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Urban, Mark 1961–

Urban, Mark 1961–

PERSONAL: Born 1961.

ADDRESSES: Home—England.

CAREER: Writer, journalist, editor, and historian. Independent, London, England, defense correspondent. BBC Newsnight, diplomatic editor. Worked as a war correspondent during the first Gulf War. Military service: Served as a British Army officer.

WRITINGS:

Soviet Land Power, Hippocrene Books (New York, NY), 1985.

War in Afghanistan, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1988.

Big Boys' Rules: The Secret Struggle against the IRA, Faber and Faber (London, England), 1992.

UK Eyes Alpha: Inside British Intelligence, Faber and Faber (London, England), 1996.

The Man Who Broke Napoleon's Codes: The Story of George Scovell, Faber and Faber (London, England), 2001.

Rifles: Six Years with Wellington's Legendary Sharpshooters, Faber and Faber (London, England), 2003, published as Wellington's Rifles: Six Years to Waterloo with England's Legendary Sharpshooters, Walker and Company (New York, NY), 2004.

Generals: Ten British Commanders Who Shaped the World, Faber and Faber (London, England), 2005.

SIDELIGHTS: Journalist Mark Urban wrote War in Afghanistan while working as a defense correspondent for the London-based Independent. The book documents the struggle between the resistance groups (the mujahedeen), the Afghan army, the People's Democratic Party, and the Soviets from the coup of 1978 through July, 1986, analyzing the tactics and outcomes of the struggles revealed through thousands of reports, documents, and accounts that include Soviet sources. Reviewer N.D. Palmer pointed out in Choice that although the assessments of strengths and weaknesses were "unusually balanced," there is little written about the involvement of the United States, China, or Pakistan. Palmer called it "a different kind of book on the recent traumas in Afghanistan."

Big Boys' Rules: The Secret Struggle against the IRA is Urban's history of the British elite SAS forces in Ireland since 1969. Jo-Ann Goodwin wrote in New Statesman that Urban's research led him to three conclusions: "That a 'shoot to kill' policy does exist, or has existed; that the security services in Northern Ireland deliberately misinform the media; and that the basis of success in containing the IRA is good intelligence." Urban comes to the conclusion that using units such as the SAS has no long-term benefit in the fight against the IRA, but merely carries "significant human and moral costs."

Charles Townsend, writing in the Times Literary Supplement, called the main theme of UK Eyes Alpha: Inside British Intelligence "the effort to redirect secret intelligence from its global struggle against Communism to the war against political subversion and terrorism." The book is based on approximately forty interviews Urban had with then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and other governmental leaders, including those from U.S. intelligence agencies. Townsend noted that Urban felt the primary function of the heads of the opposing secret services at the end of the Cold War "was to study each other. Their input to government policy was unreliable, and at times spectacularly defective, as in their total misreading of the recrudescence of nationalism within the Soviet Union…. The key point about secret intelligence services is that they are 'self-tasking:' they themselves define the threats that they have to counter." Townsend said "Urban does not go so far as to suggest radical cuts in the intelligence system," but does suggest that Britain must decide if it wishes to be a "global heavyweight or a well-adjusted middleweight European power." Townsend said the leadership holds on to "tokens of former glory" and "shows no sign of accepting this crucial step to identifying the real, as distinct from imaginary, national interests."

John Sweeney, reviewing UK Eyes Alpha in the Observer, pointed out that warnings of the Iraqi buildup from Percy Cradock, chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher met with no response. Thatcher "did nothing until the Iraqis swept into Kuwait, seizing an ally, a good chunk of the world's oil supply … because no one knew better," continued Sweeney. "Urban's judgment is plain: 'The JIC's warnings were reasonably precise. The responsibility for reacting to them rested with the Prime Minister.' She blew it." While bemoaning Urban's lack of humor, Sweeney praised Urban for getting his contacts "to download such a treasure of raw data that UK Eyes Alpha is a fascinating read willy-nilly. British intelligence stands accused of being a patsy to the Americans and pretty poor value for the money…. Urban has done a brilliant reporter's job."

