This is an introduction to WW1 purporting to be written as a series of letters by “Uncle Eric” to his nephew “Chris.” The style wears thin for a grownup pretty soon; how effective it would be for a young reader, I would like to hear. Nevertheless, one can “read through” the stylistic concept and get to the content without too much annoyance.
The conceptual model Maybury sets up for understanding WW1 is libertarianism. The proper posture of nations can be boiled down to just two simple principles “taught by all religions”: keep your promises, and do not encroch upon other persons or their property. In violation of these two positive maxims, governments seek more land and tax-payers, and this is the main cause of wars. In addition to the universal motives of seeking more land and tax-payers, he offers “ten deadly ideas” the pursuit of which tends to war. For example, he sees the dream of Pax Romana (deadly idea #1) as a conceited attempt to gain perpetual peace through perpetual war. The formation of permanent alliances (#9) is worth mentioning, since our father Washington warned us against it. The discussion of “fascism” (#2) is ill-defined — and I would say, badly defined — such that a major part of the mainstream narrative in connection with the world wars is ironically ratified.
Two of the ten deadly ideas are closely related: #4, “Global Protection,” and #6, “Cost Externalization.” Americans seem to think they can sashay into any corner of the globe, whatever the risks, and it is the U.S. Government’s job to bail them out if thing go badly. Thus the monetization of the risks are born by others than the ones taking the risk. It leads to war because of the carte blanche it gives to government to flex its muscle as well as the occasion to actually meddle. I would broaden and deepen the critique. The “two principles” are exactly the evil of the system that is touted by politicians as “free trade,” and one that libertarians do not pay enough attention to. A company shuts down a factory in Ohio and opens another one in Mexico, or China. This is justified as free enterprise. But it is not free. The risks (e.g. that the factory will be nationalized by the foreign government, or the assets seized) are greatly reduced by the cruisers of the U.S. Navy, which remind everyone to stay in line and implicitly back up the whole international banking system that greases the skids for these transactions as well. Not to mention the bailouts when corporations become “too big to fail.” But the cost of that huge infrastructure is born by the taxes of the people about to be laid off. It is thus a double insult, and hardly a “free market.” The same can be said about the illegal aliens: some provide cheap labor, but the real cost including medical care, education, and welfare is paid for, not just by the tax-payers in general, but by the workers that have to lower their own wage or lose their jobs so that jet-setters can obtain cheap nannies thereby. So it is not just that these ideas can lead to war: I say, damage is done to one sector of the nation even when war does not break out — nay, worse in that case.
But returning to Maybury: as an exemplary counter-example to all the war-mongering, the Swiss citizen-militia form of national defense is explained and praised. It has allowed them to stay out of wars while remaining neutral, for two hundred years.
Maybury’s approach leads to a minimizing of specific details that traditionally would be emphasized in explaining a war, whether the specific diplomatic or social history, or “great men.” Instead, it is just that “government” attracts power-hungry men, who desire “land and tax-payers,” and inevitably start violating the two positive principles and advocating the ten negative ones, and this leads to wars. One war differs from another only in non-essential details. Therefore, many details are glossed over. WW1 was in principle just another “garden variety” war, but became the hideous massacre that it did for two reasons: weapon technology had leapfrogged ahead, with no adjustment in tactics; and the entry of the U.S. into the war. The entry of the U.S. in turn is analyzed as a renunciation of her founding principles, due to the gradual adoption of the ten bad ideas that cause the endless wars in the “Old World.”
The salutary lessons that a young reader might take away from a reading of this book are these:
- Germany and her allies are not to be singled out as the culprits.
- The Allies are not to be thought of as the good guys.
- WW2 was just a continuation of WW1.
- The U.S. was unjust by interfering in this dual-war complex, and indeed, there would not have even been “world wars” apart from the improper interference of the U.S.
Certainly, these points are all true enough, and worth bringing home. However, I fear that the lesson comes at the price of an overly cynical, and cyclical view of history, and one that brushes important details under the rug. In reality, wars are not always fought for land and tax-payers; sometimes, the conquest is a net drain rather than a gain, even on the libertarian model. Sometimes, kings and other leaders have had the best interests of their people at heart, or other exemplary motives; it is not always power-mongers acting in despite of the interests of the people.
The folkish composition of nations is not explicitly denied, but definitely ignored. This leads to the impression that though citizens should be prepared to fight guerrilla warfare when necessary to defend their nation, yet the “nation” seems to be, not an ethnic people, but simply the residents that happen to reside within an entity defined politically. So the nation to be defended really amounts to just that over which a “government” has jurisdiction! though that in turn is viewed as inevitably villainous. But if he were to grant that “nations” are properly defined ethnically, much of the libertarian cynicism would need to be heavily modified. So Maybury’s project is not coherent fundamentally.
The book might be useful as a brief stage-setter to destroy several false but pervasive aspects of the official narrative. Its brevity and winsome (if also condescending) style could be helpful as the first wedge toward becoming educated about the world wars. But the medicine would become a new poison if not followed up by a more adequate alternative
Richard J. Maybury. World War I: The Rest of the Story and How it Affects You Today, 1875-1935 (Placerville, CA: Bluestocking Press, 2003 )