A Report on the Battle of Jarama

A Report on the Battle of Jarama

Today I went on a school trip to learn more about the Battle of Jarama, an important and bloody battle of the Spanish Civil War, which took place near my high school. We went with a group of Spanish and Dutch students, who are visiting for the week in an exchange program.

It was, incidentally, amusing to see the students side-by-side—the blond northerners and the dark-haired Mediterraneans. It was one of the first nice days of the year. The Dutch, for whom it was as hot as summer, were wearing bright colors and short sleeves, while the Spaniards felt fine in long-legged pants and dark colors. Climate does make a difference. Another contrast I noticed was how the two groups spent their time. The Spaniards sang together on the bus rides, while the Dutch took every opportunity to play games involving touching their hands and feet together in a rhythm; the boys played slap and the girls a game like patty cake.

Our first stop was at the Arganda Bridge, now called the Puente de la paz by residents of the town. It is an old steel bridge that runs over the Jarama River. In the past it formed part of the highway between Madrid and Valencia; but now it sits, alone and unused, near the Rivas lagoons, while cars buzz by on the new highway in the distance.

To understand the importance of the bridge, a little historical background is required. After the commencement of the military coup, in 1936, the government of the Republic relocated to Valencia in order to get away from the front lines of the fighting. Franco’s forces soon almost entirely surrounded Madrid, hoping to take the city. The highway to Valencia then became the city’s only lifeline. Thus the road was heavily defended by Republic forces. The Jarama River, which ran alongside the highway, formed an important natural barrier that could be used in its defense. In this area only three bridges crossed the water, of which the Arganda Bridge is one.

Puente_arganda (2pac3.0)
The Arganda Bridge. Photo by 2pac; licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0; taken from Wikimedia Commons

To illustrate how crucial was this crossing, it suffices to know that it was over this modest bridge that the paintings of the Prado were carried during their evacuation to Valencia. According to our guide, the trucks couldn’t even fit on the bridge, so the paintings had to be taken out and moved by hand. Later on, during the Battle of Jarama itself, the Republican forced tried to destroy the bridge; but their explosives failed to break or dislodge the structure. As a result, on February 11th Nationalist forces successfully crossed and established a bridgehead.


From this bridge we went to the Cerro Melero, a hill near the Hospital Universitario del Sureste. There you can find an open-air museum that preserves some of the trenches used in the Republican line. These trenches formed the second line of defense, in case of a Nationalist attack on the city of Arganda del Rey. The eminence offers a commanding view of the valley below; standing there, you can almost see the enemy forces scrambling underneath you. To protect from aerial attacks (both German and Italian fighter pilots participated in the battle), the trenches were built with an air raid shelter 32 meters long. Standing on other side of the hill is a sculpture of a cube split in two, symbolizing the Civil War. On its base is inscribed a fragment of Pablo Neruda’s famous poem, España en el corazón, lamenting the war.

Our next stop was the memorial to Suicide Hill. This morbid name comes from the brigade of British soldiers who sustained heavy loses defending the hill. According to our guides, these volunteer fighters were barely trained and poorly equipped; and they were up against seasoned veterans of Spain’s wars in the north of Africa. Nevertheless, they fought stoutly, holding off the enemy forces from taking the nearby village of Morata while losing over half of their 600 men. A stone cairn was the only thing to mark this spot for many decades, formed spontaneously by visitors piling up rocks. Yet repeated vandalism—a problem for any monument to the war, since it is still deeply controversial in this country—prompted some locals to invest in permanent masonry, so that it at least cannot be easily knocked over.

Not far from here the American volunteers, called the Lincoln Brigades, fought and also suffered heavy losses. One of the survivors, Alex MacDage, wrote lyrics to the tune of “Red River Valley” commemorating the event; and some years later Woody Guthrie recorded the song, which begins thus:

There’s a valley in Spain called Jarama
It’s a place that we all know so well
It was there that we gave of our manhood
And there that our brave comrades fell.


We walked from this point to the Cota 700, a hill named for its height of 700 meters above sea-level. There we found some stone fortifications still standing from the Republican front line. The guide explained that the machine gunners were stowed in chambers separated by strong stone walls, so that if a bomb struck one of them it would not take out the rest.

Across the valley we could see the hill of Pingarrón, which was controlled by the Nationalist forces. After the halt of the Nationalist advance (largely thanks to the brave fighting of the International Brigades), the Republican forces repeatedly tried to counterattack and take this hill. Yet the lack of cover between the two lines—only a few scrubby olive trees—and the strong Nationalist artillery made it impossible.


Not far from here, surrounded by fields of olive trees used as hunting grounds, is another monument. Standing on a stone base is a sculpture of two giant hands, one covering the other. This is the work of Martín Chirino, a sculptor from the Canary Islands. It represents the open palm of the fascist salute united with the communist fist, symbolizing the unity of the opposed sides. As with everything related to the war, it has proven controversial. Its base is frequently vandalized with spraypaint, so that somebody must come regularly to paint over the political graffiti. The statue is certainly not calculated to please many, since supporters of neither side are inclined to see each other with sympathy. After all, by now both have felt the sting of defeat, the Republicans after the war itself, the Nationalists after the fall of Franco’s regime.

