Flight of the Eagle

By Conrad Black

To title a “strategic history of the United States” Flight of the Eagle gives most if not all of the game away. This will be a tale of majestic rise, albeit with some dips and flutterings, and not an acidic Chomskyan critique. In the end, we can expect to see the United States standing alone as “incomparably the greatest and most successful country there has ever been.”

To which one has to ask “greatest and most successful at what, exactly?” The United States does not sit at the top the U.N. Human Development Index rankings of the best countries in the world to live in (most recently that was Norway). Its citizens don’t self-survey as the happiest, and we know they are far from the healthiest. Inequality is high, and rising, with a lot of people not doing very well at all.

Social welfare, however, is not what Conrad Black is talking about (or, I imagine, something he is much interested in). For Black the measure of America’s greatness is its power: the way it has forged a vast global empire backed by an unstoppable military machine and a huge economy that consumes most of what the world produces.

The question of how the United States came to so dominate the world is one that is being asked a lot these days, a parlour game for pundits equalled in popularity only by the debate over the indispensible nation’s imperial decline. In general, the tendency has been to focus on impersonal forces like the blessings of geography and the evolution of enlightened political institutions. Black, however, true to his calling as a biographer, is more interested in America’s great men (they are all men) and their visions of national destiny.

This poses a bit of a problem. Henry Adams, one of America’s finest historians, looked back on his own monumental account of the Jefferson and Madison administrations and thought of his subjects as “mere grasshoppers kicking and gesticulating on the Mississippi River,” with “no possibility of reconciling their theories with their acts . . . They were carried along on a stream which floated them, after a fashion, without much regard to themselves.”

Great men or grasshoppers? When writing a book that claims as its subject “the strategic direction and management of the United States” one is making a claim for the importance of individuals and their conscious planning of political affairs. But Black has Adams looking over his shoulder, and never seems entirely confident about how important such plans were to the eagle’s flight. On occasion he even admits as much:

American history has been like a bouncing (American) football, in unpredictable directions, dependent again and again on indispensable and often unlikely individuals, elevated improbably. Beyond its natural resources and its Constitution, few Americans could explain why the United States has been such a felicitous country, but almost all of them sense that it has been.

In following the bouncing ball of American history, and keeping the focus mainly on presidential politics, Black has to stretch the notion of strategy rather thin in understanding the reasons for America’s felicity. For example: was kicking the can of slavery down the road for so long really a strategy for ensuring the ultimate triumph of the North and the salvation of the Union? At times Black describes it as such, but it’s unclear whose strategy it was, or if it was really just the fortuitous workings of providence.

Then again, the U.S. is also described as “sleepwalking toward the edge of a cliff” in the years before the Civil War, and Lincoln is perhaps the prime example of an “unlikely individual, elevated improbably.” Were men directing events, or did events direct the men?

It’s worth asking questions like these because Flight of the Eagle is frustratingly short on conclusions to be drawn from its sweeping survey. As it skims along through a rapid listing of significant names and dates there are only a handful of breaks for brief summaries, but even in these Black doesn’t seem to have any larger point to make. Nor is there much in the way of original analysis. The relatively few sources cited tend to be other general histories, and given how much ground there is to cover no individual topic or period is gone into in any depth. I will confess that I was a full ten pages into the book before I realized that Black was not providing a prefatory outline of the ground he was planning to cover but in fact had already begun.

As it is, the effect is a bit like reading a coffee-table book without any pictures. Even the author’s trademark Olympian tone and elevated diction ends up sounding merely condescending. Of Barack Obama, for example, we are told “Though his pigmentation was African, neither his physiognomy nor his inflection and cadences were ethnically distinct.” So?

A number of nice little observations are made, but for such a big book one expects more in the way of a big picture. And for an author not usually shy about expressing strong and controversial opinions, the analysis for the most part remains superficial and conventional. One can’t help feeling that it didn’t take a Conrad Black to write this book: a fact that may recommend it to some but will more likely disappoint both his admirers and detractors.

Review first published in the Toronto Star May 24, 2013.

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