Review of: Cloud Cuckoo Land, by Anthony Doerr
Reviewed by Stan Prager, Regarp Book Blog
Ὦ ξένε, ὅστις εἶ, ἄνοιξον, ἵνα μάθῃς ἃ θαυμάζεις
“Stranger, whoever you are, open this to learn what will amaze you.”
This passage, in ancient Greek and in translation, is the key to Cloud Cuckoo Land, a big, ambitious, complicated novel by Anthony Doerr, the latest from the author of the magnificent, Pulitzer Prize-winning All the Light We Cannot See (2014). Classicists will recognize “Cloud Cuckoo Land” as borrowed from The Birds, the 414 BCE comedy by the Athenian satirist Aristophanes, a city in the sky constructed by birds that later became synonymous for any kind of fanciful world. In this case, Cloud Cuckoo Land serves as the purported title of a long-lost ancient work by Antonius Diogenes, rediscovered as a damaged but partially translatable codex in 2019, that relates the tale of Aethon, a hapless shepherd who transforms into a donkey, then into a fish, then into a crow, in a quest to reach that utopian city in the clouds. It serves as well as the literary glue that binds together the narrative and the central protagonists of Doerr’s novel.
There is the octogenarian Zeno, self-taught in classical Greek, who has translated the fragmentary codex and adapted it into a play that is to be performed by fifth graders in the public library located in Lakeport, Idaho in 2020. Lurking in the vicinity is Seymour, an alienated teen with Asperger’s, flirting with eco-terrorism. And hundreds of years in the past, there is also the thirteen-year-old Anna, who has happened upon that same codex in Constantinople, on the eve of its fall to the Turks. Among the thousands of besiegers outside the city’s walls is Omeir, a harelipped youngster who with his team of oxen was conscripted to serve the Sultan in the cause of toppling the Byzantine capital. Finally, there is Konstance, fourteen years old, who has lived her entire life on the Argos, a twenty-second century spacecraft destined for a distant planet; she too comes to discover “Cloud Cuckoo Land.”
Alternating chapters, some short, others far longer, tell the stories of each protagonist, in real time or through flashbacks. For the long-lived Zeno, readers follow his hardscrabble youth, his struggle with his closeted homosexuality, his stint as a POW in the Korean War, and his long love affair with the language of the ancient Greeks. We observe how an uncertain and frequently bullied Seymour reacts to the destruction of wilderness and wildlife in his own geography. We watch the rebellious Anna abjure her work as a lowly seamstress to clandestinely translate the codex. We learn how the disfigured-at-birth Omeir is at first nearly left to die, then exiled along with his family because villagers believe he is a demon. We see Konstance, trapped in quarantine in what appears to be deep space, explore the old earth through an “atlas” in the ship’s library.
Cloud Cuckoo Land is in turn fascinating and captivating, but sometimes—unfortunately—also dull. There are not only the central protagonists to contend with, but also a number of secondary characters in each of their respective orbits, as well as the multiple timelines spanning centuries, so there is much to keep track of. I recall being so spellbound by All the Light We Cannot See that I read its entire 500-plus pages over a single weekend. This novel, much longer, did not hook me with a similar force. I found it a slow build: my enthusiasm tended to simmer rather than surge. Alas, I wanted to care about the characters far more than I did. Still, the second half of the novel is a much more exciting read than the first portion.
Science—in multiple disciplines—is often central to a Doerr novel. That was certainly the case in All the Light We Cannot See, as well as in his earlier work, About Grace. In Cloud Cuckoo Land, in contrast, science—while hardly absent—takes a backseat. The sci-fi in the Argos voyage is pretty cool, but hardly the stuff of Asimov or Heinlein. And Seymour’s science of climate catastrophe strikes as little more than an afterthought in the narrative.
Multiple individuals with lives on separate trajectories centuries apart whose exploits resonated larger and often overlapping themes reminded me at first of another work with a cloud in its title: Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell. But Cloud Cuckoo Land lacks the spectacular brilliance of that novel, which manages to take your very breath away. It also falls short of the depth and intricacy that powers Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See. And yet … and yet … I ended up really enjoying the book, even shedding a tear or two in its final pages. So there’s that. In the final analysis, Doerr is a talented writer and if this is not his finest work, it remains well worth the read.
I have reviewed other novels by Anthony Doerr here:
Review of: The Sumerians: Lost Civilizations, by Paul Collins
Reviewed by Stan Prager, Regarp Book Blog
Reading the “The Epic of Gilgamesh,” in its entirety rekindled a long dormant interest in the Sumerians, the ancient Mesopotamian people that my school textbooks once boldly proclaimed as inventors not only of the written word, but of civilization itself! One of the pleasures of having a fine home library stocked with eclectic works is that there is frequently a volume near at hand to suit such inclinations, and in this case I turned to a relatively recent acquisition, The Sumerians, a fascinating and extremely well-written—if decidedly controversial—contribution to the Lost Civilizations series, by Paul Collins.
