Learning the lessons of war slowly

This spring, I read The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman. Strictly speaking, I listened to The Guns of August in the mornings when I went walking, so I missed some of the political and military tactical maneuvers, not having a map at hand to study. What I took away from the book, though, was the overwhelming arrogance, cruelty and stupidity on every battlefield.

The Germans invaded Belgium on Aug. 4, expecting to roll right through unopposed. They were astounded and offended that the Belgians fought back. The Germans punished single resisters by shooting 10, then 100, then whole villages, and they didn't understand why these reprisals didn't deter resistance. But they couldn't get past a couple of fortresses until their big guns, bigger than the world had ever seen, were broken down to fit on the railroads or trucks and then rebuilt on the firing line.

Meanwhile, the French refused to give up their bright red trousers or their plan to always attack and never defend. And the British commander hated the French and was unwilling to follow their plan. All this while, the Russian soldiers were being slaughtered on the front -- yet they drew the Germans, summer-clad, toward Moscow.

Tuchman takes us far enough into September and October to see that all the pundits of the age were wrong. This would not be a quick war, fought and over in a month or two.

I've been thinking about World War I all summer, thinking how the arrogance, cruelty and stupidity of war is replaying itself from Russia to China to Israel to Nigeria and back to the halls of our own Congress. We still disagree about the lessons of Vietnam and whether bombing Nagasaki, Japan, hastened the end of the World War II. But Barbara Tuchman has given us an analysis for the ages. So to honor the hundred years since the start of the Great War and to meditate on the commandment "Thou shalt not kill," this August, I recommend reading The Guns of August.

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