John Costa column: Read about the Great War

John Costa /

Published May 11, 2014 at 12:01AM

If children ask you what to read, be careful with your answer.

With some hesitation, I respond history.

I got my first taste, when in the public library of my hometown I discovered the “History of the United States Naval Operations in World War II” by Samuel Eliot Morison.

I spent a summer on the front porch of my folks’ home devouring the 15 volumes of this monumental work by Morison, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and a recipient of the Bancroft Prize and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Morison was also a rear admiral in the U.S. Navy and, as myth has it, the last professor at Harvard to arrive on campus on horseback.

Be honest: If there is going to be a myth about you, that’s one you want.

Morison also left me with a reading flaw.

Finding a good subject, I can become fixated, leaving me, my children would tell you, with a head full of arcane facts useful only in whipping them in Trivial Pursuit.

That’s not the worst of all parental flaws.

Late last year, I read “1913: In Search of the World Before the Great War” by Charles Emmerson.

The Great War, of course, is World War I, which began 100 years ago this August and transformed the world.

At the end, the ruling dynasties of the world — the Hapsburgs, Hohenzollerns, Romanovs and the Ottoman Empire — were gone.

Whether it knew it or not, European colonialism was marked for death and new powers — Japan, Germany of the Reich, China and India — were just over the horizon.

The victors, particularly Great Britain under Lloyd George, France under Georges Clemenceau and the United States under Woodrow Wilson, forced the creation of political orders in Eastern Europe, the Balkans, the Near and Middle East that are still so very troubled today.

Why this war doesn’t get the interest that its cousins — the American Revolution, the Civil War, World War II or even the war in Vietnam — receive in the United States is understandable.

Though we helped turn the tide at the end, we entered late, we suffered fewer casualties, our land was untouched, and Wilson’s post-war dreams were rejected in Congress.

Nor did it have the unifying evil of Hitler and Nazism, or the electrifying impact of Pearl Harbor.

Unlike Morison’s depiction of fleets of aircraft carriers and battleships, or huge, mobile armies supported by bombers and fighter planes, this war — on the Western front for sure — was largely about slaughter.

Armies maneuvered in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, but on the Western front millions of soldiers and citizens were killed or wounded for a battle line that barely changed over four years.

British military deaths in the war totaled 1.7 percent of the nation’s population. Had we the same loss in Vietnam on a population of 200 million, the wall in Washington would have 3 million chiseled names instead of 50,000.

If all this interests you in this centennial year, and you are afflicted like me with a love for history, this is what I recommend you read after 1913: “The War that Ended Peace: The Road to 1914” by Margaret MacMillan; “Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War” by Max Hastings; “The First World War” by John Keegan; “Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East” by Scott Anderson; and “Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World,” also by MacMillan.

If nothing else, you’ll realize why FDR’s unconditional surrender demand in WWII was spot on, and you’ll dominate the category in Trivial Pursuit.

— John Costa is editor-in-chief of The Bulletin. Contact: 541-383-0337, jcosta@bendbulletin.com.