The Great War and American Memory

Me at the DC Memorial

Me at the DC Memorial

During a recent visit to Washington, D.C., I walked to the World War I Memorial on the National Mall. It’s actually called the DC Memorial as it was funded by the City and its citizens and commemorates those from Washington, D.C. who served in WWI. I first meandered through the grandiose memorial for WWII whose website says was the “defining event of the 20th Century” to get to the modest circular domed temple of the DC Memorial. Amongst the grandeur of the other Memorials, this one reminded me more of an oversized gazebo than a national monument. The Great War and its horrific lessons have definitely slipped from American memory.

Montfaucon American Monument in France, maintained by the American Battle Monuments Commission.

Montfaucon American Monument in France, maintained by the American Battle Monuments Commission.

Invariably, when I tell people I’m researching and writing about WWI, they tell me their father or grandfather served in WWII. I smile and say, WWI, and they stammer and mumble and finally admit that they don’t know much about WWI. When I was in France, I’d say the same thing and everyone would immediately start talking about WWI. This wasn’t surprising given the devastation they sustained, nor the present day memorials, cemeteries, museums and artifacts found throughout the northeastern region of France. Even now, there are still unexpected and sometimes deadly encounters with live WWI shells inadvertently resurrected from farmed-over battlefields. The U.S. also has many monuments, memorials, and cemeteries in France, and as shown in my photograph of the Montfaucon monument (much like the DC Memorial above), when we were there, we were the only visitors.

As this year, 2014, marks the 100th anniversary of the start of WWI, it behooves us to remember the Great War and its impact. I would argue that WWI was more of the defining event of the 20th century than WWII. The more I read about 20th century world history, the more I’m convinced that WWII was basically a continuation of WWI (after a 20 year armistice). I’m also convinced that we learned very little from either of those deadly encounters, not surprising considering we live in a society that commemorates war much more than peace.

Even though I’m interested in WWI, I’m not a person who wishes to honor war. This is why I’m pleasantly surprised and supportive of the U.S. Peace Memorial Organization  trying to erect a monument on the National Mall. We definitely need one. My interest in WWI began as a personal journey (my grandfather and great uncle served in France) and expanded into learning about how it accelerated the evolution of the modern technological era. Pull on any thread in our contemporary world from an over reliance on gadgets to nationalistic propaganda to pesticides to war fever and you will find the other end invariably entwined in the Great War.

For example, a few years ago while still at my university job, I was involved for a short time in a project funded by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) looking at how to remediate a building or soil in the event of a chemical weapon strike. The research took me back into the literature of WWI (often called the chemist’s war) because of the development and use of deadly chemical weapons (e.g., chlorine, phosgene, and mustard gas). A short history of chemical weapons is provided on the First World War website. And over the years, I have often used the modern day version of the chemical weapon countermeasure (i.e., the gas mask). As an environmental engineer, I was also involved in a variety of projects that dealt with cleaning up chemical waste sites, so it wasn’t surprising to find out that the chemical companies profiting during the Great War turned their efforts to marketing their toxic chemicals as pesticides (and other products) after the war. The Great War turned into the Great War on Insects that we are still engulfed in today. Will Allen’s War on Bugs provides a fascinating journey into the history of our present-day industrial agriculture, and not surprisingly, it too was impacted by WWI.

Women moving into the industrial workforce? Started in WWI. Even the Indian Code Talkers got their start confounding German eavesdroppers first during the Great War, although in that case, it was the Choctaw Indians.

Now, as I listen to recent problems in Crimea, the surging nationalistic wave here and abroad, the occupation of territory in contested lands, and talk of the U.S. and Europe honoring old alliances even if the consequences are war, I am more than ever reminded of the beginning of WWI when, like dominoes, European nation after nation fell into the fray holding fast to national and political honor while sending millions of young men into hopeless and deadly battles. Will the past repeat itself? Unfortunately, the only thing that comes into my mind as I ponder that question is the quote by George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

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