Bromund: How does freedom work? Read these

A file photo of an American flag. A file photo of an American flag. Photo Credit: iStock

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This summer marks the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War. The historical literature on the war is vast, rivaled only by the U.S. Civil War and the Second World War. The Great War's lessons, in the end, are what you make of them. But if you want to know more about the war, here are a few of my personal favorites.

No book on the start of the war is more enduringly popular than Barbara W. Tuchman's "Guns of August" (1962). Her emphasis on the role of the miscalculations that launched the war influenced President John F. Kennedy's handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the book remains compulsively readable. If you've not read it, you should.

For my taste, though, Tuchman's narrative is almost too clear to capture messy reality. For a different kind of epic, turn to Winston Churchill's "The World Crisis," which is both a magisterial contribution to history and a defense of Churchill's role in the war. But at 2,517 pages, it's a bit too big to take to the beach.

The enduring question about the First World War will always be why it happened. For a short study of that question, it's hard to beat James Jolls "The Origins of the First World War" (1984). Joll moves easily from the narrower realms of diplomacy and strategy to the wider ones of domestic politics and the mood of 1914. He denies the importance of nothing, while making measured judgments about the significance of everything.

Joll is strikingly wise. His conclusion is that we cannot understand 1914 without understanding the values of the era, which are not necessarily ours, but are also not necessarily wrong. That's a good lesson to take from the war to foreign policy today: values differ, and we cannot expect others to believe as we do.

As Joll emphasizes, the First World War changed our values. William Mulligan's "The Great War for Peace" (2014) is a superb study of how the war created the foundations of the modern vision of peace. From the war came decolonization, minority rights, welfare, and "the dense network of international and domestic institutions designed to sustain peace," including, ultimately, the United Nations.

Mulligan is deliberately writing against the prevailing idea that the war produced nothing but pointless slaughter. He's right about that, but not all the legacies of the war he empathetically relates were positive. The UN, for example, has been no more effective in maintaining peace than the League of Nations was. The war destroyed a lot of illusions, but it created new ones too.

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One of Mulligan's strengths is that he connects events on the battlefield to the progress of ideas off of it. And in the end, any selection of books on the Great War must contain a book about the actual fighting. If you want to know more about Austria-Hungary's war, Geoffrey Wawro's "Mad Catastrophe" (2014) is outstanding.

But my favorite recent work in this genre is David Stevenson's "With Our Backs to the Wall" (2011). A study of the last year of the war, Stevenson shows how the Allies learned how to fight, withstood the German offensives, and with growing American support, won their victory. This is military history done right, as good on tactics as it is on the many fronts behind the front line.

There is no final truth to be learned about the Great War. That's a lesson in itself. If we can't know the full truth about the past, our ability -- and, more important, our government's ability -- to dictate the future must be even more limited. Modesty about the utility of power is a lesson of history.

For all its ambiguities, the Great War was a war for freedom. And as we cannot presume to control the future, the path to it must also be through freedom. For all its ambiguities, freedom works. And it's worth fighting for.

Ted R. Bromund is a senior research fellow in The Heritage Foundation's Thatcher Center for Freedom.

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