The Great and Unremembered War
This piece by Edward Lengel n in the Washington Post has a lot to say about something I’ve long regarded as critically important in explaining the strength of the war party in the US: the absence of any real recollection of the Great War of 1914-18, the opening round of the bloody conflict that dominated the history of the 20th century, spawning Communism and Nazism, Hitler’s War and the Cold War, and even, in large measure the continuing war in the Middle East. Of course, the US came late to the war, and its losses (50 000 combat deaths) were comparable to those of Australia, with 10 per cent of the population. But there is more to it than that.
Lengel (a military historian writing on Memorial Day) makes the striking observation
Americans haven’t forgotten about the doughboys. We just didn’t want to hear about them in the first place.
“The boys would talk if the questioners would listen,” said one embittered ex-doughboy. “But the questioners do not. They at once interrupt with, ‘It’s all too dreadful,’ or, ‘Doesn’t it seem like a terrible dream?’ or, ‘How can you think of it?’ or, ‘I can’t imagine such things.’ It shuts the boys up.” … The Civil War and World War II seem to lend themselves to good storytelling, as long as one avoids the ugly, depressing bits. They appear to have clear beginnings and endings, with dramatic heroes and villains. They move. World War I, by contrast, with its images of trench warfare and mustard gas, is not so easy to manipulate in a marketable manner. Popular historians consequently avoid it.
It would be charitable to interpret the reluctance of Americans to talk about the horrors of the Great War as evidence of inherent pacifism and perhaps this element was present. As Andy McLennan points out in comments, the main reaction to WWI was an increase in isolationist sentiment: the problem was Europe, not war itself. After isolationism was discredited (which did much to strengthen the War Party) from a distance it looks like WWI was simply forgotten,and the end state is functionally equivalent.
In any case, in the long run, the absence of this most bloodily futile of wars from historical memory has been a huge boon to the war party. With a historical memory of war dominated by the “Good War” against Hitler and the Axis, it’s unsurprising that Americans have been much more willing than the citizens of other democratic societies to accept war as part of the natural order of things.
In Europe by contrast, the Great War and its consequences are still ever-present, and the Second World War is correctly seen as the inevitable product of the First. With all its faults, the EU is widely supported simply because it has been associated with sixty years of peace. Even in Australia where the Gallipoli campaign has long formed the basis of the official national myth, it has been impossible to avoid the fact that thousands of young Australians suffered and died in the most horrible ways, fighting people of whom we had barely heard and with whom we had no quarrel of our own, in a futile diversion from a futile war. Honouring those who died goes hand in hand with a general recognition that they died for the failures of the world’s leaders and that the only proper lesson from their deaths is to hope that we can avoid war in future.
Ignorance of the Great War also produces faulty historical understanding in other respects, as evidenced in the recent flap about appeasement (leaving aside its use by ignorant ranters who have clearly never even heard of Munich). For those without any memory of the Carthaginian peace of Versailles, the policy of appeasement seems to be simply a spineless failure to resist unprovoked aggression, starting with the repudiation of Versailles and the remilitarisation of the Rhineland. But by the 1930s the injustice and untenability of the Versailles settlement was obvious, and fighting a war to enforce it was unthinkable. The fact that merely redressing injustices would do nothing to contain Hitler only become clear gradually. The idea that the failure of appeasement in the 1930s shows that governments should never negotiate with hostile powers is simply silly.