‘Small Wars’ Outlines the Origins of Blowback in the Modern World

Read Scott Horton's new book Fool's Errand: Time to End the War in Afghanistan

One of the talents that Michael Burleigh possesses is an ability to carry his pen with a combination of knowledge and wit. In Small Wars, Faraway Places, Burleigh provides the reader with an informative narrative that keeps you yearning for more, despite an already generous amount of information considering the vastness of the subject and the limitations of the book’s modest size.

I found that this book to be a splendid overview that shows the origins of blowback and a reality that exists across the globe today so many decades on. At times, Burleigh manages to allow his disregard for certain historical players to show, as his words drip with a certain amount of venom. While this can be condemned by many as far as historical matters go, it is for the most part refreshing, considering the very real consequences and tragedy that befalls the victims of such “great men” of history.

The book visits upon, with some detail, the wars and conflicts that occurred in Korea, the Arab-Israeli Wars, the Malaya and Mau Mau Emergencies, the Huk Rebellion in the Philippines, French Indochina, Hungary, Suez, India’a wars with Pakistan and China, Algeria, Cuba, and Vietnam. While historians may reflect on many of these as brush-fire wars or minor conflicts, their repercussions are felt many decades afterwards.

It is a book that does not take an imperialists view, unlike many of those written about post-colonial struggles and the battles to hold onto empire. Burleigh is not sympathetic to the insurgents and their methods, but neither does he take the mantle for the great powers — those, in these cases, mostly of the West who sought to command, control, and in so many acts “save” the natives from their own destiny or alien influences, notably always near communism.

Burleigh does not pull any punches when it comes to some of history’s favorites. He does not hold favor for the Kennedy brothers and their meddling foreign affairs, nor does he tackle the aristocratic civil service and military of the British as they handle their crumbling empire with brutality and villainous self-interest. The book interjects anecdote with fact allowing the reader to gain a perspective that is often needed when learning about the complex futility of interventionism and warfare.

At times, Burleigh interjects a little too much with the personal defects of historical figures, which does help to color these people. Sometimes, however, it is unrelated to the matter being discussed. In a wider biographical context, this is certainly welcome. But when one has such a wide period of subject to cover, at times these highlights of flawed human character are a tad unwarranted. That being said, it is in no way a defense of such people, as most, if not all, are deplorable and should not be above reproach. Context, however, is the point on hand. On the rare occasion, Burleigh can veer away, which is not needed in such a small book that covers such an expansive subject matter.

For the most part, despite Burleigh’s wit and at times poisonous pen, this is an excellent and most informative read. It certainly is a good platform for one to seek more on the various regions and conflicts discussed, while also providing the reader with a solid one-stop read of a period in history that is often overlooked, despite its wider implications.

I would recommend this book to anyone from the casual historian to those who have a deeper knowledge base. Burleigh does not talk down to his readers, nor does he talk over their heads. Instead, he invites you to listen, respecting your grasp of events and language in such a way that one wishes to know more.

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Read Scott Horton's new book Fool's Errand: Time to End the War in Afghanistan