A Fool’s Errand
Stephen Rookes, The CIA and British Mercenaries in Angola, 1975-1976 (Helion, 2021)
The latest magazine style book from Helion’s Africa @ War series concerns western efforts to influence the Angolan Civil War. The plan was to impose a regime that favoured the United States of America through a massive injection of resources and money to two pro-western factions. But as Rookes demonstrates, plans are one thing, successful execution quite another.
Rookes begins his story with a very useful background introduction to Angola, one of the more complex nations in southern Africa. Portugal’s empire began to crumble in the wake of WWII under the pressure of nationalist movements that swept the European colonial world. In the 1960s, Angola became a hotbed of unrest, then civil war broke out as independence loomed in the wake of Portugal’s Carnation Revolution in 1974. The three major factions contesting Angola’s future would divide down ideological lines amidst the tensions of the Cold War; the Soviets and Cuba backing the MPLA: the US and South Africans supporting UNITA and the FNLA.
Enter the Americans. They became involved in Angola through the Truman Doctrine of blocking communism wherever it appeared. Rookes gets into the weeds on the background of American intervention leading to Operation IA/Feature; the supplying of equipment and arms to the FNLA and UNITA through Zaire with combat operations assistance from South Africa. Then came the mercenaries from Portugal, Britain, France, and the US. Many were recruited by the CIA, and they included the notorious ‘Colonel’ Callan. Though Rookes notes that the number of mercenaries numbered in the hundreds rather than the thousands, the Cubans in Angola vastly outnumbered them, and it was the mercenaries’ defeat that led to the closure of Operation IA/Feature; the end of the war soon followed. Rookes closes with the Luanda trial of thirteen mercenaries, four of whom, including Callan, were executed. Rookes concludes with the observation that the CIA had misplaced its confidence in interfering in Angola after its success in the Congo. A list of mercenaries and a solid bibliography complete Rookes’ book.
These Helion magazine style books never fail to pleasantly surprise. They look like there is nothing to them, but this one is a fine example of a text packed with information with enough room for colour plates of aircraft, vehicles, and uniforms. Rookes gets side-tracked at times, and he wrestles with some sketchy sources, as might be expected given the subject, but I still came away from his book much better informed than I was going in, and you can’t ask for much more than that. Any reader of modern military history, especially for Africa, will want to add this to their bookshelves.
A Fool’s Errand
Ben Norman, A History of Death in 17th Century England (Pen & Sword, 2020)
Ben Norman notes that the shadow of death loomed over the 17th Century English in ways that are unthinkable now. In this book, he sets out on an often gruesome journey to demonstrate his point.
Norman begins with natural death, which seems innocuous enough, but the grim fact is that the dance with death began at birth with high mortality rates that extended through childhood. Reaching adulthood was no picnic either, with life expectancy around 40 years old. Outbreaks of plague or smallpox didn’t help. War leads off Norman’s survey of unnatural deaths. The mid-century civil wars accounted for much of those, with disease outstripping combat in the death stakes, but other wars caused significant casualties too. Homicide rates declined in the 17th Century, but it was a risk for all age groups. Norman also notes death by dueling. Judicial death follows death by crime in Norman’s list, though he comments that executions were rarer than is commonly believed. They were still gruesome, however, including burning women and the notorious hanging, drawing, and quartering.
The rituals surrounding death occupy Norman’s next chapters, starting with the deathbed where the doomed said their farewells and made their peace with their god. They then became a corpse subject to autopsy and a funeral. The latter differed greatly in ceremony between the nobility and the common folk. The lavishness of that ritual increased exponentially for royalty, notes Norman, with the perhaps obvious exceptions of the beheaded Charles I and, perhaps strangely, his son Charles II who was buried in private. Some burials did not fit the mould, such as mass graves for plague and battles, and the religiously unmentionable suicides. After the rituals came memorials with again wide divergence between rich and poor. Norman concludes by highlighting how many 17th Century innovations in death rituals remain with us while causes of death have changed considerably.
This is Ben Norman’s first book, and it is quite a treat for 17th Century social history readers, if a macabre one at times. It is very much an evidence driven book, full of examples; although by the very nature of that evidence, the survey leans towards the affluent classes. Norman also has the curious habit of summarizing his contemporary quotes. Nevertheless, this is an informative and enjoyable read, if that is the right word for a book about death.
Kevin F. Kiley, Artillery of the Napoleonic Wars (Frontline, 2021)
There are many books on Napoleonic warfare that contain sections on the artillery, but they never seem to answer all the questions I have. I can now stop fretting because Kevin Kiley has written a dictionary for Napoleonic artillery that is more than just a reference book. As a bonus, he adds the closely-related branch of engineering into the mix.
