Here's how it's done-4

The Baltimore Sun

A century ago, Europe went smash. In a combination of imperial vainglory (senile vainglory in the case of the doddering Habsburg regime), interlocking treaties, and inflexible military timetables, the nations willingly went to war, a war that turned out not to be what they had envisioned. 

Half a century ago, Barbara W. Tuchman recounted in The Guns of August, which I recently reread, the beginnings of the disaster that demolished four empires. I am not a historian and am therefore unable to tell you how the professionals differ today over her popular account of 1962, but as an editor I can say some things about her prose.

Here is a representative specimen. 

"The Russian colossus exercised a spell upon Europe. On the chessboard of military planning, Russia's size and weight of numbers represented the largest piece. Notwithstanding her shoddy performance in the war against Japan, thought of the Russian 'steam roller' gave comfort and encouragement to France and Britain; dread of the Slav at their backs haunted the Germans.

"Although the defects of the Russian Army were notorious, although the Russian winter, not the Russian Army, had turned Napoleon back from Moscow, although it had been defeated on its own soil by the French and the British in the Crimea, although the Turks in 1877 had outfought it at the siege of Plevna and only succumbed later to overwhelming numbers, although the Japanese had outfought it in Manchuria, a myth of its invincibility prevailed. The savage cavalry charge of yelling Cossacks was such a fixture in European minds that newspaper artists in August, 1914, were able to draw it in stirring detail without having been within a thousand miles of the Russian front. Cossacks and inexhaustible millions of hardy, uncomplaining mujiks willing to die made up the stereotype of the Russian Army. Its numbers inspired awe: 1,423,000 in peacetime strength; an additional 3,115,000 to be called upon mobilization, and a further reserve of 2,000,000 in territorials and recruits to make a total available force of 6,500,000.

"It was envisaged as a gigantic mass, initially lethargic, but once thoroughly roused into motion, rolling forward inexorably with, no matter how many losses, endless waves of manpower to fill the places of the fallen."

Since we all know that the Russian Army met disaster through inefficiencies and incompetent leadership, the whole passage is suffused with irony. One of the salient touches is that sequence of five "although" subordinate clauses foreshadowing the collapse to come with reminders of a century of weakness and failure. And after that buildup, the short, succinct conclusion: "a myth of its invincibility prevailed." A classic buildup to a climax.

One of the themes of Tuchman's book is the misperceptions among all the parties to the impending conflict. In this passage alone, we find "the spell" the Russian reputation cast, the metaphor of the steam roller, the "myth of its invincibility," the Cossack charge that newspapers could describe from imagination, "the stereotype" of Russian military might, and that last metaphor of an irresistible mass rolling forward. Add the words "overwhelming numbers," "inexhaustible millions," "gigantic mass," "rolling forward inexorably," "endless waves of manpower," and the actual statistics. 

Note too the sweep and the economy: the history of Russian military misadventure from the Napoleonic wars to 1914 summed up in a single paragraph. 

Then there are the little touches of color that a professional historian would find gaudy but for which the reader is grateful. The chessboard and steam roller images in the opening paragraph. The German "dread of the Slav at their backs." The reinforcements, not to replace the dead, but "fill the places of the fallen."

In this passage, we see the writer holding steady to a single main idea, the myth of Russian military invincibility. We say choice of language and images to reinforce that idea. We see an apt selection of telling historical details. Nothing is wasted, and everything contributes to the overall effect. 

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