Review: Persian Fire

This book is basically a fun read. It covers both the Persian and the Greek side of the Greco-Persian wars quite well but I have to take away one star for Tom Holland’s (sometime mischievous or even tongue-in-cheek) propagandist style. But still, he has done his research and is fun to read, with quotes and anecdotes that enliven this history and bring it to life.
He describes the rise of the Persians and the creation of the first great world empire by Cyrus. This empire proceeded to conquer most of Asia minor (modern Turkey east of Istanbul) including multiple Greek city states (the Ionians). Holland describes the rise of the various Greek city states, with most of the attention focused on Sparta and Athens.The revolt of some of these cities against their Persian overlords and the burning of the Persian regional capital of Sardis triggered the first Persian invasion of mainland Greece, which ended with Athens historic victory at Marathon. The Persians came back with a huge army under Xerxes and as you may expect, battles like Thermopylae and Salamis get the full Tom Holland treatment; drama, suspense, objective facts and light-hearted propaganda. The book ends with the final Persian defeat and a brief survey of the (short lived) peace, prosperity and cultural efflorescence that ensued.
The book is an excellent account of the Greco-Roman wars and their background and ends on a high note. In a way, this is a bit misleading because a far greater and far more devastating war (the Peloponesian war) would break out within a few decades, so this book can be criticized for exaggerating the significance of the Persian invasion in Greek (and by extension, later Western) history. But that is a question for another day. If you have vaguely heard of Marathon, Thermopylae, the 300 Spartans, Themistocles or Salamis, but don’t really know what happened, this is the book for you. If you are ancient history nerd then you probably know all this and more, but even those who know most of the story may enjoy this effervescent and light-hearted retelling of this famous story.


Review: Directorate S

Review from Major Amin: Directorate S –The CIA and Americas Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan, 2001-2016-Steve Coll -Allen Lane- Penguin Books-2018-ISBN-978-1-846-14660-2 ISBN-13: 978-1987659184 ISBN-10: 198765918X

A leading US-Israeli Intelligence analyst and operator recently summed up pathetic state of US intelligence operators in Pakistan as following:–

They are afraid of their own shadows”

As great powers decline , their quality of strategic judgement and decision making and their operational effectiveness also markedly declines.

Steve Coll’s voluminous and bulky book reconfirms this fact .

The first defect of this book is that it does not contain a single relevant map connected to the subject i.e Directorate S.

On page 12 the writer repeats a false and unsubstantiated claim that CIA pilots had to fly Russian MI series helicopters for Northern Alliance , whereas in reality Afghanistan never had any shortage of Afghan helicopter pilots.

On page 14 the author confirms his absolute lack of knowledge of geography when he fallaciously claims that Panjsher valley slices north towards Tajikistan , whereas in reality Panjsher valley inclines towards Chitral in Pakistan towards the Northeast , ending at Anjuman Pass.

The authors analysis is a clear testament to the fallacious assessments of US policy makers about Afghanistan like on page-17 he discusses Al Qaeda and US policy makers obsession with Al Qaeda.

As a matter of fact Al Qaeda was never the real player in Afghanistan all along . It was a puny group with limited strategic ability. The real players in Afghanistan all along were Taliban supported by Directorate S of the ISI.

This basic US perceptual error repeatedly appears in Steve Colls voluminous narrative and Steve Coll himself is quite confused about it.

Steve Colls factually flawed statements like page-17 where he states “Recalling the miserable fates of Imperial Britain” while referring to Britain”s Afghan wars. Why Coll has to make such baseless statements is perplexing. As a matter of fact all three Afghan wars were a strategic success , the first being waged by a British private company. All three Afghan wars made British strategic position in India and West Asia stronger and created a more stable Afghanistan.I guess it is fashionable in western authors to make such statements about what a terrible place Afghanistan was and is . Continue reading “Review: Directorate S”


Review: The Buddha and the Sahibs and Ashoka—The Search for India’s Lost Emperor

A review by my Uni batch mate,  Sunil Koswatta

Charles Allen has written two books on The Buddha and the Sahibs and Ashoka—The Search for India’s Lost Emperor.  The second book, written about a decade after the first one, is largely an expansion of the first.

Both are the stories of the “Orientalists” who discovered India’s lost history, the lost Emperor Ashoka, and the Buddha Dhamma that thrived in India during Ashoka’s time.  Their methods of discovery were crude, sometimes outright criminal by today’s standards.  However,there  were honest“sahibs” who dedicated their whole lives to science and discovery; conversely, there were opportunistic and greedy “sahibs” whose only objective was wealth.  Allen weaves his tale in a way to take the readers along with the discoverers while (mostly) permitting the readers to judge for themselves.

Among the most interesting are William “Oriental” Jones, who established the Asiatic Society of Bengal; James Prinsep, who deciphered Ashoka texts; George Turnour, who translated Mahawansa from Pali to English; Alexander Cunningham, who discovered many of the Buddhist pilgrimage sites; Dr. Waddell, who discovered Kapilavastu and Lumbini; and John Marshall, who finally introduced proper methods of archeological excavation.

Prinsep worked to decipher the lettering on the pillar known as the “Feroz Shah’s Lat” or “Delhi No 1” for four years.  His breakthrough came when he examined two dozen brief inscriptions of the same lettering at the Great Stupa at Sanchi.  Prinsep guessed that these short inscriptions could only be records of donations.  He was struck by the fact that almost all short transcripts ended with the same word with two characters: a snake-like squiggle and an inverted T followed by a single dot.

Here, he observed that the language was not Sanskrit but a vernacular modification of it, which had been fortunately preserved in Pali scriptures of Ceylon and Ava, a nineteenth century Burmese kingdom.Prinsep’sassistant with Pali was a Sinhalese named “Ratna Paula” (quite likely a corruption of the name “Rathanapala”).Both in Sanskrit and in Pali, the verb “to give” was “dana” and the noun “gift” or “donation” was “danaṁ” sharing the same Indo-European root as the Latin “donare” (to give) and “donus” (gift). This led to the recognition of the word “danaṁ,” teaching Prinsep the two letters, d and n of Brahmi 1. The snake-like squiggle represented the sound “da”, and the inverted T with the single dot the sound “naṁ.”

Too, Prinsep noticed that a single letter (like an inverted y) appeared frequently before or near the terminal word. Prinsep determined this letter to mean “of,” the equivalent of Pali “ssa,” based on his earlier investigations of the coins from Saurashtra.  If his hunch was correct, then the general structure of each sentence was something like “So-and-so of the gift.”Prinsep’s translation of one such Sanchi inscription is “Isa-palitasa-cha Samanasa-cha danaṁ” (The gift of Isa-Palita and of Samana.)

The opening sentence of Delhi No 1 had been observed to repeat itself again and again at the start of many sections or paragraphs of text in the pillar inscriptions and on the rock edicts.  This,Prinsep could now read as “Devanampiyapiyadasi raja hevaṁ aha.”  After conferring with Ratna Paula, Prinsep concluded that this opening phrase was best represented in English as “Thus spake King Piyadasi, Beloved of the Gods.”  Prinsep published his findings in the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal in April, 1837.

But who was the author of these extraordinary edicts?  Who wasPiyadasi?  Prinsep couldn’t find a Piyadasi in all Hindu genealogical tables that he consulted.  Only one possible candidate presented himself, one who had emerged from George Turnour’s translations of the Pali Chronicles of Ceylon: “King Devanampiatissa succeeded his father on the throne of Ceylon in the year of Buddha 236.  He induced Dharmasoka, a sovereign of the many kingdoms into which Dambadiva was divided, and whose capital was Pataliputta, to depute his son Mahinda and his daughter Sangamitta, with several other principal priests to Anuradhapura for the purpose of introducing the religion of Buddha.”

In a letter sent to Prinsep on June 6th of 1837, Turnour excitedly revealed the identity of Piyadasi.   “I have made a most important discovery. You will find in the introduction to my Epitome that a valuable collection of Pali works was brought back to Ceylon from Siam, by George Nodaris, mudaliar in 1812. This collection of Pali texts included a copy of the Island Chronicle, the original chronicle from which the later Great Dynastic Chronicle took its earliest historical material, but a less corrupted version—and with crucial differences.  While casually turning the leaves of the manuscript I had hit upon an entirely new passage relating to the identity of Piyadasi … who, the grandson of Chandragupta, and own son of Bindusara, was at the time Viceroy of Ujjayani.”

