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.

and continues

“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.

29 thoughts on “The Great and Unremembered War

  1. “With all its faults, the EU is”.

    Ah, existence is hard to trump.

    I take it your point is something like, ‘… at least a partial answer to the problems of regional minorities like the Sudeten Germans.’

    But that jars a little. I’m missing all the intermediate steps.

  2. A good guess, but the missing words were “widely supported simply because it has been associated with sixty years of peace”

  3. “the absence of this most bloodily futile of wars from historical memory has been a huge boon to the war party”

    the bloody futility of Vietnam, which was much more recent, ought to have made up for it. but for the war party, the impact of the Vietnam defeat probably compares to how rightwing Germans felt about World War One.

  4. gerard is exactly right, and a major part of the urging mania behind invading Iraq was that it would be easy and a vindication of the view that it is possible to remould societies at will. This used to be possible, but a fundamental change in the post-colonial world is that demographics will beat militarism every time now (although it’s on the slow boat in China).

  5. Contrast the Washington Post piece with the NYT news report that no criminal charges will be laid against two US Marine officers who ‘allowed’ 19 Afghan civilians to be indiscriminately shot on March 7 2006 following a marine wounding by a car bomb.
    OK so perhaps it bears little relation to the doughboy experience in WWI except the thread of isolationism and the evident sense of superiority and the sheer ‘foreigness’ of ‘the enemy’.
    Can I suggest that Australians need to keep this war mood in check too with the current ‘mystery’ surrounding the deaths of some 170 Diggers at Fromelles. News is imminent that they were buried in mass graves along with a similar number of Brits by the Germans, dare I say it.. the dreaded Hun. My point is that we may shortly be assailed with the need to dig up all remains and have them suitably re-buried, perhaps in a fresh Commonwealth War Grave. We may be urged to do this and pay for it as a mark of respect, as the Australian way of honouring our war dead. It may not be enough to point out that the German enemy had a respect for their combatants and that a mass war grave, even unmarked, does not constitute disrespect. Will the Brits feel similarly? Lengel deals with the sad current state of US WW1 grave sites and it would appear that there is no mood in the US today to change that. Now there’s a contrast.

  6. Pr Q visits an alternative universe where the US war-party thrives on ignorance of bad wars:

    “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.

    Yes, everyone knows that the South of the US, which was the first nation to experience the horrors of industrial warfare during the Civil War, unprecedentedly bloody and futile from its point of view, has been a hot-bed of pacifiism ever since.

    And we all remember how, during the thirties, the US population, hoodwinked by foaming at the mouth militarists, could barely be restrained from jumping into WWII at the earliest opportunity.

    Right from the get-go Rooseveldt had full public and elite support in his determination to “get America into this war”. The “America First” party could barely get a look in.

    THats why the US war-party was able organise a massive arms build up right throughout the thirties. Which empowered its unprovoked attack against Nippon Japan’s pacific naval installations and gratuitous declaration of war against Nazi Germany.

    Oh wait a minute, all that happened in that bizarro universe much favoured by revisionist historians, which is a negative image of our actual one.

    Okay, but lets remember how the Cold War started with the US war party once again rattling its sabres against the peace-loving Stalinist and Maoist governments. Instead of demobilising after the war the US war-party set about establishing militarised dictatorships on Western Europe at the behest of power-mad its officers, like Gen Marshall.

    And then it went and imposed a blocade on East Berlin. Not to mention launching an unprovoked attack against North Korea.

    What kind of hide do these US militarists have?


    Alright then, surely no one can deny that Ronald Reagan was the arch-militarist of all time and darling of the war-party. Why, he never met a war that he didnt like.

    Lets look at his bloody record of military aggression. He started off by invading Grenada, which quickly degenerated into a bloody quagmire. And then he set about subjugating…um…err…

    I sure there were many more countries he invaded, positive in fact. Its just that they must be smaller than Grenada and therefore hard to count.

    But what is really seared into my memory is the way Reagan drove the planet to the brink of nuclear Armeggedon. Even going to the length of deliberately scuttling the Reyjavanik arms control summit so that the US continued to escalate the Arms Race well after the USSR had cried “uncle”.

    Thats why the US war party was able to prevent the US military from enduring any cuts to its establishment right through the Bush I and Clinton presidency’s.

