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Warlord: A Life of Winston Churchill at War, 1875-1945.

Warlord: A Life of Winston Churchill at War, 1875-1945. By Carlo D'Este. New York: Harper, 2008. 864 pages. $39.95. Reviewed by Dr. Allan R. Miilett, Professor of History and Director, Center for Eisenhower Studies, University of New Orleans.

If the Queen gave Victoria Crosses to authors for courageous choices of subjects, Carlo D'Este would surely win one for writing a biography of the Prime Minister. William Manchester took two volumes to cover Churchill's life through World War II. The "Churchill and ..." books are legion. Author of three lasting books on World War II and biographer of Patton and Eisenhower, D'Este has served an apprenticeship that qualifies him as a serious student of Churchill's wartime leadership. For depth Warlord does not replace the seven volumes by Randolph Churchill and Sir Martin Gilbert, but it certainly takes less campaigning.

A biographer's challenge is to establish character and motivation, and subjects worth a book because of their historical importance are seldom simple studies. Just ask the biographers of Lincoln, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Hitler, Mao Zedong, and Stalin. An author needs some high ground of interpretation, Freudian, Maslowian, Spockian, or whatever. D'Este decides that Churchill always saw himself as a military commander or politician-strategist like the Duke of Marlborough or the Duke of Wellington. Warlord is an apt title since Churchill was an anti-organization leader (much like Hitler and FDR) who never favored the rational side of conducting military operations. The list of botched adventures that showed the Churchill touch is well-known: Gallipoli, Norway, Dieppe, Greece, Malaya, and Crete. As D'Este shows, Churchill could only be persuaded to accept sound professional military advice from generals whom he respected for secondary personal and military virtues, such as "Jumbo" Wilson and Harold Alexander. Another option was to be as eccentric and self-centered as the PM himself, a rare breed that included Alanbrooke, Montgomery, Harris, Mountbatten, and Wingate. Pity the "normal" senior officers such as Hugh Dowding, Hastings Ismay, John Dill, William Slim, George C. Marshall, and Dwight D. Eisenhower. Churchill's basic tool of mastery was not his constitutional position, unchallenged during the war, but his tireless hectoring, inexhaustible self-confidence, and sense of historic mission.

D'Este does not fall victim to Churchill's selective charm and selective writing. Instead, he relies on the accounts of Churchill's most intimate observers, many of whom the PM bullied or tried to. Warlord is not a book for Churchill lovers. For all his flaws, the PM held his job because no one else wanted it in 1940-42, and by 1943-44 Churchill and the British people saw victory ahead, thanks to the Soviet Union and the United States of America. As D'Este wisely observes, Churchill kept a vision of Allied triumph alive when rational men thought otherwise. The author also wisely discounts Western Front post-traumatic stress disorder as Churchill's driving strategic motivation. The real Churchill was far more bloody-minded than his admirers admit, and he could be as risk-insensitive as Adolf Hitler. Fortunately, Great Britain was not a nation of sycophantic generals.

D'Este will, no doubt, be set upon by British historians, who will argue that an American cannot possibly understand the social, political, and military culture that produced Winston Churchill. Perhaps. Great Britain, however, has a history of being saved by eccentric rebels in a time of crisis. Was Churchill more improbable than David Lloyd George or the Pitts? The paradox of Churchill's life is that the times found the right man because he was rooted in Britain's pre-industrial, romantic, imperial past, not the centuries in which he lived.

D'Este's brave attempt to find the real Churchill in Warlord is a major contribution to the PM's literary legacy. Since D'Este focuses on Churchill's relations with his generals, air marshals, and admirals, Warlord has a worthy complement in Raymond Callahan, Churchill and His Generals. Neither book will be the final word on Churchill the Warlord, but for now they are the best studies, with Warlord holding a slight edge due to D'Este's analysis of Churchill's prewar experience. The air of mystery and wonder that hangs around Churchill like the PM's cigar smoke remains intact.
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Author:Millett, Allan R.
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2009
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