War, Peace, and Revolution

The book 1917: War, Peace, and Revolution, by David Stevenson, examines how the leaders of the belligerent countries desperately looked for ways out of a seemingly endless war of attrition. From failed offensives, to peace overtures, to war declarations, and even revolutions, the book goes through the climactic 1917 in detail, offering perspectives on how the leaders struggled with the decisions they had to make to seek an end to the endless slaughter that is the Great War.

A desperate Germany resumed unrestricted submarine warfare, despite the risk of drawing in the United States. The US, in turn, entered the war after the discovery of the Zimmerman telegram. The British adopted convoys to reduce shipping losses, despite arguing about its effectiveness for the first few months of 1917. The French mounted an offensive; it failed, and contributed to morale deterioration and a mutiny.

Meanwhile, Russia had it even worse. The centuries-old tsarist monarchy was overthrown, and socialist revolutionaries took over. They weren’t exactly anti-war, however, and participated in yet another failed offensive. In its aftermath, even greater social unrest followed, and the revolutionary Lenin maneuvered himself and his Bolshevik faction to power in the famous October Revolution. Once in power, he worked to finally end Russian participation in the war, culminating in the Brest-Litovsk treaty the following year.

But the book doesn’t confine itself to the major participants, and also discussed developments outside Europe. Greece entered the war on the Allies’ side; Italy suffered catastrophic defeat at Caporetto, but emerged stronger and more united than ever; Brazil entered the war against Germany, though its efforts are limited in territory; Siam and Japan entered with the intention of having themselves represented in a post-war conference, in order to leverage against unequal treaties forced upon them by the West.

There were also peace initiatives, which, however, failed due to various reasons. It is also worth noting that, even at this point in the war, the belligerents still haven’t fully decided the extent of their war aims. This contributed to the collapse of peace talks, as the participants couldn’t agree on exactly what they want for themselves, and what they want (and don’t want) the opposing sides to get.

The question of what will happen to the Ottoman territories is also discussed in the book. Designs for the Middle East after the expected collapse of the Ottoman Empire figured in discussions among the Allies, specifically France and Britain. The issue of a Jewish “national home” in Palestine is also raised – the book narrates how the Balfour Declaration was shaped, paving the way for a more concrete design for Palestine, which in any case won’t be realized until after the Second World War.

The year 1917, as the author argues, is the major turning point of the war. A lot of things could’ve turned out differently, but how and why they turned out as they actually did is a major theme in 1917. And the events and decisions that happened and were taken in the year 1917 ultimately shaped the course of the war in 1918.

The Marne, 1914

The Opening of World War I and the Battle That Changed the World

The Great War, during its first few weeks, was a war of movement. As armies were mobilized, and war plans were implemented, the opposing sides waged a war which they believed would be over pretty soon. They were, of course, to be proved wrong. Nonetheless, they didn’t know then that the War will be a long conflict of attrition. And it was in these fateful days of August and September 1914 that the course of the War would be set.

Despite its title, The Marne, 1914: The Opening of World War I and the Battle That Changed the World, by Holger Herwig, isn’t strictly just about the titular battle. In fact, much of it is about the so-called Battle of the Frontiers, when the German forces put into motion the now well-known Schlieffen Plan, wheeling through the Belgian plains as millions of men marched towards the expected invasion of France.

Both the Schlieffen Plan, and France’s less cohesive Plan XVII, are discussed and examined at the beginning. The Schlieffen Plan is an offensive plan meant to quickly and decisively defeat France, a method for avoiding a more gruesome two-front war against both France and Russia. Meanwhile, the Plan XVII is a defensive plan hinged on an assumption that the main German force would be concentrated in the Ardennes. Additionally, Plan XVII is meant to provide a method for retaking the Alsace-Lorraine region occupied by the Germans since the French defeat in 1871.

The following narrative of the opening weeks of the Great War then serves as a study and examination of how these two plans were implemented, how successful (or unsuccessful) they were, and whether the opening battles effected the bloody trench warfare that followed, and ultimately defined the Great War.

