Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Remembering the First World War: the Centennial of the 1916 Slaughters

Thiepval Memorial, the Somme
Historians have long recognized the importance of “memorialization” and other forms of remembering World War I. The current edition of this memorialization began, of course, in 2014, and Europeans in particular have shown the reach of their historical memory in highlighting a variety of aspects of the Great War. Americans have done some of this, but the US didn’t intervene until 1917, and in any case, Americans are famous for the shortness of their historical memories. Owing in part to the profoundly anti-historical tenor of American public education since Dewey, no doubt. But ever since the whopping classic by Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory (1975), historians have indeed thought about how participants and later generations see this huge event in human history.

Fussell, by the way, appeared at a Ludwig von Mises Institute event in the mid-nineties, the very conference that resulted in the revisionist classic, edited by John Denson, The Costs of War. Also speaking at the conference was Fussell’s friend, the greatest of WWII memoirists, Eugene Sledge. There were other great speakers at that conference, but for my money Fussell and Sledge justified the price of attending many times over.

But I digress. The point I want to make here is that the public memory of the Great War in the United States inevitably takes on the triumphalist spin doctoring practiced by administration after administration since McKinley. Remembering the great battles and famous victories. Remembering the “Great Wars and Great Leaders,” to borrow Ralph Raico’s wonderful irony. And remembering the Sacrifice of the great war soldiers, who willingly plodded to their destruction for... for... excuse me... for freedom!

But of course the “Great War” was like all the other “great wars” in this dynamic of spin or “narrative creation.” As with the fairly recent phrase, “Support Our Troops.” Very much a 2000s thing, with a specific reference to Iraq and Afghanistan. We all know how the phrase operates: the common folk gushingly support our troops by a few keystrokes on social media, and meanwhile the administrations from Bush to Obama to whomever comes next will publicly honor and privately sneer at the soldiers they put in harm’s way. To take only one example, the “support” given by the Veterans Affairs Administration is shot through with corruption, lies, and scandal, and worst of all, abuse of patience—the very “troops” VA officials are paid to support. Just Google News “Veterans Affairs.” I am talking about up-to-the minute news items on new and old scandals, lies to Congress, lies to patients, patient neglect and on and on. Shameful.

Yet a cursory CNN timeline of the VA’s dreadful history shows that this pattern is not an accident, but a tradition.

We could go on. 

My larger point here is that the opposite to this memorialization is not just forgetting or ignoring.  The opposite to “spin” is careful thought, attention to human action, and vigorous critical analysis, in great detail if necessary. It is getting past the state’s desire to manipulate every aspect of human existence it can and finding out the actual human dynamics involved.

Now, this time a hundred years ago was the eve of the beginning of the great slaughters of the twentieth century: Verdun, the Sommes, the Brusilov Offensive, and more. It is also the time when, as historian Rene Albrecht-Carrier put it, “deeper forces began to break through.” And for “deeper forces,” we may well read, “the triumph of the all-encompassing modern state.” But what of the human beings caught in this vortex?

More on 1916 to follow.

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