Book of the Month Club: The Great War for Peace by William Mulligan

The bookshelves. Photo by Annie Shreeve The bookshelves. Photo by Annie Shreeve

“The emotional register at the end of the war defies categorization and herein lies its significance. The personal response to the end of the conflict could not be accommodated within the political categories of victory and defeat. Yet this emotional register was an important element in international politics. Joy, grief, relief, fear, hatred, and empathy all seeped into popular politics of making peace and ending the war.”

Great WAr for Peace

Great War for Peace

Even through a quick glance at the book and its bibliography and index, it is undeniable that William Mulligan’s book on the “Great War” has for its scope a cast and a vision akin to an epic novel. Throughout the book, people weave in and out the pages of the narrative: prime ministers and trade unionists, writers and musicians, all who experience the war pervade lives both partisan and personal. Mulligan paints a sweeping picture of about a decade and a half of political positions, civil turmoil, and crude nationalism that led to total war.

An element I found curious was that at time Mulligan’s narrative at times felt a bit too sweeping. Granted, he did cover interesting items that most other narratives don’t include—the involvement of Islam and the little wars between countries that paved the way for global war, for example—but only passing references to soldiers’ plights in the war. Another curious element I found seems to be Mulligan’s praise of the creation of the League of Nations as the book draws to a close, which was highly ineffective in the postwar era and dissolved shortly after the outbreak of the Second World War.

The most interesting item about the book, however, was its thesis: that, in effect, the First World War’s legacy is its aid in the brokering of world peace that has Mulligan claims has existed, more or less, for the rest of the century following it. As Mulligan rightly points out, the language of peace was used rally many in times of war, but to create war with peace as its goal? I’m not so sure. While there were legitimate players that would have desired peace, the soldiers fighting in the thick of it especially, I doubt that it was ever for peace that the forces ever agreed to engage in a conflict that resulted in over 37 million casualties and then twenty-six years later to have a sequel, this time to the tune of 60 million of casualties.

This is a purely academic book for aficionados of military history, history or political science students, or specialists. It’s thought provoking, well written, and worth a read, with a personal reservation that you read something to take into account a more human approach. Two such books I recommend are Henri Barbusse’s Under Fire (Le feu) or Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front.

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