Remembering World War I – and its consequences
Originally published Memorial Day 2014, a few months before the 100-year anniversary of the outbreak of World War I….
Memorial Day is about honoring and remembering Americans who lost their lives fighting in wars. My favorite cultural critic, Albert Jay Nock, would say that these Americans were victims of Statism fueled by nationalistic sentiment hyped up to get people to support the interests of the State. (For more on Mr. Nock’s thesis, see my review of his book Our Enemy the State.) I am aware that it is in bad taste to bring up that view of war on Memorial Day. On Memorial Day we want to remember how those who died were motivated by love of country and a strong sense of duty, who in many cases acted with great courage, and who sacrificed their lives for a cause greater than themselves. We want, in fact, to honor the truth of the spirit, not the truth of material gain for certain people in political power, because when it comes to what is really important, the spirit always wins over crass materialism and ideals always win over facts.
At MilitaryFactory.com you can find an excellent breakdown of the numbers of (mostly) men who have perished in wars from the American Revolutionary War all the way to the ongoing war in Afghanistan. (And Lord, may we not add another war in Eastern Europe to this long list.) I run my finger down the list of staggering numbers and stop short at the 116,516 dead in World War I. We are coming up on the 100-year anniversary of the beginning of that war in Europe on July 28, 1914. The untrue slogan “The War to End All Wars” turns out to be rather representative of all the propaganda associated with World War I, the war that, far from ending all war, actually set everything up to ensure the bloody war-pocked century that followed.I don’t know how the schools currently teach World War I now, but in my (long-ago) school days, the time we spent on learning about that war certainly did not correspond with the weight of the death toll; I don’t recall ever spending more than a couple of days, usually crammed in at the end of the school year, discussing Woodrow Wilson’s broken campaign promise, U-boats, and the sinking of the Lusitania. Oh yes, and I recall a teacher or two talking about something called “the balance of power.”
In a way it makes sense not to spend a whole lot of time on the First World War. It has so scant a connection with the lives of regular people in the United Sates. For those actually fighting and for their families, of course, an intimate personal connection quickly developed when tens of thousands of sons begain returning to their towns in body bags. Had the U.S. government not chosen to participate in this war, America would have gone on more or less as before 1917, except with the continued mortal existence of the 116,515 (mostly) guys. Also thousands of men would have lived their lives with all four limbs and without the shell shock nightmares.
Perhaps it is futile to second-guess history unless we call this “second guessing” by another name: “learning from our mistakes.” Perhaps my liberty was preserved by the sacrifice of these men, and to the extent that is true, or even sincerely thought to be true, I am grateful. I like liberty. And perhaps, because they fought and died, my life is somehow, in ways I am not even aware of, better than it would have otherwise been. But the chance is at least equally as great that my life, and the lives of countless other people, would have been better had they lived, worked, and fathered children. Perhaps one or two out of the thousands of children never born might have had the wisdom to lead the 20th century to a better future. Perhaps their sacrifice was all of our sacrifice.
It is pretty certain that if the U.S. not entered WWI, Europe would have turned out differently. The Allies would probably have not “won” the war. Most likely the powers would have eventually called a stalemate. Had the Allies not won the war, there would have been no Versailles Treaty; if there were no Versailles Treaty, conditions in Germany would probably not have become horrible enough to foster the rise to power of Adolph Hitler and the Nazi party. If Hitler and the Nazi party had not been allowed to rise to power, WWII would probably not have happened. If WWII had not happened, another 405,355 Americans, mostly men, would have gone on living, working, and fathering children.
True, other bad scenarios might have developed, but the 20th century was horrific enough, in terms of death and destruction, to entertain the idea that just about any alternative scenario would have been an improvement. As it is, the number of the dead and wounded and consequences to our civilization over the past century is too overwhelming for my mind to take in. When prose and reason fail me, it’s time to turn to poetry. So this week I will be reading and sharing some war poetry from World War I – not all of it by Americans. When it comes to remembering the dead, I see no reason to be strictly nationalistic.
To get some sense of how overwhelming was the disaster of WWI, take a look at this excellent video.