“The Epic of Gilgamesh” is, of course, the world’s oldest literary work: the earliest record of the five poems that form the heart of the epic were carved into Sumerian clay tablets that date back to 2100 BCE, and relate the exploits of the eponymous Gilgamesh, an actual historic king of the Mesopotamian city state Uruk circa 2750 BCE who later became the stuff of heroic legend. Most famously, a portion of the epic recounts a flood narrative nearly identical to the one reported in Genesis, making it the earliest reference to the Near East flood myth held in common by the later Abrahamic religions.
Uruk was just one of a number of remarkable city states—along with Eridu, Ur, and Kish—that formed urban and agricultural hubs between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in what is today southern Iraq, between approximately 3500-2000 BCE, at a time when the Persian Gulf extended much further north, putting these cities very near the coast. Some archaeologists also placed “Ur of the Chaldees,” the city in the Hebrew Bible noted as the birthplace of the Israelite patriarch Abraham, in this vicinity, reinforcing the Biblical flood connection. A common culture that boasted the earliest system of writing that recorded in cuneiform script a language isolate unrelated to others, advances in mathematics that utilized a sexagesimal system, and the invention of both the wheel and the plow came to be attributed to these mysterious non-Semitic people, dubbed the Sumerians.
But who were the Sumerians? They were completely unknown, notes the author, until archaeologists stumbled upon the ruins of their forgotten cities about 150 years ago. Collins, who currently is Curator for Ancient Near East, Ashmolean Museum*, at University of Oxford, fittingly opens his work with the baked clay artifact known as a “prism” inscribed with the so-called Sumerian King List, circa 1800 BCE, currently housed in the Ashmolean Museum. The opening passage of the book is also the first lines of the Sumerian King List: “After the kingship descended from heaven, the kingship was in Eridu. In Eridu, Alulim became king; He ruled for 28,800 years.” Heady stuff.
“It is not history as we would understand it,” argues Collins, “but a combination of myth, legend and historical information.” This serves as a perfect metaphor for Collins’s thesis, which is that after a century and a half of archaeology and scholarship, we know less about the Sumerians—if such a structured, well-defined common culture ever even existed—and far more about the sometimes-spurious conclusions and even outright fictions that successive generations of academics and observers have attached to these ancient peoples.
Thus, Collins raises two separate if perhaps related issues that both independently and in tandem spark controversy. The first is the question of whether the Sumerians ever existed as a distinct culture, or whether—as the author suggests—scholars may have somehow mistakenly woven a misleading tapestry out of scraps and threads in the archaeological record representing a variety of inhabitants within a shared geography with material cultures that while overlapping were never of a single fabric? The second is how deeply woven into that same tapestry are distortions—some intended and others inadvertent—tailored to interpretations fraught with the biases of excavators and researchers determined to locate the Sumerians as uber-ancestors central to the myth of Western Civilization that tends to dominate the historiography? And, of course, if there is merit to the former, was it entirely the product of the latter, or were other factors involved?
I personally lack both the expertise and the qualifications to weigh in on the first matter, especially given that its author’s credentials include not only an association with Oxford’s School of Archaeology, but also as the Chair of the British Institute for the Study of Iraq. Still, I will note in this regard that he makes many thought-provoking and salient points. As to the second, Collins is quite persuasive, and here great authority on the part of the reader is not nearly as requisite.
Nineteenth century explorers and archaeologists—as well as their early twentieth century successors—were often drawn to this Middle Eastern milieu in a quest for concordance between Biblical references and excavations, which bred distortions in outcomes and interpretation. At the same time, a conviction that race and civilization were inextricably linked—to be clear, the “white race” and “Western Civilization”—determined that what was perceived as “advanced” was ordained at the outset for association with “the West.” We know that the leading thinkers of the Renaissance rediscovered the Greeks and Romans as their cultural and intellectual forebears, with at least some measure of justification, but later far more tenuous links were drawn to ancient Egypt—and, of course, later still, to Babylon and Sumer. Misrepresentations, deliberate or not, were exacerbated by the fact that the standards of professionalism characteristic to today’s archaeology were either primitive or nonexistent.
None of this should be news to students of history who have observed how the latest historiography has frequently discredited interpretations long taken for granted—something I have witnessed firsthand as a dramatic work in progress in studies of the American Civil War in recent decades: notably, although slavery was central to the cause of secession and war, for more than a century African Americans were essentially erased from the textbooks and barely acknowledged other than at the very periphery of the conflict, in what was euphemistically constructed as a sectional struggle among white men, north and south. It was a lie, but a lie that sold very well for a very long time, and still clings to those invested in what has come to called “Lost Cause” mythology.
