film review: Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003)

Speaking of naval fiction and screen adaptations of naval fiction, like so many youthful fans of this genre I eventually ran out of Hornblower novels to read and moved on to other writers. Writers like Patrick O’Brian. I think most people would concede that C.S. Forester and O’Brian are the two giants of this genre. My admiration for O’Brian’s novels has caused me to avoid seeing the 2003 movie adaptation  of his work, on the assumption that a 21st century movie version would almost certainly be riddled with political correctness and would almost certainly miss the subtleties of the novels.

Now that I’ve finally seen Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World I have to confess that my fears were not really justified. It’s actually pretty good.

The problem with historical fiction, and historical movies, is that they almost always say more about the era in which they are produced than about the era in which they are set. This problem has always existed but has become steadily worse. Contemporary historical fiction and movies are populated entirely by 21st century characters wearing period costume. The beliefs, values, attitudes, opinions and prejudices of the characters reflect today’s world and appear so hopelessly anachronistic in historical films that such books and films become merely absurd. It is very difficult to avoid this trap.

Watching Master and Commander it’s obvious that screenwriters John Collee and Peter Weir have at least tried to avoid this pitfall. The characters do to a certain extent reflect the very different outlook and the very different values of the early 19th century. Captain Jack Aubrey is motivated by a sense of duty that would seem absurd in a character in a modern movie but it feels reasonably right for the period. His views are roughly what you expect from a British frigate captain in the middle of the Napoleonic Wars.

He is even allowed to give a little speech on the subject, and (even more surprisingly) on the subject of patriotism. Most surprising of all is that he is permitted to deliver the speech in a refreshingly non-ironic manner.

The great temptation would have been to make his friend naturalist/physician friend  Stephen Maturin into a proto-SJW. Mercifully this does not happen. Jack and Stephen disagree strongly on countless subjects but both men remain fairly plausible as men of their time. Stephen might be a religious sceptic but he deplores the egalitarianism of the French Revolution. He believes in social hierarchies.  Stephen likes to give the impression that he sees the Navy mostly as a way to pursue his interest in natural history but when push comes to shove and the survival of the ship is at stake he is more than willing to grab pistol and cutlass and indulge (with considerable enthusiasm) in hand-to-hand fighting.

This is certainly a magnificent looking film. It’s grungy enough to be convincing without overdoing it. The action scenes are great. As far as entertainment is concerned it scores very highly.

The biggest plus is Russell Crowe as Jack Aubrey. I’ve never had much time for Crowe as an actor but he’s superb here. Most crucially he plays Aubrey as a genuine hero. He’s not an anti-hero. He’s not a flawed and tortured hero. He’s the real deal.

There’s also a welcome lack of political correctness. It’s not that the film is politically incorrect – it simply ignores the existence of PC and gets on with the story. Of course you have to remember that it was made fifteen years ago and you probably wouldn’t get away with such a film today.

All in all Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is much much better than I’d expected.

It’s also interesting to compare it to the roughly contemporary Hornblower TV series.

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The never-ending Cold War

In Orwell’s 1984 Oceania is in a permanent state of war, either with Eurasia or Eastasia. The advantages of permanent war are obvious – it distracts people from the realities of economic stagnation and it’s a perfect justification for more and more political repression. In actual fact the endless wars are largely illusory. People see newsreels of epic battles but in reality these wars are mostly small-scale border skirmishes.

In other words it’s much like the Cold War – lots of fear-mongering but mostly fairly small-scale proxy wars.

In fact it’s pretty much like the world today. It seems like we can look forward to never-ending Cold Wars. It certainly seems that those who shape U.S. foreign policy are determined that there must always be a Cold War. It’s not just for the reasons outlined above. There are other even more compelling reasons to maintain a permanent state of Cold War. War is very profitable. It’s not profitable for everybody of course, but it’s profitable for the people who count. As far as those people are concerned the business of America is war.

