Friday, December 17, 2010

Failure too is a form of death.

Someone has put some wood in this wall! The Theatre Royal, Hobart. December 2010.

Two books, both written within the same period, with similar themes, but both very different from each other.

The first is Defeat Into Victory by William Slim. Bill Slim, or – to give him his proper title – Field Marshal William Joseph Slim, 1st Viscount Slim, KG, GCB, GCMG, GCVO, GBE, DSO, MC, KStJ, has been described by some as perhaps the greatest commander of the twentieth century. Defeat into Victory is his account of the retaking of Burma by Allied forces during the Second World War first published in 1956. Slim was the commander of the British 14th Army that, in concert with American and Chinese forces, defeated the Imperial Japanese Army during the Burma Campaign.

But don’t let that put you off! Slim's most notable characteristic is his lack of ego. Unlike many (most?) other accounts of this type, Slim consistently makes reference to his mistakes, errors in planning or judgement, and his deficiencies as a military commander. For the reader’s benefit, he explores how “learning the hard lessons” as he went along, acknowledging fault and reflection on decisions helped him emerge a better man and general. It is unsurprising that his approach generated a high regard from the rank and file.

The central point of the memoir is that it is the soldiers in the field that win battles. Slim's theory is that politicians give guidelines for the campaign, and generals provide the training and backup so that the soldiers can get on with their business. The central premise is that he should – wherever possible – not get in the soldiers way.

This is a fantastic account of how – under his stewardship – the army managed to stop the Japanese advance in South-East Asia, and restore morale and discipline in the army that had been humiliatingly defeated. Defeat into Victory is more a text on good management, than a text on warfare.

The ‘trick’ to good management for Slim is in best providing for good work for those underneath you. He invested in proper training and equipment to front-line troops. He insisted that every unit was supplied according to its own special needs (crucial in a true multicultural army that encompassed English, Scots, Welsh, Irish, Indian, African, Burmese, Australian and American troops). When middle management couldn’t ensure adequate provisioning of the front line, he even put his own staff on half-rations until a solution was found: generally this hastily solved the problem! As few leaders do, he clearly understood that war is about individuals and small units. It is only in their combined and coordinated efforts that they amount to something far bigger.

The other crucial difference between this book and others of its type – Slim can write. The book is full of many amusing, depressing, enlightening and shocking anecdotes with a health dose of self-depreciation and humour. What also surprises is how – especially given the time [1956] – it is completely devoid of any racism or caricature of the enemy. Slim is incredibly respectful of his own native soldiers, as well as the Japanese enemy. This cannot be said of many text to be released in this period.

Ultimately, Defeat into Victory is a text filled with wisdom, modesty, grace, and deep understanding. Well worth a look if you are at all interested.

The story behind the second book is almost more interesting than the novel itself. Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky was Intended as a sequence of five novels, but was cut short at two as Némirovsky – a French Catholic of Ukrainian-Jewish ancestry – was arrested and murdered at Auschwitz. Her daughters preserved the notebook containing the first two novels, but they did not realise what they contained until 1998. They were published in a single volume in 2004.

The Suite was to portray life in France in June 1940, the month in which the invading German army rapidly defeated the French; and the period when Paris and northern France came under German occupation. The first section, "Storm in June" depicts the flight of citizens from Paris in the hours preceding the German advance and in the days following it. The second, "Sweet", shows life in a small French country town in the first months of the German occupation.

The novel(s) succeed in offering both a grand vision of events, but then focusing – with equal parts compassion, clarity and honesty – on the individual human dramas that make up the grand. What makes this work all the more remarkable is that it was written as the events that inspired them unfolded simultaneously.

As a slice of social human history in a time of flux, it is excellent. Have a look at it.


me said...

I bought Suite Francaise for my wife for her birthday a few years ago, and it's been on my to-read list for some time...

I'll get there one day.

Kris said...

It’s an interesting read. You can tell that it hasn’t had the normal process of a proper edit (with author involved), but as a snapshot of a specific time and place, it does the job.