    Oh, wait a minute…

  7. My feeling is that World War I is not a part of the US psyche because (a) they didn’t take a leadership role, (b) they came in at the end and missed the worst of the trench warfare and (c) it was bookended by the Civil War and WWII which were 5-fold longer had up to 6-fold more casualties. So it’s not surprising that they didn’t learn from WWI. Why they didn’t learn from Vietnam is a mystery though. Or more specifically, why this administration didn’t learn from Vietnam is a mystery. Maybe they were playing golf. Good thing they gave that up.

  8. BeilAK – but it does play a prominent part in American right wing mythology as onw of the innumerable incidents when the noble self-sacrificing Americans singlehandly saved the dirty Frenchies.

  9. “Or more specifically, why this administration didn’t learn from Vietnam is a mystery.”

    That’s obvious: they didn’t SERVE!

  10. While the Great War had an immediacy for societies such as ours, and to read the account of the war by Charles Bean brings home the overwhelming identification this country had both with the British empire, and to the conflict in Europe, the USA had a far more ambivalent commitment.

    In the early 20th century, as in the early post colonial years, the USA was both a refuge from, and a repudiation of the European world, though for different reasons.

    In a sense it is surprising that the US ever entered WW1 at all. They were certainly not prepared, in the sense of having a professional fighting force, the American forces were not at all ready for a conflict of this type. “Black Jack’ Pershing’s previous military experience was fruitlessly and unsuccessfully chasing Pancho Villa around the north Mexican hills.

    The civil war in the USA also marked the transition from a rural economy to a urban dominant economy and culture, was not a profound part of the new urbanised US consciousness, except as a sort of semi-mythologized event, despite its legacy throughout the south.

    The US involvement in conflicts has, despite the prominence of the the two world wars been very much of a colonial nature – the Spanish conflict, in the Americas and the Philippines, and the interventions in other American countries, such as Haiti, Panama, Grenada etc. and in wars against the native inhabitants of North America.

    Korea, Vietnam and Iraq are in line with this tradition.

    It is notable that the chief actors behind the Iraq catastrophe are not known to be critical analysts of the Vietnam war.

  11. On re-reading comment #6 I find its tone to be unnecessarily snarky, although substantially correct. The subject of US military adventures does not always bring out the best in people. I would like to offer my formal apology to the internet in general and Pr Q in particular.

  12. In general, Jack, your snark proves my point. The current strength of the war party in the US partly reflects the fact that it was the first country to have an effective peace party, and tended to avoid disastrous wars.

    You have a good point about the South though – Southern militarism is something that needs explanation.

  13. I am surprised by the level of ignorance about the history and politics of the United States displayed across the board in the original post by John Quiggin and all the subsequent comments. I suggest some study of this history is in order combined with some years spent living in the United States to begin to understand that society.

    The United States (like the United Kingdom before it) has been involved in a vast imperial adventure. There are two war parties called Democratic and Republican. Is is a tragedy for the United States and the World that no Labor Party was ever developed there.

  14. At the other extreme, Australia not only remembers WW1 but have built our whole sense of nationhood around it.

    What can you say about a country whose national identity is based on a military debacle fought on others’ soil for others? Probably the kind of country that would march blindly off to the middle east merely to maintain a “special relationship”.

  15. Its not only WWI, you can make a parallel case for the economic impact of WWII on the USA. It was a period of dramatic industrial expansion, which was followed by a post-war economic boom. Most US corporations in WWII grew enormously.

    They had guaranteed income via large government defence contracts, state-funded research, a hard working and obedient workforce thanks to war time labor laws, and of course virtualy no damage to factories and infrastructure from the enemy. No wonder they like war – its been great for US capitalists. Plus, they’re not the ones drafted.

  16. A slight corrective: in US public opinion 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 perhaps the end state is functionally equivalent, but there was a bit more to it.

  17. There must be a difference between winning and losing a war. The horrors of WWI did not inhibit German desire for another stoush.

    The South of US lost their war, and perhaps their militarism is a kind of proxy for the what they’d really like to do: even the score with yankees up north.

  18. The US South likes to focus on Confederate military successes 1961-63, themselves largely a function of Union desire to avoid too much loss of life and destruction. Following the catastrophes of Antietam and Shiloh, the Union adopted a ‘total war’ strategy that southern romantics continue to maintain was somehow unfair. The inheritors of Generals Grant and Sherman, rather than Lee and Jackson, have dominated US military thinking ever since. US squeamishness about terror bombing of Germany (as memorably portrayed in the movie Twelve O’Clock High) was an aberration in this clear strategic genealogy that led from Sherman’s March to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

    On the US and WW1 – who remembers that the US expeditionary forces first fought under Australian command (Monash), who exploited American sensibilities by launching the Hamel attack on 4 July 1918? Lucky Americans to have the best general of the war ease them into the ghastly environment of the Western Front.

