The Source of JFK’s Greatness

For as long as I can remember, November 22 has always been a sobering date on my calendar. My late father, like many of his generation, revered John F. Kennedy. He owned several pieces of memorabilia. He also vividly remembered where he was and what he was doing on that fateful day when his favorite statesman tragically fell under the bullets. Before the Roosevelts, Truman, LBJ, Reagan and both Presidents Bush – commanders in chief for whom I have tons of admiration – JFK was the first one who piqued my intellectual curiosity.

I cannot proclaim that I have read every book regarding the main figure of contemporary Camelot, but I always make a point of skimming the pages of as many as I can. Mark K. Updegrove is a presidential historian whose work I have always been interested in. I was, therefore, impatient to grab a copy of his recent book Incomparable Grace: JFK in the Presidency. I was expecting a good read because the author has an enthralling writing style. But I got much more than that.

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“Putin’s war has forged Ukraine’s sense of nationhood on the battlefield”

Ukrainian soldiers (McGill University)

Two of the greatest pleasures I have as a blogger is reading the best books and being in touch with their authors. Few things make me happier than when they accept to answer a few questions for an interview.

I have always been a huge fan of Sir Rodric Braithwaite, and I was extremely happy to read and review his recent and captivating book about the history of Russia at a time when this country is at crossroads.

As a former British Ambassador to Moscow between 1988 and 1992 and a former foreign policy advisor to Prime Minister John Major, he combines the experience of a man who was on the ground when the URSS was on the cusp of exploding and the talent of an inspired historian.

I, therefore, felt extremely privileged when Sir Rodric generously agreed to answer my questions. I trust you will find his answers of tremendous interest.

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Sir Rodric, I’m of the school according to which great leaders make history. In that regard, I would be curious to know which Tsar or leader impresses you the most in the history of Russia and why?

The question of whether history is made by great leaders or impersonal forces will never be settled. It is the intellectual underpinning for Tolstoy’s War and Peace. In my view, you need both. Even the greatest leader cannot buck reality: Bismarck is eloquent on that.

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The King who jeopardized the Monarchy

The cover of Prince Harry’s memoir was released last week, in mounting anticipation of the day it hits the shelves next January. Since their wedding in May 2018, Harry and Meghan have proven to be distracting – to say the least – for the Royal Family. Their staunch desire to center everything around their desires, feelings and intentions goes against the grain of an institution based on selflessness and duty.

Even though the revelations contained in his book will probably rock and ruffle Buckingham Palace, Prince Harry’s fifth position in the line of succession to the throne render his tribulations much less catastrophic than those posed by his late grandmother’s uncle, King Edward VIII. On December 10, 1936, this Monarch deposed the scepter and the orb for the sake of marrying the Queen of his heart, the American-born divorcee Wallis Simpson.

His brother, George VI, was left to pick up the pieces. He was neither supposed nor prepared to accede the throne. The reputation of the institution was severely tarnished, but the history of the world can be grateful that George Windsor was tasked with this mission because his brother David (Edward VIII)’s presence on the throne would have proved catastrophic in the period leading to and during World War II.

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Russian Game of Thrones

Back in March 2014, while I was sojourning in Moscow for the second time, I visited the Museum of the Great Patriotic War, the Borodino Battle Museum, and the Museum of the Patriotic War of 1812. I also took the time to drive to Zhukovo to visit the Museum dedicated to the famous Marshal – Georgy Zhukov – who vanquished the Nazis on the Eastern Front. Any serious student of history couldn’t help but note how attached the Russians are to their military heritage. It was an amazing trip for a military enthusiast like me!

To a degree that might seem astonishing to a Western mind, war occupies a fundamental place in the history of Russia. And it is imperative to fully grasp that reality, if one wants to ascertain what has been happening since February 24 in Ukraine. In that perspective, I was extremely happy to dig into Russia: Myths and Realities (Pegasus Books) by Sir Rodric Braithwaite.

I could detail all the qualities and insights of this book, but its main merit is to brush the portrait of a nation and people forged in war. “More than a thousand years ago a people arose on the territory of today’s Russia whose origins are disputed”, writes the author. “But Kievan Rus was invaded and destroyed in the thirteenth century by the Mongols.” The tone was set and even after the “Mongol yoke” was removed from Russia’s neck, the pugilistic character was well ingrained into the nation’s DNA.

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How Putin Saved Zelensky

The world “would hardly have heard about [Volodymyr] Zelensky if he had become an engineer, gone into the military, or became a doctor”, writes political commentator Serhii Rudenko in a recent biography of the Ukrainian President (Polity Books). Thanks to the political reality crafted by Servant of the People in which he played the role of a history teacher elected against the odds to lead the country, fiction turned into reality in 2019. And thanks to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to start a war on Ukraine before sunrise on February 24th, the actor turned President has become an icon of resilience in defense of freedom and democracy.

Serhii Rudenko paints the portrait of a leader who was not on sure footing before the war intervened.

After his election, Zelensky broke his promise to distance himself from the nepotism espoused by his predecessor, Petro Poroshenko. “[…] A year after his election, the Poroshenko family was replaced by the Zelensky family – or, more precisely, by the Kvartal 95 Studio.” In other words, those who accompanied him in his showbusiness career, including in his role as President Vasily Petrovych Goloborodko on television.

