Saturday, June 13, 2009

Fromkin and the anti-war view of Alistair Horne

I have read further into Horne’s book The Price of Glory, Verdun 1916, and suspect he might not address my question directly – that is, what he may not explain directly what he meant when he described himself as having written an unashamedly “anti-war book,” when he wrote this one, and what he meant when he wrote in is 1992 preface, “haven’t we learnt anything.”

Horne’s comments, still leading up to Verdun on page 19, are similar to what I’ve read elsewhere. France had not adjusted to the new techniques of warfare as evidenced by the French resolve to charge machine guns with fixed bayonets. Also, the Germans had an excellent plan for defeating France in their Schlieffen Plan, but Moltke and Von Kluck messed it up.

As he hinted when he described the tears he shed when he wrote this book, this should be more emotional than other books I’ve read about World War One. On page 19 he displays a bit when he writes, “The first five months of the war in the West had cost both sides more heavily than any other succeeding year; Germany, a total of approximately 750,000 casualties; France 300,000 killed (or nearly a fifth more than Britain’s total dead in the whole of World War II) and another 600,000 wounded, captured and missing. The horrors of trench warfare now began.”

The mention of the number of British killed in World War II might seem gratuitous; except that he may be bent upon describing World War One as a folly following a series of accidents and misunderstandings. It may very well be in this sense that he thought of his book as “anti-war.” And it may be in that sense that he said later “haven’t we learnt anything” and meaning that we should not get into wars for foolish reasons or misunderstandings.

And if that is what he meant then Fromkin would, perhaps, remind Horne of what Gibbon wrote in his The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire:

“Chariot racers at that time wore colors of red, white, green, or blue; and at some point the backers of the racers began to arrange themselves into factions, distinguished by the color of the racer whom they were backing. The conflict that developed between these factions grew to such proportions that it shook the foundations of government, family, and society. Religious and political significance was read into the choice of one color or the other and caused the feuds to become bloodier. Sedition and blasphemy were imputed by those who favored one color to those who favored another. Gibbon writes that on the occasion of one religious festival, the Greens massacred three thousand Blues; and that at another point, the blues took control of Constantinople and indulged in a bloody orgy of persecution of the Greens that included mass execution. It was only the higher loyalty that all of them owed to Rome and Byzantium that eventually kept the conflict within bounds. In ‘the blind ardour of the Roman people, who devoted their lives and fortunes to the colour which they had espoused,’ one sees an extreme example of what effect membership in a group has on its members.”

If nations can’t find important reasons for going to war; then they will go to war for unimportant reasons. Horne is perhaps implying that World War One could have been avoided except for the misunderstandings and mistakes made by the Germans, French and British. Fromkin would disagree saying that nations need little reason for their wars, and indeed Horne himself describes Kaiser Wilhelm as wanting war. So if the mistakes and misunderstandings weren’t enough to get Germany into a war in 1914, the Kaiser would probably have been looking for a casus bellum later on. As Madeleine Albright in effect asked prior to another war, what good is an army if you can’t use it?

I have been a little afraid after my first note on this subject that some Horne expert would send me a nasty note telling me that I should have read this or that other book by Horne which would have the answer to my questions. That happened when I was in the process of reading and discussing a book by Chomsky, At War With Asia in which he favored the Communist cause at the expense of the American. A Chomsky admirer challenged my comments saying in effect, any fool knows that Chomsky is an anarchist and does not favor Communism. But, I responded, Chomsky did favor it in this particular book, and I quoted Chomsky. He may have been favoring it as the lesser of two evils in his own estimation, but he did favor it. I would respond in a similar fashion if Horne happens to have followers as fanatical as those of Chomsky.

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