Our last stop was in the little town of Morata de Tajuña, in a charming restaurant and inn called the Mesón El Cid. Apart from the restaurant, terrace, and pool, the establishment has two free museums: one dedicated to the ethnography of local agricultural ways, the other dedicated to the Battle of Jarama. These are both the work of Gregorio (Goyo) Salcedo, a mustachioed man, now over seventy, who is from this area. His interest in history was sparked by necessity. Growing up in the harsh and scarce times after the war, when the economy was in the doldrums and hunger was common, he and his father and brothers would collect old guns, shells, and equipment from these battlegrounds to sell for scrap. “If the war was hard, so was the postwar,” he said in a newspaper interview; “it was another war.”

The Museum of the Battle of Jarama. This sculpture was made using shrapnel from the battle, incorporating about three thousands bullets and casings of different calibres

Soon he became interested in these artifacts for their own sake, and began collecting them. As his collection grew, so did his network, as former soldiers and their relatives got in contact with him. Eventually he converted an old garage into a museum, and quite an impressive one. There are thousands of photos, along with stories of individuals who fought and died in the battle. There are pieces of artillery and anti-aircraft, helmets, shells, uniforms, gas masks, guns, knives, flags, and every other manner of war paraphernalia. There is even a reconstruction of a Civil War-era schoolroom. That all this was collected, catalogued, and displayed by one man, is a testament to how much a private citizen can do for the sake of history. It is by far the best and most complete exhibition related to the Civil War that I have seen in Spain.

Like the sculptor Chirino, Salcedo strives for neutrality. As he says in that same interview: “Here there are no sides; all were human beings who fought, suffered, and died. We cannot forget that in war we are all victims, we all lose.”

Like so many battles, the Battle of Jarama was as inconclusive as it was bloody. Despite thousands of casualties on both sides and weeks of fierce fighting, the Nationalists did not break through and the Republican forces did not retake their lost ground. The war shifted elsewhere in the country, and the front largely held until the conflict’s final stages. Yet the soldiers who gave their lives to prevent the nationalists from cutting off Madrid—especially the foreign soldiers, poorly trained and equipped, who chose to come to Spain to fight against fascism—cannot but inspire the visitor with their example of moral and physical courage.

A memorial to Charles Donnelly, an Irish poet who died during the battle, in Rivas-Vaciamadrid. Shortly before his death, he was heard to say: “Even the olives are bleeding.”

Review: Ghosts of Spain

Review: Ghosts of Spain

Ghosts of Spain: Travels Through Spain and Its Silent PastGhosts of Spain: Travels Through Spain and Its Silent Past by Giles Tremlett

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It is still a mystery to me how so many Spaniards can function on so little sleep.

Late one night in Madrid, as my friend and I finished eating our dinner on Spanish time—which means we get home around midnight—we were walking back to our apartment when it suddenly began to rain. First, it sprinkled; then, it drizzled; and soon it was pouring. Without an umbrella (here amusingly named paraguas, “for water”) we were forced to take cover in a bar.

As we stood there, looking out at the rain washing down the tiled streets, I heard somebody behind me say, in accented English, “It’s finally raining in Madrid.” I turned around and saw that it was the Spanish waitress, looking pensively out at the rain. Beside her was a bald patron, with the same thoughtful look on his face. “Oh, Madri’,” he said, in a thick Scottish accent. “It’s a beau’i’ful ci’y. Jus’ beau’i’ful.”

To me, this moment summarized my reaction to this city so far. It’s lovely here in Madrid. I had never planned on moving to Spain; I wasn’t even particularly interested in visiting Spain on vacation. It was a mixture of chance and opportunity that prompted me to pick up and fly over here; and consequently, I had no idea what to expect. The most pleasant surprise, for me, is how easy it has been for a New Yorker to feel at home here. Madrid has many of the positive qualities one finds in New York City: bustle, inclusiveness, diversity, variety, nightlife. Added to this, Madrid is safer, cleaner, cheaper, and, most conspicuously, much more relaxed.

The besuited man (or woman) walking quickly down the street holding a disposable cup of coffee is an omnipresent figure on the streets of NYC. Meals are quick there; people swallow their food and keep moving, often simply eating on the go. The $1 pizza, which you can get by throwing a dollar at the cashier, who then throws you the slice in return so you can eat it without breaking your stride, is perhaps the quintessential New York meal. You can do anything in NYC—anything except slow down.

In this respect, Madrid is quite the opposite. Rarely do you see people running for the trains, for the busses, elbowing their way through crowds. Virtually nobody eats while walking; and disposable coffee cups are a rarity, as coffee is normally drunk sitting down. When Madrileños eat, they like to take their time. They sit and chat, for perhaps hours, sipping their drinks and occasionally snacking on tapas and raciones. Here, the waiters don’t bother you; they serve you your food and disappear. Often, I have to chase them inside in order to get the check; but this is probably because I am an impatient American.

As a consequence of this generally relaxed attitude, I’ve found adapting to life here to be extremely pleasant (despite my ignorance of the language, which is a constant impediment). And I’m glad that, to help me through my own transición, I have Giles Tremlett as a guide, a British journalist who has been living in Madrid for decades.

