Why World War I?

This reviewer can't reiterate often enough that a history book isn't a historical novel. There's no curling up in a chair or lying in bed reading a chapter of a tome penned by a historian on a subject of his choice. To be sure, some historians have a more agreeable style than others, but they are by and large dry.

The Sleepwalkers by Christopher Clark 700pp, 2013 Penguin paperback. Available at Asia Books and leading bookshops, 550 baht

Then again, it comes down to whether the subject is meaningful. If you couldn't care less about the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, you'll yawn after a few pages, put the volume down and not return to it. (Of course there are more than a few who are fascinated by it and will read on.) I, for one, enjoy reading histories. Many are contradictory. Determining the most likely truth after weighing several versions helps keep my mind active, an exercise I forgo when a history book is definitive. Take The Sleepwalkers by Cambridge history professor Christopher Clark. In 700 pages _ photographs, maps, footnotes galore, index _ he quotes everybody who was anybody about how Europe went to war in 1914. That's WWI, not WWII. Unlike the Second World War, in which the Nazi fuhrer alone decided which country to invade, the decisions a quarter-century earlier were considerably more complex.

Clark details why the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his consort by Gavrilo Princip in Sarajevo in June 1914 wasn't the cause of the war but the excuse for it. Comparing it to an Agatha Christie plot, he notes that those present _ Austria-Hungary, Serbia, Germany, France, Russia _ had smoking guns. Their respective kings, several related, had decided views, but not the power to enforce them. Often they differed from their statesmen, who differed from their military leaders. Countries distrusted those they had treaties with.

The author goes back a century or more and traces their rivalries. We are presented with the ambiguity that war isn't inevitable, but impossible to stop once mobilisation is set into motion. In the event, 20 million were killed from 1914 to 1918. And at least as many wounded.

The Sleepwalkers is a work of outstanding research. Keep in mind that it is history and you were interested in WWI when you picked it up. If you weren't: yawn.

It answers all questions but one. Why did America enter that war in 1917?

True Colours by Stephen Leather 427pp, 2013 Hodder & Stoughton paperback. Available at Asia Books and leading bookshops, 595 baht

Agood Taliban

The US has its Delta Force and Navy SEALs, Russia its Spetsnaz, the UK its SAS (22nd regiment) _ each the best of the best in their respective armed forces. They receive well-deserved accolades for their feats in war and peace. Yet British thriller writers have been praising the SAS to ionospheric heights.

To hear them tell it, there's nothing those still in the regiment or veterans of it can't do. Even when fatally wounded, they are brave till their last breath. To the medic: "Don't mind me. Save the other fellow who's been hit." Readers, young and old, are doubtless inspired by this.

It must hurt their pride that it was the SEALs and not the SAS who took out Bin Loony in Pakistan, but that's real life for you. Be that as it may, the protagonists of True Colours by ace British author Stephen Leather are SAS veterans. While in the service in 2002, several were killed on a mission in Afghanistan.

Ten years later as mercenaries, a handful of them have been organised by Dan "Spider" Shepherd into a unit willing to do dangerous jobs, including killing. If the price is right. At present, guarding Russian bigwigs in England. But they haven't stopped looking for the Taliban who shot their captain and colleagues a decade earlier. The story's two plots alternate. Arab terrorists have it in for Brits and Yanks, but what have they against Ivans? Spider (a recurrent Leather creation) is the chief character. His deductive reasoning fails him now and again, but he gets it right eventually. For example, he targets the wrong Taliban. Only when informed that Ahmed Khan has been working for the British does this prevent his men from executing him. The man murdering security, men and women, turns out to be Russian himself. He has a grudge, an understandable one, against the multimillionaire in the part from Moscow.

The twin highlights of the plot are of the turncoat Taliban recounting what actually happened on the fateful night of the mission. And the vengeful Russian telling why he offed his countrymen. Spider has to choose between duty and conscience. Leather, who divides his time between Ireland and Thailand, has penned more than a score of thrillers for top international publishers. He has a sizeable following, yours truly among them. However, no insult intended, enough of the fictitious exploits of SAS. Let the actual ones speak for themselves.

About the author

columnist
Writer: Bernard Trink
Position: Freelance Writer