King Devanmpriya Piyadasi of the Feroz Shar Lat inscription (Delhi 1) was not King Devanampiathissa of Lanka, as Prinsep had assumed. He was his Indian contemporary Ashoka Maurya.

After Prinsep’s death his work was continued.  Alexander Cunningham relied on the accounts of the Chinese pilgrims Faxian and Xuanzang to discover the Buddhist pilgrim sites.  Faxian’s Records of Buddhist Kingdoms was translated in 1836, and Xuanzang’s History of the Life of Xuanzang and His Travels in India was translated in 1853.  Faxian, who travelled to India in 400 CE, identified Ashoka as Wuyou Wang (The King Not Feeling Sorrow).  Faxian visited Sankisa, and Lumbini, and from Lumbini travelled south to cross the Ganges at the point he describes as “the confluence of the five rivers,” just upstream of the capital of the country of Maghada: Pataliputra.  Faxian describes Wuyou’s palace and his towering city walls and gates as being inlaid with sculpture-work.  About two hundred years later, when Xuanzang arrived, the Buddha Dhamma was in decline and the Pataliputra was all but abandoned.  Cunningham conducted his field surveys with copies of Faxian’s andXuanzang’s travels in his knapsack.  He tracked down almost all sites visited by the Chinese pilgrims, including Sravasti, Kosambi, Ayodya, Sankisa, Taxila, and Nalanda.

However, Cunningham assumed that Pataliputra must have been swept away by the changing course of the Ganges.  Dr. Waddell thought otherwise.  Taking together both Faxian and Xuanzang accounts,Waddell prepared a chart of Ashoka’s palaces and other chief monuments, and his chart led him over a railway line that marked the southern limits of “old” Patna, to a series of mounds known as Panch Pahari or the Five Brothers.  He wrote afterwards, “I was surprised to find most of the leading landmarks of Ashoka’s palaces, monasteries, and other monuments when reexamined so very obvious that I was able in the short space of one day to identify many of them beyond all doubt.”  Around the modern village Kumrahar, Waddell found various fragments of sculpture and other confirmatory details and learned from the villagers that whenever they sunk wells, they stuck massive wooden beams at a depth of about 20 feet beneath the ground.  Megasthenes, a Greek diplomat who stayed at Pataliputra for six months during the Emperor Chandragupta’s reign, had recorded that Pataliputra was surrounded by wooden walls.

As mentioned before, not all sahibs treated their objects respectfully.  James Campbell, the Commissioner of Customs, Salt, Opium and Akbari in Bombay Presidency in the 1890s, excavated several sites in Gujarat.  Among his early triumphs was finding a new Ashokan rock edict, which he had allowed to be taken to bits, mislaid, and lost. A relic subsequently identified by the accompanying inscription as a segment of Buddha’s alms bowl was thrown away.  He then moved on to tear apart the “Girnar Mound,” a large stupa a few miles south of the famous Girnar rock inscription.

In spite of some irresponsibility, all of these men contributed to the rediscovery of India’s past.  The books that tell their stories are excellent,  and in this reviewer’s judgment both belong in any Sri Lankan’s private library.

Sunil Koswatta


How Pakistan Got Divided

Review of General Rao Farman Ali’s book by Major Amin


Reviewed by Major Agha H Amin (Retired)

This is yet another disappointing book in the genre that Pakistani writers write to rationalize the separation of East Pakistan and creation of the new state Bangladesh in 1971. The real causes are always simply whitewashed and not even discussed. This book does so again .

The book is divided in 17 chapters but only one deals in a very vague and rudimentary manner with the historical background. The remaining chapters are devoted to 1970 elections and its aftermath. This is a rather ultra myopic way of writing history. The bottom line of the whole issue was that ethnicity was the defining factor in Indian Muslim relations. Starting in 1906 Indian Muslim politics was dominated by United Provinces (UP) Muslims . When All India Muslim League was created in 1906 with Bengalis in the forefront , it was hijacked by UP Muslims and its headquarters shifted to Aligarh in 1907 . Bengalis were regarded as an inferior Dravidian race. The watershed moment was the Lucknow Pact under stewardship of Mr Jinnah,  where without discussing the matter with Punjabis or Bengali Muslims a twin thrust in the back was delivered to Punjab and Bengal. Punjab’s Muslim legislative majority being reduced from 54 to 50 % and Bengal’s Muslim majority reduced from 52 to 40 % . All this being done by an All India Muslim League that contained 90 % of its delegates from Lucknow city and UP. Continue reading “How Pakistan Got Divided”