This book is about the historical imagination in modern Spain. Through thirteen chapters, Tremlett examines some of the political fault-lines that run through the country. He begins with an examination of Franco’s regime and its aftermath. There is, apparently, no safe way to talk about the past in Spain—not even something which, to me, should be as uncontroversial as Franco’s fascism. But different political parties propose competing interpretations of the past, which of course reflect their different interpretations of the present. Hard as it is to believe, but the horrible bombings of commuter trains on March 11, 2004, were also the occasion of political squabbling, as the right-wingers insisted that ETA (the Basque terrorist group) had something to do with it.

To tell the story of modern Spain, Tremlett takes the reader across the country: from Madrid, to Bilbao, to Barcelona, to Galicia, and even to Spanish jails and slums. He examines flamenco, Basque and Catalan separatism, Spanish art and cinema, political corruption, gender relations, prostitution, tourism, and much more, as he attempts to pin down the quickly changing country. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given his background, his method is journalistic. He focuses on the sorts of things that would make the news; and his writing-style bears the hallmarks of his profession—impersonal rather than personal, intended to convey information rather than emotion or analysis.

Like every book, this one isn’t perfect. Although Tremlett packs an impressive amount of information into the book, his analyses are often superficial, or just nonexistent. He has the journalistic habit of letting others do his thinking for him, merely reporting their opinions. Thus, while informative, I didn’t find Tremlett to be a penetrating guide. What’s more, though I generally found his writing quite strong, I sometimes felt that his style, which he obviously honed while writing shorter pieces for newspapers and magazines, did not have enough forward impetus to carry me through a whole chapter. In a longer format such as a book, more organization, more interconnection, more integration is needed than Tremlett is accustomed to; and thus his chapters sometimes seem scatterbrained, disconnected—too much like a list of facts and quotes.

(I’d also like to note, in passing, that Tremlett’s comma-use is the exact opposite of mine, which I found continually irksome. He typically omits commas where I would include them, and includes commas where I would omit them. For example, he writes “He or, normally, she is joined…” whereas I would write “He, or normally she, is joined…” Admittedly, this is surpassingly trivial.)

These are fairly minor complaints, however. Really, all things considered, it is hard for this anglosajón to imagine a better book to read as an introduction to this fantastic country. I still have a great deal to learn—not least Castellano—but at least now I have had a grand tour of the place. And perhaps one of these days, as I wander back from another late dinner, I’ll bump into Tremlett himself, and gratefully shake his hand.

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Review: Some Still Live

Review: Some Still Live

Some Still LiveSome Still Live by Frances Smith McCamic Tinker

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

You can’t even surrender in an airplane; your opponent wouldn’t know whether you were joking or not.

I am fortunate enough to have a colleague who studies the Spanish Civil War professionally. And when he heard that I was interested in learning about the conflict, he generously lent me this book, the memoirs of an American pilot who fought during the war. Considering that this book is out of print and hard to get your hands on, this was luck indeed.

Frank Glasgow Tinker, Jr. was an American boy from Louisiana who came to Spain in 1936 to take part in the war. He had learned to fly in the US Navel Academy, and spent some time in the Navy until he was discharged for drinking and brawling (which, if you think about it, is pretty impressive). His main motivation for joining the war, it seems, was just the opportunity to fly combat missions: “When the fighting broke out in Spain in 1936, I was not quite sure which side was fighting for what. I gathered that each was slaughtering the other for being or doing something that the other side did not like.”

After sneaking in by obtaining a fake passport in Mexico, and pretending to be a Spanish citizen—despite his total innocence of the Spanish language—he spent seven months here flying and fighting. Tinker fought on the “loyalist” side, alongside Spaniards, Americans, and Russians, mainly against Italian and German pilots—which shows how international the “civil” war really was. He flew both older biplanes and more modern monoplanes, both of Russian make, against Italian Fiats and German Heinkels and Messerschmitts. And he was good. He shot down at least eight enemy planes, possibly more, making him one of the most successful pilots in Spanish aviation history.

He flew up to three flights a day—responding to alarms, accompanying bombers, strafing trenches, dive-bombing enemy targets, blowing up bridges and trains, driving off enemy bombing squads, and fighting in dogfight after dogfight. The bulk of his fighting took place in the vicinity of Madrid, but he also fought all over the north of Spain. After seven months of this he packed up his bags and went back to the States. Going back wasn’t easy, since he had arrived in Spain with a fake passport and didn’t have any identification; but eventually he succeeded in returning to the States, where he began writing and going on radio programs.

Some mystery still surrounds his death. The accepted explanation is that he suffered from PTSD and ended his own life; but some have suggested that the FBI may have been responsible. As his own tombstone says, ¿Quién Sabe?

Simply as a historical document, this book is invaluable. It contains maps of the air bases used by the government side, photographs by the reporter Robert Capa of wartime Spain, and a vivid picture of the Government Air Force, not to mention reams of information about aviation. Tinker obviously knew what he was doing when it came to flying; the book is filled with aviation jargon—altitude, weather, engines, weapons, rates of climbing and diving, difficulties of landing and taking off.

Even more impressively, this book is successful simply as a book. For somebody who was not a man of letters, Trinker is a strong writer. He sticks to the facts, and relates them with such vividness, candor, and energy that I often had trouble putting the book down. He never overwrites, he never bogs the book down with too many details, and he never uses flowery rhetoric. His time in Spain was so interesting that no embellishment is needed; the bare facts are fascinating enough.

