100 Years Later

April 2017 marked the 100 year anniversary of the U.S. declaring war on Germany and entering the First World War. A PBS special, an op-ed in the New York Times, and a special Time Magazine edition seemed to be the highlights of this important centenary. Contrast this to the speeches, remembrances, and special events in Europe in 2014 (the 100 year anniversary of the start of the war) which isn’t surprising given that the war was fought in Europe (western and eastern Europe primarily) and many more soldiers and civilians lost their lives than American. They’re still finding live shells buried in the farm fields France and Belgium so even 100 years later, the war isn’t really over. Yet, the anti-climax of the U.S. anniversary was a bit disturbing given that this war in my opinion shaped U.S. and global politics, the military-industrial complex, and technology’s trajectory more than anything else in the 20th century.

I was also disturbed by the underlying sentiment in the PBS special and Time articles that made Germany the aggressor, the instigator, the problem, and the U.S. the hero and the liberator. This is WWI we’re talking about, not WWII. It didn’t start because of German aggression. This was a war of Empire and the desire of all Empires was to expand their power and influence. The British Empire was the dominant world power both militarily and economically at the time, and it was doing anything and everything to keep that power. From their perspective, Germany which was building its navy and trying to increase its influence in the world economy was a serious threat. To them. (A good book to shake your perspective of Britain as the “good guy” is found in the Hidden History; The Secret Origins of the First World War.)

All sides were culpable.

But what if the U.S. hadn’t played favorites and loaned millions and sold millions in war goods to France and Britain and thus prolonged the war. Once the stalemate was realized by Britain, France, Germany, Russia and Austria-Hungary, in 1915, peace talks might have made headway if Britain and France hadn’t been backed by the U.S. Or what if a more equitable peace would have been brokered by the belligerents had the U.S. not joined at the end of the war. Who’s to say that Hitler wouldn’t have risen to power and a WWII would not have happened? Unfortunately, we can’t run those experiments. So we will never know.

What we do know is that President Wilson and the U.S. caved in at the Treaty of Versailles whether it was due to Wilson contracting the influenza and affecting his capacities as proposed in The Great Influenza or for other reasons. He reneged on his “Peace without Victory” adage, and gave in to France’s demands. The Treaty punished the Germans in ways that destroyed their economy and morale. One thing that many historians do agree on is that the Treaty was a disaster and invariably led to the rise of Hitler, fascism, and WWII. So maybe that’s the real reason, popular history still likes to blame WWI on the Germans, so that we, Americans, French and British, can disavow our own influence and impact in the creation of an even more devastating second world war.

I just wish we could learn to live in peace.

 

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National World War I Museum, Kansas City, Missouri

I made a lot of stops on my recent drive out and back from Colorado Springs including the National World War I Museum in Kansas City, Missouri. When I first heard about the museum, maybe 7 or 8 years ago, I figured I’d never get there because what in the world would I ever go to Kansas City for? I couldn’t justify a trip there just for the museum. But it turned out that my route through the heartland to Colorado went right through the City. Go figure.

I had spent the night before in Lawrence, Kansas. A line of thunderstorms and tornadoes blew threw the area that night. Several touched down just east of Kansas City, but my arrival at the Museum was marked with blue skies and gusty winds. Of course, I took a bad selfie. Later, I rode the elevator to the top of the tower and enjoyed a spectacular view of the city. It actually looks like a lovely city.

There were several highlights at the museum. The first was going into a sound booth and clicking on music, poetry, and speeches from the war. Among other things, I listened to Wilfred Owen’s Dulce et Decorem EstIn that little sound proof booth as I listened to a British man read Owen’s poem (Owen was killed about a week before the armistice), I got chills and had to hold back a few tears. Very powerful! Another highlight was watching a diorama of No Man’s Land with lights flashing (for flares and bombs) while a movie of trench warfare streamed in the background. Quite impressive.

Looking down at the No Man’s Land Diorama.

My favorite highlight though, was chatting with the 80 year old Marine Corp veteran of WWII who was a volunteer at the museum. He was stationed upstairs in the original part of the museum and nobody was up there except us. His father had served in WWI in France, just like my great Uncle Harry and my grandfather. We talked about our trips to France and the Western Front, he’d been there several times. We talked about the hospitality of the French when we’d visited. He told me the story of one of the hotel proprietors who remembered him ten years later. We talked about the war and how hardly anyone in the U.S. knows much about it, even though there were so many lessons to be learned, and some still waiting to be learned.

I was heartened to see some high school groups wandering through the exhibits even though the kids looked pretty bored. I probably would have looked the same when I was their age. It took me awhile and some family letters to get me interested, and now I can’t seem to get enough.

 

“I like Ike”

Ike’s parent’s house while growing up in Abilene, Kansas.

On my recent driving trip out west, I stopped in Abilene, Kansas for the night. As this was the childhood home of President Eisenhower, I decided to visit the Dwight D. Eisenhower Museum and Library. I was pleasantly surprised when I found out they had just opened a WWI exhibit in the Eisenhower Library the day before.

Dwight D. Eisenhower (Ike) was president from 1953 to 1961 during my infant and toddler years. By most accounts, he was a darn good president. He balanced the budget, ended the Korean War, and kept the peace. Not bad for a lifelong military man. Previously, he served as the supreme commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces in Europe during WWII which is a whole other story.

Dwight and Mamie 1916.

During WWI, Ike had been a captain in the U.S. Army. He requested on a couple different occasions to be sent to France, but he was thwarted in his efforts. Instead, he served stateside in a variety of different roles including training tank crews in Pennsylvania.

What I found interesting about the WWI exhibit was the information about the roles of previous Presidents in WWI. President Truman (who preceded Ike) was a Captain and served in France. FDR (who preceded Truman) served as Assistant Secretary to the Navy during WWI. Herbert Hoover (who preceded FDR) headed the U.S. Food Administration during WWI and led the efforts in humanitarian aide to Belgium.

The chapel at the Eisenhower Center.

I also visited the chapel where Dwight and Mamie and their four year old son, Doud, who died of scarlet fever are buried.  I toured the inside of his boyhood home. It was left pretty much the way it was when Ike’s mother died in 1946. It was a pretty quiet visit, but I’m glad I stopped.

 

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.”