Kiley’s vignette of Napoleon’s famous ‘whiff of grapeshot’ action in the streets of Paris in 1795 opens out into the dictionary of terms, beginning with abattage des bois, and ending at Zeughaus well over 500 pages later. Along the way, Kiley presents biographies of notable artillerymen, technical details of guns, descriptions of artillery systems, tactics, crew procedures, uniforms (many of them portrayed in a series of colour plates), and a myriad of detail and anecdotes. That makes this a book well worth reading not just to keep on your desk to answer those awkward questions that arise when reading those other books.
Kiley concludes with an epilogue, placing artillery in its new context. He may overplay his hand here on the battlefield effects of the guns, but there is no doubting that Napoleonic warfare ushered in a new era of artillery warfare. Kiley even has some space to include appendices of technical information that will keep the diehard ‘artillerist’ readers happy. If you have more than a passing interest in Napoleonic warfare, then this will be worth every penny of your investment.
Charles D. Melson, Fighting for Time: Rhodesia’s Military and Zimbabwe’s Independence, (Casemate, 2021)
With this book, Charles D. Melson has set out to analyse the changing response of Rhodesia’s military apparatus as it pivoted from a set up directed towards conventional warfare to one involved in special operations in the counter-insurgency role. The book is very firmly positioned in the academic sphere and the analysis very much forms part of this approach. It very clearly states at the beginning that the military aspects will be examined in a silo form; outside influences are not considered other than when they specifically impact the military. Coming in at 316 pages it has the main text plus appendices, extensive bibliography, and the always welcome index.
The book begins with a nice potted history to set the scene and discusses the various weapons the Rhodesians had at their disposal (and would have). There is an odd affectation in describing the speeds of aircraft in miles per minute rather than per hour, but otherwise you get a nice overview of the various pieces of equipment and their abilities. Appendix 2 is a really useful explanation of acronyms, slang, and other terms.
This is not an easy book to read; surprisingly, given its subject matter, it lacks a story. The writing is accomplished but is lacking in some drama and connectivity. The main issue with the analysis is it doesn’t really deal with the transition it purports to be about. You move from the background at the declaration of independence into the operations during the insurgency and then independence is dealt with in a paragraph. That the book ignores anything outside the military sphere, except when it benefits the military, means a lot of the context is glossed over, as are the instances where the military overstepped the mark.
Even after completing the book, I am uncertain what the conclusion really is or what the purpose was. It doesn’t really describe the tactics, operations, or methodology even when dealing with specific operations. At all points you feel like you are missing something, and it has the feel of a first draft in many places. There is something to be said for being objective, but when that is at the expense of having tunnel vision you are doing all sides a disservice. It is a book with some interesting snippets and a reasonable collection of actions fought across the various borders of Rhodesia. It is not the book to read if you want to know more about the combatants or how Zimbabwe finally achieved independence from Smith’s racist regime.
Review by Dom Sore
Stephen Conway, The British Army 1714-1783 (Pen & Sword, 2021)
Have you ever wondered what life was like in the pre-Napoleonic British Army? If you thought it was a bleak, dreary existence under the cosh of stern discipline, then you are in for quite a surprise. In The British Army 1714-1783, Stephen Conway digs into the social world of the army to create an institutional history treating it as a living organism, which goes beyond its organization and operational function to reveal a distinct but in many ways familiar community.
A survey of the political and social background in which the army operated leads into Conway’s survey. This was an army under civic control, with some exceptions in times of crisis. They were also disliked and feared in many parts of the British Isles, though not as universally as some suggest. Conway then fills in the army’s organizational and operational history where we find that the size of the army fluctuated in peace and war, but never came near to the establishment of mainland European powers. It also became an instrument of Empire, but despite that, argues Conway, the British Army was a European institution. With his framework constructed, Conway takes us into the social history of the army.
Conway covers the cycle of soldiering in the British Army, from recruitment to retirement, in a series of thematic chapters. He recognizes that establishing motive is a difficult task, but his management of the evidence is first-rate, as it is throughout the book. Conway next considers the army as a collection of communities, which again reflected those in Europe more or less. What life was like in the army comes under Conway’s scrutiny; officers wanted promotion, everyone wanted paid, fed, and ‘watered’ with alcohol. They also had to face death in combat and from disease. Conway muses on why soldiers took orders, and he stresses the effects of the moral economy and negotiated authority over fear-filled obedience. Civilian women in war zones had good cause to fear British soldiers, argues Conway, but women also served in important roles for the army at home and on campaign. Conway finishes appropriately with soldiers and officers leaving the service by various means, legal and illegal, and how those experiences differed along class lines.
This book on the British army in the 18th Century is quite short at 151 pages, but it touches all the bases to give a full picture of service life. Conway also adds an outstanding annotated Further Reading section for deeper study. While he takes a thematic approach to his subject, Conway rarely strays into dry and dusty territory, keeping his text flowing with clear exposition and engaging anecdotes. The result is an informative and enjoyable read, perfect for anyone interested in this period and the place of the army in it.