Urban turns his attention to older historical conflicts in The Man Who Broke Napoleon's Codes: The Story of George Scovell. During the Peninsular Campaign of 1807–1814, when renowned generals Wellington and Napoleon were in conflict, the French transmitted their messages in complex code that the British could not break. Many Britons were involved in trying to decipher Napoleon's codes, and to this task came Lieutenant Colonel George Scovell, a British officer who had a keen intelligence and a deep interest in codebreaking. Skilled with linguistics and organization, Scovell discovered his code-cracking talents, then turned his abilities to "the Great Paris Cipher, an extraordinarily difficult French code that occupies him for many months," noted a Kirkus Reviews critic. Toward the end of the campaign, Scovell finally breaks the nearly impenetrable code, allowing British forces to unravel captured communications and giving Wellington a considerable advantage in upcoming battles, including the pivotal Battle of Waterloo. Despite his accomplishments, however, Scovell was not properly credited for breaking the code—Urban found only one reference to him from Wellington—and he remained an obscure figure in Napoleonic history until Urban encountered his name in a history of the war. Working from a journal kept by Scovell, Urban found records detailing the man's work on codes and assembled his biographical history. The Kirkus Reviews critic called the book "galloping history," while Booklist reviewer Gilbert Taylor named it a "winning narrative of military history" and a "fine work of vindication" of an overlooked but notable historical figure. David Lee Poremba, writing in the Library Journal, stated that Urban's history is an "extremely useful addition to the literature concerning the British army's campaigns in Spain and Portugal" during the era of the Napoleonic Wars.

Rifles: Six Years with Wellington's Legendary Sharpshooters is a "fascinating narrative" covering the initial "six years of the British army's 95th Rifle Brigade," stated Robert C. Jones in the Library Journal. Urban focuses on six individuals who served in the brigade, both enlisted men and officers, drawing on their contemporary accounts and observations in diaries, memoirs, and other documents. Urban concludes that the 95th Rifle Brigade developed its skills and reputation from better weaponry; they used the Baker rifle, rather than the more common "Brown Bess" musket, which was more accurate at greater distance, ensuring more effective fighting and greater numbers of successful kills. Martin Walker, writing in the Wilson Quarterly, commented that Urban's history of the 95th Rifles is a "highly readable and entertaining book." On the Napoleonic Guide Web site, reviewer Richard Moore declared Urban's book to be "history explained at its best." Booklist reviewer Gilbert Taylor concluded: "Urban successfully rounds out the character of this notable unit and achieves an authoritative history."

In Generals: Ten British Commanders Who Shaped the World, Urban profiles ten British generals whose abilities, skills, successes, and failures marked significant turning points in history. Among the officers profiled are Wellington, who defeated Napoleon at Waterloo; Howe, who failed at retaining the American colonies during the Revolution; and Gordon, a general killed in Khartoum without commanding any major forces in action. Urban also looks at the lives of Marlborough, York, Kitchener, Allenby, and Fuller. Some of Urban's subjects are controversial, which prompted David Ramsbotham, writing in the Guardian, to note: "What is most attractive and interesting about his choices, in addition to the fluid and lively style in which they are presented, is that the reader is invited and required to read through and think about his reasoning, in order to mount a challenge" to Urban's decision to include them. Alistair Irwin, writing in the Spectator, commented that "the generals here on parade all have their intrinsic interest," and observed that "they are brought nicely to life in a way that will appeal to the novice student of British generalship."

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

PERIODICALS

Booklist, March 15, 2002, Gilbert Taylor, review of The Man Who Broke Napoleon's Codes: The Story of George Scovell, p. 1209; July, 2004, Gilbert Taylor, review of Wellington's Rifles: Six Years to Waterloo with England's Legendary Sharpshooters, p. 1814.

Choice, October, 1988, N.D. Palmer, review of War in Afghanistan, p. 392.

Economist, September 29, 2001, review of The Man Who Broke Napoleon's Codes.

Guardian (London, England), February 25, 2006, David Ramsbotham, "Leading Questions," review of Generals.

Kirkus Reviews, December 15, 2001, review of The Man Who Broke Napoleon's Codes, p. 1747.

Library Journal, January, 2002, David Lee Poremba, review of The Man Who Broke Napoleon's Codes, p. 125; August, 2004, Robert C. Jones, review of Wellington's Rifles, p. 97.

New Statesman, July 3, 1992, Jo-Ann Goodwin, review of Big Boys' Rules: The Secret Struggle against the IRA, p. 38.

Observer, October 20, 1996, John Sweeney, review of UK Eyes Alpha: Inside British Intelligence, p. 15.

Spectator, October 18, 2003, Ian Garrick Mason, "A Regiment to Reckon With," review of Rifles: Six Years with Wellington's Legendary Sharpshooters, p. 60; October 8, 2005, Alistair Irwin, "Tops of the Top Brass," review of Generals: Ten British Commanders Who Shaped the World, p. 54.

Times Literary Supplement, January 17, 1997, Charles Townshend, review of UK Eyes Alpha, p. 27.

Wilson Quarterly, autumn, 2004, Martin Walker, review of Wellington's Rifles, p. 117.

ONLINE

Napoleonic Guide, http://www.napoleonguide.com/ (November 12, 2006), Richard Moore, review of Rifles; Richard Moore, review of The Man Who Broke Napoleon's Codes.

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