The Guns of August

Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August (1962) is one of the best-selling and most admired history books of all time.  Centered on the first month of the First World War, historian Margaret MacMillan describes the book as “reading like a novel” from the very first sentence:

So gorgeous was the spectacle on the May morning of 1910 when nine kings rode in the funeral of Edward VII of England that the crowd, waiting in hushed black-clad awe, could not keep back gasps of admiration.  

Tuchman was famous for her writerly majesty, especially for her ability to bring the past back to life. But her primary purpose was didactic. Her intent was to show how world leaders, even those relatively clever and well-intentioned, stumbled and bumbled their way into one of the greatest catastrophes of all time – a war during which a generation of European men was decimated. (More than nine million combatants and seven million civilians died in World War I.)

Among the leaders’ many miscalculations and misperceptions was that a war on European soil would be short, not long, and that the casualties in consequence could be contained. In fact, most of their errors of judgment fell into this category: a tendency to gravitate toward positive probable outcomes rather than negative ones. An inability to carefully consider the possibility that once war started, it would be difficult if not impossible quickly to stop, with calamity the inevitable outcome.

Leaders are mere mortals, Even the best and brightest are vulnerable to the vicissitudes of human nature. Which means that those who are less than the best and brightest – not to speak of those who are much, much less than the best and the brightest – should never, ever be entrusted by us to mediate matters of war and peace.

But, followers too are mere mortals. Which explains why we do what ideally we should not: leave it to our leaders, no matter how extremely ill-equipped, to decide our fate.

No two leaders with nukes in their grasp could possibly be temperamentally and intellectually less suited to the responsibility of preventing nuclear war than Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un. Which is precisely why it is up to those around them, those who have access, to temper their excess. Ordinary people have no choice but to rely on these minions to save us from what Tuchman, in another volume, called “the march of folly.”



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