Monday, May 26, 2008

Remembering World War One

George Will has a nice column looking at the last living American veteran of World War One, Frank Buckles.
The eyes of the last doughboy are still sharp enough for him to be a keen reader, and his voice is still deep and strong at age 107. He must have been a fine broth of a boy when, at 16, persistence paid off and he found, in Oklahoma City, an Army recruiter who believed, or pretended to, the fibs he had unavailingly told to Marine and Navy recruiters in Kansas about being 18. He grew up on a Missouri farm, not far from where two eminent generals were born -- John "Black Jack" Pershing and Omar Bradley.

"Boys in the country," says Buckles, "read the papers," so he was eager to get into the fight over there. He was told that the quickest way was to train for casualty retrieval and ambulance operations. Soon he was headed for England aboard the passenger ship Carpathia, which was celebrated for having, five years earlier, rescued survivors from the Titanic.

Buckles never saw combat, but "I saw the results." He seems vague about only one thing: What was the First World War about?
Meanwhile, Edward Lengel bemoans the fact that the public just has never been all that interested in World War One.
As we observe Memorial Day, a hard truth remains: Americans haven't forgotten about the doughboys. We just didn't want to hear about them in the first place. The war's last and greatest battle involving U.S. soldiers, fought in the Meuse-Argonne region of eastern France during the autumn of 1918, sucked in more than 1 million U.S. troops and hundreds of airplanes and tanks. Artillery batteries commanded by men such as the young Harry S. Truman fired more than 4 million shells -- more than the Union Army fired during the entire Civil War. More than 26,000 doughboys were killed and almost 100,000 wounded, making the clash probably the bloodiest single battle in U.S. history. But as far as the American public was concerned, it might as well never have taken place. "Veterans said to me in their speeches and in private that the American people did not know anything about the Meuse-Argonne battle," Brig. Gen. Dennis Nolan wrote years later. "I have never understood why."
I think he's right that there is something about trench warfare that just seems so depressing, futile, and, well, boring. And that is a shame.
Historian David McCullough has said that all teachers of history should be trained storytellers. But there are some stories that Americans would rather not hear. If war tales aren't thrilling, readers and armchair Napoleons aren't interested. 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. As one trade publisher recently told me, World War I has "poor entertainment value." Attempts to discuss it, even with avid students of military history, often end with the same comments that veterans heard back in 1919: "It's all too dreadful," and so on. So powerful is this perception that even genuinely exciting stories -- those of Medal of Honor winners Charles W. Whittlesey, Alvin C. York, John L. Barkley and Freddie Stowers -- are ignored.

We should step back and think for a moment about what this says about Americans as people. Do we honor our veterans for all their sacrifices, or do we care only if they can tell us a good story? And who, then, is guilty of ingratitude?
Edward Lengel has written a book about the fighting on the Meuse-Argonne, To Conquer Hell" The Meuse-Argonne, 1918 which will perhaps teach this generation about that long-ago struggle. I haven't read it, but I did read his history of the Revolution, General George Washington: A Military Life, and found it a very well-researched, entertaining, and clear-eyed look at both the mistakes that Washington made as a general, but also strength of his leadership in holding the army together throughout the Revolution.

Lengel points out that we have no national memorial in Washington, D.C. to World War One. That really is rather astounding. There is a small temple on the grounds of the Capitol to commemorate residents of the District of Columbia who fought, but it has become so neglected that the D.C. Preservation League recently placed it on an endangered list.

While not officially a World War One memorial, I recommend that visitors to Washington take a walk by Pershing Park at 14th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. It's a charming little oasis in the center of the city with a pool and waterfalls and open-air seating. There is a statue of General Pershing and large plaques tracing the history of U.S. involvement in the War. In the winter, the pool becomes an ice-skating rink making it an odd, but pleasant sort of juxtaposition of leisure and war memorial.