The difficulty lies in justifying vast and completely unnecessary military expenditures for a country that has no actual viable enemies and doesn’t actually need to spend more than a token amount on defence. The solution is simple. If the U.S. doesn’t have enemies, make up some pretend enemies. In order to justify the massive spending they have to appear to be at least vaguely credible enemies. There are only two possible candidates, Russia and China. Therefore Oceania (the U.S. and its satellites) must be constantly at war with either Eurasia (Russia) or Eastasia (China).

But wars are messy things and don’t always turn out the way you’d hoped. Sometimes you even lose, as happened to the U.S. in Vietnam. So the best solution is permanent Cold War. It’s just as profitable but a lot safer.

There’s an even worse downside to fighting an actual war. What if you win and there’s no enemy left to fight? How do you continue to keep the money flowing to the military-industrial complex? That was the nightmare scenario facing the American defence establishment in 1945. With Germany and Japan totally defeated the U.S. no longer needed an enormous military. Fortunately an answer was found. The Cold War was like an answered prayer. Pretty soon the money was flowing again in a very satisfactory manner. The military-industrial complex has no intention of facing such a nightmare again so the new Cold War must never end.

It’s important to understand that it makes no difference who happens to be in government in Russia and China or what policies those nations pursue. The U.S. must have enemies, so therefore Russia and China must be those enemies.

It seems highly probable that the Russians are well aware of all this, and have come to the conclusion that there is absolutely no point in trying to negotiate with the Americans. The Americans will never negotiate in good faith. Therefore the permanent Cold War just has to be accepted.

There are certain advantages to this situation for both Russia and China. The biggest threats they face are the economic and cultural menace from the West, especially the cultural menace. If a Cold War encourages anti-American feeling it might provide some protection from the tidal wave of western degeneracy that threatens to engulf the entire planet. Cultural isolationism may well be the only hope for survival for both Russia and China.

could the British Empire have survived?

Historical might-have-beens are always fun. Of course they seem futile to many people, especially those who subscribe to either the Marxist or Whig views of history. Since I most emphatically do not subscribe to either of these views I can indulge myself in historical hypotheticals.

When you look at the mess we’re in now it seems obvious that at some point we must have reached a fork in the road and we must have taken the wrong fork. Speculating about hypotheticals can be a way to try to identify those forks in the road.

Britain at the start of the 20th century definitely faced a fork in the road. The British had two choices. They could maintain and defend their empire, or they could play the game of European great power politics. But they could not afford to do both. If they chose the empire that meant avoiding, as far as possible, any entanglement in Europe. It meant continuing the policy of Splendid Isolation that had served Britain so well in the past. If the British chose to play at being a European great power then sooner or later the empire would have to be sacrificed.

Faced with this choice between Europe and the Empire Britain chose Europe. With catastrophic consequences, but not just the immediately obvious ones of being dragged into the futile farce of the First World War. There were long-term consequences for the Empire, and especially for relations between Britain and the Dominions.

Australians for example up until 1914 considered themselves to be pretty much British. In theory Australia was semi-independent (it was not a fully independent country since it did not control its own foreign policy). Australians thought of themselves as being part of the British Empire and in general were fiercely loyal to the Empire.

That attitude took a bit of a knock during the First World War. The sheer scale of the bloodletting was a shock and then there was Gallipoli. Gallipoli was seen by many Australians (including my grandfather who was there) as the first great British betrayal.

Then came the Second World War and for Australians Singapore was a British betrayal on an even more spectacular scale than Gallipoli. That was the point at which Australians in general ceased to believe in the British Empire.

These betrayals were not really so much actual betrayals as simply consequences of the choice Britain made in signing the Entente Cordiale in 1904. Britain had chosen Europe and the Empire’s fate was sealed. Britain was utterly unable to defend the Empire due to her involvement in Europe.

If the Empire was ever going to have a future in the latter part of the 20th century it was going to have to be more an equal partnership, especially as far as the Dominions were concerned. The two world wars had made it painfully obvious that Britain had neither the capability nor the will to defend the Empire, so after that the Dominions had zero interest in the Empire.

