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Saturday, September 23, 2006

THE GUNS OF AUGUST



I must admit I struggled through Barbara Tuchman’s Pulitzer Prize winning history, The Guns of August. It is very detailed, but that wasn’t the problem. The problem was that her non-fiction work details the short time prior to World War I and the opening weeks of the war--the first thirty days.
I couldn’t escape the arrogance and stupidity of the people whose duty it was to protect the citizens of their countries. They cared for nothing other than their own vanity and positions of power.

Rather than responsible rulers, I read of men who were so involved with their own pleasure, they had little inclination to deal with evolving tensions and problems. I read of men who were cultural fascists—men who felt it their destiny to spread their “superior” culture to the less-civilized European countries. Much of the impetus to wage war was the German feeling of being “slighted” by the French.

I met men who felt that, despite advances in weaponry over the years, bright red uniforms and sabers would dare the enemy to face the vital and enthusiastic French soldier. Career military officers refused to employ the longer range artillery of the day, leaving their soldiers to be slaughtered. History tells us that WWI decimated an entire generation of French youth.

Politicians and career soldiers protected their turf, planned for years the possibilities of attack, and had no qualms about violating other countries’ sovereignty or neutrality. They lied to each other, entered foolish treaties which they might or might not honor, and laughed in disbelief at the possibility of a long war. They lied to themselves.

I found it impossible to sit and read The Guns of August for any length of time. The history was too horrific, almost too sickening to tolerate.

Even Tuchman’s style was often filled with bitter irony. Witness these words. She is quoting Kitchener, England’s War Minister. “‘The special motive of the Force under your control,” he wrote [to Sir John French], “is to support and cooperate with the French Army…and to assist the French in preventing or repelling the invasion by Germany of French or Belgian territory.” With a certain optimism, he added, “and eventually to restore the neutrality of Belgium”—a project comparable to restoring virginity.” Tuchman adds at the end of the next paragraph, “It [these orders] was to haunt the Allied war effort long after Sir John was replaced and Kitchener himself was dead.”

Saddest to me is that we do not learn from history, and the human foibles that engendered the First World War—the War to End All Wars—remain the same. The Guns of August is a fascinating read, but unless you can divorce yourself from its gruesome reality, best leave it for a home-read.

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