Apart from his doings, Tinker himself is memorable. He is a uniquely American type. He brawls, he jokes, he drinks, he pranks, he gambles, he womanizes, and he drinks some more, and he flies and fights, and he betrays no ideals beyond good-natured hedonism, fierce loyalty, and a kind of warrior’s respect for bravery and skill. There is not a single political statement in this book, and not any indication that his understanding of the war’s causes ever progressed beyond the very basics. He was a soldier.

I will leave you with my favorite paragraph from the book:

Whitey had managed to get the elevator down (it was one of those automatic affairs), but after he got inside he couldn’t reach the control buttons to make it go up again. He was also unable to reopen the door to get out. After about two minutes of this a huge fellow with a mustache came along and wanted to go up on the elevator, too, but as he saw Whitey was already inside he waited awhile, expecting him to go either up or down. When Whitey failed to do either, the large stranger opened the door and asked him, in Spanish, what the hell he thought he was doing. Whitey, not understanding him, asked, in English, why in hell he hadn’t opened the door instead of standing there with his mouth full of teeth. Whereupon the stranger, in perfectly good American, answered that people shouldn’t get into strange elevators unless they were sure they could get out of them. Whitey almost fell on his face when he heard himself answered in English, but soon recovered and explained his predicament and had the stranger do his button-pushing for him. I saw the last part of this act and asked the man at the desk who the stranger was. He proved to be no other than Ernest Hemingway, the famous writer.

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Review: The Spanish Labyrinth

Review: The Spanish Labyrinth

The Spanish Labyrinth: An Account of the Social and Political Background of the Spanish Civil WarThe Spanish Labyrinth: An Account of the Social and Political Background of the Spanish Civil War by Gerald Brenan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Civil War was an appalling calamity in which every class and every party lost.

The longer I live, work, and travel in Spain, the harder it is to believe that, less than a century ago, the entire country was torn apart by a bloody war. What set of circumstances could prompt a nation of ordinary, law-abiding people to explode into conflict and kill each other by the hundreds of thousands? This, of course, is just a specific version of a more general question: Why do people wage wars? I may sound naïve, but I do find this perplexing—since, as Brenan points out, in the destruction wrought by war, especially modern war, there are only losers.

Brenan’s work was one of the first serious analyses of the Civil War to be published (in 1943, just four years after the war’s conclusion), and has remained in print ever since. Nevertheless I was somewhat hesitant to read it. I found Brenan’s famous memoirs, South from Granada, to be underwhelming, so I assumed that this book would be as well. Happily I was mistaken. The Spanish Labyrinth is a comprehensive and penetrating work, easily one of the best books about the Civil War—or indeed about Spain—that I’ve had the pleasure of reading.

This does not mean it is accessible. Brenan chose his title well. The events leading up to the Spanish Civil War are intrinsically complex. So many different parties were involved in the accelerating dance of political turmoil that even the most skilled popular writer would have trouble seamlessly weaving it all together. And Brenan, though a strong writer, was too close to the events described to even approach a popular account. As a result the book itself can feel labyrinthine—with valuable comments and data tucked away into footnotes, with several miniature appendices per chapter and a longer one at the end of the book, and a seemingly endless cast of characters, organizations, and movements. Certainly this book, like any excellent book, will repay careful rereading.

Brenan’s take on the Civil War can be helpfully contrasted with that of George Orwell. Orwell, who was in Spain a matter of months and who never learned Spanish very well, saw the Spanish Civil War in terms of the wider struggle between the Right and the Left. For him, it was a straightforward class conflict between the poor workers and the rich fascists, a struggle that was playing out all over the globe. Brenan, on the other hand, who spoke fluent Spanish and who lived in Spain for a decades, saw the war as a particularly Spanish affair; and his analysis focuses almost exclusively on internal factors. (Both authors, incidentally, did share a distaste for Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia.)

Before the Civil War, political instability plagued Spain for generations. This was, in part, a consequence of economic backwardness; and this backwardness, in turn, had its roots deep in Spanish history—Spain’s commitment to New World gold at the expense of industrialization, and to merino wool at the expense of agriculture. (By the way, Spanish shepherds still hold onto their special privileges, which they demonstrate every year in the Fiesta de Transhumancia, during which sheep are herded straight through the center of Madrid.)

The Church came to identify itself fully with the rich and powerful, alienating itself from the people. As a result, anti-clericalism has played nearly as big a role in Spanish history as the church itself. The army, meanwhile, through a series of pronuciamientos and coups d’etat, came to see itself as the guardian of traditional Spanish values, able and willing to topple any regimes they deemed unsatisfactory—and, as history amply shows, it is always bad news to have a politically active military.

During all this time, Spain was plagued by a long-standing agrarian crisis. In one of Brenan’s most brilliant chapters, he details how different farming traditions sprung up in different regions of the country, partly in response to varying soil and climatic conditions. Unfortunately, many regions of Spain are—either from lack of rain or inferior soil—rather poor for agriculture; and distinct social arrangements (such as small-holding minifundios or large latifundios) are appropriate for these different climatic conditions.

In the hot and dry south, for example, farms are usually quite large; and the work required is seasonal, not year-round. Since a small number of wealthy families controlled these large estates, the vast majority were left to subsist on badly-paid seasonal work, thus leading to inequality and violent political tension. (As I discovered from Gilmore’s The People of the Plain, these agrarian problems persisted until the end of Franco’s reign.)

