One of the remarkable dynamics of the past century has been the evolution of Western Europe from the scene of some of humankind’s most destructive wars to a place where now warfare seems almost unthinkable. Stanford University historian James J. Sheehan gives us an explanation of this dramatic change in Where Have All the Soldiers Gone?: The Transformation of Modern Europe. Sheehan presents a carefully articulated, sober account of the exhaustion of European people as a consequence of the unthinkable destruction they visited on themselves–and their ability finally to begin to move decisively away from war as a way of life.
I found Sheehan a bit too benign in his view of American intentions and behaviors in relation to Europe in the post-World War II era. However, this diffidence probably strengthens the persuasiveness of his case for Europe as a rare hopeful example of humanity coming to its senses. The key development, and one that makes a return to militarism highly unlikely, has been the emergence of strictly civilian rule in Western European countries and the consistent marginalization of the military in the political realm. And once this happens, and these nations reap the benefits, it’s difficult to imagine they would turn back.
One of the strengths of Sheehan’s book is its brevity. This may mean that many of his arguments are not thoroughly defended, but the clarity of his prose and the focus of the presentation of his main thesis make the book quite accessible and absorbable.