Which was a problem for Britain because in the post-WW2 world Britain’s only hope of remaining an independent power lay in transforming the Empire into a geopolitical bloc that could rival the Soviet and American empires. The United States was of course, for that very reason, absolutely determined to destroy the British Empire. But there might still have been a chance for the Empire if the Dominions had still believed in it. But their trust and their confidence in the Empire had vanished. Which left only one alternative for Britain, being an American vassal. The choice made in 1904 was perhaps the most spectacularly wrong foreign policy decision in British history.

defending Australia

Amfortas made this observation in a comment to my previous post.

“I have always held the view that we should use it before we are in imminent danger of losing it. We have far too few to even defend ourselves.”

That was in fact the logic behind Australian immigration policy for several decades after 1945. It was the major driving force behind the enormous in take of migrants in that period. The lesson of the Second World War (and of European history over the course of the centuries) seemed to be that in order to defend itself a nation needed a large population. Countries with small populations like Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway and Denmark had been quickly overrun.

In 1945 it was a reasonable view.

Is it a reasonable view today? Would a population of 50 million, or even 100 million, make us more secure? The days when large numbers of men were needed as cannon fodder seem to be over. A larger population would theoretically mean a larger GDP which would of course theoretically allow us to buy more weapons, assuming that the population growth didn’t collapse our economy to Third World standards.

I’m inclined to think that we don’t need more defence spending. We need smarter defence spending. Why on earth did we buy M1A1 Abrams tanks? Are we going to refight the Western Desert campaigns of WW2? Is it really likely we’ll ever be fighting large conventional armoured battles on our own soil? If it ever got to the stage where we needed to do that we would already have lost. Our only chance of preventing an invasion by large conventional forces would be to stop them from landing. For that you need a credible navy and a credible air force. You don’t need tanks. But generals, like small boys, love the idea of playing with tanks.

We have an army that exists to fight as auxiliaries in someone else’s foreign military adventures.

We need a credible navy, and that means submarines. Nuclear submarines. As submariners like to say, there are only two kinds of ships – submarines and targets. What we have are a handful of submarines of dubious quality and lots of targets. In an actual shooting war with a real enemy how long would our frigates last? Half an hour? Of course you need frigates as escort vessels, except that we don’t have anything for them to escort.

If we scrapped the frigates and the tanks we could afford a dozen modern nuclear submarines which would be more than enough to deter any of our immediate neighbours. If you wish to deter attacks by major powers there is only one way to do that. You need a nuclear deterrent. If we spent our military budget wisely we could afford such a deterrent. Israel, with a third of Australia’s population, has a credible nuclear deterrent based to a large extent on submarine-launched cruise missiles.

We also have to consider the likely threats. Our immediate neighbours are not much danger. Indonesia’s army is intended for use against its own people, or for use against people who can’t fight back (like the West Papuans). Our only serious threat would be a major power. Russia has zero interest in our region. It’s hard to imagine India being a threat – they’re much too preoccupied with Pakistan and China. Japan is too preoccupied with China. That leaves China and the US. Only nukes would deter those powers.

We also need to consider that at the moment no-one regards us as a threat. An Australia with 100 million people would be a different proposition – we’d be a potential regional major power. If we went down the high population road we’d need a very serious military. If you’re going to put yourself forward as a major regional power you’d better be able to back up your pretensions with real military power.

