...continued from page 2
For instance, Britain was on the verge of civil war over the Irish question, as the Liberal Party tried to grant Home Rule to Ireland, the Protestants of northern Ireland (Ulster) threatened to go to war to prevent it, and the British Army and Navy was riven by mutiny as officers and men made it plain they would not obey orders to attack the Ulster Protestants in order to grant Home Rule to the Catholic majority in Ireland.
Meanwhile, Austria-Hungary was an empire that desperately needed to reorganize itself as a federation in order to accommodate the nationalism of its members. Both Britain and Austria-Hungary seized upon war as a way of temporarily uniting their own divided nations against a common enemy.
Beatty does a splendid job of giving far more detail than I had known before about incidents that led toward World War I, each of which makes fascinating reading. Despite much reading about the period, I had known little about Woodrow Wilson's myopic intervention in the Mexican revolution, where he bought into Pancho Villa's self-created image as a hero of the people.
Then, in the effort to aid the revolution, Wilson committed exactly the same mistake that he deplored in his predecessors – he sent American troops into Latin America to make sure that the "right" man won.
I wish I could say that Beatty is reliable in his historical accounts. I trust his sources – that is, I believe that everything he says happened, actually happened. But he reveals his own biases very early on, when he absurdly equates German militarism with American "militarism" today, on the basis that America spends far more of its GDP on its military than Germany did.
It required a special kind of blindness for Beatty to make such an assertion, a confusion of definitions of "militarism" that approaches deliberate self-deception. In Germany in 1914, the military was given extraordinary respect by the general population – it was taken for granted that college professors would step off the sidewalk to allow uniformed soldiers to pass, and the soldiers felt themselves entitled to give a beating to anyone who did not show them such respect.
Can you imagine such an attitude in America today, when smug professors often feel themselves as superior to any military person as German officers felt themselves superior to any civilian in 1914? The intellectual elite of America today is so disdainful of the military that they think themselves polluted by the presence of the ROTC on their campuses.
Yet Beatty thinks that somehow we are even more "militaristic" than Germany then.
This kind of apples-to-elbows comparison is routine among what passes for "intellectuals" in America today – so that it is tempting to take Beatty's account of the misbehavior of the German military prior to World War I and compare it, not to our own diffident military, but to the arrogant stupidity of the American university professoriate of modern America, of which Beatty's statement is a symptom.
But the scholar Beatty trumps the groupthinker Beatty in this book; as long as you read carefully, to allow for the selection bias that colors almost every page, you can still learn much that is useful and valuable about the lead-up to World War I, and about the way that individual choices, made for immediate reasons, can have disastrous unintended consequences.
William J. Cooper, We Have the War Upon Us: The Onset of the Civil War, November 1860-April 1861. Like Beatty's Lost History of 1914, this is a treatise on the triggers of war.
Many books have dealt with the underlying causes of the American Civil War. Cooper takes these for granted, and instead looks at the decisions, week by week and day by day, that led to the actual beginning of hostilities between the North and South.
This book is written at such a level of detail that one can feel a bit lost in it, a feeling that is greatly magnified by Cooper's decision to write "impartially."
This is an illusion, of course. Cooper, a biographer of Confederate president Jefferson Davis, partakes of two obvious biases – toward the Confederacy, with whose desire to be "left alone" Cooper obviously sympathizes; and against anyone who decides to wage avoidable offensive war, like Lincoln and, one must say, George W. Bush.
Thus Cooper manages to simultaneously partake of the "anti-war" groupthink of modern academia and the moral blindness of those who think that the Civil War can be considered without looking at the institution of slavery as an abhorrent practice that had to be eliminated for America to consider itself civilized.
Yet, as with Beatty, the bias – which pretends to be an utter lack of bias – can be overcome, leaving behind a very useful collection of details that are often skipped over in other books.
Oddly, though this book seems to have the same theme as the excellent 1861: The Civil War Awakening, by Adam Goodheart, the overlap between the books is surprisingly slight. But the contrast in attitudes is plain. Goodheart writes without condemnation, but it is clear that awful as the Civil War was, he thinks the morally right side won; and that is not at all clear in the Cooper.
History is a tricky business. The stories we believe about ourselves and other nations, about rulers and societies, shape our present decisions. History cannot be written or read without bias; that is why it is important to read a lot of history, including multiple histories about the same or overlapping events.
Only by looking at much evidence and many treatments of the same events and people can we hope to arrive at conclusions true enough to be useful.