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Saturday, February 14, 2009

Heroic history or Cold War revisionism?

A Frozen Hell
I was tipped to A Frozen Hell on Conflict of Heroes@CSW back in December. The games Badger and I played last October of Combat Commander's Scenario #20, A March in December prompted me to buy a copy.

My decision was made easier by the book's reputation. It's apparently the essential history of the 1939-40 Russo-Finnish war: the biographical notes tell us that it is "required reading for the [US] 2nd Marine Division"; while the back cover boldly announces that author William R. Trotter:
"Masterfully recreates all the heroism, tragedy and drama of a campaign whose lessons deserve far more attention."
- General James [sic] R. Galvin, former Supreme Allied Commander, Europe
I have to confess that this fulsome blurb lost a bit of its shine thanks to that unfortunate mistake in the name of the General making the comment - he is John R. Galvin, not the James M. Gavin of WW2 82nd Airborne fame. The truth though is that the book itself had already done a good enough job of dulling the lustre of Galvin's enthusiasm.

It's not that I don't like this book. I do. It's a good read. It's just that, well, my first thought as I got into the book was that it wore its Cold War origins very much on its sleeve. The notion was put aside to give Trotter the benefit of the doubt but, some halfway into the volume, the book strikes me as tendentiously pro-Finnish to a degree rendering exaggerated the General's praise in a way that is sadly only too familiar to this reader.

"Masterful"? No.

You really can't heap Galvin's superlatives on a text citing anonymous "firearms experts" to try to argue that the Finns' 1926 vintage Lahti-Saloranta M/26 LMG (a failed export venture mark you, according to Trotter) was "one of the first really practical "light" automatics to enter service after WW1." Well OK, technically Trotter is a bit right: the M1918 Browning Automatic Rifle was of WW1 vintage (the also eminently 'practical' Lewis gun dates to 1911). And the practicality of an LMG assembled from 188 parts(!) is also open to question.

The volume's accounts of the battles are likewise less than masterful, although to be fair it could be argued that this isn't entirely the author's fault, since this is largely down to the maps. The maps are drafted OK, it's just that they lack the names of many landmarks playing significant roles in the narrative. The confusion this engendered trying to follow the narrative across the maps was sufficiently painful to this reader again to render risible any notion of superlatives.

I must add that, as I read on through the battle narratives, I found myself thinking the author was luxuriating just a bit too much in his descriptions of the Russian dead, to the extent that I felt he was tending towards gloating over the piles of their corpses. This impression was strengthened by Trotter's regular references to the "Reds", a bit of an ideological giveaway IMO. The idea that the Red Army in 1939-40 was an army of reds is simply not credible, as any student of the Russian Revolution, the imposition of Stalin's rule, and WW2 itself would know. Trotter's patently one-sided narrative is thus not one which "recreates all the heroism, tragedy and drama" of anything other than a semi-mythologised retelling of the story of 'brave little Finland', with all the attendant ideological freight only too familiar from Hollywood's hand on history.

A book which genuinely "recreates all the heroism, tragedy and drama" of war is Matthew Parker's Monte Cassino, which I was reading last month. This book gives the reader the authentic voice of the soldier on all sides of the battle, and doesn't shrink from detailing the pathos of the instinctive mutual solidarity of those living with the expectation that their luck must run out if they don't somehow escape the horror.

Sure, I'm only half way through A Frozen Hell. I may be forced to revise my opinions. If I am, you, my readers, will be the first to know. ;)
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