It is easy to be baffled by the regional conflicts that burn their way across the modern globe, from the seething civil war of Syria to the seemingly endless feuding of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Each zone of conflict is painted with question marks: What's the origin of Iran's vitriolic distrust of the West? Why does China still stand behind its erratic and murderous North Korean allies? What created the massive fault lines that gave rise to this year's jarring upheaval and violence in Egypt?
Most contemporary news accounts of these simmering (or raging) trouble spots lack context. In many ways, the new book Small Wars, Faraway Places is the vault of knowledge that followers of current events have been seeking. Written by British historian Michael Burleigh, "Small Wars" is less a clean, continuous narrative than a massive moving mountain of names, dates, places, and facts. In a tome that spans 608 pages, the author documents an assortment of post-World War II insurgencies and anti-colonial revolutions so profound and potent that any one of them could spawn (and certainly has spawned) a generous handful of popular and scholarly texts.
From the Mau-Mau Emergency in Kenya to the Korean War (pardon me, "police action") to the French misadventure in Indochina and the clash between Arab nationalism and Zionism in the British Mandate in Palestine, Burleigh traces 18 distinct story lines of terrorism, counter-terrorism, intrigue, nationalism, and Cold War rivalry.
Within these stories, the reader can find the tangled roots of nearly all of today's nastiest hotspots; he or she can even foresee the sort of messes that modern-day conflicts are likely to create down the road, using Burleigh's patient documentation of troubled areas like Malaya and Algeria as templates.
Of course, history is more than movements and peoples – it's also individual actors, the men and women whose decisions and sometimes charismatic presences can radically change the direction of a conflict. Burleigh's biographical sketches are brightly rendered and engaging, designed to enhance understanding of a conflict's key actors and acting as a mental appetizer, stimulating the appetite for more substantial biographies.
Take this quick study of Ho Chi Minh, the shrewd, mentally flexible fighter and diplomat who steered modern-day Vietnam into existence against the various pressures of France, the United States, and China:
"The future Ho was a bright boy who shed the long hair that marked him out as a country bumpkin at school. He realized early on that a mastery of Western culture – including its revolutionary tradition – was the way to defeat Western imperialism.... He eventually embarked for France, as 'Ba,' an assistant cook and stoker on a small liner bound for Marseilles. A truly remarkable odyssey had begun."
It's difficult to read this and not be intrigued by the man behind the sketch. (And were you to follow up on this tidbit in particular, William J. Duiker's "Ho Chi Minh: A Life" would be a fine place to start.)
Burleigh's keen sense of humor enlivens "Small Wars" and lends zip and contrast to sometimes depressing material. He unearths gems like a US official speculating that North Korea's Kim Il Sung must have Chinese and/or Soviet backing for his invasion of South Korea, saying: "Can you imagine Donald Duck going on a rampage without Walt Disney knowing about it?"
The strength and weakness of Burleigh's fine-grained, shotgun approach to history is that when you dig deep enough, patterns both abound and seem contradictory to the point of insensibility. If you peer through the muck and mire of "Small Wars" – which contains everything from George Kennan's "Long Telegram" that foreshadowed the Cold War to the joint US-British overthrow of Iran's democratically elected prime minister Mohammad Mosaddeq to the French military disaster at Dien Bien Phu – you get a vivid sense of the often wildly unpredictable relationship of cause and effect in foreign affairs.
That "Small Wars" eschews easy answers or one-size-fits-all theories about the conflicts that it documents is a tribute to its author. On the eve of a potential conflict with Syria, one hopes that American policymakers and generals have at least skimmed through "Small Wars" or its equivalent. As Burleigh points out time and time again, decisions that seem black-and-white at the time of their making can turn out to have rather unpredictably colorful outcomes.
"One can not go over Niagara in a barrel only slightly" was US Vice Admiral Lawton Collins's remark about intervention in French Indochina, but it's a good general metaphor for the unexpected and often severe consequences that play across the pages of "Small Wars" like fire on a battlefield.
James Norton is a Monitor contributor.