In addition to the inefficiency and inequality of Spanish agriculture, there was the ever-present problem of Spanish regionalism. Brenan follows Richard Ford and Ortega y Gasset in seeing regionalism as one of the defining features of Spanish political life. (Those watching the Catalan independence movement unfold today will be little disposed to disagree.) Spain is crisscrossed by several mountain ranges and sudden changes in elevation, thus leading to jarring climatic juxtaposition. I have experienced this myself: one moment I will be driving through a windswept mountain range, and the next I will be on the verdant coast. This is one culprit for the famous Spanish regionalism.

Another is Spain’s history. When Fernando and Isabel were married, thus uniting all of Spain for the first time, their separate kingdoms, Castile and Aragon, had distinct political traditions. As the historian J.H. Elliott describes in his excellent book, Imperial Spain, the Castile of Isabel, with its history of centralized rule and its emphasis on military power, was bound to conflict with Catalonia’s history of liberalism and commercial capitalism. The industrial revolution further fueled these regional tensions, as Bilbao and Barcelona became heavily industrialized while the interior and the south remained mainly agricultural.

These divisions in Spain—climatic, historical, and political—translated into splits in leftist movements in the years leading up to the Spanish Civil War. The fundamental split was between the socialists and the anarcho-syndicalists. The socialists tended to be more reformist, while the anarcho-syndicalists were straightforwardly revolutionary. Each party had its associated union, respectively the U.G.T. and the C.N.T., which most often refused to work with one another as they attempted to bring down the capitalist system using general strikes. Brenan’s histories of these movements—their origins, development, and leaders—constitutes the central portion of this book, and is absolutely first-rate.

On the conservative side, in addition to the wealthy landowners and the Church—not to mention the army—there were the Monarchists and the Carlists. The presence of Monarchists, in a country which still had a king living in exile, requires no explanation. The Carlists, on the other hand, were a distinctly Spanish product. The death of Fernando VII, in 1833, set off a series of civil wars (the war in 1936 was hardly the first in Spain) between two contending lines to the throne. Those who supported the pretender Don Carlos became known as Carlists. Theoretically, Monarchists and Carlists were arch-nemeses; but since, by the 1930s, the last living Carlist claimant was old and without an heir, the distinction had worn thin.

Trapped between these arch-conservative and revolutionary-leftist forces were a comparatively small group of liberals, who attempted to create a Republic in 1931. But they were doomed from the start. First, as Brenan notes, liberalism has historically had little appeal in Spain. What is more, the economic downturn—caused by the great depression—severely limited whatever resources the government had to work with. Meanwhile, forces from every side were determined to undermine or dismantle the nascent state. Go too far to appease one side, and they risked severe retaliation from the other. Threading its way between this Scylla and that Charybdis, the ship of state crashed and sank.

From this rather pathetic summary, I hope you can at least get a taste of how complex a story Brenan had to tell. Climatic and cultural regions, revolutionary movements, workers’ unions, political parties, the army, the Church, economical classes—all of these were involved in the conflagration. There do not even appear to be any outstanding individuals towards whom you can orient your gaze. Franco himself was notoriously uncharismatic. The final result is confusion—labyrinthine confusion—and given all this, Brenan did a terrific job in his analysis.

The book is flawed, of course. Like Richard Ford, and like so many foreign writers, Brenan is pre-disposed to find some essential core to the “Spanish personality,” which can be used as a catch-all historical explanation. More often these are crass stereotypes (Spaniards are lazy, excitable, etc.), or otherwise Romantic wishful thinking—for instance Brenan’s insistence on the Spanish abhorrence of the modern world. Another flaw is Brenan’s focus on the Left. Though his histories of socialism and anarcho-syndicalism are masterful, his analysis of the Right leaves a lot to be desired. One certainly does not get any clear picture of Franco’s program from these pages. Finally, by focusing so exclusively on Spain, Brenan ignores the wider international scope of the conflict. The rise of the communists from an obscure party to the most influential organization on the Republic side, for example, cannot be explained without turning one’s eye towards the Soviet Union.

But it won’t do to dwell on these shortcomings. Given that this book was written, not by a professional historian but an amateur, and that it was written so soon after the conflict came to an end, it is a near miraculous achievement. I may not be any closer to understanding war in general; but I do think I’ve come a long way towards understanding this one.

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Review: The Battle for Spain

Review: The Battle for Spain

La guerra civil españolaLa guerra civil española by Antony Beevor

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As the Spanish Civil War proved, the first casualty of war is not truth, but its source: the conscience and integrity of the individual.

Anthony Beevor is a military historian; and his book is mainly a record of armies and battles. The forces that destabilized the government and created so much tension within the country are quickly summarized; and the aftermath of the war—its legacy, its lingering effects in Spanish political life, its wider significance in 20th century political history—all this is hinted at, but not delved into. Like any historian, Beevor needs to set limits to his material. He focuses on the Iberian peninsula in the years between 1936-39.

Beevor is an excellent writer. His paragraphs are mines of information; he summarizes, offers statistics, gives striking examples. He surveys the battlefield like an aerial observer; he reports power struggles like an investigative journalist. He never lets the material run away from him, but compresses complex events into well-turned sentences. His focus is more on large-scale movements than on individual stories. The narration seldom pauses to analyze a person’s character, or to relate a telling anecdote, but instead maintains the perspective of a general examining his troops.

