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A Beginning and an End

August 4, 2020

By Jim Rhodes

Welcome to August, the eighth month of the year. It takes its name from the Roman emperor Augustus. The previous month was named for his predecessor, Julius Caesar.

August is the month that brought us the beginning of a world war and the end of another during the 20th Century.

First the beginning.

As August opened in 1914, massive national armies were mobilizing across Europe for what would be called The Great War.

I commend to you Barbara Tuchman’s masterful book The Guns of August, published in 1962. It’s narrative history at its best, capturing the personalities of the major leaders. Many of them were related to each other (the German Kaiser, Russian Tsar and English King were cousins). In vivid prose, she describes the web of treaty commitments, the intricate timetable-driven mobilization plans that once in motion could not be halted and the opening offensives following the set-piece war plans written in advance by the general staffs of the belligerents.

By the end of August, the war-of-maneuver was already starting to sputter. The war degenerated into what became four years of organized butchery, as generals on all sides hurled division after division of infantry armed with rifles and bayonets out of their trenches to be mowed down by massed artillery and machine guns.

While I do not subscribe to the contention that history repeats itself, there are lessons to be learned from reading history, and The Guns of August is a book that bears re-reading every now and then.

It is said that President John F. Kennedy, on the eve of the Cuban Missile Crisis, distributed copies of The Guns of August to his cabinet and military advisors with instructions to read and study its lessons. Kennedy’s Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, wrote in his memoirs that the President referred to the book and said to his cabinet, “We are not going to bungle into war.”

An estimated 9 million soldiers and 13 million civilians on all sides perished in World War I (not including deaths from the Spanish Flu pandemic). Over 300,000 British, French and German soldiers were slaughtered in a single pitched battle (the Somme in 1916).

Fast forward three decades.

In August 1945, the Second World War was six years old. Germany had surrendered in May. Allied forces were going from victory to victory in the Pacific islands, but the casualty toll was ghastly – on both sides. On Iwo Jima and Okinawa, the Japanese garrisons chose death over capture. On Saipan, American marines were appalled to see hundreds of civilians hurling themselves off the high cliffs in mass suicides.

Planning was underway for an invasion of the Japanese home island with gruesome predictions of death tolls numbering in the millions.

On August 6, an American B29 dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima. The blast killed upwards of 50,000 Japanese immediately and flattened everything within a four-mile radius. More than 40,000 Japanese died when the second bomb fell on Nagasaki on August 9. A week later, the Emperor announced Japan’s surrender.

In my library on the same shelf as Barbara Tuchman’s books you’ll find a slender volume titled simply Hiroshima. It was written in 1946 by John Hershey, who traveled to Japan and interviewed six survivors. In the book he relates the experience of the atomic bomb attack through their eyes.

It’s a short but intense book. Read it.