But yet it’s surprising, as Collins underscores, that what should long have been second-guessed about Sumer remains integral to far too much of what persists as current thinking. Whether the Sumerians are indeed a distinct culture or not, should those peoples more than five millennia removed from us continue to be artificially attached to what we pronounce Western Civilization? Probably not. And while we certainly recognize today that race is an artificial construct that relates zero information of importance about a people, ancient or modern, we can reasonably guess with some confidence that those indigenous to southern Iraq in 3500 BCE probably did not have the pale skin of a native of, say, Norway. We can rightfully assert that the people we call the Sumerians were responsible for extraordinary achievements that were later passed down to other cultures that followed, but an attempt to draw some kind of line from Sumer to Enlightenment-age Europe is shaky, at best.
As such, Collins’s book gives focus to what we have come to believe about the Sumerians, and why we should challenge that. I previously read (and reviewed) Egypt by Christina Riggs, another book in the Lost Civilizations series, which is preoccupied with how ancient Egypt has resonated for those who walked in its shadows, from Roman tourists to Napoleon’s troops to modern admirers, even if that vision little resembles its historic basis. Collins takes a similar tack but devotes far more attention to parsing out in greater detail exactly what is really known about the Sumerians and what we tend to collectively assume that we know. Of course, Sumer is far less familiar to a wider audience, and it lacks the romantic appeal of Egypt—there is no imagined exotic beauty like Cleopatra, only the blur of the distant god-king Gilgamesh—so the Sumerians come up far more rarely in conversation, and provoke far less strong feelings, one way or the other.
The Sumerians is a an accessible read for the non-specialist, and there are plenty of illustrations to enhance the text. Like other authors in the Lost Civilizations series, Collins deserves much credit for articulating sometimes arcane material in a manner that suits both a scholarly and a popular audience, which is by no means an easy achievement. If you are looking for an outstanding introduction to these ancient people that is neither too esoteric nor dumbed-down, I highly recommend this volume.
*NOTE: I recently learned that Paul Collins has apparently left the Ashmolean Museum as of end October 2022, and is now associated with the Middle East Department, British Museum.
The Sumerian Kings List Prism at the Ashmolean Museum online here: The Sumerian King List Prism
More about “The Epic of Gilgamesh” can be found in my review here: Review of: Gilgamesh: A New English Version, by Stephen Mitchell
I reviewed other volumes in the Lost Civilizations series here:
Imagine if God—or Gary Larson—had an enormous mayonnaise shaped jar at his disposal and stuffed it chock full of the collective consciousnesses of the greatest modern philosophers, psychoanalysts, neuroscientists, mathematicians, physicists, quantum theoreticians, and cosmologists … then lightly dusted it with a smattering of existential theologians, eschatologists, dream researchers, and violin makers, before tossing in a handful of race car drivers, criminals, salvage divers, and performers from an old-time circus sideshow … and next layered it with literary geniuses, heavy on William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway with perhaps a dash of Haruki Murakami and just a smidge of Dashiell Hammett … before finally tossing in Socrates, or at least Plato’s version of Socrates, who takes Plato along with him because—love him or hate him—you just can’t peel Plato away from Socrates. Now imagine that giant jar somehow being given a shake or two before being randomly dumped into the multiverse, so that all the blended yet still unique components poured out into our universe as well into other multiple hypothetical universes. If such a thing was possible, the contents that spilled forth might approximate The Passenger and Stella Maris, the pair of novels by Cormac McCarthy that has so stunned readers and critics alike that there is yet no consensus whether to pronounce these works garbage or magnificent—or, for that matter, magnificent garbage.
The eighty-nine-year-old McCarthy, perhaps America’s greatest living novelist, released these companion books in 2022 after a sixteen-year hiatus that followed publication of The Road, the 2006 postapocalyptic sensation that explored familiar Cormac McCarthy themes in a very different genre, employing literary techniques strikingly different from his previous works, and in the process finding a whole new audience. The same might be said, to some degree, of the novel that preceded it just a year earlier, No Country for Old Men, another clear break from his past that was after all a radical departure for readers of say, The Border Trilogy, and his magnum opus, Blood Meridian, which to my mind is not only a superlative work but truly one of the finest novels of the twentieth century.