Ordered to Die; A History of the Ottoman Army in WWI

Ordered to Die: A History of the Ottoman Army in the First World War (Contributions in Military Studies) Hardcover – November 30, 2000
by Edward J. Erickson  (Author)
Quick review by Major Amin
This is a very interesting, must read book.
The Ottoman Army was not logistically equipped to fight the huge battles that it was forced to fight in First World War. The main culprit was Ottoman Defence Minister Enver Pasha a man of myopic vision and petty intellect (Normal problems in Muslim world).The bottom line is that Ottoman Turkey had no reason to go to war but unnecessarily joined the war because of phenomenal stupidity of Enver Pasha.
The odds that Ottoman Army confronted were too heavy.This is the writers basic and most balanced assessment.
In Egypt the attack on Suez was a logistic miracle and Ottoman failure because of massive allied naval guns was a foregone conclusion.
In Caucasus Russian Army was vastly superior to Ottomans logistically and materially.
In Mesopotamia British numerical superiority was massive after 1916 and Ottoman failure was a foregone conclusion.
Despite all these huge odds Ottoman Army kept itself intact to finally save Turkey under Mustafa Kemal as nationalist army.
It fielded 2.8 Million troops and suffered 750,000 fatal casualties,proportionately one of the highest.
Like all third world armies it was outstanding in defense and weak in attack where greater military dynamism and superior numbers are required.

Book Review: The Stan

Dead Reckoning is a (fairly new) imprint of the Naval Institute Press that publishes military-themed graphic novels and books (e.g. they have published “All Quiet on the Western Front” as a graphic novel).   The Stan is a comic book based on stories collected by two American journalists (autors Kevin Knodell and David Axe) who have spent a long time covering the war in Afghanistan. The only story not based on their work is the opening chapter, which is a comic based on the life and words of former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, Abdus Salam Zaeef. They use this first comic as a capsule history of the background to this war as well as a prediction of its futility and eventual failure.  This is the only comic that gives a nod, albeit a minimalistic and relatively simple one, to the “big picture” of the Afghan war and it is a strictly anti-war and anti-interventionist one. The other comics are all about the “little people”, ordinary soldiers, an Afghan interpreter, an Afghan soldier and an Afghan policeman. The last comic is about one of the authors (Kevin Knodell), who may have some PTSD, and his parting words are that “America’s longest war was going to stretch on longer”. Continue reading “Book Review: The Stan”


Review: Raiders of the China Coast

Raiders of the China Coast is the account of a little known CIA operation that trained and managed anti-communist guerrillas and agents on the various islands that were retained by the Taiwanese regime (the “Republic of China”) after the Chinese mainland was captured by the Chinese communists. The author, Frank Holober, spent his life in the CIA and later in several academic institutions teaching about China. The book is one of the few memoirs written by people who personally took part in various CIA covert operations on the “hot” fringes of the cold war and has been vetted by the agency to ensure that no secrets are spilled (the author thanks some in the agency for approving it, and criticizes others for needless bureaucratic obstruction and “security theater”, but he got a foreword from General Robert Barrow, USMC, who had served with Frank (and the CIA) in the 1950s, so it is all good).

The book is mostly a fond look back at the author’s male-bonding days, not a detailed history of CIA covert operations during the Korean war (which is the somewhat misleading subtitle of the book). As the author relates in the first chapter (“Old Haunts Beckon”), the idea of the book came to him after he retired and revisited Taiwan after a gap of 40 years and was reminded of the days of youthful adventure and excitement he had spent there with his CIA comrades in “Western Enterprises Inc”; that nostalgia is clearly the main driver of the book. Which is fine, because while his family and friends (and those of the other adventurers he mentions in the book) will no doubt get an extra-special thrill from reading the book, other readers can also learn about an interesting aspect of the early cold war, about CIA covert operations in general, about the colorful characters who took part in these events, about China and it’s fascinating recent history, and of course, about male-bonding, buddy movies and all that jazz.  Continue reading “Review: Raiders of the China Coast”


Book Review: Pakistan Adrift by Asad Durrani

Book review by Dr Hamid Hussain

Former Director General Inter-Services Intelligence (DGISI) Lieutenant General ® Asad Durrani’ s memoirs Pakistan Adrift will be released in Pakistan in the second week of October 2018. It is a memoir of a former DGISI and ambassador and his perspective about events of the last two decades.

