Archive for the ‘wwII’ 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.
The inevitable questions and concerns of nuclear proliferation that haunted us in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, thus sending American forces hurling toward Iraq after sanctions broke down, now has us knocking at the doors of Iran, which I must say, is led by a nuttier bunch than even Saddam Hussein’s nutty bunch.
President Barack Obama at a recent U.N. Security Council meeting on Thursday and throughout his campaign and young administration have made it clear that one goal is to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapon capabilities. In a tactful display (sarcasm), given the rising tensions over Iran’s nuclear intentions, the country recently test-fired long range missiles with
sufficient range to strike Israel, parts of Europe and American bases in the Persian Gulf. — The New York Times, Sept. 28, “Iran Conducts New Tests of Mid-Range Missiles”
According to The Times article, an Iranian Foreign Ministry official said the tests had been planned for awhile and were not associated with, precipitated by or linked to the sanctions dispute. Maybe not, but they, perhaps, came at the very worst time.
In an interesting and provocative Newsweek article titled, “Why Obama Should Learn to Love the Bomb,” from Aug. 29, the writer makes the case that the existence of nuclear bombs, even in the hands of dictators, makes the world a safer place because no one in their right mind is going to actually use “the bomb” to wipe out a large expanse of people, citing the logical point that such action would likely bring about the destruction, not just of entire countries, but perhaps, life as we know it. Here’s the basic case:
The argument that nuclear weapons can be agents of peace as well as destruction rests on two deceptively simple observations. First, nuclear weapons have not been used since 1945. Second, there’s never been a nuclear, or even a nonnuclear, war between two states that possess them. Just stop for a second and think about that: it’s hard to overstate how remarkable it is, especially given the singular viciousness of the 20th century. As Kenneth Waltz, the leading “nuclear optimist” and a professor emeritus of political science at UC Berkeley puts it, “We now have 64 years of experience since Hiroshima. It’s striking and against all historical precedent that for that substantial period, there has not been any war among nuclear states.
Striking indeed. What also strikes me here is that for all of our (i.e. Americans’) worries about nuclear proliferation around the world and nukes in the possession of dangerous men, this country was the last to use one, with fantastic, yet tragic, results. It’s quite hypocritical of us, couldn’t one say, that we today now claim to be the bastion of peace and freedom, yet we were the last to use this nearly godlike (godless?) device of mass annihilation?
That said, while I want to agree with the Newsweek writer, I don’t know that I can. Though, while it’s true that, in the nuclear age, that cataclysmic event has happened only once, I’m not sure that all world leaders, even the evil ones, are made of the same stuff. The Newsweek article cites Hitler and Stalin:
… you need to start by recognizing that all states are rational on some basic level [I'm not sure that we do]. Their leaders may be stupid, petty, venal, even evil, but they tend to do things only when they’re pretty sure they can get away with them. Take war: a country will start a fight only when it’s almost certain it can get what it wants at an acceptable price. Not even Hitler or Saddam waged wars they didn’t think they could win.
To understand why—and why the next 64 years are likely to play out the same way [with no nukes]—you need to start by recognizing that all states are rational on some basic level. Their leaders may be stupid, petty, venal, even evil, but they tend to do things only when they’re pretty sure they can get away with them. Take war: a country will start a fight only when it’s almost certain it can get what it wants at an acceptable price. Not even Hitler or Saddam waged wars they didn’t think they could win. (italics mine)
Hitler and Stalin had some rational sides to their nature. Hitler, at least, was deluded, no doubt, but he was certainly not a religious fanatic in parallel to the 9/11 hijackers.
Islam, however, the religious that runs things in Iran, a clear theocracy, has a much stronger, and dare I say, deathlike grip over its believers than other major religions, at least in these modern times. This is where I must differ with the points made in the Newsweek article. Indeed, world leaders, even those like Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe who, if he held the bomb would, perhaps, not be a threat because Mugabe, for all his flaws, is probably a rational person in his own self-ingratiating way and would understand the dire consequences of using the weapon. It would be behoove him and his empire not to use it. This holds true for Hitler and Stalin.
But turning over nuclear usage to true believers who live by statements in the Koran like:
We will put terror into the hearts of the unbelievers. — Koran, 3:149-151
is another game altogether. Sam Harris in his book, “The End of Faith,” speaks at length on Islam. Indeed, if any religion wants to bring about the utter annihilation of everything, it’s this faith. And I will not draw a distinction between moderate believers and “fundamentalists,” as George W. Bush did, because we only have to cite what the Koran actually says to find out its means to a consequential end. For even a cursory reading of the Koran reveals bloodletting of the highest order:
God will humiliate the transgressors and mete out to them a grievous punishment for their scheming (6:121-125). If God wills to guide a man, He opens his bosom to Islam. But if he pleased to confound him, He makes his bosom small and narrow as though he were climbing up to heaven. Thus shall God lay the scourge on the unbelievers (6:125)
So, these folks, namely those who take the Koran as literal truth (I realize that many Muslims are peaceful people), namely the leadership of Iran and who maintain a long-spent theocracy there, long, hope for, a global, total Islamist state. Short of that, I’m sure many of them would have no problem, and indeed be gleeful, for the chance to sacrifice or quicken their deaths to see that they spend eternity in their fanciful heaven and with their 70-something virgins. Again, the Newsweek article:
Nuclear weapons change all that (the costs of conventional warfare) by making the costs of war obvious, inevitable, and unacceptable. Suddenly, when both sides have the ability to turn the other to ashes with the push of a button—and everybody knows it—the basic math shifts.
Yes, the “basic math” does shift when you are dealing with rational leaders (even evil leaders can be rational), but when you introduce the religious variable, the math changes. I’m not sure that we, or Obama, “should learn to love the bomb” regarding those who lead theocracies because those who work toward a jihad actively seek the utter destruction of unbelievers. It seems to me that nuclear proliferation would play directly into their hands.