Here are three possible stocking-stuffers and, who knows, mind-stuffers as well-books for the season, and for the months to come.
First is Martin Amis’ Koba the Dread . Koba was a nickname of Iosif Dzhugashvili, whose better-known nickname was Stalin, and whose sinisterly macho face smiles from the dust jacket of Mr. Amis’ book. Martin Amis is, of course, the hot novelist, and for him to have written a work of nonfiction was a surprise. For a man of his position to have written this work of nonfiction was astonishing, and a blessing. He wants to read the Riot Act to the early 21st century concerning its ongoing failure to acknowledge the crimes of Communism.
Mr. Amis’ introduction to the topic came from his late father, the novelist Kingsley Amis, and from an old family friend, still very much living, the historian Robert Conquest. Both these men could be delightfully light-hearted, and these pages catch their sparkle.
“‘Hugh MacDiarmid: what a bastard,’ said my father in about 1972, referring to the man widely believed to be the greatest Scottish poet of the 20th century. ‘He became a Communist in 1956-after Hungary.’
“‘And what’s his stuff like?’ I asked.
“‘Oh, you know. Nothing but Marxist clichés interspersed with archaic “Scotch” expletives.’
“He thought a moment ….
Every political system is a superstructure over a determining socioeconomic base.
The principle of distribution according to need precludes the conversion of products into goods and their conversion into value.
Och aye! …
“‘Enough,’ I said.”
But this is not a light book. Mr. Amis’ argument is that we take Communism too lightly. We forget its millions of victims; we ignore its aging and unpunished perpetrators; we lie about the supposed justice of its ideals (sadly betrayed, of course). One might add, we give too little thought to those in China, Cuba and North Korea who still live under its sway. Steven Spielberg just got back from Havana, where he said his eight-hour meeting with Fidel Castro was one of the high points of his life. Och aye, Steven, after lowering the tone of American movies for decades, you finally decided to look with seriousness at the Holocaust and World War II; maybe one day you will also look at how the other half of the world has suffered.
The second book is Christopher Hitchens’ Why Orwell Matters . George Orwell, of course, is another pseudonym, for the great journalist was born Eric Blair. Strange that one of the best men of the last century, and one of the worst, both sailed under adopted colors.
It is equally strange that a writer so plain-spoken as George Orwell should need an introduction. But the patina of high-school reading lists may require a solvent, and Mr. Hitchens’ book does the job well.
Christopher Hitchens was a passionate Clinton-hater, and this year he ended a two-decade association with The Nation , so the inattentive might think of him as some sort of budding Republican. Think again: Mr. Hitchens hates Christianity and capitalism (as did Orwell himself), and his heart still belongs on the left. But what does the left now stand for, and why must Mr. Hitchens defend Orwell from it?
Part of Orwell’s problem today is the John Bull elements of his imagination. Orwell disliked the socioeconomic base of the society he lived in, but he loved many of its appurtenances: the non-decimal coins, the non-metric units, the beer, the pubs, the pottering around. Mr. Hitchens makes the case that Orwell educated himself out of the opinions that often accompany such prejudices: “The evidence of his upbringing and instincts is that he was a natural Tory and even something of a misanthrope …. By teaching himself in theory and practice, some of the teaching being rather pedantic, he became a great humanist.” Mr. Hitchens is right-but not, I think, entirely right. One hates to use the words “creative tension,” which usually mean that the critic has not figured out his subject, but there was a tension between Orwell’s inclinations and his beliefs. If he had been less of a John Bull, he would not have imagined the dystopia of Airstrip One.
But the big mark against Orwell now is that too many people like what he opposed: They like Stalinism, or its functional equivalents. Anyone who takes on the status quo, and who is willing to murder thousands or even millions in the struggle, seems cool. Steven Spielberg evidently thinks so. Orwell did not think that such figures were cool, and these days neither does Christopher Hitchens, which is the real reason for his alienation from his former friends.
The most flamboyant murderers on the planet now belong to Al Qaeda, whose 3,000 victims on 9/11 put them far behind the North Koreans and the Chinese in the toll of vice, though committing murder on television makes up for a lot. The third stocking-stuffer, then, is Bob Woodward’s Bush at War , which covers the first hundred days of the War on Terror, through the fall of the Taliban regime. Unlike the first two books, Bush at War is not well written. In fact, it is hardly written at all: People talked; Mr. Woodward wrote it all down. There is spinning and preening aplenty here, as well as unasked questions (why was everybody so chummy with the Saudis?). But there are also lessons for the war to come.
A subtitle of Mr. Woodward’s book might be “How George Tenet Kept His Job.” As head of the C.I.A., Mr. Tenet was responsible, if not for seeing what was coming, then for striking first. His failure was grotesque; by rights, he should have been fired the afternoon of 9/11. One reason he wasn’t was that he had a plan for action. It was based on a Clinton-era liaison to the Northern Alliance-Great Gamesmanship, too little to have worried Al Qaeda or the Taliban seriously. But it meant that there were agents in the neighborhood. By stepping on the gas, they helped lay the groundwork for victory.
The lesson of this is that victory takes planning and effort, even against fourth-rate foes. Our reach may be global, but we have to reach out.
The war against Islamofascism will be a long one, and it will require persistence and imagination, just like the fight against Koba.