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Sunday Book Review: Small Wars


Sadie Jones’ Small Wars is a novel about British efforts to put down the Greek Cypriot insurgency in the mid-1950s. Jones concentrates on the Treherne family, including Hal, a British military officer, his wife Claire, and their two children.  It’s not quite right to say that the settlement of British military families in the war zone is shocking, but for readers accustomed to the American counter-insurgency experience it’s certainly different.  With Cyprus (as with many of the other conflicts that characterized the dissolution of the French and British empires) there is no pleasant “we’ll stand down as they stand up” light at the end of the tunnel.  The British expect to be in Cyprus for the foreseeable future, and settling the families of officers and soldiers seems a natural way to maintain the empire.

Jones skillfully contrasts the domestic tension of life on the British military base with action in the field against Cypriot rebels.  At times, the action on the base can be more harrowing; the Treherne’s have twin girls about the same age as my own, and I found following their intense illness more difficult than following the pursuit of Greek Cypriot insurgents.  The plot is driven by the interference of war in the domesticity of the British base, resulting in three rapes, one of a British woman and two of Cypriots.  One of the rapes drives the domestic side, while the other two provide the matter for the institutional story of the British Army’s effort to quell the Cypriot insurgency.

The imagery of violation similarly informs the story of the British Army’s efforts to gather intelligence on the insurgency.  One unfortunate (and not fully developed) character witnesses two rapes, guesses at the other, and is a principal cog in the ongoing violation that the torture operations represents.  Perhaps the most affecting passages relate the apprehension of a juvenile terror suspect along a dirt road.  Two British officers drive past a couple of young Cypriots on bicycles when one of the boys panics.  The British officers, who wouldn’t have given the bicyclists a second thought otherwise, of course pursue and apprehend the boy, who is carrying a revolver.  The situation then develops in a predictable way; the boy is arrested, questioned, interrogated, and finally tortured by British and Cypriot authorities.  No “intelligence” results from this, but from the moment the boy panics the machinery of the state has to roll forward.

Jones certainly gives good account of how organizations defend themselves against embarrassment and humiliation.  It really isn’t as if the British Army doesn’t recognize that rape is a problem, or that the soldiers in question ought to be disciplined; almost everyone in the chain of command appreciates both the moral horror and the political damage of the incident.  However, the first impulse is protection of the service; the perpetrators can be dealt with internally, careers can be destroyed, men can be transferred, but a public reckoning must be avoided at all costs.

Our protagonist is no Colonel Mathieu; he graduates from Sandhurst in 1946, firmly believing in King and country but with perhaps a different vision of what it means to defend the Empire than what he eventually performs.  The events which lead him to set aside his duty are believable, even if the concluding chapters seem a bit rushed and rote.  As the novel comes to a close, Jones edges toward broad implications which don’t fit on the narrow workspace that she’s chosen.  Small Wars is a good novel, but not a great one.

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