Full disclosure: I have read all of Cormac McCarthy’s novels, as well as a play and a screenplay that he authored. To suggest that I am a fan would be a vast understatement. My very first McCarthy novel was The Crossing, randomly plucked from a grocery store magazine rack while on a family vacation. That was 2008. I inhaled the book and soon set out to read his full body of work. The Crossing is actually the middle volume in The Border Trilogy, preceded by All the Pretty Horses and followed by Cities of the Plain, which collectively form a near- Shakespearean epic of the American southwest and the Mexican borderlands in the mid-twentieth century, which yet retain a stark primitivism barely removed from the milieu of Blood Meridian, set a full century earlier. The author’s style, in these sagas and beyond, has at times by critics been compared with both Faulkner and Hemingway, both favorably and unfavorably, but McCarthy’s voice is distinctive, and hardly derivative. There is indeed the rich vocabulary of a Faulkner or a Styron, that add a richness to the quality of the prose even as it challenges readers to sometimes seek out the dictionary app on their phones. There is also a magnificent use of the objective correlative, made famous by Hemingway and later in portions of the works of Gabriel Garcia Márquez, which evokes powerful emotions from inanimate objects. For McCarthy, this often manifests in the vast, seemingly otherworldly geography of the southwest. McCarthy also frequently makes use of Hemingway’s polysyndetic syntax that adds emphasis to sentences through a series of conjunctions. Most noticeable for those new to Cormac McCarthy is his omission of most traditional punctuation, such as quotation marks, which often improves the flow of the narrative even as it sometimes lends to a certain confusion in long dialogues between two characters that span several pages.
The Passenger opens with the prologue of a Christmas day suicide that must be recited in the author’s voice as an underscore to the beauty of his prose:
It had snowed lightly in the night and her frozen hair was gold and crystalline and her eyes were frozen cold and hard as stones. One of her yellow boots had fallen off and stood in the snow beneath her. The shape of her coat lay dusted in the snow where she’d dropped it and she wore only a white dress and she hung among the bare gray poles of the winter trees with her head bowed and her hands turned slightly outward like those of certain ecumenical statues whose attitude asks that their history be considered. That the deep foundation of the world be considered where it has its being in the sorrow of her creatures. The hunter knelt and stogged his rifle upright in the snow beside him … He looked up into those cold enameled eyes glinting blue in the weak winter light. She had tied her dress with a red sash so that she’d be found. Some bit of color in the scrupulous desolation. On this Christmas day.
With a poignancy reminiscent of the funeral of Peyton Loftis, also a suicide, in the opening of William Styron’s Lie Down in Darkness, the reader here encounters whom we later learn is Alicia Western, one of the two central protagonists in The Passenger and its companion volume, who much like Peyton in Styron’s novel haunts the narrative with chilling flashbacks. Ten years have passed when, on the very next page, we meet her brother Bobby, a salvage diver exploring a submerged plane wreck who happens upon clues that could put his life in jeopardy among those seeking something missing from that plane. Bobby is a brilliant intellect who could have been a physicist, but instead spends his life chasing down whatever provokes his greatest psychological fears. In this case, the terror of being deep underwater has driven him to salvage work in the oceans. Bobby is also a rugged and resourceful man’s man, a kind of Llewelyn Moss from No Country for Old Men, but with a much higher I.Q. Finally, Bobby, now thirty-seven years old, has never recovered from the death of his younger sister, with whom he had a close, passionate—and possibly incestuous—relationship.
Also integral to the plot is their now deceased father, a physicist who was once a key player in the Manhattan Project that produced the first atomic bombs that obliterated Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Their first names—Alicia and Bobby—seem to be an ironic echo of the “Alice and Bob” characters that are used as placeholders in science experiments, especially in physics. Their surname, Western, could be a kind of doomed metaphor for the tragedy of mass murder on a scale never before imagined that has betrayed the promise of western civilization in the twentieth century and in its aftermath.
A real sense of doom, and a mounting paranoia, grips the narrative in general and Bobby in particular, in what appears to be a kind of mystery/thriller that meanders about, sometimes uncertainly. The cast of characters are extremely colorful, from a Vietnam veteran whose only regret from the many lives he brutally spent while in-country are the elephants that he exploded with rockets from his gunship just for fun, to a small-time swindler with a wallet full of credit cards that don’t belong to him, and a bombshell trans woman with a heart of gold. Some of these folks are like the sorts that turn up in John Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat, but on steroids, and more likely to suffer an unpredictable death.
But it is Alicia who steals the show in flashback fragments that reveal a stunningly beautiful young woman whose own brilliance in mathematics, physics, and music overshadows even Bobby. She seems to be schizophrenic, plagued by extremely well-defined hallucinations of bedside visitors who could be incarnates of walk-ons from an old-time circus sideshow, right out of central casting. The most prominent is the “Thalidomide Kid”—replete with the flippers most commonly identified with those deformities—who engages her as interlocutor with long-winded, fascinating, and often disturbing dialogue that can run to several pages. Alicia has been on meds, and has checked herself into institutions, but in the end, she becomes convinced both that her visitors are real and that she herself does not belong in this world. But is Alicia even human? There are passing hints that she could be an alien, or perhaps from another universe.
