• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

No More Parades

On the Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace

by Donald Kagan
Doubleday, 606 pp., $30.00

The First World War: A Complete History

by Martin Gilbert
Holt, 615 pp., $35.00

Victory Must Be Ours: Germany in the Great War, 1914–1918

by Laurence V. Moyer, Introduction by John Keegan
Hippocrene, 219 pp., $24.95

1.

In his four-part novel of the First World War, Ford Madox Ford has his hero, Tietjens, say to another officer at the front:

At the beginning of the war…I had to look in on the War Office, and in a room I found a fellow…What do you think he was doing…what the hell do you think he was doing? He was devising the ceremonial for the disbanding of a Kitchener battalion. You can’t say we were not prepared in one matter at least…. Well, the end of the show was to be: the adjutant would stand the battalion at ease; the band would play Land of Hope and Glory, and then the adjutant would say: There will be no more parades…. Don’t you see how symbolical it was—the band playing Land of Hope and Glory, and then the adjutant saying: There will be no more parades?…For there won’t. There won’t, there damn well won’t. No more Hope, no more Glory, no more parades for you and me any more. Nor for the country…nor for the world, I dare say… None… Gone… Napoo finny! No…more…parades!”1

Tietjens was wrong, of course. Despite the horrors of the First World War and the pervasive sense that it had all but destroyed the civilization that produced it, there would be other wars and other parades to go with them. The authors of all three of the books reviewed here make it clear that Tietjens’s war was gravid with the seeds of its successors.

Donald Kagan, who writes at length about World War I, inclines to the belief that war is part of the human condition and will always be with us. He has no patience with the kind of talk about a new international system and a pax universalis that prevailed at the end of the cold war and the conflict in the Gulf, and he cites people in the past—Tom Paine, John Stuart Mill, John Bright, Ivan Bloch, Norman Angell—who shared similar views and lived to see them confounded. The current condition of the world, he is sure, will not last. A reunified Germany will sooner or later regain military power equal to its economic strength. So will Japan, and eventually China, while the day when Russia will reassert itself as a major power is unlikely to be indefinitely postponed. Mr. Kagan believes it would be frivolous to suppose that such changes will not pose dangers to the status quo and thinks we would be better advised to study the ways war has originated in the past than to harbor the idle hope that it will not recur.

To encourage this, he has conducted what he calls an experiment in “comparative narrative history,” in which he has written accounts of the origins of four great international conflicts, the Peloponnesian War, the First World War, the Second Punic War (Hannibal’s long struggle against Rome), and the Second World War, adding for good measure an examination of the Cuban missile crisis, “because it appears to have been the closest the world has come to a war between major powers since the coming of the nuclear age.”

It must be said at the outset that this exercise in comparison is a very loose and inexact one, made more so by its asymmetrical nature, the accounts of the two modern wars being much longer and more detailed than those of the ancient ones. Nor do the general conclusions that the author draws from his cases seem very impressive. He writes that “liberal republics of a democratic character, devoted to and increasingly shaped by an ethical system that is commercial, individualistic, libertarian, and hedonistic,” are much slower to resort to force, even when justified, than the city-states of antiquity, and that their peoples are sometimes reluctant to acknowledge that “the preservation of peace requires active effort, planning, the expenditure of resources, and sacrifice, just as war does.”

Such truths hardly need so elaborate a recapitulation of familiar facts to support them as Kagan gives us. That it is a mistake not to understand the motives of your antagonists and that politicians are often deluded about those motives have been common-places, particularly since the Munich Conference proved to be without substance, and they were reconfirmed when George Bush proved unable to stop Saddam Hussein short of war. However, if Mr. Kagan’s generalizations are not always original, they are redeemed by the fact that he is a very good storyteller, and that his case studies are a pleasure to read.

The best of these is the first, which is not surprising when one remembers that Mr. Kagan’s full-scale history of the Peloponnesian war has been described as a triumph of modern scholarship.2 Here, following Thucydides’ dictum that men are driven to war by “honor, fear, and interest,” he shows how the thirty years’ peace between Sparta and its allies on the one hand and the Athenian empire on the other was destroyed by the inflamed sense of honor of the leaders of Corinth. Purely out of a feeling that their true importance was not being recognized by their neighbors, they undertook to destroy the island of Corcyra (modern Corfu) and were prevented from doing so by the Athenians.

