They arrived four days ago, but for 48 hours the reviewer was prevented by moral paralysis from opening the parcel. Yesterday in a resolute moment he ripped the string off it and found the five volumes to be Palestine at the Cross Roads, Scientific Dairy Farming, A Short History of European Democracy (this one 680 pages and weighs four pounds), Tribal Customs in Portuguese East Africa, and a novel, It’s Nicer Lying Down, probably included by mistake. His review — 800 words, say — has got to be ‘in’ by midday tomorrow.
George Orwell, Confessions of a Book Reviewer
January 2023 rolled in with the zero-sum driven Russo-Ukrainian war raging, which, by any informed observer’s account, has evolved into a war of attrition. With neither Russia nor Ukraine contemplating a negotiated settlement, the killings and destruction and atrocities and suffering will run the ever-predictable course. Will either side give in? Doubtful – at least not as long as Russia has the means to wage war and Ukraine has the means to repel and respond in kind (save for an unpardonable but not improbable tactical nuclear strike by Russia).
Russia, or shall I say Putin, is convinced of the righteousness of initiating the war – not as the aggressor but because of the existential threat posed to Russia by Ukraine. Whether we agree or disagree with Putin’s perceptions – which, indubitably, accounts for the ruthlessness with which he is prosecuting his euphemistically branded limited military intervention – his perception is his reality. Inversely, Ukraine’s reality is that Russia is waging an un-provoked and unjustifiable war, an un-righteous act of aggression which it perceives as an existential threat to Ukraine’s existence – of its sovereignty, territorial integrity, heritage, and culture.
I am not suggesting that there is a moral equivalency in these two perceptions (not my intention to sermonize on which of the two sides is right, though I have an opinion), but it would be imprudent to be dismissive of either. Both perceptions or shall we say realities – which like beauty are in the eyes (and in this instance minds) of the beholder – need to be fully appreciated for they are equally germane to any serious discussion in finding an offramp for both sides. Again, I am not suggesting that either side need retreat from what it perceives to be its reality (and no, I am not condoning Putin’s war nor suggesting that he be rewarded), I am just acknowledging reality for what it is perceived to be, and thus, for what it is – whether we like it or not.
From the outset when Putin’s blitzkrieg proved more bluster than blitz, and when the Ukrainians proved motivated to defend their country, and once NATO states and others proved receptive to assisting Ukraine with military hardware, a war of attrition was inevitable. Perhaps, but…
There is a long way to go before Putin seriously contemplates the actual use of tactical nuclear strikes. That would be a bridge too far and of no return. His stockpile of weapons has a way to go before it is depleted, and the same can be said for warm bodies to draw from – even if untrained and unqualified. Expect more indiscriminate bombings, more carnage, more ruthlessness before an all out offensive. Time is on his side, at least so it seems thus far.
As for Ukraine, so far so good, though, objectively, the states helping Ukraine with armaments have been slow in providing the quantity and quality and types of weapons required for the long-haul. Ukraine survived the winter, as have the Western and Eastern states that were heavily reliant on Russian fossil fuels, but at what cost? I am not talking about human costs, for that is immeasurable. I’m talking about armament costs. Ukraine’s eastern front is ominously reminiscent of the trench-warfare of the Great War of 1914-1918. Were the war to drag on another year (most likely) or two, or three, will the alliance of the willing providers of sophisticated weapons systems remain keen on continuing their support, when replenishing their own stockpiles while continuing to arm Ukraine comes with a heavy taxpayer cost? Not to mention the astronomical costs to and continuing stress on the social infrastructures of some of the states flooded with a continuing flow of Ukrainian refugees. Generosity has its limits.
Since the start of the war, I have been wondering about this – not that I am trying to make sense of it all. Who can? But as a student of history and international affairs, I could not help but think of historical events. While circumstances vary and analogies rarely serve as clear guides in predicting action, one is served well to appreciate past events for they can inform and often can serve as prologue for what’s to come.