There’s much more, including an episode where “The Kid,” Alicia’s hallucination (?) takes a long walk on the beach with Bobby. This is surprising, if only because McCarthy has long pilloried the magical realism that frequently populates the novels of Garcia Márquez or Haruki Murakami. Perhaps “The Kid” is no hallucination, after all? In any event, much like a Murakami novel—think 1Q84, for example—there are multiple plot lines in The Passenger that go nowhere, and the reader is left frustrated by the lack of resolution. And yet … and yet, the characters are so memorable, and the quality of the writing is so exceptional, that the cover when finally closed is closed without an ounce of regret for the experience. And at the same time, the reader demands more.
The “more” turns out to be Stella Maris, the companion volume that is absolutely essential to broadening your awareness of the plot of The Passenger. Stella Maris is a mental institution that Alicia—then a twenty-year-old dropout from a doctoral program in mathematics—has checked herself into one final time, in the very last year of her life, and so a full decade before the events recounted in The Passenger. She has no luggage, but forty thousand dollars in a plastic bag which she attempts to give to a receptionist. Bobby, in those days a race car driver, lies in a coma as the result of a crash. He is not expected to recover, but Alicia refuses to remove him from life support. The full extent of the novel is told solely in transcript form through the psychiatric sessions of Alicia and a certain Dr. Cohen, but it is every bit a Socratic dialogue of science and philosophy and the existential meaning of life—not only Alicia’s life, but all of our lives, collectively. And finally, there is the dark journey to the eschatological. Alicia—and I suppose by extension Cormac McCarthy—doesn’t take much stock in a traditional, Judeo-Christian god, which has to be a myth, of course. At the same time, she has left atheism behind: there has to be something, in her view, even if she cannot identify it. But most terrifying, Alicia has a certainty that there lies somewhere an undiluted force of evil, something she terms the “Archatron,” that we all resist, even if there is a futility to that resistance.
I consider myself an intelligent and well-informed individual, but reading The Passenger, and especially Stella Maris, was immeasurably humbling. I felt much as I did the first time that I read Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, and even the second time that I read Gould’s Book of Fish, by Richard Flanagan. As if there are minds so much greater than mine that I cannot hope to comprehend all that they have to share, but yet I can take full pleasure in immersing myself in their work. To borrow a line from Alicia, in her discussion of Oswald Spengler in Stella Maris, we might say also of Cormac McCarthy: “As with the general run of philosophers—if he is one—the most interesting thing was not his ideas but just the way his mind worked.”
Still reeling from the pandemic, the world was rocked to its core on February 24, 2022, when Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine, an act of unprovoked aggression not seen in Europe since World War II that conjured up distressing historical parallels. If there were voices that previously denied the echo of Hitler’s Austrian Anschluss to Putin’s annexation of Crimea, as well as German adventurism in Sudetenland with Russian-sponsored separatism in the Donbas, there was no mistaking the similarity to the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939. But it was Vladimir Putin’s challenge to the very legitimacy of Kyiv’s sovereignty—a shout out to the Kremlin’s rising chorus of irredentism that declares Ukraine a wayward chunk of the “near abroad” that is rightly integral to Russia—that compels us to look much further back in history.
Putin’s claim, however dubious, begs a larger question: by what right can any nation claim self-determination? Is Ukraine really just a modern construct, an opportunistic product of the collapse of the USSR that because it was historically a part of Russia should be once again? Or, perhaps counter-intuitively, should western Russia instead be incorporated into Ukraine? Or—let’s stretch it a bit further—should much of modern Germany rightly belong to France? Or vice versa? From a contemporary vantage point, these are tantalizing musings that challenge the notions of shifting boundaries, the formation of nation states, fact-based if sometimes uncomfortable chronicles of history, the clash of ethnicities, and, most critically, actualities on the ground. Naturally, such speculation abruptly shifts from the purely academic to a stark reality at the barrel of a gun, as the history of Europe has grimly demonstrated over centuries past.
To learn more, I turned to the recently updated edition of The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine, by historian and Harvard professor Serhii Plokhy, a dense, well-researched, deep dive into the past that at once fully establishes Ukraine’s right to exist, while expertly placing it into the context of Europe’s past and present. For those like myself largely unacquainted with the layers of complexity and overlapping hegemonies that have long dominated the region, it turns out that there is much to cover. At the same time, the wealth of material that strikes as unfamiliar places a strong and discouraging underscore to the western European bias in the classroom—which at least partially explains why it is that even those Americans capable of locating Ukraine on a map prior to the invasion knew almost nothing of its history.
Survey courses in my high school covered Charlamagne’s 9th century empire that encompassed much of Europe to the west, including what is today France and Germany, but never mentioned Kievan Rus’—the cultural ancestor of modern Ukraine, Belarus and Russia—that was in the 10th and 11th centuries the largest and by far the most powerful state on the continent, until it fragmented and then fell to Mongol invaders! To its east, the Grand Principality of Moscow, a 13th century Rus’ vassal state of the Mongols, formed the core of the later Russian Empire. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth was in its heyday among the largest and most populous on the continent, but both Poland and Lithuania were to fall to partition by Russia, Prussia, and Austria, and effectively ceased to exist for more than a century. Also missing from maps, of course, were Italy and Germany, which did not even achieve statehood until the later 19th century. And the many nations of today’s southeastern Europe were then provinces of the Ottoman Empire. That is European history, complicated and nuanced, as history tends to be.
