The Long View: The Pity of War

Niall Ferguson's book on the Great War was written 16 years ago, but his style fits in well today. There is a constellation of quant bloggers that center around Steve Sailer who use a similar style of analysis to Ferguson, heavy on economics and demographics, and looking for direct causal mechanisms that drive behavior. Ferguson used this method to analyze what might have been in 1914 if key decision makers had chosen otherwise in the run-up to war.

While John was also interested in alternative history, his take was that not every possibility can be actualized in history. Not all things are possible at all times. Especially not at certain times.

The Pity of War
by Niall Ferguson
Basic Books, 1998
562 Pages, $30.00 (US)
ISBN: 0-465-05711-X


Niall Ferguson ends this book with the assessment that the First World War was "nothing less than the greatest *error* of modern history." This is not the emotional flourish that it might have been had it come from another historian. Ferguson is an Oxford don whose specialty is financial history, but who has also given considerable thought to the use of alternative historical scenarios as tools of analysis. (He is the author of "Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals.") When Ferguson says the Great War was an error, he means it literally. Certain men made identifiable decisions that resulted in outcomes that were less than optimal. Those decisions were mistakes, because they produced a history that was identifiably worse than other, speculative histories that did not happen.

Rather than provide a narrative of the war, Ferguson attempts to answer 10 questions, including such items as: Was the war inevitable? Why did Britain's leaders decide to intervene when war broke out on the Continent? Why did the military superiority of the German Army fail to deliver victory on the Western Front? Why did men keep fighting? Why did they stop fighting? The gist of Ferguson's conclusions, if I understand them correctly, is that, while some major European war was likely in the first two decades of the 20th century, the war that actually occurred was neither inevitable nor particularly likely. Additionally, Ferguson suggests the best outcome for that period of history would have been the establishment of German hegemony in Europe. While this could not have been done without some disruption and perhaps bloodshed, the result would not have been so different from the European Union of today. I found myself wondering how Ferguson failed to cite the witticism that the constitution of the EU is essentially that of the German Empire without the Kaiser.

Whatever you may think of Ferguson's analysis (and some of it, as we will see, is problematical at best), nonetheless "The Pity of War" contains several fascinating special studies. These try to give about equal weight to English and German sources. (Ferguson reminds us more than once that he himself is a Scot: the first illustration in the book is of his grandfather in the uniform of the Seaforth Highlanders.) There is a long section on the large body of fiction and nonfiction of the late 19th and early 20th centuries that dealt with the "coming war." This literature includes the famous "invasion novels" that described a war between England and Germany, though in fact scenarios like this were a fairly late addition to the genre: earlier works assumed a war between England and France or Russia. Regarding the literature of the postwar period, Ferguson concludes, correctly, that there was much less "disenchantment" and alienation among the literary veterans than is commonly thought. When he tackles the issue of why men continued to fight even in the dismal conditions of the trenches, he feels forced to the conclusion that, at some level, they continued to fight because they enjoyed it. While this topic occasions some Freudian blather about the "death instinct," it seems to me that a more fruitful line of speculation might begin from the fact the memoirs he cites make the war sound like an extreme team-sport.



It is true that an amazing amount of grief would have been avoided if, by 1920 say, Europe had become a jellyfish-polity like today's European Union. It would have been even better if Europe had done so when Kant was writing of a Universal Republic in the eighteenth century. The fact is, though, that not every goal is possible to a civilization in every period, even when the goal can be clearly imagined. This very good book shows, despite itself, what I take to be the real value of counterfactuals: there is much less contingency in history than we imagine.