Moreover, the decisions taken by the respective commanders of the German and French forces – Moltke and Joffre – are checked against both the plans they were supposed to proceed with, and the realities on the battlefields. A sharp contrast between the two leaders’ conduct of the war will emerge throughout the book, making it clear why the Germans failed to win decisively, and why the French were able to prevent defeat, but fail to make a breakthrough.

The Marne, 1914 is an excellent book on the opening battles of the Great War, and indeed it’s the most recommended book for the subject. The focus on military operations can be daunting and dry, especially with all the details presented. Nonetheless, it is a readable and illuminating work on the Battles of the Frontiers and the Marne, and how pre-war plans are bound to be broken once the armies are mobilized and the actual war begins.

Presidents of War

The Epic Story, from 1807 to Modern Times

The United States has a long history of waging wars for various reasons and purposes. Presidents of War: The Epic Story, from 1807 to Modern Times, by Michael Beschloss, examines eight US presidents and the wars they presided – focusing almost solely on the chief executives, and the decisions they and their allies (and opponents) made. The more specific details of the wars are not discussed as the book.

The book goes through eight leaders – Madison, Polk, Lincoln, T. Roosevelt, Wilson, FDR, Truman, and Johnson – and how each president formed (unintentionally or otherwise) precedents for the future leaders who will also wage their own wars. More than this, the book also places judgment on each leader’s methods: how they convinced Congress to declare wars (note that Truman and Johnson did not have war declarations from Congress), how they publicly defended their wars, and how much they sought to bend the laws to achieve their goals.

The way modern presidents justified their wars derived from their predecessors. For one thing the book highlights is the relations between the executive and the legislative branches, of how each president was beset with troubles on convincing their Congresses to back their wars – by hook or by crook. Lies and deception were employed to convince the legislators of the “need” to declare a state of war, and mobilize the people to fight for America.

The resulting verdict for each chief executive may or may not be agreeable to readers. And, at least for me, it was not very straightforward in all cases – the author’s judgments are presented at the end of each president’s two-chapter narratives, yet when going back to the narratives themselves it’s not clear how the author arrived at his conclusions.

Nonetheless, Presidents of War succeeds in illuminating the decisions each president had to make, before, during, and after the conflicts they fought. It’s almost never dignified and just – sending people to their deaths, in order to kill other people, hardly qualifies as such – but the wars discussed here are integral to understanding America and its inner workings. To dismiss such wars simply on the basis of them being on the “wrong” side of the good-and-evil duality risks viewing US history and foreign policy in an overly simplistic manner. And the best way to address the dilemmas of waging wars is to understand how and why the presidents of the past fought theirs.

Embers of War

The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam

Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam, by Fredrik Logevall, is the origin story of America’s Vietnam War – how and why the US found itself fighting a war in Southeast Asia. The French ruled Indochina (Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia) for decades. Then their grip was loosened by the disaster they endured during WW2.

The Vietnamese, forming a resistance movement called the Viet Minh, fought for independence from the Japanese during the Second World War. When the war ended, the triumphant Vietnamese, lead by Ho Chi Minh, proclaimed their independence. However, the French soon returned to the country, which they still consider as their colony, and wrestled for control of the government.

Within the next few years, the Viet Minh and the French waged war in Vietnam, culminating in the Geneva conference of 1954, and the French forces’ ultimate loss at Dien Bien Phu. Vietnam was thereafter divided into two states – the communist North, and the US-backed South – along the 17th parallel.

With the threat of communism looming large over Asia, the US, determined not to let the region fall into Soviet Union’s orbit, had moved to buffer up – initially, in secret – the French forces waging war against Ho’s Viet Minh. After the French defeat in 1954, the US gave its full backing to South Vietnam, ruled by Ngo Dinh Diem.

Despite widespread atrocities and corruption committed by the South Vietnamese despot, the US continued to support the regime, fearing that its fall would usher in the full spread of communism across Asia, a belief known as the “domino theory”. And in the process, the US started – secretly – committing troops to the ground, ostensibly for an “advisory” role.

