Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Review: The First World War

[John Keegan. The First World War. Toronto: Key Porter Books, 1998.]

I have written before about my fairly intense political and aesthetic distaste for military history. Nonetheless, a possible project I have in mind intersects some with military history, so I have read a little of it recently, including this book. Thankfully, Keegan is a good writer -- that isn't nearly enough to make all of my objections to military history disappear, but at least he is able to keep the narrative flowing in a mostly-engaging way and he includes at least some context beyond what you might find in more narrow and technical military history, even if it isn't the kind or amount of context I would choose. I also really appreciate and respect that he begins the book from a strong emphasis on how the First World War was tragic and unnecessary. Again, his reasoning is narrower and different than mine would be, but I'm still glad he gave the point such attention.

The book is a comprehensive overview of the First World War, from its causes, through its campaigns, down to its outcomes and consequences. If you have reason to seek out such a book, this one isn't a bad choice. It still has plenty of hard-to-follow, boring discussion of troop movements and battles, but also pays some attention to personalities of colourful figures, broader social conditions, and non-technical questions. For instance, while I don't necessarily agree entirely, I think it was useful for him to revisit the question of the military leaders in the war, who have been awarded rather horrific reputations even in mainstream histories for presiding over such slaughter, and to explore to a certain extent how the particularly brutal character of the fighting between 1914 and 1918 was at least in part due to questions of technology and social organization of the military and can't just be attributed to heartless leaders. That said, Sir Douglas Haig, commander of the British Empire's war effort on the Western Front for much of the war, seems to have lacked anything resembling a soul, and I think it is quite appropriate for us to hold in contempt leaders who could preside so calmly over a situation in which a hundred thousand deaths in a week was routine. I also appreciated Keegan's scorn for what he describes as a more recent generation of military historians who have an obsession with refighting in painstaking detail every battle to occur in France and Belgium in the First World War. I was less thrilled about the subtle pro-British partisanship that seeped into the work -- he was largely fair and even-handed, but you could still sometimes tell where his loyalties, as a former teacher at the British military academy at Sandhurst, lie.

My biggest problem with the work and with Keegan's politics are the inevitable hypocrisies of the liberal historian. For instance, when discussing the pointlessness of the war, he makes some important observations about the social organization of warfare, the importance of the technology of the railroad timetable, the relevance of the limited state of communication technology, the sheer chance that lead to 'level heads' not being in the right place at the right time to stop things, and so on. However, as is so often the case in histories grounded in liberal-democratic assumptions about the world, larger scale questioning of social relations and their role in socially producing such suffering and death were simply not admissable, perhaps not even conceivable to the author.

More enraging was his extremely Eurocentric discussion of the impacts of the war, which cropped up in at least two or three separate parts of the book. His laments for the death and destruction were genuine and welcome, of course. But he also mourned the impact on European civilization. I don't have the book handy so I can't quote directly, but he expressed things like sorrow over Europe losing its optimism and its moral authority to lead. There was one passing acknowledgment that colonialism and imperialism weren't necessarily great things, but their existence was treated as peripheral to his description of the wonders of the West that were dealt such a blow by the coming of violence after a century of peace. There was no apparent recognition of the repgunance of a stance that treats white folks brutalizing each other as the moment of tragedy, when white people brutalizing the non-white inhabitants of the rest of the globe had been so routine for centuries.

A related version of this hypocrisy also extended to some of the discussion of the rise of the Bolsheviks in Russia later on in the war. I have no problems with him naming brutality and political awfulness exhibited by the Bolsheviks, but the standard liberal hypocrisy of doing that while downplaying or ommitting the centuries of visciousness of capitalism and the integrated imperial projects of its core Western states is tiresome and gross.

I also was not impressed by the book's tendency to talk in very simplistic ways about the national character of soldiers in different armies -- the "British soldier" had these characteristics, the "Italian soldier" these other ones, and so on. I can appreciate that the combination of shared culture, training, equipment, conditions of battle, and leadership do create circumstances that enforce a certain limited similarity on the troops of a particular nation, but is it really necessary to reify that into some supposedly essential national character when we talk about it?

In any case, if you need a general overview of the First World War and aren't terribly concerned about ingesting critical analysis while you do it, this is quite a useful book. Just be wary that it embodies many of the larger failings of military history specifically and conventional history more generally.

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1 comment:

Scott said...

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