Wednesday, August 06, 2003

Edited for spelling and grammar

Last night during a conversation, half-jokingly, I referred to WWI as the "forgotten war", as it seems that people are poorly educated about the war, and its lessons are almost always ignored and minimized in the face of the more "popular" Second World War. I wasn't being serious. After reading this letter to the editor in the Washington Post today, however, it struck me that perhaps I was more right than I had wanted to believe.

On May 13, 2002, The Post published a letter and photo of mine describing the neglected and vandalized condition of World War I markers along the upper reaches of 16th Street NW. Originally, both sides of the street had hundreds of small concrete blocks, at intervals of about 10 or 15 feet, each with a copper name badge of a D.C. soldier killed in action.

Most of the markers are long gone. I found only one that still had a badge. It was for Pvt. John A. Kendall, U.S. Army, killed in action in France on Oct. 16, 1918 -- only 26 days before the Armistice.

My letter brought a message from Alice McConnell, a local resident -- and John A. Kendall's niece. Pvt. Kendall, I learned, had been a resident of Washington for 16 years. He was employed at Gregg's dairy, and his, wife, Annie, worked at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. He reached France in May 1918. His letters seldom talked about the fighting but touched more on things back home.

I checked to see whether Pvt. Kendall was buried at Arlington National Cemetery, and indeed he was. I visited his grave. Ms. McConnell had thought that her uncle was buried in France, so I was glad I could clear that up and sent a photo of his grave.

Meanwhile, the few remaining World War I markers continue to decay. If they can't be replaced, couldn't the remaining markers be preserved in a museum?

With all the money and time being spent on the World War II memorial in the heart of the national Mall, perhaps we could help preserve the memory of the earlier world war.

We could. We definitely should. Yet, by and large, we don't. The first World War languishes in the North American mind, it seems, as merely a mishmash of images of trench warfare, mustard gas and barbed wire. The rhetoric, actions, and most importantly the lessons of the first World War seem largely unremembered. That could simply be my perception, of course, but this letter seems to confirm that this is the case.

What is unmistakable, however, is how those lessons do not enter the public discourse. Lessons about inflexible, petty, ideological leadership; about the horror and madness of war; about the possibility that that horror could be in the service of foolish causes; about the uselessness and destructiveness of vengeance as a motive both before, during and after the war; and about how nationalism and patriotism can force a country to commit collective Seppuku. Perhaps most importantly, however, it shows us that the drumbeats of war feed off their own echoes, so that even the weakest tapping can quickly reproduce itself into a deafening boom, especially when that quiet tapping is at the behest of a convenient lie. (Witness Austria and Serbia). WWI shows us that the pacifists have a point- that the most horrible wartime tragedies in history can be fought for no good reason at all.

That lesson, however, is inconvenient much of the time, and it's certainly not one that people want to hear. So when one hears of war, one hears of the Second World War. There is endless pontification about the evils of appeasement (despite that entire line of argument being factually incorrect), about the necessity of just war, about the benefits of the just conquerer, and about the absolute rightness and greatness of those who fight in an epic conflict of good vs. evil. That said just conflict was unquestionably due to the mistakes made by the very same allies during the aftermath of the first war is never mentioned; the reality that Hitler would have never risen to power were it not for the opportunity presented by the plight of interwar Germany goes mostly unmentioned. Unmentioned, of course, except as yet more proof of the wisdom of those that fought WWII. Their generosity in rebuilding the countries that they conquered is constantly brought up as a teleological justification for convenient warfare. This is, of course, nonsensical; worldwide war created the mess in the first place.

(Vietnam was a different story entirely, but one utterly sabotaged by the fatally flawed-yet incredibly convenient- argument that the media was somehow responsible for the loss.)

I'm with Mr. Lockwood. The lessons, stories, and history of WWI is at least as important as those of WWII, even if it wasn't as responsible for the current American hyperpower status as its successor. They are yin and yang, entirely connected; the second as the war that proves that war can be necessary and right and the first as the war that proves that it can be unnecessary and evil. They are not merely "two parts of the same historical conflict", although there is truth to that: they are the two parts of a profound lesson about the human condition, about international relations, and about statecraft... and the worst folly in America today is that only one is really remembered and understood.

The entire discussion about war, peace, and justice will remain fatally flawed until both sides are engaged. Those who are bludgeoned with the "good war" need to be able to respond with its opposite. That won't happen, though, if the "Great War" remains forgotten.

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