The Athenians had good reason for their objections—if Corinth succeeded in defeating Corcyra and confiscated its fleet, it would be a greater naval power than Athens itself and the balance of power in Greece would be subverted. It has to be said that the Athenians tried to persuade Corinth to abandon its aggressive plans by diplomatic means that would not wound its amour-propre. But the Corinthian leaders were not to be stayed, and sought the help of Sparta. In this they elected not to argue the facts of the case, but rather played on Sparta’s latent fear of Athenian expansion, hinting at the same time that, if Sparta were not prepared to protect the interests of its allies, Corinth would look elsewhere for friends. The Spartans, who had sought to remain clear of the dispute, now saw that it would be dangerous for them to do so. Their leaders tried to appease Corinth by demanding that the Athenians revoke the economic embargo that they had imposed on the citizens of Megara in order to punish them for assistance they had given to Corinth and to discourage other states from doing the same. But the Athenian leader, Pericles, refused to lift the embargo, on grounds that this would be a derogation of sovereignty and would probably only encourage other demands. Out of this deadlock, the war came.

Kagan’s description of the diplomatic struggle brilliantly demonstrates how, in a situation in which neither of the major powers had any intention of or interest in breaking the balance of power, a determined state of second rank was able to blackmail its stronger allies into doing so. He also argues persuasively that the Athenians were handicapped by the fact that the strategy chosen by Pericles, both before the onset of hostilities and afterward, suffered from a lack of real deterrent power. If Pericles, instead of seeking to deter Corinth by means of diplomacy and economic pressure, had simply attacked and defeated it by military means at the outset of the dispute, the balance with Sparta might have survived. If he had chosen any strategy for the war except the strictly defensive one he selected, the Spartans might have calculated the odds differently and abstained. As it was, the Greek world was involved in a violent conflict that lasted for almost thirty years and changed its civilization forever.

It has often been remarked that World War I arose out of the circumstances that the newly united Germany of 1871 was both too big for Europe and not big enough to be a world power. Certainly awareness of Germany’s strength and ambitions worked upon the imagination of its neighbors in much the same way as fear of Athenian expansion preoccupied Sparta and its allies: it was only Bismarck’s consistently conservative diplomacy and his avoidance of adventurism that reassured them. Kagan has compared the great Prussian statesman with Pericles, and this comparison has a double dimension, for just as Pericles’ successors departed from his policies, with fateful results, so did Bismarck’s. During the reign of William II, the emperor’s diplomats succeeded in doing something that Bismarck had always warned against: they alienated both Britain and Russia at the same time. Since France had never been reconciled to its defeat at Sedan, Europe by 1907 was divided into two armed camps, an uneasy balance that was always trembling on the verge of collapse. Now, as in ancient Greece, the control of the alliances slipped from the hands of the most powerful allies into those of the most irresponsible. With Austria and Russia alternating in the role of Corinth, all Europe was drawn into war by their machinations in the Balkans.

Seen in retrospect, there was something almost irreversible about this process, but Kagan feels that it might have been prevented with a greater exercise of will on the part of one of the players. Although he believes in general that Germany must bear the greatest responsibility for the coming of the war, he suggests that if only the British had had the courage between 1898 and 1914 to pass a conscription law and raise an army that could come swiftly and powerfully to France’s aid in case of a German attack, such an attack would never have taken place. “Unlike the Athenians,” he writes, “the British had the capacity to take all the measures needed to keep the peace through deterrence, though at great cost in money and to their traditional way of life.” That is perhaps too easily said, and it ignores the limitations set upon diplomacy by domestic politics. The prohibition of standing armies was part of the revolution that had made the English the freest people in Europe. In 1916, when they finally adopted conscription, it was with the utmost reluctance and only because they were persuaded that the step was necessary if their liberties were to be preserved. There was no way in the world, back in the years between 1898 and 1914, that they could have been persuaded that this necessity would ever arise.

The background of the Second Punic War between Rome and Carthage in the third century BC is a matter that scholars have wrangled over since the days of Polybius, but the main outlines are clear enough. After their hardwon victory in the First Punic War, the Romans granted their opponents a generous peace but then changed their minds, first raising the indemnity the defeated enemy was required to pay and then, in 238 BC, seizing the island of Sardinia from Carthage. The Carthaginians did not possess the power to refuse these demands, but the humiliation rankled, and Polybius believed that it was the principal cause of the second war, leading Hannibal’s father to make him swear a sacred oath that he would never forgive Rome.

  1. 1

    Ford Madox Ford, Parade’s End (Charles Boni, 1924–1928). (No More Parades, Part 1, Chapter 1.)

  2. 2

    Donald Kagan, A New History of the Peloponnesian War: Volume One, The Outbreak of the Peloponnesian War; Volume Two, The Archidamian War; Volume Three, The Peace of Nicias and the Sicilian Expedition; Volume Four, The Fall of the Athenian Empire (Cornell University Press, 1969–1987).

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print