- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 11, 2004

If you want to read just one book on World War I, let it be Cataclysm: The First World War as Political Tragedy by David Stevenson (Basic Books, $35, 564 pages, illus.). Politicians, senior military officials, war college students and faculty and citizens who want to be informed of the costs of war (the major reason to study the Great War) must read this book.

Political decision-makers and those who advise them must understand the hideous damage that war brought to the rest of the 20th century. Mr. Stevenson explains, in this meticulously researched, exceptionally well-written, soundly reasoned book, the origins of the war, its dreadful battles and revolting losses, the deeply unsatisfactory war termination and, most importantly, its repulsive, permanent wounds.

His book ends in 1945, which is appropriate, and his theme is on target: World War I “visited horrific new experiences on the combatants and forced unprecedented mobilization on their home fronts. As well as being a disaster in its own right it became the precondition for further disasters, including the Second World War, whose casualties numbered millions more.

“It compelled the creation of new social coping mechanisms in the face of mass death, mutilation, and bereavement, and yet in many regions of the world its legacies fuel bloodshed to this day. [I]t was a cataclysm of a special kind, a man-made catastrophe produced by political acts, and as such can still a century later both raise powerful emotions and prompt disturbing questions as a portent.

“Its victims died neither from an unseen virus nor from mechanical failure and individual fallibility. They owed their fate to deliberate state policy, decided on by governments that repeatedly rejected alternatives to violence.”

The strategically-challenged rulers who bumbled into war (especially the German emperor, the emperor of Austria-Hungary, and the Russian tsar) provoked a conflict that cost the lives of 10 million in uniform, and all of the war generators lost their empires and thrones — and in the case of the tsar, his life and those of his wife and all of their children.

These generalizations can be soundly made: If there had been no World War I, there would be no great devastating inflation in Germany in 1923-24 that destroyed the middle class and demoralized the entire German population; no Great Depression that undermined democracy everywhere; no strutting Benito Mussolini as Italy’s fascist dictator; no Adolf Hitler as chancellor of Germany, and therefore no World War II and no Holocaust; no Communist takeover in Russia, no Soviet totalitarianism, no Stalinist purges — the list could be endless.

War, as Karl von Clausewitz warned, must be taken seriously because it can be a terrible thing, and World War I certainly was. But the kaiser, emperor and tsar definitely did not take war seriously. Mr. Stevenson puts most of the blame for the war’s outbreak where it belongs: on Emperor Franz Josef of Austria-Hungary and on Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany. The author argues significantly and persuasively that World War I was not absolutely inevitable.

The author covers all the bases that one would expect in a thorough history, from the fighting on all fronts, to war technology, to mobilization of the economy (the foundation for the Allies’ victory, especially after the United States joined the war against Germany and Austria-Hungary), to the home front, the failed peacemaking in 1919, and the war’s ugly aftermath through World War II.

Every chapter is substantial, reliable, informative, and can serve as a guide for present politicians and their advisers. Mr. Stevenson tells us that, in 1914, “neither globalization nor democratization made hostilities unthinkable.” Think, dear reader, how often we have heard pundits say that, in the information age, globalization makes war incredible; that the spread of democracy will utterly dampen the desire for war. Don’t count on it.

“Cataclysm” is indeed an essential book.

• • •

World War I, with the blood of 10 million dead, made the field fertile for World War II. To ensure that all of Western Europe was not dominated by the rapidly moving forces of the Soviet Union, the Western Allies invaded the continent on June 6, 1944, to smash German resistance in the West and march to Berlin.

Flint Whitlock’s The Fighting First: The Untold Story of the Big Red One on D-Day (Westview Press, $27.50, 384 pages, illus.) is a fine account of the 1st Infantry Division’s attack on “Bloody Omaha” beach that day. I am not sure it is an “untold” history, because we have known for five decades of the mettle of the men of the 1st Division, although by interviewing hundreds Mr. Whitlock has added cogent details.

This is a stirring, solidly written, adequately researched account and a useful addition to a World War II student’s bookshelf. It has utility because the author understands that Operation Neptune (the D-Day phase of Overlord) was a joint (all services) and combined (several countries) campaign, with air supremacy a sine qua non of success (even feasibility), and support from the Allied navies indispensable.

There were about 6,000 Allied naval vessels involved at Normandy and 12,000 American and British aircraft, and although Mr. Whitlock’s subject is a key infantry division, the story can’t be told properly without paying attention to the air and naval forces.

This Mr. Whitlock does, but his overwhelming emphasis is on the rifleman and, frankly, that is where it belongs. All the airplanes and warships in the world would not have succeeded had it not been for the dogged bravery of the infantryman charging the beach. This, properly, is his story.

• • •

Of less weight, but for the interesting menu it provides, readers should look into James F. Dunnigan’s The World War II Bookshelf: Fifty Must-Read Books (Citadel Press, $22.95, 302 pages). The author, a well-read popular historian, has provided a useful bibliography for those who want to comprehend the strategy, operations and tactics of World War II. Mr. Dunnigan provides short, trenchant synopses of the books he recommends. Professional historians would probably provide a different catalog, but were one to read Mr. Dunnigan’s list, he or she would become educated on this war.

Warning: Several books in Mr. Dunnigan’s index of 50 are multi-volume sets. For example, he lists “United States Army in World War II” by “various authors.” This outstanding series is 80 lengthy volumes, and Mr. Dunnigan has no advice on which of these should be taken off the shelf (all of them are important and enlightening).

He also suggests reading Winston Churchill’s “The Second World War,” a set of six big volumes. “The United States Strategic Bombing Survey” is about 100 volumes. Most of the authors suggested by Mr. Dunnigan are professionals known to be objective and scholarly, such as Gerhard Weinberg, John Keegan, Richard Overy, Russell Weigley, Martin van Creveld, Trevor Dupuy, Ronald Spector, Barbara Tuchman, Geoffrey Perret and others. However, some are journalistic or self-serving, like John Toland and Studs Terkel (in the former category) and George Patton (in the latter). Readers should consult the brief descriptions that Mr. Dunnigan provides to decide which of the recommended books to select.

Alan Gropman is the distinguished professor of national security policy at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces, National Defense University. His views are his own.

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide