Remembering WWI on Memorial Day

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Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Arlington Cemetery. Photo by Jeff Malet.

May 28 is Memorial Day in the United States, the day when we remember the wars we fought as a nation.

All across the country, there will be, as always, speeches and speechifying, gatherings at memorials and cemeteries of white emblems and stones, flags blowing across expanses of green grass under whatever sort of sky nature will present. There will be parades.

We will watch the GIs in their jeeps and likely some genuine veterans of World War II. There will be impersonators of doughboys and flyboys and sailors from World War I, but there will not be any living souls from that conflict, the first war in which almost all the nations that describe themselves as such were engulfed and changed.

We first declared ourselves no longer neutral in April of 1917, when our armed forces, made up almost entirely of draftees, fought their first actions in the muddy, torn terrain of France, taking part in battles that helped slow and stop the last great German offensive of the war, which had begun in August of 1914.

It is a war, given its size, its cost — in millions of deaths worldwide — and its impact, that is not so well remembered today, although it still echoes mightily. The memory is like a silent resident, jolted to life periodically by news of some resonant atrocity or new but old sloganeering.

In the memory of this war, there is a kind of nostalgic mystique involved. It is remembered and commemorated with a spirit not so much of pride as of a lingering sadness, as well as, in retrospect, an awe-filled recognition of the monumental changes and losses wrought by a war that seemed to spiral away from the control of world leaders.

In America, the war is still remembered with justifiable pride because the infusion of American troops, just at the time the conflict was entering its climactic phase in France, proved to be a military difference maker.

Dubbed the Great War or — hopefully but naively — the “War to End All Wars,” World War I changed America, as it had everything and everybody else. Already economically powerful enough to cast a major shadow in the world, militarily able and culturally significant, the United States, by its new stature and size, could no longer maintain its insularity and innocence in terms of the rest of the world.

The years before the war were feverish years of competition among nations and empires, marked by technological advances in transportation, mass production and science and the early stirrings of new forms in the arts. Revolutions in communications were launched from which there was no escape: the telegraph, motion pictures, radio.

But something was in the air, a kind of political electricity seeking the resolution of problems no one could identify. At the war’s beginning, empires still held sway — the Turkish Ottoman Empire, the Kaiser-led Hohenzollern Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire of the Habsburgs and the Russian Empire of the Romanovs.

At war’s end, all of them were gone in the wake of war and revolution, giving rise to the Soviet Union and numerous but weak states in Europe. The peace that followed at Versailles solved little (except to almost guarantee the coming of World War II).

In the war’s aftermath, the world truly became modern. Thinkers and artists, partly in reaction to the massive horrors and irresolutions of the war, produced works that were harsh, sharp, overloaded with disillusionment or anarchy.

Literature had a distinctly anti-war flavor, but it was also the beginning in America of a kind of golden age that matched the New World’s youth and seriousness against anything Europe had offer. This was the coming of age of Hemingway (the realistic pessimism of “The Sun Also Rises” and “A Farewell to Arms”), Dos Passos, Faulkner, Wolfe and Lewis.

But the most hallowed anti-war work was the German writer Erich Maria Remarque’s powerfully brief “All Quiet on the Western Front,” which became an international best-seller, an Oscar-winning Hollywood film and a target in Nazi Germany.

To look back on the period — before, during and after — it is instructive to read Paul Fussell’s “The Great War and Modern Memory,” a broad as well as incisive study written in 1975. Fussell was an infantry commander in World War II (“Wartime”). He captured the effects of the war, especially in literature, most notably the works of British writers, including popular poems like “In Flanders Fields” that straddle patriotism, nostalgia for a lost time, sentiment and loss.

Instructive also is the popular music of the time, which began with an exhalation of energy, joy and national pride. Over here in America we had George M. Cohan’s brash “Over There.” The music soon became more muted, angry (“Hanging on the Old Barbed Wire”) and realistic as soldiers encountered the devastations and shocks delivered by gas and chemical warfare and the relentless machine guns in the trenches.

In some ways, everything that came about in the wake of the war bears its hand- and footprints in our present. When we do think about it, or hear a forgotten song, it seems intimate, like a sleeping memory come awake in our modern times.

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