IF YOU READ ONLY ONE HISTORY OF WORLD WAR I IN YOUR life, make sure Niall Ferguson's The Pity of War isn't it. For starters, the book isn't really a history, or even a systemic commentary on what, to much of Europe, remains the major event of the 20th century. Ferguson defines his task as “explaining” the war. He does so with a loosely linked collection of essays, arguments and speculations on the course, causes and results of the struggle that, over four years, drew in a dozen nations, destroyed three empires, killed about 10 million people, and became midwife to the Soviet Union, the Third Reich and, finally, World War II. It's too soon to say, perhaps, but it could be argued that this “Great War” did to post-Renaissance Europe in four years what the Middle Ages took four centuries to do to the Roman Empire.

That's a lot of territory for even Ferguson's 462 dense pages — not counting 100 pages of notes, biography and index — to cover. Yet it's been done, again and again (by Martin Gilbert, Barbara Tuchman, Basil Liddell-Hart et al.), and usually with a humility that Ferguson, a Young Turk historian from Scotland with a strong suit in statistics, rather alarmingly lacks.

This is not to say that Ferguson brings nothing new to the war's history. He's at his strongest in his examination of the overall psychology of combat — the key issue being why, amid the daily slaughter of tens of thousands for the sake of a few yards of muddy no man's land, the men kept fighting. Like some of his predecessors — particularly the German Ernst Juenger — Ferguson seems to believe that the worst combat conditions forged a camaraderie of death-drunk fatalism in which war became the norm and peace an alien concept.

In keeping with his penchant for digging up statistics and deploying them in charts and tables, Ferguson worthily quantifies the significance of the POW numbers: Whoever gives up the most prisoners (Russia in 1917, Germany in 1918) is losing the war. And while he is not able to quantify the ugly general practice of shooting captives out of hand, Ferguson makes a strong anecdotal case that this kind of atrocity was far more widespread than other historians have acknowledged.

Yet these worthwhile points could have been made in the course of a long article. Most of The Pity of War's verbiage is expended in the contention that the conflict between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Serbia — both of which were connected to the other powers by fatal webs of furtive and public alliances — needn't have escalated into a world war. And that, this having occurred, it would have been far better if Britain had stood aside and let France fall to the Kaiser. In asserting this, Ferguson exemplifies a late-model historians' clique that has devoted itself to something called the “counterfactual” — as in “That Britain could have limited its involvement in a continental war is a possibility which has been all but ignored by historians . . . Yet it should now be clear that the possibility was a very real one.” Yes, the 1914 English leadership had a real choice to make in deciding whether to honor its 1839 treaty obligations to the neutrality of Belgium.

Ferguson goes on to belittle Britain's historical choice by trying to establish a fictitious alternate world in which Britain didn't enter the war, in which the Kaiser easily conquered France — and, effectively, the rest of continental Europe. In this world, Ferguson pleads, Britannia rules the waves, the Reich rules the land mass, and everyone lives happily ever after: no Lenin, no Hitler, no Stalin, no Holocaust, no Gulag and probably no Great Depression. (It's also presumably a world in which czardom diesels on, America remains a second-rate power, and Gandhi continues to practice law.)

It's at this point that Ferguson walks off the cliff of historic fact and onto the air of fantasy. His credentials as a historian are substantial, including a well-received 1998 history of the Rothschilds. But as a practitioner in that rarefied suburb of fantasy and science fiction known as “alternative history,” Ferguson is a duffer who lacks the creativity and insight to make his case.

Sci-fi writer Joanna Russ once noted that, given how it's so hard to know exactly what did happen, it's actually impossible to know what didn't. Ferguson's so-called counterfactuals constantly trip over this futility of trying to prove the negative. But then, Ferguson really doesn't have much to go on in his speculation about a post­World War I Kaiserly Continental utopia. Even the material he cites belies his thesis, as when he quotes German Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg's own prewar victory plan — to neo-colonize the rest of Europe “in order to stabilize German dominance over Mitteleuropa” — as confirming the modesty of Germany's postwar aims. Yeah, sure.

Toward the end of The Pity of War, Ferguson ratchets up the conjectural pace. In just the five concluding pages, he engages in an amazing amount of shallow speculation, centered on the notion that the Kaiser's Continental System would have quickly evolved into something like the modern European Community. But why assume that a victorious 1920s German military empire, led by the demonstrably mental Wilhelm, would be as cooperative with other nations as was the blasted, occupied Germany of Konrad Adenauer? Ferguson also seems fatally captivated by the History 101 fallacy that any amassing of peoples, whether by Napoleonic force of arms or by Common Market general election, will lead eventually to a peaceful hegemony of nations. According to his own recent Financial Times articles, Ferguson was in Soviet Europe during the 1989 collapse of that satellite empire. It's therefore astounding to see him writing 10 years later as though this tremendous event had shown him nothing about the durability of political power in the absence of the consent of the governed.

Indeed, Ferguson doesn't place much value on democracy, the system for whose sake — or so it has been claimed — World War I was fought, and which has finally spread to most of Europe. In light of the war's epochal carnage and the development of fascism in the 1920s, it's long been customary to belittle this claim. But it's quite another thing to posit, as Ferguson does, that tyranny was somehow a better idea, and that the world would have been a far safer place had the tyrants only been allowed to prevail.

THE PITY OF WAR: Explaining World War I

By NIALL FERGUSON | Basic Books | 520 pages | $30 hardcover

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