Friday, June 17, 2011

What I'm reading now...

Like you care.

If you do care, I'm reading Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August (on my Kindle, of course).

It's really a re-reading. I read it years ago, and loved it. But because my mind's a jumble, I forget quite a bit with time, and all I recalled of her book was that it was a marvelous psychological dissection of the men (mostly fools) who caused WWI. The advantage of jumble-mindedness is that you can enjoy great books repeatedly, so I dived into Guns of August again.

Tuchman begins with her most famous passage-- the unprecedented gathering in 1910 of European royalty (nine kings and scores of lesser nobility) in London to attend the funeral of King Edward VII. Much of the European aristocracy were related, cousins, estranged brothers and sisters, uncles and nephews, and Tuchman weaves a fascinating story of the family squabbles, the vanity, the stupidity, and of course the insights and fears of the European elite. She continues, in the ensuing chapters, to describe the dreams of conquest, the paranoia, and the war planning of Germany, France, England, and Russia.

What is so striking about her art is her drawing out of the utterly human motives-- really, the banality-- of architects of the Great War. You almost want to shout "you fools-- don't you see what's going to happen!"

I'm on the British chapter now, asking myself on each page: why were British politicians and generals so insistent on intervening in this looming abattoir? They had no compelling reason to fight, aside from vanity and vague alliances. For this foolishness, they would lose their sons-- at the Somme, Britain lost 450,000 men between July and November 1916. The Third Battle of Ypres cost Britain 300,000 men. 90,000 bodies were never identified. 45,000 were never found.

Tuchman's portrayal of German Kaiser William II is particularly compelling. William's vanity, his wiff of paranoia, his witless bravado are chilling when one realizes the carnage this fool brought to pass. I wonder what this man thought about his responsibility for this cataclysm as he passed his later life in exile in the Netherlands. He was venial yet not monstrous; in an anti-Semitic pout he blamed the Jews for his abdication and exile in 1918, but he later expressed horror at Hitler's pogroms and expressed shame to be a German. He died in June 1941, ironically, just before Operation Barbarossa, which was to bring Germany yet another self-inflicted catastrophe and loose rivers of innocent blood.

Tuchman's book, published in 1962, had a profound cultural impact. President Kennedy gave copies of it to his cabinet and military advisors, and it is reported to have influenced his decision-making in the Cuban Missle Crisis. British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan was deeply moved by the book, and became a strong opponent of belligerent mobilization of NATO forces, for fear of provoking a confrontation with the USSR that neither side sought.

Tuchman herself was fascinating for her ordinariness. She was no academic. She was a mother of three and wife of a physician, and pursued her extraordinary literary career while carring domestic responsibilities that leave most of us exhausted. Her corpus is impressive, with histories ranging from the Middle ages to Vietnam. It was perhaps her ordinary life that helped her to bring such human insight to war.

I have come to see the Cold War in a different light, due in no small part to Tuchman's book. The judicious leadership of the West-- from Truman through Reagan through Thatcher through John Paul II-- managed the almost miraculous feat of defeating the Soviet Bloc without the catastrophic carnage of a nuclear war or of a conventional war in Europe. Perhaps even the post-Stalin monsters in the Kremlin recoiled at the slaughterhouse that Europe or Russia or America could become with a miscalculation. The apparatchiks of the Supreme Soviet had grandchildren, too. There was horrendous bloody conflict, in Korea, in Vietnam and elsewhere, but bloodshed on an unprecedented scale was averted.

WWI's lessons are contemporary as well. What are we really still accomplishing in Iraq and Afghanistan? Why for goodness sake are we in Libya? What vital interests-- interests to kill for-- do we still have in this violent and dysfunctional Islamic civilization? We had to fight in 2001 in Afghanistan, after 9-11. But, ten years later, how much of our enduring war is hubris?

How much of Tuchman's portrayal of folly and violence can be applied to us, today?

My jumble-minded good fortune is that several years from now I will have forgotten enough of Tuchman's masterpiece to read it again, anew.

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