Plokhy’s erudite study restores from obscurity Ukraine’s past and reveals a people who while enduring occupation and a series of partitions never abandoned an aspiration to sovereignty that was not to be realized until the late 20th century. Once a dominant power, Ukraine was to be overrun by the Mongols, preyed upon for slave labor by the Crimean Khanate, and throughout the centuries sliced up into a variety of enclaves ruled by the Golden Horde, the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Austrian Empire, the Tsardom of Russia, and finally the Soviet Union.
That long history was written with much blood and suffering inflicted by its various occupiers. Just in the last hundred years that included Soviet campaigns of terror, ethnic cleansing, and deportations, as well as the catastrophic Great Famine of 1932–33—known as the “Holodomor”—a product of Stalin’s forced collectivization that led to the starvation deaths of nearly four million Ukrainians. Then there was World War II, which claimed another four million lives, including about a million Jews. The immediate postwar period was marked by more tumult and bloodshed. Stability and a somewhat better quality of life emerged under Nikita Khrushchev, who himself spent many years of residence in Ukraine. It was Khrushchev who transferred title of the Crimea to Ukraine in 1954. The final years under Soviet domination saw the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
The structure of the USSR was manifested in political units known as Soviet Socialist Republics, which asserted a fictional autonomy subject to central control. Somewhat ironically, as time passed this enabled and strengthened nationalism within each of the respective SSR’s. Ukraine (like Belarus) even held its own United Nations seat, although its UN votes were rubber-stamped by Moscow. Still, this further reinforced a sense of statehood, which was realized in the unexpected dissolution of the Soviet Union and Ukraine’s independence in 1991. In the years that followed, as Ukraine aspired to closer ties with the West, that statehood increasingly came under attack by Putin, who spoke in earnest of a “Greater Russia” that by all rights included Ukraine. Election meddling became common, but with the spectacular fall of the Russian-backed president in 2014, Putin annexed Crimea and fomented rebellion that sought to create breakaway “republics” in the Donbas of eastern Ukraine. This only intensified the desire of Kyiv for integration with the European Union and for NATO membership.
A vast country of forest and steppe, marked by fertile plains crisscrossed by rivers, Ukraine has long served as a strategic gateway between the east and west, as emphasized in the book’s title. Elements of western, central, and eastern Europe all in some ways give definition to Ukrainian life and culture, and as such Ukraine remains inextricably as much a part of the west as the east. While Russia has left a huge imprint upon the nation’s DNA, it hardly informs the entirety of its national character. The Russian language continues to be widely spoken, and at least prior to the invasion many Ukrainians had Russian sympathies—if never a desire for annexation! For Ukrainians, stateless for too long, their own national identity ever remained unquestioned. The Russian invasion has, rather than threatened that, only bolstered it.
Today, Ukraine is the second largest European nation, after Russia. Far too often overlooked by both statesmen and talking heads, Ukraine would also be the world’s third largest nuclear power—and would have little to fear from the tanks of its former overlord—had it not given up its stockpile of nukes in a deal brokered by the United States, an important reminder to those who question America’s obligation to defend Ukraine.
As this review goes to press, Russia’s war—which Putin euphemistically terms a “special military operation”—is going very poorly, and despite energy supply shortages and threats of nuclear brinksmanship, the West stands firmly with Ukraine, which in the course of the conflict has been subjected to horrific war crimes by Russian invaders. However, as months pass, and both Europe and the United States endure the economic pain of inflation and rising fuel prices, as well as the ever-increasing odds of rightwing politicians gaining political power on both sides of the Atlantic, it remains to be seen if this alliance will hold steady. As battlefield defeats mount, and men and materiel run short, Putin seems to be running out the clock in anticipation of that outcome. We can only hope it does not come to that.
While I learned a great deal from The Gates of Europe, and I would offer much acclaim to its scholarship, there are portions that can prove to be a slog for a nonacademic audience. Too much of the author’s chronicle reads like a textbook—pregnant with names and dates and events—and thus lacks the sweep of a grand thematic narrative inspiring to the reader and so deserving of the Ukrainian people he treats. At the same time, that does not diminish Plokhy’s achievement in turning out what is certainly the authoritative history of Ukraine. With their right to exist under assault once more, this volume serves as a powerful defense—the weapon of history—against any who might challenge Ukraine’s sovereignty. If you believe, as I do, that facts must triumph over propaganda and polemic, then I highly recommend that you turn to Plokhy to best refute Putin.
