The Forever War

If you tell me the wars are over, then I know the shield walls will be made very soon. Uhtred of Bebbenburg, hero of Bernard Cornwell's .

One hundred years ago this month, the shield walls were made once again, this time with artillery. Yesterday, today, and tomorrow, the walls have, are, and will be raised again and again and again, wherever people seek to end war once and for all.

If there is a lesson to be learned from Cornwell's fictional Uhtred and Barbara W. Tuchman's all too real Moltke and Joffre, it is that the war to end all wars is a neverending battle.

I just finished a re-read of , and found that my memory of my first read of years ago remained essentially correct. Germany and France had been planning this war like a couple of gamers plotting their ultimate victory in World of Warcraft. And while my impression that so intent were they on their battle plans that, were it not for the frantic messages from a few scouts, they might have occupied each other's capitals without ever encountering each other's armies, isn't quite as I remembered it (there was a German army facing the French as they tried to invade through the Ardennes), it was close enough.

Tuchman paints vivid portraits of the principals: The Kaiser called Moltke der traurige Julius (German for Gloomy Gus). He was "tall, heavy, bald, and sixty-six years old...[with an habitual] expression of profound distress;" Joffre "looked like Santa Claus." Massive and paunchy in his baggy uniform, with a fleshy face adorned by a heavy, nearly white mustache and bushy eyebrows to match, with a clear youthful skin, calm blue eyes and a candid, tranquil gaze. The Russian General Sukhomlinov is an artful, indolent, pleasure-loving, chubby little man in his sixties who had no interest in modern "innovations" such as the factor of firepower against the saber, lance and the bayonet charge. "In 1913 he dismissed five instructors of the [War] College who persisted in preaching the vicious heresy of 'fire tactics.'"

As Meredith Hindley writes in this issue of Humanities, "For Tuchman, there are no overarching systems or forces at work—just people chock-full of aspirations, foibles, and prejudices."

And so I believe it is. Moreover, Tuchman was more prescient than she knew - or perhaps she suspected - when she wrote the last sentence of The Guns of August. The nations were caught in a trap, a trap made during the first thirty days out of battles that failed to be decisive, a trap from which there was, and has been, no exit.

A point that has not been missed by those trying to untie the Gordian knot that is today's Middle East. The war to end all war is an endless war indeed.