Thomas Ricks’ book explores the lives of two very different Englishmen who fought against fascism and communism.
Winston Churchill and George Orwell lived on different sides of a vast divide. Churchill was a politician. Orwell was a journalist and novelist. Churchill had money and pedigree; the young Orwell lived on the street, and raised his own vegetables during World War II. Churchill was a conservative; Orwell admired communism, until he witnessed the extermination by Soviet agents of his Republican comrades in the Spanish Civil War.
But in “Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom,” (Penguin Press, 326 pp., $28), Thomas Ricks finds the iron core of both men. Author of the best-selling 2006 book “Fiasco,” about America’s mismanaged military involvement in Iraq, and 2012’s “The Generals,” a critical study of American military leadership over three decades, in his new book Ricks argues that these two were pillars of the 20th-century struggle against “the twin totalitarian threats of fascism and communism.”
Both men’s stories are supremely relevant right now — Churchill for his unvarnished truth-telling to the British people during times of crisis, Orwell for his prophetic vision of the all-seeing state. Early this year, Orwell’s classic novel “1984” sold out on Amazon amid a firestorm of alarm at the Trump administration’s policies.
The author of “Churchill and Orwell” will speak at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 30, at Town Hall Seattle. Tickets are $5 and available at townhallseattle.org and at the door.
He will appear at a lunch at 12:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 30, at Phinney Books in Greenwood; the $38 ticket includes a book, lunch and a discussion of the book.
Ricks answered some questions about how he conceived and wrote the book. He’s at Town Hall Seattle on May 30. Here’s an edited version of the conversation:
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Q. Where did you get the idea to compare these two very different men?
A. After I finished ”The Generals,” I was going to write a book on the Vietnam War … I concluded that I couldn’t write that book unless I lived in Hanoi and spoke Vietnamese. For six months while I was reading for that I was reading Orwell and Churchill for pleasure, trying to see why so much 20th-century journalism seemed stale. Then I thought — what about Churchill and Orwell?
(The first draft) I gave to my editor read like a book report, Tom Ricks talking to himself. I figured out what I wanted to do to fix it. I rewrote the book entirely, bringing out the biographies much more … I really tried to look at them as people.
Q. For a book about two different people, it’s a marvel of economy — there’s not a word wasted.
A. There was a lot of boiling down going on. There was a sea of books on the floor. I must have read several hundred books, the diaries of every British aristocrat of the 1920s and ’30s.
The book is not a full biography — it’s really about the ’30s and ’40s. It was a tough time for them (Churchill and Orwell), and a tough time for the world.
It’s striking to me, that their reaction to the ’30s was a minority reaction. For both men, their question was: What are the facts? In the course of this, they both antagonized their own political allies.
Churchill gets up in speeches and says, what are the facts of the matter of German rearmament? In the Spanish Civil War, Orwell said that it is not tolerable to lie for your side, even if your side was fundamentally right. They both became exiles in their own circles.
Today, all these Republicans in Congress think they will cut their deal with Trump. It’s not the smart move. Truth and honesty are always the smart move.
Q. The two men were from very different backgrounds, but they both had difficult or neglectful fathers. How did that shape their point of view?
A. It made them very skeptical of authority. Just because someone’s in power doesn’t make it right. They were both beaten painfully at the schools they went to. Churchill’s response was — I better get power. Orwell’s response was to expose the abuse of power by government officials.
Q. Both men were superb writers.
A. They are such different writers … Churchill is ornate, but he does state the facts. Orwell said he wanted his writing to be clear as glass. Churchill wanted his writing to be glass; but the stained glass in the cathedral. Churchill loved words. Orwell loved facts. He just loved to observe — a toad’s eye, a bird. He just loved noticing things.
Q. How did each man’s experience in the military shape them as writers — Churchill in the Boer War, Orwell as a military policemen and then as a fighter for the doomed Republic in the Spanish Civil War?
A. I think it shaped their thinking, and that in turn, shaped their writing. Churchill saw much more glory in war than Orwell did. Orwell had a much clearer view of war. Orwell was struck with the discrepancy between what he saw on the battlefield and what the newspapers wrote about it.
War made Churchill famous. His captivity by the Boers gave him a springboard to run for Parliament, to write books, make money, become a famous politician … seemed to lack empathy, but I think someone less self-centered than him might not have survived. World War II used him up. It killed Roosevelt.
Q. Both men warned about the overarching power of the state. How would they view that in our current age?
A. I think they would both be horrified by the all-intrusive surveillance state. If you look at Churchill’s speech on the day Britain entered World War II, he said, this is a war about whether the individual has a place in the modern world.
I think they would both say that the ability to think, speak and act freely is under siege by both individuals and corporations. I think Orwell would be especially shocked by the corporation side of that.
Orwell was right on the key question of the 20th and the 21st centuries. How do you protect the individual in the age of the all-intrusive state? Privacy is becoming a luxury in the 21st century. We are becoming accustomed to that, we are being data mined by the corporations and the state.
Q. He certainly understood the perils of state surveillance — what corporate activities would he be alarmed about? What is there to fear?
A. The end of privacy, the ability to have a private life, the ability to separate the marketplace from the soul. We don’t have that … Big Brother doesn’t come looking like Stalin, it comes looking like Uber.