Archive for the ‘second world war’ tag
Within the last year or so, I decided that I wanted to try to read at least one book on each of the major wars this country has been involved in since the American Revolution. In recent months, I have undertaken David McCullough’s elegantly written “1776″ and James McPherson’s expansive “Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era”. After just finishing John Keegan’s 1999 book, “The First World War,” I will probably continue and read his other one, “The Second World War.”
On the back cover of Keegan’s account of WWI, a review by The Boston Globe reads,
Keegan has the rare ability to view his subject from a necessarily Olympian height, and then swoop down to engage the reader with just the right detail or just the right soldier’s voice…. In the field of military history, this is as good as it gets.
Other reviews have described the book as “magisterial,” “quietly heart-rending” and “a masterpiece.” The New York Times got it right when it called the book, “omniscient.”
As history books go, I sometimes find myself being frustrated by being supplied with vastly more detail than I often require. I stopped midway through The Diligent: A Voyage through the Worlds of the Slave Trade for this reason. And for another reason: it was pretty dryly written. I’m vastly interested in that particular subject, but on page after page, the reader is inundated with, for example, the number of pints of rum on board such-and-such ship or the record of how many bushels of corn, etc. The number of slaves on certain ships is important, for instance, but not how much liquor the crew had on board. At least I can’t imagine how that would be important information. I hope to try the book again in the future. Perhaps I’ll do some “smart” reading and sort of skim over the minutiae.
Regardless, Keegan’s book, as well as McPherson’s 800-page volume, while offering us some of those types of “omniscient” details that we may or may not want, suffer not from such tediousness. Keegan, in a masterfully written style, takes us through Austrian archduke and heir to the throne Franz Ferdinand’s assassination, Serbia’s “complicity,” the Austrian empire’s declaration of war, Germany’s entrance and straight to the trenches and no man’s land through four years of fighting that would eventually lead to revolution in the Soviet Union and Germany, the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in Turkey, the formation of modern Europe and, of course, the end of 10 million lives.
WWI was called The Great War, in my view, because it not only was waged by all of the vast empires of the world at the time (the United States played a limited, but important part in 1918 by overwhelming the German military conscious with millions of fresh troops that would prove too much for the often underfed and tramped down Triple Alliance forces), but because it was a decisive moment in history that carved up what we know of Europe today and razed the very idea of vast and sprawling empires that had so gripped most of the world for thousands of years prior. Hitler, of course, would attempt to resurrect this idea two decades later.
In recounting all this in a masterful literary style, Keegan gives us maps of the major battlefields, photos of sinking ships and lumbering soldiers and head shots of some of the key players on both sides of the conflict that in the first sentence of the book, he dubs “tragic and unnecessary.” Ending with a chapter titled, “America and Armageddon,” he sums up that much of the commanders’ actions, particularly on the alliance’s side, was a mystery. For instance, the Kaiser’s attempt to contend with Britain, a clear naval superpower at the time, for seas between Norway and the United Kingdom. On the Kaiser, Keegan notes,
Had he not embarked on a strategically unnecessary attempt to match Britain’s maritime strength, fatal hostility between the two countries would have been avoided; so, too, in all possibility, might be been the neurotic climate of suspicion and insecurity from which the First World War was born.
He goes on to describe the mystery of Ludendorff and other German officials insisting on continued military operations despite troop conditions and being outnumbered as “selfish and ultimately pointless military ambition.”
The legacy of the war’s political outcome scarcely bears contemplation: Europe ruined as a centre of world civilisation, Christian kingdoms transformed through defeat into godless tyrannies, Bolshevik or Nazi, the superficial difference between their ideologies counting not at all in their cruelty to common and decent folk.
At 427 pages and with often challenging vocabulary, this is not an easy or quick read, but one well worth the effort. Of course, Keegan ends by looking forward to what would become another episode of egregious loss of life during World War II and backward to the trenches, in which he notes, with untold irony, soldiers existing where love and compassion were all-but vacant, the friendships that inevitably developed as soldiers fought with, and for, each other:
Comradership flourished in the earthwork cities of the Western and Eastern Fronts, bound strangers into the closest brotherhood, elevated the loyalties created with the ethos of temporary regimentality to the status of life-and-death blood ties.
Indeed, for many soldiers, their fellow men in arms would be the last family, and sometimes, only family they would know.
Men whom the trenches cast into intimacy entered into bonds of mutual dependency and sacrifice of self stronger than any of the friendships made in peace and better times. That is the ultimate mystery of the First World War.
When thinking of military history, or history at all, one often thinks of tedious and an uninspired presentation. And indeed, while readers may feel the need to re-read more than one sentence in this book because of sometimes complex structures, this is the anti-thesis to dry historical studies. If not for its obvious factual nature, I would be inclined call this historical-literature, the difference between literature and mere fiction being that literature is art. And that’s how I would describe this work.