I often suffer pangs of guilt when a volume received through an early reviewer program languishes on the shelf unread for an extended period. Such was the case with the “Advanced Reader’s Edition” of After the Apocalypse: America’s Role in the World Transformed, by Andrew Bacevich, that arrived in August 2021 and sat forsaken for an entire year until it finally fell off the top of my TBR (To-Be-Read) list and onto my lap. While hardly deliberate, my delay was no doubt neglectful. But sometimes neglect can foster unexpected opportunities for evaluation. More on that later.
First, a little about Andrew Bacevich. A West Point graduate and platoon leader in Vietnam 1970-71, he went on to an army career that spanned twenty-three years, including the Gulf War, retiring with the rank of Colonel. (It is said his early retirement was due to being passed over for promotion after taking responsibility for an accidental explosion at a camp he commanded in Kuwait.) He later became an academic, Professor Emeritus of International Relations and History at Boston University, and one-time director of its Center for International Relations (1998-2005). He is now president and co-founder of the bipartisan think-tank, the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. Deeply influenced by the theologian and ethicist Reinhold Niebuhr, Bacevich was once tagged as a conservative Catholic historian, but he defies simple categorization, most often serving as an unlikely voice in the wilderness decrying America’s “endless wars.” He has been a vocal, longtime critic of George W. Bush’s doctrine of preventative war, most prominently manifested in the Iraqi conflict, which he has rightly termed a “catastrophic failure.” He has also denounced the conceit of “American Exceptionalism,” and chillingly notes that the reliance on an all-volunteer military force translates into the ongoing, almost anonymous sacrifice of our men and women for a nation that largely has no skin in the game. His own son, a young army lieutenant, was killed in Iraq in 2007. I have previously read three other Bacevich works. As I noted in a review of one of these, his resumé attaches to Bacevich either enormous credibility or an axe to grind, or perhaps both. Still, as a scholar and gifted writer, he tends to be well worth the read.
The “apocalypse” central to the title of this book takes aim at the chaos that engulfed 2020, spawned by the sum total of the “toxic and divisive” Trump presidency, the increasing death toll of the pandemic, an economy in free fall, mass demonstrations by Black Lives Matter proponents seeking long-denied social justice, and rapidly spreading wildfires that dramatically underscored the looming catastrophe of global climate change. [p.1-3] Bacevich takes this armload of calamities as a flashing red signal that the country is not only headed in the wrong direction, but likely off a kind of cliff if we do not immediately take stock and change course. He draws odd parallels with the 1940 collapse of the French army under the Nazi onslaught, which—echoing French historian Marc Bloch—he lays to “utter incompetence” and “a failure of leadership” at the very top. [p.xiv] This then serves as a head-scratching segue into a long-winded polemic on national security and foreign policy that recycles familiar Bacevich themes but offers little in the way of fresh analysis. This trajectory strikes as especially incongruent given that the specific litany of woes besetting the nation that populate his opening narrative have—rarely indeed for the United States—almost nothing to do with the military or foreign affairs.
If ever history was to manufacture an example of a failure of leadership, of course, it would be hard-pressed to come up with a better model than Donald Trump, who drowned out the noise of a series of mounting crises with a deafening roar of self-serving, hateful rhetoric directed at enemies real and imaginary, deliberately ignoring the threat of both coronavirus and climate change, while stoking racial tensions. Bacevich gives him his due, noting that his “ascent to the White House exposed gaping flaws in the American political system, his manifest contempt for the Constitution and the rule of law placing in jeopardy our democratic traditions.” [p.2] But while he hardly masks his contempt for Trump, Bacevich makes plain that there’s plenty of blame to go around for political elites in both parties, and he takes no prisoners, landing a series of blows on George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, and a host of other members of the Washington establishment that he holds accountable for fostering and maintaining the global post-Cold War “American Empire” responsible for the “endless wars” that he has long condemned. He credits Trump for urging a retreat from alliances and engagements, but faults the selfish motives of an “America First” predicated on isolationism. Bacevich instead envisions a more positive role for the United States in the international arena—one with its sword permanently sheathed.
All this is heady stuff, and regardless of your politics many readers will find themselves nodding their heads as Bacevich makes his case, outlining the many wrongheaded policy endeavors championed by Republicans and Democrats alike for a wobbly superpower clinging to an outdated and increasingly irrelevant sense of national identity that fails to align with the global realities of the twenty-first century. But then, as Bacevich looks to the future for alternatives, as he seeks to map out on paper the next new world order, he stumbles, and stumbles badly, something only truly evident in retrospect when viewing his point of view through the prism of the events that followed the release of After the Apocalypse in June 2021.
