Sunday, April 08, 2007

Our Current Reading:

The War of the World:
Descent of the West

by Niall Ferguson

Paperback: 816 pages
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
(March 29, 2007)

We know Ferguson is a British conservative and supporter of 'staying the course' in Iraq. But he's also an important historian and influential public intellectual. This book will give us the occasion for examining the last century in a fresh way. Here's a brief Amazon review. A long one is posted as the first comment.

Reviewer John Matcock: A most interesting view of the 20th century. Certainly the two World Wars were the climatic moments, but he also points out that more people have been killed in the smaller wars that we don't normally think about.

Perhaps 55 million were killed in World War II. Perhaps a hundred million more in the Russian collectivizing of farms, the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and one genocide after another in places of which we had never heard. In this book Dr. Ferguson takes a different view of history than normal. Here is not the sweep of Rommel towards Dunkirk, but here is the relentless killing. Killing of all kinds of 'undesirable' people. It's a view of history well worth keeping in mind as we approach the next century with no hint of violence slowing down, and the incidence of Shiite/Sunni strife that we see developing in Iraq.

In the sub-title of the book, 'the Descent of the West,' he is less clear. He laments the passing of the big European empires that controlled much of the world. I'm not so sure that the people of India would lament their getting out of the British Empire. Perhaps they helped to hold the peace, but they also started World War I, and the Romans also held the peace at places like Masada.


from amazon said...

More about Ferguson:

Niall Ferguson, MA, D.Phil., is Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History at Harvard University and William Ziegler Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. He is also a Senior Research Fellow at Jesus College, Oxford University, and a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University....A prolific commentator on contemporary politics and economics, Niall Ferguson writes and reviews regularly for the British and American press. He is a weekly columnist for the Los Angeles Times. In 2004 Time magazine named him as one of the world’s hundred most influential people.

Reviewer John Kwok:

British historian Niall Ferguson may be the foremost chronicler of the Age of Western Empires, having written already several brilliant books which have been profound, provocative, and yet quite intriguing, examinations of the rise and fall of both the British and American empires. Here he relies once more on his tremendous knowledge of economic history and a fine gift for writing elegant prose in examinating the origins of the bloodiest conflicts of the 20th Century, claiming that there was literally one "War of the World" which stretched from 1904 until 1953 (It's an intriguing hypothesis which seems rather arbitrary in its time length, since others could argue persuasively that this conflict - if we can call it as one long, extended conflict - didn't really end until 1956 with the Soviet invasion of Hungary and the belated recognition of France and Great Britain as second class powers in the aftermath of the 1956 Suez Crisis.).

Ferguson claims that commercial imperial power has shifted gradually from the West to the East, as an expanding, inexorable trend that began with the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905. He asserts that the great imperial powers of Great Britain, France, Russia and Austria-Hungary were far more powerful economically, if not militarily, than their successors for most of the 20th Century: the United States and the Soviet Union. According to Ferguson, the rapid decline of these great European empires was one of the primary reasons for the onset of World War I and, indirectly, World War II. He also tries to argue persuasively that economic volatility in the form of rapid expansions and contractions of national and imperial economies was yet another major reason for both world wars. Last, but not least, ethnic unrest in the form of ethnic cleansing along the margins of Central European and Western Asian empires like Imperial Germany, the Russian Empire, the Habsburg Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire, was the final, important factor responsible for the "War of the World".

Ferguson is far more successful in making a compelling case that World War II started with Japan's invasion of China in 1937 (He also contends that it started in 1935 with Italy's invasion of Ethiopia (Abyssinia) and Nazi Germany's bloodless re-occupation of the Rhineland.) and that the European phase of the war could have been averted if Great Britain and France invaded Nazi Germany in 1938, in response to Hitler's demand for Czechoslovakia's Sudentenland and annexation of Austria. Curiously, he also contends that the Munich agreement brokered by British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain in September, 1938 wasn't an act of appeasement, but rather, a brilliant political stroke by Chamberlain (Ferguson's line of reasoning here is something I find inconsistent with his more brilliant argument in favor of a joint 1938 Anglo-French invasion of Nazi Germany, either alone or in combination with both the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia.).

Ferguson carries on his narrative of bloody 20th Century conflict beyond the Korean War, noting that ethnic unrest along the fault-lines of great imperial powers (in this case the United States, Russia, China, and to a lesser extent, India and Great Britain) has been responsible for much of the violent conflicts occuring in the Thirld World (which he describes as the "Third World War", trying to cast it mainly as a series of proxy conflicts between the United States and the Soviet Union) and most recently, in the Balkans and the Middle East. But this portion of the book is more epilogue than yet another major amassing of persuasively argued economic, political and military facts, and has the unintended effect of substantially reducing the importance of Ferguson's four key factors as those directly responsible for 20th Century warfare.

In spite of the major flaws I have cited in Ferguson's logic, I still regard "The War of the World" as an important book of historical scholarship looking back at the bloody century which was the 20th Century. Much to Ferguson's credit, no other scholar has amassed as much data, or written as cogently as he, in presenting an intriguing, provocative, and often infuriating, examination of 20th Century warfare. Indeed, when Ferguson casts his arguments strictly in economic terms, does he make some of his most impressive, thoughtful commentary (In stark contrast, Ferguson opens the book with a quick survey of human physical anthropology, making the absurd claim that for genetic reasons, it is difficult for European men to produce viable offspring with East Asian women; this is a "fact" that I know from personal experience has been contradicted successfully on at least one hundred occasions, judging from my own family's history as well as those I know who are alumni of Stuyvesant High School, Dartmouth, Brown, Yale and other prominent American institutions of higher learning.).

John said...

Fergusons use of the word Descent is very true in a very, very dark sense, and not at all how he intended it. Quite the opposite in fact.

This reference describes how our adolescent Western anti-"culture" has brought the entire world to the brink of both cultural & ecological meltdown. Or put in another way has DESCENDED into a form of almost unstoppable barbarianism.

Such being the inevitable outcome of the drive to total power and control at the root of the entire western "cultural" project. The Invisible Megamachine described by Lewis Mumford in the Pentagon of Power.