Book Review: War, An Enquiry by AC Grayling

Back in the mid-1980s, (the time of the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, deployment of cruise and Pershing missiles and the SS21 and Reagan’s “Evil Empire speech” there was a group called Frakie Goes to Hollywood which had a hit with a song which opened “War. What is it good for? Absolutely nothing!” Seven words which made a point with admirable clarity, albeit the argument was a bit skimpy.

Three decades later A C Grayling has emerged from St Anne’s College, Oxford and published this tome which pretty much asks the same question, but then has 200 pages of analysis before reaching a similar conclusion to the Frankies. The approach is of course much more serious and opens with the obvious questions of how and why wars start, whether they can be ethically justified and whether they should be ethically fought.

The introduction then seeks to set the terms of the enquiry, and this is perhaps where the trouble begins. In the preface the author makes is clear that he abhors war as a concept, which is of course his right, but it does mean that the enquiry is somewhat biased.
His general presumption that war represents failure of diplomacy, and therefore is failure is facile and wrong. Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and indeed Hitler’s of the Sudetenland and the Anschluss with Austria were resounding success, achieving what diplomacy could not deliver. William the Bastard’s trip to Hastings in 1066 turned out pretty well for the Normans too. So I’m afraid I took against the argument by about page 10.

The book is divided into three parts. The first is a necessarily glib canter through the history of warfare form 10,000 BC to the modern day. The author picks examples to suit his supposition and gets very tangled in Clausewitz and Dohet while skipping Sun Tzu and Machiavelli. It then moves on to the causes and effects of war, which he concludes is often worse for non-combatant women than for combatant (male) soldiers. He offers no data and no discussion of (the admittedly appalling question) whether being raped is “worse” than being killed in close combat on the Eastern Front.

The final part covers the ethics and law of war and again, this gets very convoluted. While the development of western ethics is discussed in detail, he never addresses the core question of whether it is sensible to seek to apply rational analysis to the often irrational environment of the battlefield. He then concludes that the solution to war is greater international “friendship”, abhors the nation state, falls into the trap of citing the EU as the preventer of war in Western Europe since 1945 – not even a nod to NATO or Mutually Assured Destruction –  and concludes that the UN needs to work better.  Hardly original.

This book fails completely in making its case. However, it is not a wasted read as it demonstrates the abject failure of intellectual ethicists to produce coherent thinking on war, international relations and pretty much anything else. A better book would start with the pragmatic observation that wars occur despite the best endeavours of the intellectual elite and ask why that is.

This is a facile tome.  But it is worth reading for the insight of the utter vacuousness of those who purport to be “progressive intellectuals”, a term that is oxymoronic.

For Once the MOD is Right (and the Lawyers are wrong again)

Oh dear. The legal profession is having a bad run of luck with the MOD, which has announced plans to remove the right of soldiers to sue it for negligence. Instead it will return to paying compensation on a no-fault basis.

While the lawyers complain vociferously about infringement of rights, a quick study of history and the facts means that, for once, the MOD has got it right.  Before the repeal of the Crown Immunity all soldiers got fixed rates of compensation for injuries; £x for a leg, £y for a finger etc.  The compensation was produced quickly, with no real fuss and no protracted legal wrangling.  And no legal costs.  Continue reading For Once the MOD is Right (and the Lawyers are wrong again)

The MOD’s Iraq Problems Show the Weakness of UK Government.

Ex Army MP Johnny Mercer’s inquiry into the operation of the Iraq Historic Allegations Team (IHAT) will recommend that it be shut down. Right answer, but way too late.

IHAT was set up to establish to investigate allegations of mistreatment of Iraqis by the British Army following the invasion of Iraq.  The MOD, which funds it, claims that it was compelled to set it up as it was independent of the British Army; the concern was that otherwise the UK might find itself as a defendant in the International Criminal Court.  There were concerns that, following the death in British Army custody of Baha Mousa in 2003, the British Army was insufficiently impartial to investigate such matters – although in fact the perpetrator was identified, convicted and imprisoned. Continue reading The MOD’s Iraq Problems Show the Weakness of UK Government.

The Supreme Court ruling changes nothing. It’s time for Theresa May to extract her digit…

To the surprise of few, the Supreme Court has upheld the High Court’s ruling that a Parliamentary vote is required to trigger Brexit.  While many will lambaste the court, the essence of the matter was that leaving the EU does affect the rights of UK citizens (e.g. rights to move, work and reside in the EU) and thus could not be done under Crown Prerogative (essentially a Prime Minister’s whim). I am happy to live in a country where this challenge was possible and where it was upheld.

Continue reading The Supreme Court ruling changes nothing. It’s time for Theresa May to extract her digit…

Risky Business by Jamie MacAlister

This book, written by a teacher at Hult International Business School and Ashridge Executive Education, seeks to identify how senior executives should develop a corporate strategy to deal with risk. So far, so worthy.

The first problem is to embrace what constitutes a corporate strategy. While the purpose of companies is pretty clear (to increase shareholder wealth), how to go about this is less so. For small businesses and many not so small businesses it is simple – sell more stuff to more customers, ideally at an increased margin. Achieving this can be very demanding, but that is the realm of tactics not strategy. Larger businesses, probably dealing with multiple products in multiple markets, must decide whether to invest and, if so, where. That decision is broadly called strategy and that is where this book is aimed.

The second thread, risk, is intended to be part of this. Clearly corporations that take a long time to develop strategy face the problem of the market places moving during their consideration of options, rendering the underlying assumptions questionable. Overlaid upon this are the risks of singular events, be they catastrophes, emergence of new technologies or loss of key contracts which again can dramatically alter the market.

Unfortunately for the reader the book never really pins down definitions of either. Instead it cites the hoary old chestnuts of Apple (Steve Jobs is a saint according to some business gurus), Proctor and Gamble (a company so large that it can borrow cheaper than most governments, and as such far from typical of the companies that most will work in), the inevitable bit of Sun Tzu and Clausewitz (taken out of context) and Napoleon.

To this the author adds a trite classification of business leaders into “tigers” or “elephants.” He goes on to develop a psychometric classification process that is as rich in catch phrases and jargon as it is devoid of insight, unless you consider sentences like “Good strategy means being choiceful about taking risk – its about taking the right risk” as anything more than a badly written statement of the obvious. (No, “choiceful” is not a word in my spell checker or any dictionary that I can find). And so it goes on. And on. And on.

The text is peppered with quotes from other business authors (many of them also from Ashbridge) which lead the author to also develop a theory of Creative Juxtaposition, whatever that means. Almost all the case studies I had read before, in more depth and with better explanatory context. Jargon aside, there is nothing new in this book, as the author actually admits in the penultimate paragraph. The cobbling together of other people’s ideas is neither compelling, necessary nor instructive. If this book is representative of Ashbridge – and that seems to be the intent – then it’s a spectacular own goal.

On the ARRSE site (where this review first appeared – it is reposted here with their kind permission) i had to rate it 1/5 as ARRSE has no facility for giving a rating lower than that.  On this blog there is no such problem.  It scores a big fat zero.

The Only Rule of War is Don’t Come Second

From my TCW column:

It has been announced that (ex-Sergeant) Alexander Blackman’s conviction for the murder of an Afghan prisoner of war is to be reconsidered. This is a good decision, but there is a wider question that needs addressing.

Continue reading The Only Rule of War is Don’t Come Second

The thoughts, rants, insights and dissertations of a British man in his fifties.

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