Chamberlain and the Lost Peace

John Charmley’s Chamberlain and the Lost Peace was published in 1989 and makes a fine companion volume to his later Churchill: The End of Glory and Churchill’s Grand Alliance
Chamberlain and the Lost Peace is a bold reassessment of both Neville Chamberlain and his policy of appeasement, subjects which still lead to heated and acrimonious debates.
Charmley’s view is that Chamberlain was most certainly not a silly naïve old man nor was he soft. He was a hard-headed realist and he was tough and realistic. His realism was the key to his foreign policy. Chamberlain believed very strongly that Britain’s foreign policy had to be in harmony with its defence policy. A foreign policy based on the ability to intervene decisively in a continental war was obviously going to lead to disaster if the army that such intervention required did not exist. 
Even more importantly, defence policy had to be in harmony in economic policy. Economic realities determined defence policy. Britain simply could not afford to maintain a strong navy, a strong air force and a strong army. Something had to be sacrificed. Chamberlain believed that a strong navy and a strong air force were more important than a strong army and history proved him correct.
Even maintaining a strong navy and a strong air force was something that Britain could only afford in the short term. Ands there was the expense of maintaining the Empire.
Worst still, while Britain could with great difficulty support the cost of rearmament she could not actually afford to fight a war.
Chamberlain’s foreign policy was based on an acceptance of these realities, realities which contemporary critics like Eden and Churchill steadfastly refused to face (and most subsequent historians have also refused to accept these realities).
Since Britain could not afford an army that could intervene decisively in a continental war it naturally followed that a rational foreign policy had to be based on avoiding being entangled in such a war, and preferably had to be based on preventing such a war from happening. 
For Chamberlain foreign policy was not a matter of taking a moral stand, since taking a moral stand without having the force to back it up is not only futile, it does more harm than good. Chamberlain’s foreign policy objective was to build of Britain’s defences while doing everything possible to contain German expansionism. Since Britain lacked an army capable of intervening directly in central Europe this containment could only be achieved by diplomatic means. Chamberlain did not trust Hitler and he strongly disapproved of not only Hitler but dictators in general. On the other hand Chamberlain did not believe it was worth starting a catastrophic war, with no guarantee of victory, in circumstances in which Britain could provide no actual assistance to threatened nations such as Czechoslovakia and Poland.
Critics of Chamberlain often underestimate the full extent of his difficulties. He was somewhat sceptical of the extent to which the French could be relied upon (and he was obviously correct on that score), he was extremely sceptical of the possibility of any meaningful help from the United States and he was absolutely sure he could not trust Stalin. That left Britain with few options.
Given the reality of the situation in 1938 Chamberlain’s policy was not merely reasonable, it was the only sensible policy that Britain could pursue.
So why did Chamberlain’s policy fail to avert war? The answer to that is that by early 1939 Chamberlain was no longer a free agent. He was under extreme political pressure to abandon appeasement and adopt a more aggressive policy and his own Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, was determined to take a strong stand by offering a guarantee to Poland. Chamberlain, despite grave misgivings, felt that he had little choice other than to agree. Had he stuck to his policy of appeasement war might well have been avoided.
The insane decision to offer a unilateral guarantee to Poland was prompted to a large extent by a flood of wild and baseless rumours and hopelessly incorrect (and in many cases deliberately misleading) intelligence reports. The Second World War would not be the last war to be brought about by erroneous intelligence reports. The Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, unfortunately took the wildest of these rumours at face value. War becomes inevitable once people believe that it is inevitable. Britain blundered into war in 1939 as she had blundered into war in 1914.
Of course it goes without saying that support for the policy of appeasement did not and does not imply support for Hitler. Chamberlain detested Hitler and the Nazis, and he was well aware of the nature of Hitler’s regime. The fact that an historian believes that on balance appeasement was the most sensible of the limited options available to Britain also does not imply any kind of sympathy for the Nazis or any naïvete on the subject. Sometimes there are no good foreign policy options so one must settle for the least worst option.
Charmley is always provocative and always worth reading. Chamberlain and the Lost Peace is highly recommended.

