- - Wednesday, October 30, 2013

By Michael Burleigh
Viking, $36, 587 pages

In the decades after World War II, much of the world feared a calamitous nuclear confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union. Ultimately, the Cold War remained cold, and the peace was disturbed primarily by a succession of brush-fire wars that often were irrelevant to the superpowers’ rivalry.

Michael Burleigh, a Briton who has written extensively about war in the 20th century, takes the reader on a tour of conflicts ranging in size from the Huk uprising in the Philippines to the Korean War. He faults the United States for inept diplomacy, charging that “Truman, Marshall and Acheson lumped the Chinese Communists, North Koreans, Huks and Viet Minh into one Soviet-inspired global conspiracy.”

The total number of casualties in Mr. Burleigh’s wars was sometimes small. The author notes that fewer Europeans were killed by terrorists during the emergency in 1950s Kenya than died in traffic accidents there. Yet Mr. Burleigh’s little wars could be as bloody as any campaign of World War II. In Algeria, Muslim terrorists cut the throats of any Algerians “who served [France], drank alcohol or smoked.”

Insurgent leaders often sprang from their country’s elite, but their followers came from among the marginalized. The sources of discontent were many and varied. Communist ideology played a role in most of the conflicts considered by Mr. Burleigh, but it was not necessarily the prime motivator. Often the prime motive was a thirst for land.

Success against guerrillas depended on a variety of factors. Perhaps the most successful counterinsurgency was that conducted by the British in Malaya in the 1950s, where conditions were uniquely favorable. The insurgents were ethnic Chinese, a group distrusted by native Malays and geographically isolated from outside aid. In the end, more than 400,000 ethnic Chinese were transferred to concentration camps and thus isolated from the Malay population.

The campaign against Huk guerrillas in the Philippines succeeded for similar reasons. The insurgents were confined to the southern islands, and because the United States had granted independence to the Philippines, the insurgents never gained traction politically. In Mr. Burleigh’s words, “the Huks were primarily motivated by a ‘Red Christ’ vision of social justice” and a visceral hatred of landowners.

The most complex insurgency that the author considers is the campaign to expel France from Algeria. There, the French had to deal not only with the largely sectarian independence movement, but also with the fierce determination on the part of European settlers that Algeria must remain part of France. The Algerians, though beset with factionalism, made good use of sanctuaries in Morocco and Tunisia. In the end, it was Charles de Gaulle who gave in.

In Vietnam as in Algeria, the French fought a losing battle against a determined foe that made extensive use of border sanctuaries. Moreover, the Vietnamese communists were recipients of aid from China and Russia. The French were undaunted. The author quotes Gen. Henri Navarre as telling his staff, “Victory is a woman. She does not give herself except to those who know how to take her.” But victory’s charms eluded the French, whose tactics against the Viet Minh differed little from those employed against the Germans in 1940.

Mr. Burleigh is more kindly disposed toward British colonialism than that of the French, the Dutch or the Japanese. He notes approvingly that Sir Gerald Templer was the first high commissioner to Malaya “to shake hands with his own domestic servants, with whom he also danced the conga on special occasions.”

Although Mr. Burleigh devotes little space to Japan as an occupying power, its role was crucial. On one hand, the Japanese conquest of Malaya and Singapore early in the war laid to rest any assumption of Western racial superiority. On the other hand, the brutal behavior of the Japanese toward fellow Asians destroyed any ambitions the Japanese may have had toward regional political leadership.

Mr. Burleigh writes with engaging wit, but rarely analyzes his complex insurgencies in depth. Had he chosen fewer subjects, he might have demonstrated the same insight as he brought to his earlier “The Third Reich.” Instead, Winston Churchill might have said of the current volume, “This pudding has no theme.”

Biographer and historian John M. Taylor lives in McLean.

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