Durrani is considered a cerebral officer by his peers and had a good career profile. Like most officers in the business of intelligence, the most controversial part of his career was his stint as head of Military Intelligence (MI) and ISI. This book is his perspective about the events but provides the reader an insight into the dynamics of power at the higher echelons. He is candid in accepting his own mistakes especially role in distributing money to politicians. Supreme Court of Pakistan is hearing this case.

Two segments about his stint as ambassador to Germany and Saudi Arabia are his views about these two societies. The most interesting segment is the chapter on terrorism when he seriously discusses the subject, its various shades and the use of this term by various states to pursue their own interests. He also elaborates on the consequences of recent destructive policy of United States of dismantling fragile states that has unleashed new demons. Very little academic and policy discussion has been devoted to this crucial subject that has made world more dangerous, violent and unstable.

Durrani devoted a significant segment towards the issue of Afghanistan. His own personal experience as DGISI and observations on later events where he had some contact in the form of ‘track two’ parleys accurately reflects thought process of majority of Pakistani officers. This view is based on a genuine national security interest of Pakistan about its western neighbor as country bears the fallout directly. As these officers interact with Afghans in official capacities therefore they sometimes get blindsided. Pakistan has influence over some Afghan clients, but Afghans are very good at playing one against the other. They survived as an independent nation based on mastering this art. Amir Dost Muhammad Khan’s letters to Czar of Russia, Shah of Persia and British Viceroy of India in nineteenth century sums up the foreign policy of the country. A good friend of former Afghan President Hamid Karzai told me in 2002 what Afghans thought about the new phase? Many key Afghan players were of the view that ‘in the previous round, neighbors played their game and we ran away from the country. This time around, we are staying put and if neighbors don’t behave, we have sworn that we will make sure that the winds of chaos will not stay in Afghanistan but blow in the other direction’. Afghan and Pakistan liaisons with Americans in Kabul share a space. At prayer time, Afghans always insist that Pakistani counterpart lead the prayer. A Pakistani can be seriously mistaken by this gesture. When with Americans, Afghans are unanimous in their view that real problem is not Afghanistan but Pakistan. Like any other intelligence agency, ISI is a large bureaucratic organization and not monolithic. Mid-level officers of the organization may have a unique perspective about an event and in some cases not in agreement with policies adopted by the high command. My own work on the subject to get opinion of the boss and his subordinate about a given event or policy provided some limited insight about many shades of grey.

In this work, Durrani is confident in claiming that ‘since leaving service, I have spilled a few beans, so to speak, but not once have I been cautioned or charged with indiscretion’. This claim was severely tested recently. Three months ago, his informal conversations with former Indian intelligence chief about diverse topics were published in a book ‘The Spy Chronicles’ that caused an uproar in Pakistan. He was severely criticized and, in some cases, abused by his uniformed colleagues. Pakistan army headquarters summoned him for explanation and an inquiry was initiated. Hopefully this work will help in understanding his views and not add more indiscretions to his charge sheet.

Durrani’ s book provides a useful insight into the thought process of senior brass. Shaky civil-military relations with deep mistrust on both sides is explained by Durrani with many anecdotes. Recent events have shown that this Achilles heel of Pakistan has not shown any sign of improvement. In view of the recent events of Pakistan and in the neighborhood, it looks that Pakistan’s policy has been consistent about what it views as its core interests. This book should be on the reading list of those interested in Pakistan.

Asad Durrani. Pakistan Adrift: Navigating Troubled Waters (London: Hurst & Company), 2018, pp. 273


Book Review: India’s Wars. A Military History 1947-1971


India’s wars by Air Vice Marshal Arjun Subramaniam is a history of the wars (external wars, not counter-insurgencies) fought by the Indian army from 1947 to 1971. It is a pretty good summary, but does have it’s weaknesses.