Beevor’s considerable powers of narration notwithstanding, he can’t help the fact that this war is complicated. So many actors are involved, all with different motives—communists, anarchists, republicans, trade unionists, conservatives, falangists, carlists, monarchists, Basques, Catalans, Germans, Italians, Soviets, Americans, British, French—that presenting the war as a clean story is impossible. Beevor breaks the material into 38 short chapters, focusing his gaze on one aspect, in an effort to do justice to the war’s complexity without overwhelming the reader. This is an effective strategy, but it comes at the price of a certain unpleasant fragmentation. The grand sweep of the narrative is obscured.

Nevertheless, this book does what I hoped it would: provide an overview of the conflict, the immediate causes, the principal actors, and the course of the war. Having said this, I must admit that the military history of the conflict—the battles, the strategies, the armaments—is only of passing interest to me.

What I really want to know is—Why? Why did a country decide to tear itself apart? Why did countrymen, neighbors, relatives decide to kill each other in mass numbers? Why did radicalism triumph on both the left and the right? Why did a democracy fail and a repressive regime seize power? These are big questions, which this book admittedly doesn’t address. To understand the historical background and the instability that led up to the war, I plan to read Gerald Brenan’s book, The Spanish Labyrinth.

In the meantime, I am left with little more than a picture of moral collapse. The really dreadful thing about this war is how few heroes there were in high places. Mass murders were committed on both sides. At the outbreak of the military coup, there are spontaneous slaughters of clergymen, monks, bishops, in the hundreds and thousands; and the Spanish Church, for its part, was too often complicit in repression and tyranny. Mass murders and executions were perpetrated on each side. To pick one example, when the republican side was in control of Málaga, 1,005 people were executed or murdered. In the first week after its conquest by the nationalists, over 3,000 people were killed; and by 1944, another 16,000 had been put to death.

On the republican side, important military decisions were made for political reasons; political propaganda was so pervasive that leaders felt blindly sure they would win, and tried to act to justify their boastful predictions. Useless offensives were carried out—in Segovia, Teruel, and the Ebro—costing thousands of lives and wasting the Republic’s resources, to capture targets of no strategic importance. Blindly trusting in high morale, anarchists refused to regulate the economy and discipline their troops, providing an “ideological excuse for inefficiency.” Stalinist factions eventually seized power on the “republican” side, violently suppressing other parties.

Brave volunteers from all over the world poured into Spain, most to fight against the fascists; and yet their zeal was squandered by careless leadership. Meanwhile, France, England, and the United States maintained a policy of “non-intervention,” while Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, and Soviet Russia poured troops and military equipment into the country, testing out weapons and strategies that they would later use in the Second World War.

Eventually, of course, Franco won. Those on the losing side had few options. Many fled to France, where they were imprisoned in what amounted to concentration camps, in which they were forced to live on insufficient food, in unhygienic housing, and in freezing temperatures. In Saint-Cyprien, there were 50 to 100 deaths daily, and the other camps weren’t much better. After initial outrage, the French press promptly forgot the plight of these Spanish refugees. Those who remained in Franco’s Spain faced a gulag of imprisonment, forced labor, and death. Some escaped to the hills to hide out, and others fought in scattered bands of guerilla fighters; but these usually didn’t last long. And yet if the Stalinists had won the war, it isn’t clear that conditions would have been any better.

One thing that repeatedly struck me as I read through this book was the contrast in efficiency between the nationalists and the republicans. While Franco regulated his wartime economy and made effective military decisions, the republican side was awash in dozens of local currencies, busy worrying about forming syndicates, and preparing for the imminent proletariat “revolution.” On the same day as Málaga fell, when so many were put to death by Franco’s forces, in Barcelona the government was worrying about the collectivization of cows.

This seems to show us a persistent feature of both the left and the right. Equality and authority are two ideals at odds with one another; and most governments concern themselves with finding a balance between these two values. When the right becomes extreme, it gravitates towards extreme authority at the expense of equality; and when the left is radicalized, the reverse happens, and equality is fetishized. Thus we see the nationalist army consolidating itself under Franco, while the republican side devolved into warring factions, more concerned with their utopian schemes than with winning the war.

Equality without authority produces justice without power. Authority without equality, power without justice. The first is morally preferable in its ends and totally inadequate in its means; while the latter uses brutally efficient means to achieve brutally unjust ends. In practice, this means that, in direct contests, the extreme right will most often triumph over the extreme left, at least in the short-term; and yet in the long-term their emphasis on authority, obedience, and discipline produces unfair societies and unhappy populaces. The extreme left, for its part, after collapsing into mutually squabbling factions, sometimes devolves into the authoritarian pattern as one party emerges as the most powerful and as they lose patience with discussion (which doesn’t take long in a crisis).

Some middle-path is needed to navigate between these two ideals. But what’s the right balance? I suppose this is one of the oldest questions of human societies. In any case, as I put down this book, I am left with a dark picture lightened by very few bright patches.

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Quotes & Commentary #48: Orwell

Quotes & Commentary #48: Orwell

We have become too civilised to grasp the obvious. For the truth is very simple. To survive you often have to fight, and to fight you have to dirty yourself. War is evil, and it is often the lesser evil.

