Mistaking the plot
Last updated: 12.12.2023
Published: 10.17.2020

Mistaking the plot

I started reading The Guns of August, Barbara Tuchman’s account of the beginning of World War I. One passage in particular struck me. She describes the German general Alfred von Schlieffen, who authored, in 1905 and 1906, the plan that Germany eventually employed in attacking France in 1914, via Belgium on the right wing.

Image from here (public domain).

She writes:

After retiring in 1906 he spent his last years still writing about Cannae [a battle between Rome and Carthage that Schlieffen wrote a book about], improving his plan, composing memoranda to guide his successors, and died at eighty in 1913, muttering at the end: “It must come to a fight. Only make the right wing strong.” (p. 76)

Wikipedia doubts that he actually said this. But true or false, the image stayed with me: a general obsessed, even in his last moments, with a plan that would inaugurate a catastrophic war.

This image reminded me of these lines from Carl Sagan, reflecting on the far-away image of the earth from space:

Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot.

I don’t know what the real Schlieffen wanted. Tuchman presents his world, and the world of the rest of the royals and generals who started World War I, as animated by nationalist resentments and rivalries, fears of being invaded, plans to invade. But my understanding of the actual humans involved feels very shallow, and I am wary of caricature.

Still: the Schlieffen I imagined inhabited a narrow, nationalist world, even as he died. His eyes, to the last, were on Germany, France, the right wing; he mistook these for the plot. But the eyes of history look elsewhere: to the ~20 million dead, the trenches, the waste and ruin.

I hope to say more about the notion of “plot” in a later post (I first encountered this use of the word in a comment from Eliezer Yudkowsky). I don’t think it’s at all clear what it looks like to live with ones eyes on the real “plot,” if there is one; and Schlieffen’s case mixes in some moral aspects that don’t seem to me essential. But this image of him, true or false, brought something in the vicinity to mind; and it also made me wonder where I might be making similar mistakes.