On Books, Old and New

On The Guns of August

indexAs home to the nation’s World War I Museum, Kansas City is ablaze with the centennial commemoration of the “war to end all wars.” The world-class museum, prominently located in the heart of the city, is a constant reminder of the carnage of armed conflict, the heroism of American soldiers, and the triumph of American engagement.

Among my favorite World War I histories are Martin Gilbert’s The Somme,and Philip Jenkins’ The Great and Holy War, but topping my list may well be Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August.

In The Guns of August, Tuchman chronicles, blow-by-blow, the early weeks of “The Great War.” She unpacks how avoidable the conflict was, but how, once the gears of war began to turn, impossible it was to stop.

Tuchman begins with the funeral of Edward VII, which in spite of all its royal splendor, presaged a European system about to be shattered: “So gorgeous was the spectacle on the May morning of 1910 when nine kings rode in the funeral of Edward VII of England that the crowd, waiting in hushed and black-clad awe, could not keep back gasps of admiration. . . . The muffled tongue of Big Ben tolled nine by the clock as the cortege left the palace, but on history’s clock it was sunset, and the sun of the old world was setting in a dying blaze of splendor never to be seen again.”[1]

Throughout Tuchman’s narrative, she interweaves a factual accounting of the conflict with sage observations about warfare. She reflects:

  • “War is the unfolding of miscalculations.”
  • “Human beings, like plans, prove fallible in the presence of those ingredients that are missing in maneuvers—danger, death, and live ammunition.”
  • “Arguments can always be found to turn desire into policy.”

The war not only brought conflict, but it also prompted cultural and religious realism. After all, nothing dispenses with the shallow expectations of the Pollyannish like the horrors of trench warfare.

The high tides of Edwardian-Era optimism—witnessed in the church in the form of postmillennialism—began to subside the moment the assassin’s bullet struck Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The carnage of World War I was proof positive that the world was not on its way to ushering in the Kingdom.

Throughout The Guns of August, one feels an eerie similarity between the global moment of the First World War and that of our own. Then, as now, free trade, human advance, and the collective awareness of the human toll of armed conflict were to dissuade reasonable people from resorting to warfare. Then, it proved an illusive and insufficient deterrent; now, it appears to be the same.

Shortly after its release in early 1962, President John F. Kennedy read The Guns of August, and he instructed his cabinet members to do the same. During the Cuban Missile Crisis in October of the same year, he reflected on Tuchman’s cautionary tale about the unpredictable dynamics of war and the need for measured, calculated restraint in the Cuban showdown with the Soviet Union.

Tuchman’s prequel to The Guns of August, The Proud Tower, is also worth mentioning. The Proud Tower is a collection of essays that surveys different nations and themes, from 1890–1915, that created the nest in which World War I hatched. The interconnectedness of relationships and politics, treaties and trade of the European nations should have precluded the conflict, but actually brought it to pass. The Guns of August and The Proud Tower have since been packaged together, in one volume.

Tuchman portrays World War I as it was, a tragedy in most every way that ended in a pyric victory for the Allies. By any estimation, so much more was lost than gained, even for the victors. Europe was left bludgeoned, shattered, fatigued, and largely bankrupt. With over 16 million deaths and another 20 million wounded, World War I ranks as one of the bloodiest affairs in human history. And, sadly, the war’s end resulted in only a fragile armistice, which would be ruptured two decades later with another World War, birthed in Europe’s bowels.

This week American’s celebrate Veteran’s Day, and with it we honor the many who have served our armed forces with valor. It is also fitting to reflect again on World War I, and the devastation it wrought.

World War I reminds Christians of the fallenness of man, the necessity of confronting evil, and our collective desire for the day when, “He will judge between nations, And will render decisions for many peoples; And they will hammer their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not lift up sword against nation, And never again will they learn war.”[2]

[1] Barbara W. Tuchman, The Guns of August (New York: Presidio, 2004), 1.

[2] Isaiah 2:4.

topicsWorld War I

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