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16Sep

Command by Lawrence Freedman review – inside the war room

From Korea to Ukraine, a brilliant study of the politics and personalities that drive modern conflicts

There was a brief time, lasting from the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, when even quite sensible people wondered whether major wars might become a thing of the past. This proved to be ludicrously wrong, of course. Since the late 1990s our age has been largely defined by war, beginning with Chechnya and the former Yugoslavia and intensifying with 9/11 and the decision to overthrow Saddam Hussein. Now, after Vladimir Putin’s wholly unprovoked attack on Ukraine, we’re experiencing the scary feeling that nuclear war might be a real possibility, once again. And the Ukraine war is forcing us to ask the old, old question: whose finger is really on the trigger? Are the politicians or the generals in charge? The dictators or the duly elected representatives? The presidents and prime ministers or the people in uniform?

Prof Sir Lawrence Freedman is the dominant academic authority in Britain and the English-speaking world on the way modern wars have been fought. Rational, liberal-minded, clear-sighted, he has drawn on a lifetime of experience for his new book. It was, he accepts, a lockdown exercise. A purist might say some of the material could have been differently organised, with a clearer separation of the material by region, for example. But it is the quality of the narrative and the sheer intelligence of the judgment that count, given the subject’s vast sweep. Command takes in not simply the major wars – Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf and Afghanistan – but also France’s colonial wars in Indo-China and Algeria, the near-war created by the Cuban missile crisis, Pakistan’s hapless attempt to keep hold of Bangladesh, Israel’s disastrous invasion of Lebanon in 1982, the Falklands, and Laurent Kabila’s vicious campaign in the Congo: an often shameful yet always illuminating parade of hardware, human inadequacy and death.

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