Book review – Midvintermörker

In Swedish / på svenska.

This post might not seem to fit in with the theme so far on the blog, but it should rather be seen as a first step towards broadening that theme. The use of military force is still a fundamental and (sadly) unavoidable aspect of international relations and how we think of this (i.e. which concepts we use) will influence the future we get to live in. Swedish defence policy has undergone a revolution over the last two decades, and strangely enough, this has happened with very little debate. Today, there’s a vigorous group of defence blogs and there have been a few efforts lately to revive the issue in the media. This is a review of one such attempt, Lars Wilderäng’s “Midvintermörker”.

The book is only available in Swedish, and as far as I know there are no plans for any translations. Still, I thought it might be interesting to provide an English-language glimpse into the Swedish defence debate and there also seems to be little point in running a bi-lingual blog if you don’t translate your posts!

On November 9 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. This was the start of a huge upheaval that would change Europe. Just over two years later, on January 1, 1992, the Soviet Union formally ceased to exist.  The foundations of Sweden’s security and defence policy had been radically changed.

These momentous events didn’t have any large immediate impact on the Swedish Armed Forces. For quite some time, the military had been struggling with internal problems that were intimately related to how the organisation was managed. For example, it had been found, when inspecting mobilisation depots, that the actual contents didn’t match what the lists specified, and that competition between the army, the air force and the navy had ensured that the budget was split between the three branches by nearly the same percentages for decades, no matter how technology or the expected battle changed. These examples come from Wilhelm Agrell’s book “Fredens illusioner” (only in Swedish), which also describes how the threat scenario matched the budgetary constraints so well it was almost suspicious – a principle Agrell dubs “the principle of the suitable threat”.

During the 1990’s the military started to deal with these problems. It bought used equipment from the former enemy in Eastern Europe and started to dismantle and reorganise military units. The fundamental structure and principle wasn’t questioned however, and on June 19 1997 Sweden ordered 64 fighter aircraft from Saab. Block 3 of JAS 39 Gripen was perhaps the best aircraft in the world for defending Sweden (borrowing a phrase from the defence blog Wiseman’s Wisdoms), but the enemy it had been developed to counter was now gone, and nobody could seriously argue that Sweden faced any military threat. Half a decade after the Soviet Union’s fall, Sweden started to accept the consequences of this fact. During the summer and winter of 1997 and 1998, at about the same time that the government ordered block 3 of an aircraft designed to take off from a network of road bases and fly out to counter a sea invasion, the first thoughts of an “operative time-out” appeared publicly. They came first from the military itself, but the politicians soon jumped on the bandwagon.

The idea was that it was now possible to “pause” for a decade or so – there was no threat any longer, no need for any large military – and use this breathing space to radically rebuild the entire structure. Swedish defence had, ever since WWII, been based on a defensive strategy to counter an attacker along Sweden’s full length (with some exceptions, such as the far north) and organisation, equipment and tactics were based on this. During the Gulf War in 1991 Swedish military observers had seen how a modern military could “jump in the sequence” and attack in depth in a way that the Swedish defence was not designed to counter. Now, with the time-out, there was a chance to start all over again and, for example, utilise the new information technology (the so-called “network based defence”).

Agrell’s book describes how this turned out, how the transformation process developed a life of its own and turned into a liquidation process, and how politicians, the military leadership and the public all managed to lose the very idea of a national defence.

In 2008, something happened that rather violently brought this long-ignored issue back to life: the war between Russia and Georgia. It had been supposed that wars in Europe were a thing of the past – the soft power of the EU and the enticements of EU membership were supposed to keep the peace. Everyone agreed on this, except for a few “russophobes” and “war mongers”, such as Bo Pellnäs and others who, among other things, had argued that it was sheer lunacy to leave the island of Gotland undefended.

Today, in 2011, this is a live issue and the Armed Forces again maintains plans for how to defend the country in case of military attack. It has started an arduous work of creating a new military organisation – the so-called “here and now” military, with employed soldiers and standing forces that can be deployed on short notice.

Here and now – it sounds like any attack on Sweden could be repelled quickly and easily? Gone are the two-day mobilisation periods of the old defence structure – here and now the Gripen squadrons take off and the corvettes steam into the archipelagoes! “Operation: Garbo”, a fictional description of a Soviet attack on Sweden from the 1980’s, suggested that the political level would hesitate to mobilise, and so the “800 000 men in 48 hours” might not have been fully realistic. But today, here and now, what forces can the Swedish Armed Forces field?

Lars Wilderäng, who runs the blog Cornucopia, has attempted to answer that question. His book “Midvintermörker” is a fictional tale of a couple of days around Christmas 2012, when Sweden and Russia are having a bit of a “diplomatic dispute”.

It’s an ambitious and captivating book, written from the perspective of a number of people, from deputy prime minister Gerd Olsson over police officer Mia Svensson to captain Erik Segerfäldt. The focus is on the military perspective and the book carefully reports radio signalling and unit movements. The author is very concerned with correctness and has even written a blog post on how to follow the action on the map!

It’s written in a casual style that fits the purpose well: it spotlights the plot. The chapters are split into short scenes that weave together the various perspectives, giving a similiar effect to Dan Brown’s (“The da Vinci code”) writing style: each shift in perspective makes you want to continue reading to see what happens. I didn’t read the book in one night, but it took a bit of effort to put it down, which is one mark of a competent writer. This same fact can easily lead to saturation after a while, and if the book had been longer the high-speed action might have led to a certain fatigue. The book is just as long as it is, though, so it works well.

The author spent 22 months writing and researching the book, and for me, who mostly follows Swedish defence policy (and the debate, such as it is) through media and a number of defence-related blogs, “Midvintermörker” is a very believable answer to the question “what is Sweden’s military capability – here and now?” From that perspective it’s also a successful whole, where language, structure, characters and plot are well balanced.

I would have liked to see more of the historical background, though, some hints of the process that led to the military that’s depicted in the book. Someone who doesn’t follow the defence blogs and hasn’t been very interested in defence policy during the last decade might find the book a confused fantasy. If the reader, like the book’s deputy prime minister, wonders “why can’t the fighters just fly to the road bases?” she will find it hard to understand the background. Still, those who would ask that question aren’t likely to read the book. Swedish debate on security and defence mostly concerns those actually involved and I’m sorry to say that I don’t think that even a good book like “Midvintermörker” will be enough to change that.

For those who are interested in Sweden’s defence and security policy, “Midvintermörker” is an engaging and comprehensive look at how the Swedish Armed Forces of today might deal with a military attack.

There are a few excerpts from an early version of the book online, and here’s the author’s book page with review and links to book stores.

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