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Originally published Sunday, June 29, 2014 at 6:05 AM

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‘The Long Shadow:’ the lingering legacy of World War I

Cambridge University professor David Reynolds’ new book “The Long Shadow” is a Britain-tilted analysis of the lingering consequences of World War I.

Special to The Seattle Times


“The Long Shadow: The Legacies of the Great War in the Twentieth Century”

by David Reynolds

W.W. Norton, 514 pp., $32.50

That a Cambridge University professor would write a history about World War I that focuses on Great Britain should come as no surprise. But for American readers who venture to read David Reynolds’ “The Long Shadow: The Legacies of the Great War in the Twentieth Century,” there’s bound to be some disappointment.

World War I was, after all, a world war. In this, the 100th anniversary year of the war’s start, many readers will want to know how the world, and more specifically the United States, have been affected. They can learn much of that from Reynolds’ “The Long Shadow” but often by way of comparison to Britain. That can be informative but also tiresome, since how Britain dealt with the war is usually described by Reynolds as exceptional or distinctive.

He argues that Britain, unlike countries on the European continent, fought for the freedom of others, not to gain or defend territory. The nation incurred 720,000 war dead and millions wounded, yet did not fall victim to the postwar disruptions that saw the rise of fascism or Bolshevism elsewhere. More importantly, the war strengthened Britain’s standoffish regard to Europe and its later reluctance to join the European Economic Community.

The book is not one of those “long, plodding chronologies of battles, lacking interpretive power,” as Reynolds describes some histories. It is almost entirely interpretive, studying the war through its legacies and tracing how the war’s history has been told in different countries and at different times.

As such, it serves as a guide on what to read or view to learn about the Great War.

In general, the body of work on the war breaks down into two camps, says Reynolds. Much of the literature, film and art inspired by the war tells the history of the men in the trenches, their suffering and sacrifice for uncertain gains.

But military historians argue that without including the strategy and results of those men’s sacrifice, of course they seem meaningless.

The military argument raises the larger question of whether the war as a whole accomplished anything despite more than 8 million military deaths, millions more missing or wounded and untold civilian casualties.

The victors, especially Britain, might have been able to believe it did in the 1920s and early 1930s, but that became a hard sell when an even worse war had to be fought starting in 1939 to accomplish a complete victory over the same enemy as in the First World War.

Reynolds’ book does make clear that the shadow of WWI lingers today: The troublesome makeup of the Middle East was carved out of the Ottoman Empire, broken to pieces in WWI. The unification of the Balkan states into Yugoslavia, formed out of the vanquished Habsburg Empire, collapsed into the wars of the 1990s.

At the end of the book, Reynolds does turn his full attention to the United States, interpreting the doings of the neoconservatives in the George W. Bush administration as a continuation of a global strategy set in motion by President Wilson in 1917. Wilson called it making the world safe for democracy, and Reynolds sees the U.S. war in Iraq especially as “a neo-Wilsonian moment to make the whole Middle East safe for democracy.”

Reynolds ends with a haunting question about what people 100 years from now will fathom about the shadow the United States is now casting forward.

John B. Saul is a former Seattle Times editor who has taught journalism and nonfiction writing at the University of Montana and the University of Washington.

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