The book’s narrative ends in 1959, in the incident at Bien Hoa, where Viet Cong forces raided the US base, killing two American personnel. These two – Major Dale Buis, and Master Sergeant Chester Ovnand – are considered the very first US casualties of what will be known as the Vietnam War.

Embers of War won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for History. In my experience, Pulitzer winners are some of the best history books to recommend for the casual readers – excellent narrative, comprehensive, but not too complicated for people with minimal background knowledge.

Embers of War is something I’d highly recommend for readers who want to understand how US got into fighting a war in Vietnam, how the successive leaders formed policies and decisions that would cost enormous lives and resources. A very enlightening read indeed.

The Pursuit of Glory

The Five Revolutions that Made Modern Europe: 1648 – 1815

The world as it was at the end of the Thirty Years’ War is vastly different from that at the end of Napoleon’s wars across the continent. The roughly one-and-a-half century in between saw Europe undergo a number of thoroughly vast transformations across all aspects of life – be it political, economic, cultural, or religious. The book The Pursuit of Glory: The Five Revolutions That Made Modern Europe: 1648-1815, by Timothy Blanning, examines “five of the modern world’s great revolutions – scientific, industrial, American, French, and romantic”. The book shows how all these five events come together to redefine Europe, in a period that serves as a bridge from the Medieval to (Early) Modern times.

It is, however, a daunting read, much more because the thematic approach causes some jumps and leaps in the chronological narrative. The first part is an overview of life in Europe during the period, including the state of peasantry and serfdom, plus the Industrial Revolution. This part is still pretty light on the names and dates, but nonetheless a slow read if one isn’t too invested in the details.

A second part tackles the sovereign entities of Europe, of who ruled what empires or territories, and also includes overview of the American and French Revolutions. The third part discusses culture, religion, the Scientific and Romantic Revolutions, and the state of monarchies and monarchs throughout the period. This is where things get really confusing, as all the nitty-gritty details start to come together, and things already discussed previously are brought back to be blended into the relevant themes.

Now, this can be discouraging to all but the most passionate readers. I personally struggled through much of the book too, as I didn’t have enough prior relevant knowledge of European history covered by this book. The morass of names, dates, events, and everything else can get difficult to follow really quickly. And it doesn’t help that the Scientific and the Romantic Revolutions aren’t sharply distinguished, and are situated within an overarching overview of European culture as a whole.

But once the reader has gotten through the third part, things start to all become clearer, and exciting too. At this point the relevant details have been mentioned and repeated enough that it should (hopefully) be easier for the reader to follow through. Not to mention, the chronology is a lot more consistent and cohesive now. The final – and arguably the best part of the book – is all about the wars waged in Europe, from the Peace of Westphalia (which ended the Thirty Years’ War) to the 1815 Treaty of Paris (which ended the Napoleonic Wars).

And boy, are there so much wars to tackle, as the 167 or so years covered by the book is packed with so much conflicts, (largely useless) treaties, territorial changes, and generally just straight-up political drama, the reader would be advised to have maps and maybe Wikipedia ready to consult often. That said, the timeline is a lot more cohesive, and unlike in previous chapters, the conflicts are discussed more in-depth, so things are way easier to follow and understand in general.

At this point, it should be obvious that this book is not for the faint of heart – neither is it for the simply curious reader, who probably just want to widen their bit of knowledge of history. Even for someone like me, the book still feels pretty convoluted. Yet, for the well-prepared history buff, I would say this is a good book to have, though possibly more as a general survey of the period than a serious dive into early modern European history.

The Pursuit of Glory succeeds in illuminating the period 1648 – 1815, in a truly comprehensive – if not the most cohesive – manner. As a guide for the political upheavals of the times, the wars fought, and the revolutionary changes that defined the era, it can be daunting and intimidating, but the effort it requires the reader definitely pays off, and towards the final part of the book, pays off really well.