The book starts with a bit of the “pre-history” of the Indian army. Interestingly Subramaniam chooses to highlight two distinct streams that he believes should get credit for the internal culture and ethos of the Indian army. One is obvious: the British Indian army, which was the parent organization that was split (unequally) between Pakistan and India to create the Indian army. The second is an angle that would not have been included by an official observer/author in 1950, but that has obviously grown since then to the point that a Pucca Air Marshal gives it near-equal billing in his book: i.e. the armies of the Marhattas and the Sikhs. I think this reflects contemporary politics and cultural arguments in India more than it reflects the reality of the Indian army from 1947 to 1971, but will be happy to be corrected by people who have better direct knowledge of the Indian army in that period. Anyway, the author gives a quick and very brief account of the British Indian army. The origins and growth of that force are dealt with very quickly and summarily, but there is more details about developments closer to 1947. This is not a book that is heavy on relevant numerical data (i.e. this is not the sort of book where you get tables showing “The caste/religious/ethnic composition of the British Indian army from X to 1947”) and this is a weakness that persists throughout the book; the author is not big on tables or data. Perhaps as someone who grew up with some of that history, I did not find it detailed or insightful enough, but most readers may not mind this omission too much. And even if you are a British Indian army brat, the sections on the origins of the Royal Indian Air Force and the Royal Indian Navy are likely to add to your knowledge. Incidentally, many of the early aviators in the Indian air force seem to have Bengali surnames; the author does not comment on this, but I wonder if anyone has more information about this. If you do, please add in the comments section.

Continue reading “Book Review: India’s Wars. A Military History 1947-1971”


Review: The Forge of Christendom by Tom Holland

Tom Holland’s latest book is about the slow recovery of Western Europe between 900 and 1100 AD, a period that he sees as the beginning of Western Europe’s transformation from a decaying and dilapidated backwater to the mastery of the world. Tom Holland clearly thinks Christianity had much to do with this rise and presents the violent elimination of paganism in Scandinavia and Eastern Europe as positive achievements of the age. This is mostly done not by direct editorializing; it is done by using the language of the invading Christians (not as quotes from ancient books but as the text of the book itself) to describe the pagans. What the pagans thought of this transformation is rarely mentioned or is explicitly presented as a quote, not as the author’s own text.

He sort of claims that this great transformation had something to do with rising apocalyptic expectations about the end of the first Christian Millennium, the disappointment of which was followed by the channelization of these energies into this-worldly revival and expansion. He does not really prove this hypothesis and it may be that it is mostly a device to frame the book and is not taken completely seriously by Tom Holland himself. Certainly I more or less ignored it while reading the book and you can get some value out of the book without paying this theory any mind either.

(The book’s intro presents this as the central thesis of the book: “At the approach of the first millennium, the Christians of Europe did not seem likely candidates for future greatness. Weak, fractured, and hemmed in by hostile nations, they saw no future beyond the widely anticipated Second Coming of Christ. But when the world did not end, the peoples of Western Europe suddenly found themselves with no choice but to begin the heroic task of building a Jerusalem on earth.” I did not find it convincing and I think you can ignore it too). That said, the book is still fun to read. Tom Holland always wants to make history fun, to tell stories, to quote contemporary accounts and to paint vivid pictures of life in those times. He is always interesting, but the reader will have to read other books to find out if the slant presented here is the most reasonable one or if Mr Holland is letting his storytelling side (or his Christian/English side) dictate how events and characters are presented.

There is definitely an element of subtly (and occasionally not-so-subtly) challenging the more “woke” interpretations of history that are currently popular in some elite Western universities. He wants the readers to see Christianity (specifically Catholicism) as an overall force for good (separation of church and state, suppression of elite violence, etc) and as an important source of cultural unity, growth and creativity in those troubled time. He is not necessarily wrong about this, but he rarely makes a solid evidence-based case case (with alternative views systematically evaluated and rejected) for his preferences, relying instead on eloquence and (selective?) presentation to convince the reader.

If you don’t mind (or already approve of) his Christian and “Eurocentric” viewpoint, this is the book for you. Even if you do mind, it is a very entertaining read, full of zany anecdotes and interesting factoids. A reasonably good overview of the age and worth a read. But it will be a good idea to read other books about the period before you decide that the trends were exactly as described in this book.