Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Review: The Guns of August

The Guns of August The Guns of August by Barbara W. Tuchman
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Barbara Tuchman’s favorite military philosopher, here at least, is Clausewitz. Through that Germanic perspective, she wants us to see the battles of the early months of World War I, the ones that led to the awful trench-war stalemate of All’s Quiet on the Western Front and the despairing backdrop of Hemingway’s work, as a game of chess. To that end, she resurrects all sorts of individuals responsible for the strategies and counter-strategies. We open with a roster of the kings of Europe, and throughout we get skillful, capsule biographies of one commander after another, someone whose quirk of personality contributed to the failure or success of his country’s troops. She imagines, in other words, the minds purportedly responsible for driving the outcome of the war.

Leo Tolstoy’s favorite commander, at least in War and Peace, is Kutuzov, the aging general who blunts Napoleon’s march into Russia. As Tolstoy paints him, Kutuzov understands that planning can go only so far in battle. After that, you have to trust to a kind of spirit of the moment; you have to understand that war is not chess but rather a conflict of passions and preparations. Some select few may set events in motion, but war is ultimately an experience larger than any particular minds.

Tuchman’s history is a history of would-be chess master generals, of men who live up to their training and conceptualization or men who fall short of theirs. It’s a striking history at times – it answers why one battle went one way and another the opposite – but it’s rarely compelling. She never looks to larger matters of warfare, to the enduring question of what makes an ordinary man carry a rifle into conflict with other men. She takes the “rules of war” as a given, and shows us how they play out.

In the end, this becomes a succession of more of the same. As skillfully as she can turn a phrase, as concisely as she can boil down a clever sketch of someone or other, each battle begins to echo the last. One side wins on a front to put the other on its heels. The Germans move forward only to get bogged down.

As I read this, I can’t help missing the grander vision of, say Michael Shaara in The Killer Angels, a writer who gets something of the Kutuzov understanding of war, of the larger human experience and tragedy of real conflict. In that much more gripping history, we see the stakes of the battle, and we’re called on to understand both the human character of each commander’s decisions as well as the human toll each loss entails. Shaara’s is a story told at a human eye-level that, piling scene upon scene, becomes epic.

Tuchman’s, disappointingly, is an effort to show the technical aspects of an epic struggle that, excellent prose aside, never touches the deeper tragedy of its horrific topic.

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