Churchill’s Grand Alliance

John Charmley’s 1995 book Churchill’s Grand Alliance: The Anglo-American Special Relationship 1940-57 is part of a kind of trilogy dealing with the period from the late 30s to the late 50s. In this case the cut-off date is very significant – 1957 marking the end of British foreign policy as a truly independent nation.
As Charmley sees it the problem with the wartime alliance between the “Big Three” – Britain, the Soviet Union and the United States – was that the British government (and Churchill in particular) failed to understand that these three great powers not only had few interests in common, their interests were in fact fundamentally in conflict. Churchill clung to the belief that this would somehow all resolve itself once Hitler was beaten. Churchill also clung to the belief that by establishing a personal relationship between himself and Stalin and between himself and Roosevelt British interests could be protected. By early 1945 he knew he had miscalculated in regard to Stalin but he was never able to comprehend that US interests were in many respects diametrically opposed to Britain’s. He also failed to understand the depth of American hostility towards the British Empire.
In the postwar period the Cold War initially seemed like a godsend – surely this would bring the US and Britain closer together. The problem here was that the Cold War became an obsession for the US while Britain had other vital interests totally unconnected with that conflict. For Britain the Empire was an economic necessity. For the US the British Empire was a relic of the bad old days and an obstacle the new world order they hoped to create, a new world order that would coincidentally be entirely in the interests of the United States.
The British Empire was also an obstacle to one of the centrepieces of American postwar grand strategy – the unification of Europe. The US believed that European unification would not be viable without Britain but the problem was that as long as Britain had her Empire she not only had no need to join a European federation – it would be against Britain’s interests to do so. Coincidentally European unification would be very much in the interests of the US in the context of the Cold War – whether it would actually be in the interests of Europe was not a consideration.
The Middle East was where the Anglo-American Special Relationship really caused trouble. Britain had very vital economic interests indeed in this region. The US felt that the best solution was for American influence to displace British influence in the region. As Charmley points out there was nothing morally reprehensible about the US ruthlessly pursuing its own interests. The problem was that the British were living in a fantasy world in which they thought that if they supported the US where US interests were at stake (such as the Korean War and Central America) then the US would support Britain where British interests were at stake. 
The crisis came in 1956 over Nasser’s seizure of the Suez Canal. This being of absolutely crucial importance to Britain the British Prime Minister, Anthony Eden, assumed that the US would support the British and French use of force to reverse Nasser’s action. After all Britain and France were independent nations with a right to protect their interests. He was wrong. The US responded by trying to wreck the British economy. Eden’s successor, Harold Macmillan, would not make the mistake of thinking Britain had the right to an independent foreign policy.
One of the more interesting aspects of the book is Charmley’s reassessment of Sir Anthony Eden. Eden emerges as the last British Foreign Secretary, and the last British Prime Minister, to believe that Britain both should and could pursue an independent foreign policy. Eden was always remarkably consistent in this respect. He had ruffled feathers during the war for his conciliatory approach to the Soviet Union. Eden was in fact merely being brutally realistic. The war was clearly going to end with the Soviet Union in possession of large chunks of eastern Europe. Making an issue of this was simply futile. The Soviet Union, of which he heartily disapproved, was a reality. The best course of action was to accept reality and try to establish sensible relations with Stalin. 
Eden’s attempt to pursue an independent foreign policy failed but this does not necessarily mean it was a bad idea.
Charmley also has interesting things to say about colonialism. He does not accept that the dissolution of the Empire was inevitable. The Empire was not going to go on indefinitely in its existing form but then the British government had recognised that in the 30s.The hope was that it could be transformed into something based on co-operation and common interests rather than direct rule, something that would satisfy nationalist aspirations and be of benefit to all parties. The war, and fierce US opposition, put paid to such ideas. This may in retrospect have been a tragedy.
As always Charmley is provocative and fascinating. Highly recommended.

