Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Bright Eyes of Danger: An Account of the Anglo-Sikh Wars 1845-1849 - Bill Whitburn

Title: Bright Eyes of Danger: An Account of the Anglo-Sikh Wars 1845-1849
Author: Bill Whitburn
ISBN: 978-1-909982-21-5
Publisher: Helion
Year: 2015
Pages: 327
Photographs/maps: 100/10

This book is a tale of internal strife amongst the Sikh population fed by greed, ambition, nationalism and duplicity and a mixture of international concern and jingoism on the part of the British. Its many actors include Afghans, foreign mercenaries from such diverse places as France and the United States, Honourable East India Company (HEIC) company soldiers and British Line Units as well as a host of individuals that were appearing on the international stage for the first time and who would go on to cement their reputations as house hold names during the Mutiny.

Whitburn’s book covers the international and local situation leading up to the wars, a comprehensive analysis of the two wars themselves and the immediate and long term effects of the conflicts. It would have been beneficial to have had a synopsis of the main characters at the front of the book (he does do this for local terminology and acronyms) as the rogues gallery is extensive and confusing. Nevertheless, he has a good eye for detail and has obviously done his research into not only the battles themselves but also the behind the scenes machinations between the British government and the HEIC. It is shocking the degree to which incompetence was tolerated by the British in their senior commanders and the sense that war was seen much more as ‘sport’ as opposed to a deadly business. It was also very noteworthy to read of the professionalism and competence of the Sikh army commanders and the degree of respect that built up between the adversaries. One is additionally struck by the endurance and capacity of the soldiers themselves to overcome deprivation and fatigue in the execution of their duties.

Notwithstanding the emphasis on the combat operations of the wars, Whitburn also discusses the fascinating world of civil/military relations in the context of the unique workings of the HEIC and its interactions at the strategic level between the Board of Governors and the British Government as well as at the operational level between the civilian and military offices within India itself. These alone make for fascinating reading and discussion.

His research is solid and the commentary reads well although he has a tendency to insert narrative that, while intended to add emphasis, tends rather to distract from the flow. Additionally, I found the maps to be of little value being overly simplistic with not enough detail. Finally, a majority of the photographs included were of remarkably poor quality which was surprising. In fairness, these are sidebar issues which taken as a whole are not critical to the overall impact of the book; they are more of a disappointment.

Whitburn has provided a very solid bibliography and rendition of a period of history lost, to a great extent, in the shadow of the Indian Mutiny. Despite the shortfalls, the book is an enjoyable and educational read that represents a balanced and nuanced view of the adversaries and the climate within which they operated.

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Infidel Kings and Unholy Warriors - Brian A. Catlos

  This review has been submitted to The British Army Review
 Title: Infidel Kings and Unholy Warriors
 Author: Brian A. Catlos
ISBN: 978-0-8090-5837-2
Publisher: Raincoast Books
Year: 2014
Pages: 390
Photographs/maps: 23/6

Perception is one of the key driving factors in the formation of popular opinion. It need not be based in fact because perception forms ones reality; it has been shown time and again that even when faced with facts that are contrary to ones opinion, it is very difficult to change initial perception. That does not mean however, that it is impossible to realign ones view and this is the basis of the importance of Catlos' book on the historical interactions between Christianity, Islam and Judaism.

The author's thesis centres upon the fact that historically the three major religions have been able to not only co-exist but have actively supported one another politically, economically as well as militarily. When there has been violence allegedly aimed at one particular group it is easily proven that while on the surface it may seem to be based in religious intolerance, there has always been a political or power motivation behind the action. Catlos' book refutes the idea that religious differences have precluded cooperation and coexistence.

Drawing upon a series of regional examples focusing upon Spain, Egypt, Sicily and the Levant, he proves conclusively that religion adapted to the political and economic realities of the time and that it was but one of a series of tools that individuals used to attain their goals. It was not however, an end in and of itself. In fact he specifically refutes the concept that the Islamic conquest was one of imposed religious expansion wherein the conquered had to accept the tenants of Islam.

He opens his book with a comprehensive overview of the relationship between the religions before drawing upon actual examples throughout the region's identified in order to prove his case. What the author provides is an in depth analysis of the complexity and the tolerance that existed between the major religions (and the sub-sects of these groups). Each was dependent upon the other and a political leaders success very much depended upon their ability to promote and facilitate this tolerance.

A well written and comprehensively researched work that sheds light on the shallowness of modern perceptions regarding interfaith relationships. Catlos's work should be included as a baseline introduction into the complexity of traditional societal and religious interaction and it goes a long way in refuting the message that has been hijacked by those looking to advance their own agendas using faith as a wedge.

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

The Martian - Andy Weir

Title: The Martian
Author: Andy Weir
Publisher: Broadway Books
Year: 2011
Pages: 369

The Martian is a fascinating read of survival, mental and physical strength and endurance as well as a noteworthy study of the resilience of the human spirit. It holds many lessons for both the military and civilian leadership of today on a number of levels. The novel is the story of an astronaut who has been inadvertently left behind on Mars when his crew mates have to undertake an emergency evacuation. This sets the conditions within which the book unfolds as NASA, his former crew and the main character strive to overcome the numerous challenges that both survival and potential rescue throw up. The central theme of the book is the necessity to overcome and persevere.

As indicated earlier there are a number of takeaways for the modern leader:

1.       Prioritize: you cannot address all of your challenges concurrently, rank them and face them off in order; otherwise they will become overwhelming;
2.       Keep your mind active: regardless of how you do it, you must not allow yourself to become mentally lazy. You must keep engaged or you risk lethargy;
3.       Do not wish for what you do not have: wishful thinking is a luxury that leads to self-pity. Focus on the reality in front of you and be realistic;
4.       Acknowledge the reality around you: do not close your eyes to your situation, face it head-on however difficult that may be.
5.       Life is not fair: life owes you nothing and you cannot pretend otherwise. Success or failure depends upon your attitude and approach;
6.       Train hard and anticipate failure: failure in training is one of the building blocks to success as it teaches us respect for our environment, humility and determination;
7.        Study: you never know when the information you are looking at will become necessary;
8.       Plan to one degree of What if?: do not try and anticipate all possible outcomes to an action. This will preclude you making any decisions. Accept that your initial plan may not be successful and considered options but not at the expense of a decision.
9.       Accept risk.
10.     Goals: Set reasonable goals for yourself and focus on meeting them.
11.      Psychological Strength: Understand that, as a leader, many decisions that you have to make will be difficult and may, with hindsight, not be correct. That is life and part of the responsibility of accepting a leadership role. You must have the psychological strength to carry on and lead regardless of the popularity (or lack thereof) of your decisions.

Weir has written a very engaging book. It is dynamic and readable; mixing humour with message and is thus both uplifting as well as a testament to the human spirit. The messages it conveys are very relevant and easily grasped. I recommend this for leaders regardless of profession.