Churchill and War
By Geoffrey Best
Palgrave, 353 pp., illustrated, $29.95
There were dualities in Winston Churchill, as there are in almost every human being. He was a warrior, and a peacemaker. A warrior -- but a militarist not at all. A peacemaker -- but a pacifist never. He had a very brief early career as a soldier, but even then he knew (and made it known to others) that he wished for a political, not a military, career. He knew much, very much about war, and yet, even when a leader in war, he was an amateur. He had plenty of trouble with politicians who were opposed to him; he also had plenty of trouble with generals and admirals who were loath to follow him. He proposed and, on occasion, engaged himself in the military operations that ended badly, yet there were other times when he was right and his generals were wrong. In 1914 he looked forward to war because he was a romantic and full of excitement; in 1939 he argued for war with very different purposes in mind: He thought there was no other option to stop Hitler.
His interest in and inspiration for war were due less to his early soldiering experiences than to his reading (and understanding) of history. When a subaltern in India, not yet 22 years old, between (and sometimes instead of) parades and polo, he read and devoured Gibbon and Macaulay. He would, I think, have dismissed the famous maxim of Clausewitz (whom he may not have read) that war is but the continuation of politics with other means, as a cliché and a truism; but he disagreed with the other German tendency to regard politics as a continuation of war with other means. Toward the end of his life he turned against the prospect of a nuclear war with horror, which was more than the peaceful turn of mind of an old man.
Geoffrey Best carries the long history of ''Churchill and War" through the 60 years of Churchill's active life. There were his few early years at the military academy in Sandhurst, his years on the Indian frontier and in South Africa, and the many things he wrote about them. But then, well before the age of 30, he decided to enter on a political career, which would last 55 years, with its many ups and many downs. All through those years his plans and advocacies and directives of war issued not from the rigid mind of a martinet; to the contrary, his views of what war would (or could not) achieve were the results of a large-mindedness, towering over most of his political colleagues. He had no naval training or experience at all, yet, as First Lord of the Admiralty, he was responsible for getting the British Navy wholly ready in July 1914. Then came his excited proposition to command a small military force at Antwerp, Belgium, in October 1914 and his planning and directives for the Dardanelles breakthrough six months later. Both of these were failures, leading directly to his political downfall, and thereafter to -- not unreasonably -- doubts about his reputation.
Then, despite everything, in the Second World War he rose to become prime minister, and soon after that to become the savior of Britain. From the early summer of 1940 onward, Churchill had unparalleled powers in directing Britain in the war -- and for some years influencing the conduct of that giant war across the world. He was, perhaps more than often, right rather than wrong. But by late 1943 his strategic vision was overshadowed by the powers possessed by Franklin Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin. I also suspect -- and Best might not agree -- that now he wished to try to reduce British losses as much as possible. He was worried about the prospects of D-Day; impressed by the enduring power of the Germans, he feared that even after a successful landing, tremendous struggles might set in on the Western Front, repeating the awful bloodletting of the First World War. That did not happen; he was relieved; but then he had many other grave concerns about the final results of war.
Best's architecture of ''Churchill and War" very properly rests on the huge architrave of the Second World War, to which are dedicated six or seven of its 16 chapters. They include a serious account and discussion of something for which Churchill has been attacked often, especially in Germany: his insistence on the bombing of German cities, to render them uninhabitable. The argument that this was not merely the result of a single-minded hatred but of more complex purposes is one of the merits of this book; so are Best's overall essay-like chapters ''The Conduct of War" and ''Strategy." Toward the end of this book Best describes and emphasizes Churchill's refusal of an atomic war, though in my opinion he does not emphasize enough the rigid and sometimes brutal ways in which John Foster Dulles and Dwight Eisenhower refused even to listen to the aged Churchill's propositions to attempt some kind of negotiation with the Russian leadership after Stalin's death.
Best ends his preface with the following words: ''A much longer book than mine could certainly be written on Churchill and war. I hope to live to see it." Many longer books have been written about Churchill than Best's 2002 book, ''Churchill: A Study in Greatness," but among so many hundreds it is among the very best. His kind of modesty is as unwarranted as it is engaging.
John Lukacs has written many books, including ''Democracy and Populism: Fear and Hatred," published last year by Yale University Press.