The book that currently sits at the top of the pile by my bed is The War of the World by Niall Ferguson (2006). Subtitled Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West. It is one of those big fat daunting books with more than 800 pages of fine print, and I have three weeks to read it.
One thing I have learned to do with big non-fiction books is to read the first and last chapters first, and then read the middle. The author presents his thesis in the first chapter, and ties it up in the last; everything in the middle is details. By the time I've read the first and last chapters, I know whether I want to bother with the rest.
This book is no different, although there are in effect two first chapters, the preface and the official first chapter, and two last chapters, the official last chapter and an appendix. Oh well. It still works.
Parts of the middle were hard to read. This being essentially a book about war, it has its fair share of atrocities described in it. No one is spared, atrocities are committed by all, to all. The graphic detail is a little hard to read, and it is hard to escape the notion that atrocity is just under the skin for most peoples. However, having said that, obviously the first and last chapters were sufficiently interesting to entice me to dip into the middle. I am actually not done yet, I have only just made it to the end of "World War I".
It is Ferguson's contention that the entire twentieth century was just one big fat world war. The title of his book is a deliberate play on H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds. Ferguson says that Wells' book, written at the beginning of the twentieth century, was prescient; the only thing different from what actually happened was that it identified the enemy as aliens from Mars when in fact it was humans.
Another contention is that although the West thinks it won the war(s), it in fact lost. The underlying story is the Descent of the West and the Rise of the East.
In the opening chapters he describes what the world was like at the beginning of the twentieth century, how it was globalized to a point not seen before or for the rest of the century. He describes a world where products from all over the world are readily available, communications by mail, telephone and telegraph are highly developed and quite rapid, no passport is necessary for extensive travel and one is free to live almost anywhere. The movement of capital, labour, resources and products was free and extensive.
Racism and ethnic hatred was growing---the early twentieth century was much more racist than the early nineteenth century---and this was one of the major contributing factors to coming conflicts and warfare.
Another theme of this book is about empires and nation-states. Empires became too costly to maintain for most nations, all European empires were disbanded due to the cost. We think of empires as lucrative, the wealth of subject areas flowing to the centre, but what was actually happening was that the wealth was flowing to increasingly wealthier corporations and the expense of running the empire being born by central governments. The only thing that happened with the demise of an empire was that the central government divested itself of the cost; the wealth continued to flow to the corporations in most cases.
Nation-states are a recent phenomenon and have their own set of problems. The idea of a nation is that it should consist of people of a single ethnic "nationality", but the reality is that ethnic groups are too diffusely spread out to create geographic nations corresponding to ethnic nationalities. He describes the problem of Germany as a case in point, ethnic Germans being located as far east as Moscow, westward into the European lowlands and France, and southward into Italy. The "ethnic problem" is pervasive, examples abound in the Americas, Europe, Asia and Africa.
In describing the so-called Cold War, Ferguson says that it wasn't really cold, active warfare continued but not in Western Europe or North America. The Cold War merely spared those areas from being the battlefields, which were moved to Latin America, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Africa, South Asia, Southeast Asia and Korea.
Something that Ferguson makes explicit and I have being suspecting, is that major conflicts are in effect swan songs, even (and perhaps especially) for the victors. Warfare is always expensive, winning a war in no way mitigates that. We are witnessing the swan song of Western power, the East is rising.
An interesting and ironic anecdote concerns CIA interventions. I don't know if they are quite so active in this regard now, but certainly in the '50s and '60s they were actively fomenting coups in countries seen as potentially threatening to the USA in some way or another. One of the coups instigated by the CIA was in Guatemala, which resulted in active genocide of thousands of Mayans over several decades. However, it also resulted in the politicization of a certain lawyer, Castro by name, who successfully instigated his own coup in Cuba and also successfully resisted several CIA attempts to overthrow him.
Ferguson points out that many wars fought to quell Communism around the world were actually genocides of aboriginal peoples in the countries those wars were being fought in. The CIA perceived Communism in every instance of poor people fighting for land and human rights.
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I wrote this post several weeks ago, I have since finished the book and would recommend it if you have the stomach and perseverance for it. Or, you could just do as I do and read only the first and last chapters.