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The Pity of War: Explaining World War I.

By Niall Ferguson. Basic. 563 pp. $30

Soldiers, statesmen, and scholars have long shared a common conceit: that, given sufficient effort and the right analytical tools, they might one day fully decipher the nature of war. As to where that understanding would lead, though, these groups part company. The soldiers and statesmen imagine bending war to their will and employing military power more effectively. The scholars, in contrast, dream that a full understanding would halt the military miscalculation, slaughter, and pointless destruction that have constituted so much of contemporary history. This impressively researched and highly original but uneven book falls squarely in the latter tradition.

The subject of The Pity of War is World War I, arguably the most pointless and destructive conflict in the bloody century now coming to a close. Rather than offer a grand narrative of the war, Niall Ferguson, who teaches modern history at Oxford University, takes aim at a series of myths that, in his view, have clouded our understanding of the so-called Great War. Above all, he intends to refute the view that the war somehow qualifies as tragedy, its origins, conduct, and outcome the product of vast and uncontrollable forces. He argues instead for seeing it as a series of monumental blunders resulting from the recklessness, stupidity, and cowardice of specific individuals.

Ferguson's self-consciously revisionist book, which stirred a great deal of controversy when it was published in Britain last year, covers a wide range of topics. Revisiting familiar terrain, the author examines the war's origins and probes the failure of the Schlieffen Plan, on which Germany's hopes for quick victory in 1914 hinged. But he also ventures onto less traveled ground, addressing matters such as propaganda, the will of men to fight, and the complexities of surrender under the horrific conditions of the trenches.

Addressing these topics, Ferguson employs an idiosyncratic methodology. Memoirs, official reports, battlefield testimonials, and eyewitness journalism provide the very stuff of history for the typical specialist in military affairs. These Ferguson disdains as self-serving or biased, useful only to erect straw men for subsequent demolition. In place of such traditional sources, he offers data. Indeed, his achievement in amassing and analyzing data is nothing short of phenomenal. This hefty volume contains nary a map, yet it is festooned with dozens of graphs and tables, quantifying everything from "Total military personnel as a percentage of population for the five great powers, 1890-1913/14" to "British and German food consumption as a percentage of peacetime consumption, 1917-1918." In essence, Ferguson views World War I through the lens of political economy.

Applied to issues of grand strategy or the macroeconomics of war management, the technique yields important insights. Ferguson effectively argues, for example, that British and German strategic interests were by no means incompatible before the outbreak of hostilities. He skewers Sir Edward Grey, Britain's Germanophobic foreign secretary, who, partly for the sake of domestic politics, insisted on dispatching the British Expeditionary Force to France in 1914 - an action that condemned his countrymen to a needless war and ultimately cost them their empire. Similarly, the author makes a compelling case that, despite their efforts to subject Germany to a Carthaginian peace, the supposed victors ended up bearing the brunt of the war's costs.

In a demonstration of statistical precision that is, depending on one's point of view, either awe inspiring or slightly loony, he calculates that killing an enemy soldier cost $36,485.48 for the armies of the Triple Entente, but only $11,344.77 for the Central Powers. The gap between these two figures, according to Ferguson, holds enormous importance. Indeed, "the greatest of all paradoxes of the First World War is that, despite being disastrously disadvantaged in economic terms, the Central Powers were far more successful in inflicting death on their enemies." He cites this gap (correctly) as evidence of the superior fighting power, soldier for soldier, of the German army. Further, he uses it to suggest that the Allied strategy of attrition was an abject failure. Indeed, he concludes that the Allies never really defeated the German army in the field.

With data so boldly auguring victory, what went wrong for Germany? Ferguson differs with interwar proponents of the notorious "stab in the back" theory only in the culprit he holds responsible. Rather than traitorous politicians, he fingers General Erich Ludendorff, whose famous loss of nerve after Germany's failed spring 1918 offensive set events in motion that culminated in an armistice by November. When Ludendorff's confidence in eventual victory faltered, according to Ferguson, the morale of the troops under his command collapsed. Recalculating the costs of fighting on, German soldiers decided that the cause was no longer worth risking their lives. In ever-increasing numbers, they began throwing down their arms. The outcome of the war, according to Ferguson, thus reflected the common soldier's willingness to surrender, not the German army's capacity to kill. "It was Ludendorff who delivered the fateful stab," he writes, "and it was in the German front, not the back."

But in dealing with these inherently unquantifiable matters, Ferguson's certitude is misplaced. His explanation - the outcome of a great armed struggle not simply determined but effectively reversed by the momentary lapse of a single individual-is too pat. War, as Clausewitz wrote, lies in the realm of chance, its conduct shrouded by fog and complicated by pervasive friction, a contest pitting governments and armies and peoples against one another, with the verdict determined as much by moral factors as by material ones. To pretend that a single factor explains the outcome of any conflict is as misleading as to imagine that, having cast the die for war, we can control its course. That was true during 1914-18 and it remains true in 1999, as the surprises and miscalculations of NATO's war against Yugoslavia attest. The closer Ferguson ventures to the Western Front - that is, to the real war - the less persuasive he becomes.

To reaffirm that war is slippery and elusive is not to suggest that soldiers, statesmen, and scholars should abandon their efforts to understand its nature. But we should be wary of reductive explanations that can foster dangerous illusions. Imaginatively conceived and well worth reading, The Pity of War makes an important contribution to the vast literature of World War I. But, inevitably, it does not provide the last word on this particular war, much less war in general.

Andrew J. Bacevich is professor of international relations at Boston University
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Bacevich, Andrew J.
Publication:The Wilson Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1999
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