  19. One of the tragic consequences of the US war party’s utter incompetence in the Middle East has been to discredit military intervention generally, leading to unwarranted pacifism in places like Burma or Zimbabwe, both of which look like they only need a Palliser-like shove.

  20. The Americans at the time were particularly impressed by the Australian habit of shooting all their prisoners (see Hemingway, for example).

  21. On the US right views of WWI are influenced by the fact it was a Democrat Wilson who led US into war (even if the Republicans in opposition were more united in support of the war than the Dems). Hatred of Roosevelt in the 30s contributed to Republican isolationism. Keith Windshuttle seems to think WWI was Wilson’s fault (in Kimball’s the Betrayal of Liberalism).

  22. I guess the salient point is that the Establishment families who ran the USA during WWI were still very much in place during WWII, Vietnam, Korea, etc.

    And of course they are still in place today for Iraq and Afghanistan, even if they tend to be more publicly obscured e.g. as the primary stockholders for major corporations.

    It was the ordinary people (including shell-shocked ex-soldiers) who declared WWI the “war to end all wars”. The Establishment had other ideas, obviously. And yet we still let them run the show… Why?

    As a planetary population of human souls, we need to think very carefully about where we are headed, and who is making the decisions on our behalf.

  23. lol Gandhi
    “As a planetary population of human souls, we need to think very carefully about where we are headed, and who is making the decisions on our behalf.”

    The last post I saw from you was virtually that exact sentiment but with ‘Australia’ substituted for ‘planetary’. I think I gave you a snarky response saying good luck finding somewhere nicer to live. I guess I can’t do that in this case!

  24. So, gandhi – it’s all a conspiracy, is it? Is it the 6 families you are talking about – or perhaps the 12. I am never sure which conspiracy is currently the conspiracy du jour.

  25. Chris – is your Hemingway reference actually to Robert Graves in Goodbye to All That? Graves certainly claimed to have witnessed killing of prisoners by Australians, although he had nice things to say about the cleanliness of Australian trenches.

  26. Re prisoners: my (Scottish) father told me of an episode in North Africa in 1943:

    He and a small group of fellow countrymen were herding a large party of recently surrendered German and Italian soldiers across the sandy wastes towards the Allied rear when they encountered a larger group of English soldiers. The English lieutenant, eager for the glory of delivering the enemy prisoners to his superiors, offered to buy them for five bob per hundred, which arrangement was rapidly concluded. ‘We were very pleased with the deal,’ my father told me, ‘we’d bought them off a couple of Australians for half-a-crown.’

    I hope it was true.

  27. Andrew Reynolds,

    Where’s the conspiracy?

    I am just saying that those with power follow their own agendas, and tend to maintain and/or increase their power, along with their wealth, without necessarily putting public interests first. I don’t see how can pigeon-hole that as a Conspiracy Theory.

  28. “There must be a difference between winning and losing a war. The horrors of WWI did not inhibit German desire for another stoush.”

    This is simply not true – or rather, so oversimplified as to make it wrong.

    Reactions to WWI in Weimar Germany were split into (mostly left-wing) anti-war / pacifist opinion – probably the majority – and a (mostly right-wing, and politically powerful) revanchist opinion who were not willing to accept defeat and claimed that the German army and was stabbed in the back by traitors on the home front.

    Politically, the revanchist opinion won out in the shape of the Nazis. But even after six years of Nazi propaganda, the populations enthusiasm at teh beginning of WWII was decidedly muted, as seen from internal security reports. Only after the successes against Poland and France did support rise.

    This split opinion about a war’s result is quite common and it is always struggle which of those views wins out.

    In Germany, even after the Second World War there were some who tried to hold onto a right-wing apology of WWII. But the situation was so clear that their influence was minimal.

    Karl Heinz

  29. A few years ago I did take the effort to learn something was the US participation in WWI

    Part of the problem is there is stereotype of what WWI fighting was like and since every one knows that they lined up dressed and covered and charged in formationm what is there to learn? The truth is rather different. And there is probably more to learn in how an intractable situation was handled compared to later wars.

    Despite the general lack of attention, the WWI experience had a major future repurcations. For example The Horror of the Trenchs and “never again� reaction was one step it process that led to dropping the Atomic Bombs.

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