As early as last year I started wondering whether a point would be reached when the armament-donors, burdened by costs and fatigue, would press Ukraine to cut its losses and sue for peace – even if it means giving up some of its territory as well as forgoing any claims to the illegitimately annexed Crimea.
When we hear the word “appeasement”, we automatically think of the Munich Agreement in 1938 when Adolph Hitler through mostly huff, puff, and harangue, with his side-kick Benito Mussolini as sycophant jester rather than statesman, bullied Neville Chamberlain and Edouard Daladier to give part of Czechoslovakian territory to Germany. Chamberlain’s foreign policy in dealing with Hitler by his own account was one of appeasement. Having fully capitulated to Hitler by appeasing him, perversely, he returned from Munich to a hero’s welcome and lionized as he naively claimed to have achieved “peace with honour”, though the Munich Agreement proved otherwise, or as Rabbi Stephen Wise accurately called it, “dishonour without peace.”
By serendipity, I was visiting my friend and colleague Alan Yatvin for Thanksgiving 2022, when I saw in his home office a signed copy of Telford Taylor’s MUNICH: The Price of Peace. Telford Taylor is mostly known for his work as a Nuremberg prosecutor and for having written what I consider to be the best book on the Nuremberg trial, The Anatomy of the Nuremberg Trials: A Personal Memoir. Taylor was also a law professor, and in fact, was Alan’s constitutional law professor at the Cardozo School of Law in New York City. He is also a fine historian. Leafing through MUNICH, I mused that it might be good for me to order the book to see whether any analogies could be drawn from how, through the Munich Agreement, the UK, and France less so, were willing to bargain away Czechoslovakia’s territorial integrity to avert war in Europe – though it had more to do with buying time to get ready for an/the inevitable war – and what I thought might be only a matter of time before Ukraine came under pressure from the US, Germany, France and others, to negotiate for peace with Russia. Alan kindly insisted that I take his autographed copy.
At 1030 pages with small font, I knew it was going to be a Homeric journey to get through with MUNICH. It would have to wait until the new year. And so, my 2023 reading Odyssey began. My plan was to try to make better sense in the widest of context of the Russo-Ukrainian war and other conflicts – and now, abruptly, the events of Hamas’ October 7 savagery and Israel’s ferocious response.
I had no fixed list of books in mind. I would just meander in various areas and genres. Perhaps a thin layer of a theme would emerge. If not, perhaps it would help in thinking of events from different vantage points, explained through history, politics, law, literature.
As it turns out, the books do not neatly fit into a series. Yet, I have tried to bundle the reviews in a way that hopefully inform the reader of issues and concepts and events that lend to viewing the ongoing events in Ukraine, Syria, Myanmar, Gaza, and elsewhere, with more nuance, less certainty, and higher appreciation. Viewing things through different lenses and different angles and different disciplines, picking up strands of thoughts here and there and trying to weave them into a tapestry, hopefully brings us more clarity or provokes us into challenging and reexamining firmly held beliefs and orthodoxies.
No golden thread was found. My choices of books for 2023 may not have led me to Ithaki (Ithaka). I like to think, however, that this meandering reading journey may have gotten me somewhat closer. If not, it’s been rewarding, nonetheless. The great modern Greek Poet C.P. Cavafy (1863-1933) could not have said it better in his celebrated and often quoted poem, appropriately titled, Ithaka:
As you set out for Ithaka
hope the voyage is a long one,
full of discovery.
Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better it last for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.
And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experiences,
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.
I will open the series with MUNICH: The Price of Peace along with several other condensed reviews of books related to war and armed conflict. As for the remainder of the posts, dear reader, no spoiler alerts. In wrapping up the series, I will try to tie the various themes into a coherent overarching thesis of sorts. Hopefully, those of you who read on will draw your own conclusions, find your own strands, and weave them into a worthwhile tapestry. Even better, some of you might even go on to read some of the books, and if so, who knows what you may find?