not managed to eradicate the fabulous heritage of this beautiful country!

I frequently refer to this book if I need to check up on Afghan history or culture, and would heartily recommend it to anyone with an interest in Afghanistan.

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