Churchill: The End of Glory

There have been many attempts to demolish the Churchill Myth. John Charmley’s Churchill: The End of Glory is one of the most thorough, and most devastating. Of course, as Charmley admits, once a myth establishes itself no amount of rational argument has any effect.
Charmley describes his book as a political biography and that is what it is. Churchill’s private life is only touched on insofar as it is relevant to his political career. Churchill’s personality on the other hand is very relevant indeed and Charmley has much to say on that subject.
Throughout his career Churchill was dogged by suspicions of disloyalty and treachery. He did after all change parties twice and he was never trusted by his parliamentary colleagues. Charmley however makes it clear that such accusations are unjust. Winston Churchill was a man whose views on most subjects were formed very early in his life and he was remarkably consistent in adhering to his views. When the Conservative Party abandoned free trade (something in which Churchill believed passionately) Churchill abandoned the Party rather than change his views. His abandonment of the Liberals in 1924 can hardly be seen as treachery – the Liberal Party had simply ceased to exist as a viable force in British politics. It was not really a matter of deserting a sinking ship – the ship had already sunk. 
Churchill in fact was never truly either a Conservative or a Liberal. He had a distaste for party politics and he never even pretended to be a loyal party man. He was happiest when serving in coalition governments. He was, if such a thing could exist, a liberal conservative. His belief in social reform was perfectly sincere. In this he was motivated partly by a conviction that the only way of saving the traditional Britain in which he grew up was by giving those at the bottom of the heap a much better deal. He was also, to do him justice, genuinely shocked by the condition of the poor in late Victorian Britain. It might in fact be more accurate to describe Churchill as a liberal reactionary.
Churchill also believed just as strongly that Britain could and should continue to play the part of a Great Power and that the Empire could and should be preserved. 
The difficulty, as Charmley makes clear, was that by the twentieth century Britain simply could not afford to remain a Great Power and maintain the Empire and embark on ambitious social reform. It was doubtful if the country could afford to do even two of these things; doing all three was out of the question. This was something that Churchill was never able to understand or accept.
Churchill’s greatest flaw was unquestionably his belief in his own military genius. Having been a humble Second Lieutenant in the 4th Hussars and having participated in a minor colonial campaign on the Northwest Frontier in 1895 had convinced him that he knew more about military strategy than any general. Having been appointed First Lord of the Admiralty he assumed that this was enough to transform him into an expert on naval strategy as well.
His unshakeable belief in his genius led him, and the nation, into one disaster after another. Lord Nelson had famously expressed the very firm view that ships cannot fight forts but after all what did Lord Nelson know about naval tactics? Winston Churchill knew better and the catastrophic attempt to force the Dardanelles in 1915 was the result. This ill-judged operation was typical of all of Churchill’s forays into the realm of strategy. He would come up with a hare-brained scheme and then convince himself that success was certain and that enormous advantages would be gained. Wiser heads would point out the folly of the operation and Churchill would ignore them and then use his considerable powers of persuasion to get the plan approved. And, invariably, the plan would end in utter disaster. Norway in 1940 was another superb example although ironically it was not Churchill’s career that was ended as a result but Neville Chamberlain’s. The British intervention in the Greek campaign in 1941 was yet another prime example.
Churchill’s ineptitude as a strategist was bad enough but even worse was his inability to foresee inevitable consequences at the level of grand strategy. Charmley makes it clear that Churchill’s reputation as the man of the hour in 1940 was deserved but sees his conduct of the war thereafter as disastrous as he had no actual war aims. Wars are fought to achieve political objectives. Without clear and achievable political objectives war is merely a futile waste of lives. Churchill thought that defeating Hitler was a sufficient objective and had no clear idea whatsoever of what should happen next. Unfortunately both Stalin and Roosevelt had very clear and very definite ideas about what should happen next and neither had the slightest concern if their aims happened to be very disadvantageous indeed for Britain. Britain ended up fighting a war that served the interests of other nations without in any way serving Britain’s interests.
By February 1945 Churchill had realised his mistake and had recognised the danger posed by the soviet Union. Unfortunately after three-and-a-half years of appeasing Stalin this sudden volte-face was too little too late.
Churchill was a monstrous egotist with immense ambition but he was by no means a bad or malicious man. He was in his own way an idealist and no-one has ever desired more ardently to serve his country. Sadly the verdict that so many of his contemporaries had delivered upon him, that he was a man of vast talent and extraordinarily poor judgment, proved to be all too accurate.
Charmley does not set out to execute a mere hatchet job. He finds much to admire in Churchill. Churchill’s strengths and his weaknesses were both on an epic scale. The tragedy is that the weaknesses led to his ultimate failure and led to precisely the consequences that he was so anxious to avoid – the loss of the Empire, the reduction of Britain to the status of a third-rate power, the growth of class bitterness and resentment and the loss of the nation’s belief in itself.
Whether you agree or disagree with Charmley’s conclusions Churchill: The End of Glory is essential reading. Highly recommended.