—George Orwell, A Collection of Essays

What is the right thing to do in morally compromising circumstances? What should you do when, for example, you’re working for a company whose business practices you find exploitative? What if you’re working in a school system that embodies an educational philosophy you think is false or harmful?

Or consider the situation Orwell describes: When you are forced to choose between fighting in a war or capitulating to fascists?

This is a dreadful choice to make. On the one hand, fascism is ethically intolerable, and allowing fascism to conquer means allowing injustice to reign and persecution to run rampant. But to stop fascism means having to fight; and fighting means getting your hands dirty. “Getting your hands dirty” is, of course, a euphemism for all of the morally compromising actions that war entails. You will have to kill strangers, violently and indiscriminately; and in modern warfare the death of innocent civilians is inevitable, considering the weapons we use.

It is one question (which I don’t intend to address here) whether the so-called “collateral damage” of a conflict justifies the war. It is another whether the moral damage of participating in warfare compensates for the moral benefit of defeating an enemy. To use religious language for a moment, my question is this: Does inflicting violence for a good cause imperil your soul? Does the justice outweigh the sin?

Orwell thought the answer was yes, and he lived his principles. He fought passionately, both in word and action, against fascism, even taking up arms in the Spanish Civil War. To pick another notable example, Malcolm X also agreed that violent means were justified when used against violent tyranny. If white people were going to violently oppress black people in America, then why shouldn’t black people fight back with any means necessary? Indeed, I think most people nowadays would agree that violence is sometimes justified by the outcome. Despite all the atrocities of the Second World War, fighting against the Nazis was morally preferable to letting them win.

On the other side of this debate are people like Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and James Baldwin. The justification for pacifism is that violence corrupts, both the victim and the attacker. By committing violence, even in the service of a noble cause, we degrade ourselves.

This argument sounds religious, and it often is; but you can make this same argument from a secular perspective. James Baldwin, a man totally disillusioned with Christianity, was nevertheless a pacifist, because he thought violence, injustice, and oppression corrupts its agents. Baldwin thought this because the purveyors of violent oppression must create comforting myths for themselves so they don’t have to face their own immorality; and this leads to a disconnect from reality and an inauthentic life.

For my part, the risk with using unethical means for ethical ends is that it forces you to make exceptions in your moral code. You must create an inconsistency in your standards of right and wrong, and this may lead to a slippery slope. In other words, if you make a special rule to use violence against one type of person, this creates a risk that the rule can be abused.

For one, if you decide that violence is allowable against one special class of person—fascist soldiers, let’s say—this leads to the difficulty of determining whether any specific person falls into this class. If you make a mistake, you will commit violence to an innocent person. And it is clear that this rule can be abused (and certainly was during the Spanish Civil War), for example, by anyone who has a score to settle, through a false accusation or other forms of foul play.

The other risk is that, by creating one category of allowable violence, you set a damaging precedent. In the future, perhaps the category is expanded, or other categories of allowable violence are created, citing the first one for authority. In other words, you may unintentionally open the door for unscrupulous people, who wish to cloak their violence in legitimacy rather than use violence to accomplish a noble end.

I am not willing, for the moment, to assert that either Orwell or Baldwin are definitely right (although I admit I’m inclined to pacifism, if only because I’m cowardly). The “right” answer seems to depend heavily on the particular circumstances.

Thankfully, most of us will not have to decide whether to use violence against injustice. But by virtue of living in a society, we will certainly have to make many other, far less dramatic decisions about the right thing to do when given only undesirable options.

This question came to the fore during the 2016 elections, particularly among fans of Bernie Sanders. Many Bernie fans believed that both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were morally corrupt, and they were not content to vote for the “lesser of two evils.” Now, in the case of Clinton and Trump, it seemed clear to me that Trump was incomparably worse than Clinton, so the choice wasn’t so hard. But in a general sense this question is certainly worth considering.

When faced with two unethical options, there is always a third option: don’t choose. That is, withdraw and refuse to participate. More generally, when you find yourself in a morally compromising environment, you can either attempt to navigate the environment in the least immoral way possible, or remove yourself from the environment.

Let me be a little more concrete. Imagine you are working in a business whose practices you disapprove of. Maybe you think the business exploits its workers—paying a low salary, with few benefits, and asking employees to work long hours—or maybe the business is selling a product under false pretenses, effectively fooling its customers.

Consider the latter case. To be even more concrete, imagine that you’re a salesperson selling a product you know is poor-quality. Your salary and your job security depend directly on how many units you sell. You have no way to improve the product. To sell it requires, if not lying, at least that you omit information—that is, that you fail to mention that the product is shoddy.

Maybe you’re first reaction is to say that the moral thing to do is to quit. If there is no moral way to do the job, then you shouldn’t do it, right? However, if you quit, do you really improve the world? The business will hire somebody else to replace you, perhaps somebody with less scruples, and the moral balance sheet of the universe will be unaffected. Indeed, by quitting, you inflicted harm on yourself by depriving yourself of the salary. And in that case is quitting the least moral thing to do?

This, I think, is the problem with morally compromising systems. By refusing to participate, all you do is damage yourself while allowing others to fill the same unethical role that you resigned.

