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Churchill & Orwell: The Fight for Freedom.

Churchill & Orwell: The Fight for Freedom, by Thomas E. Ricks. New York: Penguin, 2017. 352 pages. $28.

George Orwell and Winston S. Churchill do not strike us as two men whose surnames would share a dust jacket. One only has to look at David Levine's clever caricatures in the New York Review of Books for two entirely different men to appear: Orwell the rustic, in tweeds, chewing on a piece of hay; and Churchill, clad in coronation robes, the king of his own dominion. Yet Thomas Ricks, a journalist formerly at the Washington Post, has written an interesting book, a dual biography of sorts that claims that the men had much in common as they fought fascism and Communism, two of the greatest evils of the twentieth century.

Ricks focuses on the "fulcrum" years of Orwell's and Churchill's lives--the 1930s and 1940s. And this is just as well, because if they had died before 1940 they would be remembered little today, if at all. A sniper's bullet almost took Orwell's life during the Spanish Civil War, and if it had he would be remembered today as a talented essayist and mediocre novelist; while Churchill, almost killed by a car in New York City in 1931, would be remembered as the man who lost Gallipoli and deserted one political party for another.

Ricks tells the tale of these two men, who, in their own ways--through their writing, speech, and actions--fought to "preserve the liberty of the individual during an age when the state was becoming powerfully intrusive into private life." He begins by touching briefly on their early years: Churchill's journey as a soldier, journalist, writer, and eventually politician; and Orwell's time as a police officer in Burma, which would alter his life and lead him to write some of the best essays in the English language--namely, "A Hanging" and "Shooting an Elephant." From there we are ushered quickly to the historical events that would make them the men we remember today.

Orwell's defining moment was the Spanish Civil War and his participation in a leftist (Trotskyist) political organization known as POUM. It fought against Franco's Nationalists, but owing to its anti-Stalinist platform the same Republican forces that supposedly were Orwell's allies placed a death sentence on his head. He barely escaped Spain alive, with the Soviet secret police in close pursuit. His experience in the war would provide the grist for his famous novels Animal Farm and 1984.

Churchill's moment came a few years later, in 1940-41. During these two precarious years, Churchill was thrust into the fray as prime minister, staved off Nazi appeasers, and rallied England to endure and prevail during the Battle of Britain, eventually securing much-needed support from the United States. The rest, as they say, is history.

Ricks's book is a work of appreciation; he admits he has admired both men for some time. However, he does not appreciate them so much that he glosses over their less admirable traits. A quick flip through the (thorough) index reveals references to Orwell's anti-Semitism and Churchill's drinking. Ricks even manages to fit a sentence into the book referring to the unfortunate praise Churchill lavished on the fascist Italian dictator Benito Mussolini in the 1920s. Thus it is a credit to Ricks's pacing and power of distillation that he squeezed both men into a book that numbers around three hundred pages. This is no easy task; Orwell wrote over two million words in his lifetime, and reading Churchill's autobiographical six-volume series The Second World War alone requires one to scour over four thousand pages.

Placing Orwell and Churchill together in a single book does invite contrast, however. The late writer and journalist Christopher Hitchens once said that Orwell was right about the three big subjects of the twentieth century: Communism, fascism, and imperialism. On the latter, while Ricks's two subjects never met, we can speculate safely that they would have disagreed vehemently. Ricks does not delve into this contrast deeply, yet it was a defining issue for both men. Churchill would remain a staunch imperialist his entire life, and is callously quotable on the issue (on Gandhi: "[He] ought to be lain bound hand and foot at the gates of Delhi, and then trampled on by an enormous elephant with the new Viceroy seated on its back"). Orwell, on the other hand, saw imperialism up close during his posting in Burma, and would rail against power in all its forms throughout the rest of his life. But readers be warned: do not invite a moral equivalency test between these two men. Orwell was a frustrated moralist, while Churchill, for all his success, was a politician--a man who, for most of his life, sought power and its trappings.

There are many great books on Orwell and Churchill. If you already have read D. J. Taylor's fine biography of Orwell and cracked William Manchester's biography of Churchill, then Ricks's work may seem like tilled soil. Consider, then, reading Christopher Hitchens's Why Orwell Matters or perhaps David Reynolds's In Command of History, a fascinating story of Churchill's production of his memoir The Second World War and a sure testament to the fact that those who win wars get to write the history. Regardless, this is a fine book for anyone interested in reacquainting themselves with either luminary, or for those curious to see both in a complementary light.
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Author:Neeson, Christopher
Publication:Naval War College Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2018
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