Bacevich has little to add here to his longstanding condemnation of the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan, which after two long decades of failed attempts at nation-building came to an end with our messy withdrawal in August 2021, just shortly after this book’s publication. President Biden was pilloried for the chaotic retreat, but while his administration could rightly be held to account for a failure to prepare for the worst, the elephant in that room in the Kabul airport where the ISIS-K suicide bomber blew himself up was certainly former president Trump, who brokered the deal to return Afghanistan to Taliban control. Biden, who plummeted in the polls due to outcomes he could do little to control, was disparaged much the same way Obama once was when he was held to blame for the subsequent turmoil in Iraq after effecting the withdrawal of U.S. forces agreed to by his predecessor, G.W. Bush. Once again, history rhymes. But the more salient point for those of us who share, as I do, Bacevich’s anti-imperialism, is that getting out is ever more difficult than going in.
But Bacevich has a great deal to say in After the Apocalypse about NATO, an alliance rooted in a past-tense Cold War stand-off that he pronounces counterproductive and obsolete. Bacevich disputes the long-held mythology of the so-called “West,” an artificial “sentiment” that has the United States and European nations bound together with common values of liberty, human rights, and democracy. Like Trump—who likely would have acted upon this had he been reelected—Bacevich calls for an end to US involvement with NATO. The United States and Europe have embarked on “divergent paths,” he argues, and that is as it should be. The Cold War is over. Relations with Russia and China are frosty, but entanglement in an alliance like NATO only fosters acrimony and fails to appropriately adapt our nation to the realities of the new millennium.
It is an interesting if academic argument that was abruptly crushed under the weight of the treads of Russian tanks in the premeditated invasion of Ukraine February 24, 2022. If some denied the echo of Hitler’s 1938 Austrian Anschluss to Putin’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, there was no mistaking the similarity of unprovoked attacks on Kyiv and sister cities to the Nazi war machine’s march on Poland in 1939. And yes, when Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron stood together to unite that so-called West against Russian belligerence, the memory of France’s 1940 defeat was hardly out of mind. All of a sudden, NATO became less a theoretical construct and somewhat more of a safe haven against brutal militarism, wanton aggression, and the unapologetic war crimes that livestream on twenty-first century social media of streets littered with the bodies of civilians, many of them children. All of a sudden, NATO is pretty goddamned relevant.
In all this, you could rightly argue against the wrong turns made after the dissolution of the USSR, of the failure of the West to allocate appropriate economic support for the heirs of the former Soviet Union, of how a pattern of NATO expansion both isolated and antagonized Russia. But there remains no legitimate defense for Putin’s attempt to invade, besiege, and absorb a weaker neighbor—or at least a neighbor he perceived to be weaker, a misstep that could lead to his own undoing. Either way, the institution we call NATO turned out to be something to celebrate rather than deprecate. The fact that it is working exactly the way it was designed to work could turn out to be the real road map to the new world order that emerges in the aftermath of this crisis. We can only imagine the horrific alternatives had Trump won re-election: the U.S. out of NATO, Europe divided, Ukraine overrun and annexed, and perhaps even Putin feted at a White House dinner. So far, without firing a shot, NATO has not only saved Ukraine; arguably, it has saved the world as we know it, a world that extends well beyond whatever we might want to consider the “West.”
As much as I respect Bacevich and admire his scholarship, his informed appraisal of our current foreign policy realities has turned out to be entirely incorrect. Yes, the United States should rein in the American Empire. Yes, we should turn away from imperialist tendencies. Yes, we should focus our defense budget solely on defense, not aggression, resisting the urge to try to remake the world in our own image for either altruism or advantage. But at the same time, we must be mindful—like other empires in the past—that retreat can create vacuums, and we must be ever vigilant of what kinds of powers may fill those vacuums. Because we can grow and evolve into a better nation, a better people, but that evolution may not be contagious to our adversaries. Because getting out remains ever more difficult than going in.
Finally, a word about the use of the term “apocalypse,” a characterization that is bandied about a bit too frequently these days. 2020 was a pretty bad year, indeed, but it was hardly apocalyptic. Not even close. Despite the twin horrors of Trump and the pandemic, we have had other years that were far worse. Think 1812, when the British burned Washington and sent the president fleeing for his life. And 1862, with tens of thousands already lying dead on Civil War battlefields as the Union army suffered a series of reverses. And 1942, still in the throes of economic depression, with Germany and Japan lined up against us. And 1968, marked by riots and assassinations, when it truly seemed that the nation was unraveling from within. Going forward, climate change may certainly breed apocalypse. So might a cornered Putin, equipped with an arsenal of nuclear weapons and diminishing options as Russian forces in the field teeter on collapse. But 2020 is already in the rear-view mirror. It will no doubt leave a mark upon us, but as we move on, it spins ever faster into our past. At the same time, predicting the future, even when armed with the best data, is fraught with unanticipated obstacles, and grand strategies almost always lead to failure. It remains our duty to study our history while we engage with our present. Apocalyptic or not, it’s all we’ve got …
I have reviewed other Bacevich books here: