Book Review: World War I: Why They Fought

World War I:  Why They Fought, by Rebecca Rissman

The excellent Civil War historian James McPherson once wrote an entire book on the question of why soldiers fought in the American Civil War [1].  This book does not have the same ambition that one did, although its general purpose is the same and that is something worth pointing out as noteworthy at least.  A civilization as pacifist as our own–something which is certainly influenced in part by the corrosive effects of a decadent culture as well as the slaughter that took place in Europe in the 20th century–has a hard time justifying to itself or anyone else why it was that people went to war.  If the reasons why people go to war, any war, are not so different at least across the different wars of American history, then this book is at least poised to inform readers of some of the influence between war and society where social pressure has at times made people more willing to fight than they would otherwise be according to their own druthers.  Contrary to popular opinion, young men are not all stupid and a great deal of social pressure is required to keep military involvement high.

This book is a short one at a bit more than 50 pages.  It begins with a discussion of the roots of war, since the existence of World War I and its horrors seems to require some sort of explanation as to how this was allowed to happen in the first place.  We can see World War II easily as springing out of World War I (although this book assumes that Italy was a loser rather than a frustrated winner), but seeing how World War I happened requires more effort.  The authors discuss the beginnings of battle and the initial surge of volunteering (2) and then discuss the struggle to encourage people to join up and fight as the war dragged on and casualty lists mounted on all sides (3).  The author then discusses what happened when Americans joined in with a great deal of enthusiasm but not a huge amount of survival skills (4).  The author then discusses the desperation for an end that many of the European combatants faced (5) as well as the process of coming home and struggling to deal with civilian life (6) that is familiar to veterans of any foreign war.  The book then ends with a discussion of the lost generation (7) before closing with a timeline, glossary, additional resources, source notes, bibliography, and index.

By and large this book is a straightforward and short history, but its details are at least somewhat amusing.  In reading the book’s discussion of how reluctant men of fighting age were given white feathers as a token of their supposed cowardice I could not help but be reminded of the film The Four Feathers and how it deals with the subject of manhood in early 20th century Britain.  It is especially important to note that young men desire respect as well as success with women, and if those require fighting and risking one’s life, then such things will be done, however unpleasant they are.  If this book is not the most profound example of the war and society approach when it comes to military history it certainly is at least competent in discussing how it was that essentially not very militaristic people like the C.S. Lewises and J.R.R. Tolkiens of the world found themselves involved in one of the most horrific wars of human history, both ending up as casualties in the process.  And for all of this book’s limitations, it is worth knowing how a combination of a sense of duty and a strong amount of social pressure can induce people to volunteer to risk being slaughtered.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Book Reviews, History, Military History and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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