Agent in Italy by S. K.

Agent in Italy by S. K. is an interesting book on a very interesting subject. It’s author, who goes by SK, is a man who was forced out of Germany and embedded himself into Italy during and through World War II as a spy. As the book was published in 1942, there is reason for the author to keep his identity a secret.

The writer begins his time in Germany where he’s sufficiently kicked out for trying to get people out of concentration camps and it begins rather early in Italy. After arriving in Italy on 23 May 1939, it shows an anti-fascist working underground through a chance meeting. There are certainly tests which follow we often see in fanciful fiction but in this instance, these are true cases.

SK goes into some detail on intelligent information, conversations and how he tried to get people to reveal information on such topics as the Luftwaffe.

Beyond these highly detailed subjects, SK does lose himself at times and gets lost in the details. However, if wanting more information beyond the military structure, there’s plenty of information on the cost of living, the average person’s beliefs, the infrastructure and Italian rationing.

There’s also an interesting bit where SK tries to predict what Italy may be like in the future. But in war and revolution, it is almost impossible to know what will happen. There are so many outside and inside forces which can change events which makes wars and revolutions especially dangerous, as initial intentions can radically change. Very rarely does a revolution such as the American Revolution repeat in history.

Agent in Italy is incredibly well-written and interesting. Rarely do I say this of non-fiction books but it is riveting. This is a necessary book for spy enthusiasts, World War II historians or those interested in Italy. It is dated and not all of the information is new, but it is a great and interesting primary source in every way. Perhaps my judgment is slightly skewed as my copy smells wonderfully ancient.

Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945-1975 by Max Hastings

I loathe to review books I haven’t read to completion. In fact, this is something I simply don’t do no matter how bad a book is. However, there are rare instances where I feel compelled to write about an incomplete book. And this is the first time I’ve ever written a review for a book that I’ve not finished.

Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy by Max Hastings attempts to be a chronology of the war and is anything but. It is a thick book and it does cover the years it mentions but it certainly isn’t a chronology.

The book is a history from the perspective of a man who was perhaps too close to the source material. Hastings mentions he was involved with Vietnam from reporting specifically on it between 1967-1968 and flying out of Vietnam on a Saigon helicopter in 1975 and it shows in all the wrong ways. Hastings wears his bias and opinions heavily in each blot in ink he lays down and does nothing to hide it.

In an attempt to provide some background on Vietnam, Hastings does an adequate job up until page three when he leaps into the 1900s. There isn’t much historical context to set the reader up for what they’re about to get into. There’s also plenty of armchair-general attitude where he claims that if the French had only begun their transition out of Vietnam in 1945 that maybe the communists wouldn’t have consumed the country decades later… but then what? It’s strange for Hastings to say this on page 13 but then on page 15 admit that even within 1945-46 the Vietminh were slaughtering thousands of Vietnamese and jailing opposition leaders. Even if this somehow wouldn’t have happened and the Vietminh somehow crashed in upon itself, this would’ve created a power vacuum which would’ve been filled by a nearby regional or world superpower.

Hastings does become more even-handed in his reporting when the United States isn’t involved; when the reports are talking about North or South Vietnam or France, the writing is fairly objective. This is quite different when he involves the US and engages the country with poisoned talons. There’s certainly nothing wrong with having a view that the United States either should have or shouldn’t have been in Vietnam as long as what is provided seems objective. Especially since this is supposed to be a chronology. An author can even try to be persuasive while being objective in order to convey a thought or idea. A proper history book can even lean hard in one direction as long as your source material and arguments are sound; without such sound writing, a history book soon feels like fodder for political hacks.

What was the deciding moment to stop reading happened on page 184 where Hastings absolved Kennedy from Vietnam. This is the sort of revisionist history which is dangerous. As mentioned in my own article on the Bay of Pigs, mainly highlighting the amphibious assault, if Cuba had been successful, Kennedy was not only going to go into Vietnam anyway, but he was going to expand the war into Laos as well. This is either dishonest, forgetfulness or a lack of research; no matter which option it is it is inexcusable for a supposed chronology on Vietnam.

While there is an adequate glossary, a nice introduction on styles and the writing is good, there are too many things wrong with this book. There are other issues aside from the aforementioned problems, notably that the history book is not written in Chicago style, meaning, you have to search for his sources and there are noticeable grammar mistakes. The latter is certainly fine for small presses or articles, but such things should not escape something out of HarperCollins.

I did trudge on to just after the 200 page mark but I was battling with myself. Did I really want to spend another 600 pages or so just to potentially write the same review? I reflected and I considered the thought for a few days before deciding that my time was better spent elsewhere on other books. I even considered not writing the review because I left the book unfinished. But if I don’t finish a book directly due to the writing and content of the book, it should be mentioned. Obviously, I decided to write the review but mention where I stopped and why. This type of review for unfinished books will not become a habit, but for extreme cases I must make exceptions.

I’m going to be nice on this topic and assume that Max Hastings was too close to the source material to be objective. It was a book he shouldn’t have written and after reading it, should not have been published. It is unfortunate it receives such high marks. This book has too much opinion to be considered a history book, let alone a chronology.

The political leanings of the author are overt in this book and it would cause me serious hesitancy to pick up any books by Hastings in the future. Generally I give authors up to three chances but in extreme cases, they receive only one. Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy has shot Hastings’ credibility and I’ll work to avoid all of his publications in the future.