True, you do have the option, in the example above, to try to create a movement against the business, to spread the knowledge that its products are shoddy (although this may be legally culpable if you signed a non-release form). Even so, when you think about it, the fundamental problem isn’t really that one business is selling a poor-quality product. The problem is that businesses can thrive by stretching the truth to sell products. (Or is the problem that consumers are not sufficiently well-informed? Where exactly does the business’s responsibility end and the consumer’s begin?)

Again, I’m unwilling, at least for now, to give a general prescription for conundrums like these. And yet the question cannot be put off. Life is one morally-compromising situation after another. How can we balance the need to look out for ourselves with the desire to harm as few people as possible?

Review: Homage to Catalonia

Review: <i>Homage to Catalonia</i>

Homage to CataloniaHomage to Catalonia by George Orwell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have the most evil memories of Spain, but I have very few bad memories of Spaniards. I only twice remember even being seriously angry with a Spaniard, and on each occasion, when I look back, I believe I was in the wrong myself.

Autobiographies and memoirs are, I think, the best books to read on vacation. Not only are they light, easy, and entertaining, but they’re usually not hard to put down. This is important because, if you’re like me, you may end up spending your whole vacation with your head buried in a book. Most valuable, however, is simply seeing how an excellent writer transforms their experiences into stories. The vague emotions of daily life, the interesting characters we encounter, the sights and sounds and smells of new places—good autobiographies direct our attention to these little details.

In this spirit I picked up Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia to read during my trip to Seville. It was an excellent choice. It’s been a while since I’ve read Orwell, and I’d nearly forgotten what a fine writer he is. In fact, perhaps the most conspicuous quality of this book is the caliber of the prose. It is written with such grace, clarity, and ease, that I couldn’t help being constantly impressed and, I admit, extremely envious at times. The writing is direct but never blunt; the tone is personal and natural, but not chummy. The book may have been a bit too readable, actually, since I had a hard time prying myself away to go explore Seville (and a book has to be very good indeed to compete with Seville).

There seems to be a bit of confusion about this book. Specifically, some people seem to come to it expecting to learn about the Spanish Civil War. This is a mistake; Orwell only experienced a sliver of the war, and his understanding of the political situation was limited to the infighting between various leftist groups. The events and conflicts that led up to the war, and the progress of the war itself, are for the most part unexplained. This book is, rather, a deeply personal record of his time in the Spanish militia. We learn more about Orwell’s military routine than about any battles between fascist and government forces. More light is shed on Orwell’s own political opinions than the political situation in Spain.

If you come to the book with this in mind, it will not disappoint. His time in Spain made a deep impression on Orwell; he writes of it in a wistful and nostalgic tone, as if everything that happened occurred in a dreamy, timeless, mist-filled landscape, disconnected from the rest of his life. Characters come and go, soldiers are introduced, arrested, or killed in action; but we do not get acquainted with anyone save Orwell himself. The mood is introspective and pensive, as if it all took place in another life. Even when he is describing his friends’ imprisonment, or his experience getting shot in the neck and hospitalized, he manages to sound dispassionate and serene.

Two chapters, however, do not fit into this characterization. These are Orwell’s analyses of the political situation in Barcelona during this time. In some books, they are published as appendices—which I think is a good choice, actually, since they interrupt the flow of the book quite a bit. Despite the abrupt change in tone and subject-matter, however, they make for valuable reading. The machinations and petty political squabbles that went on during this time are astounding. One would think that having a common enemy in Franco would be enough to unite the various factions on the Left, at least for the duration of the war. Instead, the anti-revolutionary communist party ended up declaring the pro-revolutionary communist party (of which Orwell was a member, entirely by chance) to be a fascist conspiracy, resulting in hundreds of people—people who had spent months fighting at the front—being thrown in secret prisons. Orwell himself narrowly escaped.

Nevertheless, I think that Orwell’s analyses of the general situation in Spain should be taken with copious salt. He understands nearly everything through a quasi-Marxist lens of class-warfare, which I think fails to do justice to the complex political and cultural history of the conflict. Added to this, one gets the impression that Orwell’s command of Spanish was fairly rudimentary, which I think greatly limited his ability to understand the war. To his credit, though, Orwell does warn us about his limitations:

In case I have not said this somewhere earlier in the book I will say it now: beware of my partisanship, my mistakes of fact, and the distortion inevitably caused by my having seen only one corner of events. And beware of exactly the same things when you read any other book on this period of the Spanish war.

But these are minor complaints of a book which I found to be supremely well-written and absolutely fascinating. His accounts of life at the front were possibly the best descriptions of war that I’ve ever read, with the exception of those in Tolstoy’s War and Peace. This is not because Orwell saw very much fighting; quite the opposite. Rather, he conveys a sense of the crushing boredom and the sense of futility that many soldiers must feel during a long, draw-out war. Also superb was his portrayal of political oppression, the climate of fear and backstabbing that arose during the party conflicts in Barcelona.

Perhaps most impressive, though, is that, despite all of the hardships Orwell endured, and despite the obvious injustices inflicted on both himself and his friends, he does not come across as bitter or resentful. I leave you with his words:

When you have had a glimpse of such a disaster as this—and however it ends the Spanish war will turn out to have been an appalling disaster, quite apart from the slaughter and physical suffering—the result is not necessarily disillusionment and cynicism. Curiously enough the whole experience has left me with not less but more belief in the decency of human beings.


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