My wife and I have been together for ages, and in that time I've never been able to get her to read a history book. It's not that she doesn't enjoy nonfiction: in fact, she'll read intimidatingly large tomes about architecture or urban development. Over the years, I've bought her progressively simpler and less historiographically "responsible" books, hoping the next one will prove a corking story with lots of neato stuff, but no dice. Eventually I had to give up, because if I aim any lower on the narrative scale, parts of the books are going to pop up when she turns the pages.
Then just a short bit ago, we had to go on four long drives, and it hit me: find an entertaining history book-on-CD narrated by someone with an elegant voice that sounds like it should sell expensive chocolates. Eventually I settled on
The Guns of August, by Barbara Tuchman, a book I last blazed through in a night in college and remembered little of.
The book might seem familiar to you too. Not only did it spent nearly a year on the best-seller list and win the Pulitzer Prize, but it also became assigned reading in the Kennedy administration and in the highest levels of the military in 1962. That last distinction bears attention because the book's account of the brinksmanship and ossification of thinking that dragged the European powers into the First World War in the eponymous August of 1914 informed the Kennedy administration's anxiousness to avoid similar errors during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Tuchman's devotion to cataloging misconceptions and unwillingness to adapt makes the Kennedy fandom relevant today. In describing the German Schlieffen plan for a two-front war, she shows how German diplomacy and anticipation in the pre-war years came to almost invert Clausewitz's famous maxim that "war is the continuation of policy by other means." In a sense, by wedding themselves to Schlieffen's vision, the planned war became the policy, with events themselves acting as the prelude. The lesson was dear then and is still now: when we assume a form of military involvement is inevitable, our perception of the facts narrows to only those that accord with the conclusion we've assumed. Contradictory data is thus thought to be illegitimate, even if it's correct and crucial to halting the procession of violence. After all, how could facts that stay the course to war be true if the course to war is what must be taken?
Elements of the European powers' planning created this atmosphere in the combatant nations. The doctrine of the day prized organized maneuver by timetable for decisive attacking blows. Wars were assumed to be short: European generals looked, sometimes sneeringly so, past the lesson of America's four years of butchery in the Civil War — past the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor — and instead to Sedan and Königgrätz, war that was neat and fit nicely into the chesspiece conceptions of general staffs. Better to flank with superior force, knock the enemy out and go home. The Kaiser told the departing German soldiers in August that they'd be back before the leaves fell on the Unter den Linden.
The allure of offensive war was so pervasive that anyone suggesting the defensive horror to come would likely have been scoffed at. The doctrinal adherence to attack only fed the steamrolling sense of inevitability to the coming conflict. In short: if we are nearing war, we must mobilize, because he who moves first to attack wins. Ergo, on the off chance our enemies want to mobilize, we should mobilize first to get the jump on them. But, of course, once you factor in the alliance systems that bound the countries together, the precipitate act of even a single mobilization engulfed them all. A.J.P. Taylor once called it war by timetable: once one train leaves the station, they all do, down to every last preordained destination.
Tuchman relates this pitiable doom with richly entertaining prose — rich enough to dangerously captivate the imagination while driving. She also has an excellent ear and sense of timing for the acid quotation, the tragicomic beat that either hammers home a true point or dramatically undermines a false one. She captures the pageantry of the pre-war era precisely as its customs and atavistic conceptions march itself to the slaughter. She has mordantly satisfying and emotionally regrettable portraits of the hubristic and the overwhelmed.
That is not to say that there aren't some problems. Written nearly 15 years after the end of the Second World War, Tuchman strikes a pretty strong anti-German note. Although the Kaiser was obstreperous and diplomatically clumsy, the bellicosity she ascribes to him and the German staff wasn't unforgivably worse than that of other staffs or other leaders who periodically liked to garnish their mouths with their own feet. At the same time, she soft-pedals the shortcomings of the British forces. They were overmatched by an order of magnitude; their poor generalship was second only to the venal and nepotistic Russian military's; and they failed to commit soundly to any course.
She effectively omits the great bafflement of the British alignment. Here is Britain, aligned loosely with France after nearly becoming embroiled in full-scale war over Fashoda just 16 years before — and with Russia, after going to war against her from 1853-1856 and after decades of gamesmanship over the eastern Mediterranean. Here is Britain, a great financial and trading empire opposed to the industrial machine that is Germany: the means of delivering and financing goods attacked the goods themselves. It's like if McDonald's declared war on cattle ranchers.
Still, these quibbles are small. Tuchman's book is not the final authority anymore on the start of the First World War. For that perhaps look to John Keegan or to the contrarian Niall Ferguson. But it's still a pleasant and luxuriantly entertaining account of it. If it can get my wife to listen closely when she could otherwise be thumbing through an Architectural Digest, surely anyone will find themselves rapt at the bizarre and almost methodical annihilation of an epoch, planned and notated down to the last railway car, borne away on a mass, false conclusion.