Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Eclipse of World War I

Several days ago the nation celebrated Veteran's Day. I had planned to write on that day but it coincided with the day of my grandmother's funeral. Now even before I became a veteran I've always been uneasy with the fact that this country celebrates its war veterans annually on Nov. 11th. Originally, this day marked Armistice Day, the day in which WWI unofficially came to an end with a cease fire between the Allied and Central Powers. My concern is that by celebrating all veterans of every US war on this single day risks obscuring the memory and significance of what once was universally called "The Great War".

To a large degree this has already happened. The relegation, indeed subordination, of WWI to other events of the 20th century, specifically of course WWII, can be readily observed by visiting your conventional US bookstore. On average there are only a handful of books on WWI compared to dozens of books on WWII and the Vietnam War (As an aside I should note that the Korean War gets the shortest shrift of all with at most two or three books on that often neglected conflict.) Moreover, there is only one memorial in D.C. dedicated to the fallen soldiers of WWI and it is in a state of disrepair.

Why the neglect? Well, there are many reasons but only a few worth mentioning here. For one, it must be recalled that though the US was an eventual participant in the "Great War" it was so only very belatedly. WWI began in August of 1914, the US did not declare war on Germany until April of 1917, and even then didn't actually start contributing troops to Europe until May of 1918. The war was then mercifully over about 6 months later. Thus compared to the horrible costs paid by Britain and France after four years of a literal hell on earth in the trenches, the material and spiritual investment of the United States to that war was nearly negligible. This lack of comparative sacrifice was then exacerbated by the combined naivete and idealism of Woodrow Wilson's preachy diplomacy during the peace process with the other three principal world leaders (Lloyd George, Clemenceau, and Orlando). In short, aside from the late and brief role played by the US, WWI was essentially from beginning to end a European war. And except for the inculcation of an unfortunate isolationist mindset, the Great War left very little of an impression on the minds of the American people partially reflected in the eventual refusal of the Senate to ratify the Treaty of Versailles.

Another factor, related to the previous point above, in the eclipse of WWI has to do with the relationship often assigned to that war vis a vis WWII. Often, WWI is seen, at best, as the prequel, or, at worst, as the prologue to WWII. Indeed, most interpreters of WWII believe that in many significant ways WWI was the cause of WWII. Largely this has to do with the causal value given to the peace treaty that officially ended WWI, namely, The Treaty of Versailles. Subsequent Germans, most notoriously Adolf Hitler, often cited the "cruel and harsh" peace inflicted on them by the provisions of the Treaty of Versailles (specifically concerning the so-called "war guilt clause" which supposedly forced the Germans to accept full blame for causing the Great War) as justification for their grievances against the other powers of Europe. (Many historians have bought into this argument. I for one am skeptical of this view....a post for another time though.)

Also, WWII is a war that's a bit easier for people to understand both in terms of the causes of the war and the cast of colorful characters that were involved: Hitler, Stalin, FDR, Churchill, etc (Yes, Churchill was involved in WWI but not as centrally.). In contrast, apart from Woodrow Wilson, most people wouldn't be able to tell you whom the world leaders were during WWI. Additionally on this score, the "evil" of WWII was something much clearer from a moral perspective. Nazi Germany and Japanese aggression were lucid factors that led to WWII and therefore easier to grasp as opposed to the myriad of components (secret alliances, foolish treaty obligations, naval arms race, Prussian militarism, Austria-Hungarian designs on the Balkans, Russian concern for the Slavic races, etc) traditionally said to have created the conditions for WWI.

Lastly, though I've already hit on this point, WWII unlike WWI featured the US prominently, decisively even (though it didn't officially enter until late 1941 when the war began in September of 1939). Pearl Harbor, D-Day, the Battle of the Bulge, Yalta, Iwo Jima, etc. were all major events which involved the United States. In most every way then WWII was demonstrably a United States war whereas WWI was essentially a peripheral conflict that the US only very lately contributed to.

And for all of these reasons WWI becomes eclipsed by WWII and later US events of the 20th century. For my part I think this is most unfortunate. WWI in my opinion still deserves, as the British and other Europeans continue to call it, to be known as the Great War. Its significance should not be understated and in a future post I will seek to lay out just how important of an event WWI really was for the 20th century and not just in the limited sense that it was the cause for what most people see as the greater of the two world wars.

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