Why Didn't We Listen to Their War Stories?
The last known surviving U.S. veteran of what was once called the Great War, Cpl. Frank Buckles of Charles Town, W.Va., recently toured the World War I memorial in Washington. Accompanied by his daughter and an aide, the wheelchair-bound 107-year-old rolled around the small, temple-like structure, stopping occasionally to acknowledge the applause of the small crowd that had gathered to watch. He did not comment upon the memorial's unkempt appearance -- it has been neglected for three decades -- but noticed that it honored only veterans from the city. "I can read here," he said in a soft, barely audible mumble, "that it was started to include the names of those who were local."
No one, apparently, had told him that the United States has no national World War I memorial. Buckles later modestly accepted tributes from President Bush and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates at ceremonies at the White House and the Pentagon, asking only that all of the recently deceased U.S. veterans of World War I be honored alongside him. It was little enough to ask, after nine decades of neglect.
As we observe Memorial Day, a hard truth remains: Americans haven't forgotten about the doughboys. We just didn't want to hear about them in the first place. The war's last and greatest battle involving U.S. soldiers, fought in the Meuse-Argonne region of eastern France during the autumn of 1918, sucked in more than 1 million U.S. troops and hundreds of airplanes and tanks. Artillery batteries commanded by men such as the young Harry S. Truman fired more than 4 million shells -- more than the Union Army fired during the entire Civil War. More than 26,000 doughboys were killed and almost 100,000 wounded, making the clash probably the bloodiest single battle in U.S. history. But as far as the American public was concerned, it might as well never have taken place. "Veterans said to me in their speeches and in private that the American people did not know anything about the Meuse-Argonne battle," Brig. Gen. Dennis Nolan wrote years later. "I have never understood why."
Back then, civilians justified their indifference by claiming that the veterans refused to share their stories. In reality, the ignorance was self-imposed. "The boys would talk if the questioners would listen," said one embittered ex-doughboy. "But the questioners do not. They at once interrupt with, 'It's all too dreadful,' or, 'Doesn't it seem like a terrible dream?' or, 'How can you think of it?' or, 'I can't imagine such things.' It shuts the boys up." Far from remaining silent, U.S. veterans wrote hundreds of memoirs, diaries and novels of their experiences. In Europe, Canada and Australia, such books were big business. In the United States, they went mostly unread.
World War I never made its way into U.S. popular culture. Movies, documentaries and miniseries about the Civil War, World War II and Vietnam are common, and trade publishers are always ready for new histories of Gettysburg or the Battle of the Bulge. But what about World War I? "Hollywood has not turned its gaze in this direction for decades," noted Gates. Since "The Big Parade" (1925) and "All Quiet on the Western Front" (1930), no significant movie has appeared about the U.S. experience in World War I. ("Sergeant York," from 1941, is a propaganda piece, and 2006's "Flyboys" is a silly excuse for special-effects wizardry.) Television offers similarly little, aside from the atrocious 2001 A&E movie "The Lost Battalion" and the 1996 PBS series "The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century," which gave only passing mention to the U.S. role.
Nowhere is our neglect of the doughboys more noticeable than on the battlefields themselves. Although memorials to the Revolutionary War, the Civil War and World War II are often swamped with visitors, the battlefields of the Meuse-Argonne remain unvisited and largely unmarked. They have changed little since 1918. The French churches and houses are pocked with bullet holes, and bunkers, trenches and rifle pits surrounded by rusty barbed wire, old equipment, shell fragments and unexploded ordnance are visible almost everywhere you look. During a recent visit to the wooded ridge in the Argonne Forest where the "Lost Battalion" fought German troops in October 1918, I kicked aside some leaves and discovered a spent rifle cartridge and a piece of a flare gun -- not something one would expect to happen at Gettysburg or Antietam.
Memorials erected in the 1920s by veterans' organizations are scattered around the battlefield, but many have fallen into decay. Others are carefully maintained by the American Battle Monuments Commission but receive few visitors. Romagne, the largest U.S. military cemetery in Europe, contains the graves of more than 14,000 doughboys. Located on the site of an old German stronghold in the Meuse-Argonne, it centers around a Romanesque chapel, overlooking rows of crosses and Stars of David on a gently sloping hillside. No U.S. military memorial is more welcoming to visitors; the site enfolds you with a feeling of reverence and peace. The superintendent, Joseph P. Rivers, gladly takes visitors -- he says he gets about 25,000 every year -- on a tour of the cemetery, pointing out individual graves and telling stories of the soldiers buried there.
But on a typical summer day, when the gravestones at World War II's Omaha Beach echo with the squeals of busloads of teenagers shipped in from Paris, Romagne remains deserted. For the most part, the only visitors are British, French, Belgian and German; and it is they, not Americans, who lay flowers on the graves. (So much for French ingratitude.) Gordon Morse, a freelance journalist from Virginia visited the cemetery on Armistice Day in 2006 and was asked to read the presidential proclamation. "I got the job by default," he said. "There were no other American visitors available."
I recently asked the hosts of a Charlottesville radio talk show on war and remembrance why Americans seemed so uninterested in World War I. It all boiled down to circumstances, they answered. The United States wasn't in the fight for long and suffered relatively few casualties. Then the Great Depression intervened, followed by World War II, and people naturally forgot old sorrows. There must be more to it than that, I protested. World War I was hardly a forgettable conflict; during six months in 1918, 53,513 Americans were killed in action -- almost as many as in Vietnam, and over a much shorter period of time. Perhaps, I suggested, Americans simply found trench warfare too depressing. Annoyed, the hosts cut me off with a flippant remark. As the receiver clicked, I could not help feeling that they had helped prove my point.
Historian David McCullough has said that all teachers of history should be trained storytellers. But there are some stories that Americans would rather not hear. If war tales aren't thrilling, readers and armchair Napoleons aren't interested. The Civil War and World War II seem to lend themselves to good storytelling, as long as one avoids the ugly, depressing bits. They appear to have clear beginnings and endings, with dramatic heroes and villains. They move. World War I, by contrast, with its images of trench warfare and mustard gas, is not so easy to manipulate in a marketable manner. Popular historians consequently avoid it. As one trade publisher recently told me, World War I has "poor entertainment value." Attempts to discuss it, even with avid students of military history, often end with the same comments that veterans heard back in 1919: "It's all too dreadful," and so on. So powerful is this perception that even genuinely exciting stories -- those of Medal of Honor winners Charles W. Whittlesey, Alvin C. York, John L. Barkley and Freddie Stowers -- are ignored.
We should step back and think for a moment about what this says about Americans as people. Do we honor our veterans for all their sacrifices, or do we care only if they can tell us a good story? And who, then, is guilty of ingratitude?
Edward G. Lengel is an associate professor at the University of Virginia and the author, most recently, of "To Conquer Hell: The Meuse-Argonne, 1918."