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The Gurkha Diaries

Any history buff strolling in Old Jerusalem can observe some vestiges of the British Empire. There’s the Mahane Yehuda police station on Jaffa Road, which served during the Mandate. Less than two hours from the capital city of Israel, on the Mediterranean Coast, one can visit the Acre prison where Jewish nationalists were imprisoned, including those who were condemned to death. At least, it was possible to do so when I visited back in 2008.

The rebirth of Israel in 1947-1948 was a direct consequence of the disappearance of the British Empire in the aftermath of World War II. The same year also witnessed the partition between India and Pakistan, a development that would give rise to population displacements and massacres. Robert Atkins, author of The Gurkha Diaries of Robert Atkins MC: India and Malaya 1944 – 1958 (Pen & Sword) and his fellow Gurkhas [the sturdy and legendary Nepalese soldiers who serve the Crown since the middle of the 19th century] were deployed on that theater and attempted “[…] to mitigate the massacres [between Hindus and Muslims] and stem the violence in the last days of a teetering Raj.” The magnitude of the violence perpetrated during that tragic chapter of contemporary history must have been staggering for the young soldiers, but they carried on with admirable bravery, nevertheless.

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Stan Andrews and the birth of the Israeli Air Force

Seventy-five years ago, on November 27, 1947, the United Nations adopted Resolution 181 to partition the British mandate in Palestine into two states, one Jewish and one Arab. While the new Israelis were celebrating, the leaders of the Yishuv – the organized Jewish community – were scratching their heads. The neighboring Arab states of Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Egypt and Jordan wanted to smother the newborn Jewish State in its cradle.

In their new book Fighting Back: Stan Andrew and the Birth of the Israeli Air Force (Wicked Son), authors Jeffrey and Craig Weiss write, “It became clear that a Jewish homeland would only be established by armed force. To defeat the Arabs, the Jews would need to build an army.”

Easier said than done. “On May 14, 1948, the day the government [of Israel] declared independence, Israel did not have a single combat aircraft, and all its fighter pilots were in Europe.” With ingenuity and determination, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and his team set upon the gigantic task of equipping their soldiers, notably against a U.S. embargo on weapons sales to the Middle East. At the same time, London presumably continued furnishing Egypt and Jordan.

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Planet Strongman

In his 2020 bestseller Rage, Washington legendary journalist and author Bob Woodward recalls discussing the direction of the Trump administration’s foreign policy with the President. Mentioning his dealings with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan regarding the war in Syria, the commander-in-chief said: “I get along very well with Erdogan, even though you’re not supposed to because everyone says ‘What a horrible guy’. But for me it works out good. It’s funny the relationships I have, the tougher and meaner they are, the better I get along with them. You know?”

In his captivating recent book The Age of the Strongman (Other Press), Financial Times foreign affairs commentator Gideon Rachman quotes former National Security Affairs specialist Fiona Hill when she declared that her former boss was seduced by “autocrat envy”. From Jair Bolsonaro (in Brazil) to Vladimir Putin, as well as Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), the 45th President got along quite well with those whom he perceived as being strong, an expression easily interchangeable with being autocratic. This trend was confirmed early last month when Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán took the stage at the Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) gathering in Dallas, Texas.

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True heroism can’t be found in the absence of risk

I discovered Admiral (US Navy – retired) James Stavridis as an author at the beginning of the pandemic two years ago. This warrior-intellectual always amazes me by the depth of his thought and the finesse of his writing style. His last book, To Risk It All: Nine Conflicts and the Crucible of Decision (Penguin Press) depicts nine characters – 8 men and 1 woman – who left their mark on US military history.

You can almost hear the lyrics of the US Marines hymn and its reference to the shores of Tripoli when you read about Lieutenant Stephen Decatur’s expedition in North Africa to save US Navy comrades detained by pirates and you want to watch Captain Philips with Tom Hanks another time after completing the chapter devoted to Rear Admiral Michelle Howard who was in command of the successful rescue operation in the Gulf of Aden.

But my favorite – by far – was Cook Third Class Doris “Dorie” Miller. If there is one chapter I would love to see the author expand in a whole book, the life and lessons of that exceptional warrior would be my choice. Think about it for a moment. You’re an African-American and you enlist in the US Navy to better support your family, seeking advancement out of the segregationist South. But you must still endure sanctioned racism. Admiral Stavridis reminds the reader that “the high-tech specialties of communication, gunnery, navigation, and engineering were closed to African Americans; in fact, the only jobs they were permitted to do were cooking, cleaning, and serving as valets for the senior officers in the ships.”

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One man can change the course of a battle

“The vast majority of men receiving the Medal of Honor in World War II belonged to the infantry but the American public was fixated on marines and the glamour boys in the air corps with their nice blue uniforms”, writes acclaimed author and historian Alex Kershaw in his recent book Against All Odds: A True Story of Ultimate Courage and Survival in World War II (Caliber).

Undoubtedly, Alex Kershaw is the master of the battle narrative. His books always remind me of Sir John Keegan’s classic The Face of Battle, in detailing the reality and sacrifices of fighting soldiers. Between the covers, he details the courageous and selfless feats of Maurice “Footsie” Britt, Michael Daly, Audie Murphy and Keith Ware. All these men were part of the “[…] 3rd Division, the legendary “Rock of the Marne” outfit that had saved Paris in July 1918 by blocking the last great German offensive of World War I.” The men of that Division were sent on the first line to absorb a strong German attack along the Marne River in April 1918. The stubbornness of their defense earned them the famous nickname. Their successors in World War II would be no different.

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