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Tuesday, May 14, 2013

18 days in the A.E.F's footsteps: Remembrance of our Doughboys, their devotion and sacrifices as compared to those who fought in WWII

Steve and I in gardens of our B&B, Chateau Marjolaine in Chateau Thierry.
Do note behind us flows the gentle Marne, which millions of men and
women fought, suffered and died to ensure that we might enjoy it in peace.
As my husband and I traveled through France, we met many French and Americans who asked us why few Americans seem to value or understand the devotion of those who fought in the Great War.

As I write, hundreds in Great Britain ask this question of themselves. Many in the UK wonder if their own planned Centennial events will resurrect anti-German sentiment and/or focus too much on the sadness and futility that has come to be the watchword for all those who gave their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor to fight in that conflict.
How can we be surprised at this? Frankly, what we teach is what we get repeated back to us. I myself taught high school and college history and know that (especially in public schools) you go with what is written in the course outline and the textbooks and understand that people remember those themes and morals taught to them by word, picture and repetition.

To be specific to the Americans' remembrances and concepts of the Great War effort, I offer my own humble thoughts on this issue. I serve them up not as an academic historian, yet as a professionally trained one and a credentialed one. I also list them because I am a novelist and I see the dynamics of public consciousness through the prism of entertainment, most notably books, fiction and non, offered for sale to the American public.

With those caveats in mind, I suggest that the average American knows only a few things about the Great War. I suggest that this is a result of, and certainly not limited to, the following:

1. In the public mind since the 1998 debut of the very popular and heart-wrenching film "SAVING PRIVATE RYAN" and Tom Brokaw's book "THE GREATEST GENERATION" in 2001, those who fought in World War Two changed the world for good. They fought against foes who exhibited radical, racist practices that were anti-democratic and therefore, "deserved" to be eradicated.

We get the concept here that this war was a "Good War." It was heroic, demanding and those who sacrificed did it for noble causes. Because these men and women won this war, they deserved all honor and glory.

Conclusion: Those who fought in World War One may have been brave, may have been heroic, but they fought and won a war that solved nothing and only made matters worse by enabling radicals to rise to power.

Furthermore, I quote and condense from so many I have met over the decades, "World War One is depressing. The generals had no idea what they were doing and too many died for nothing."

2. "Boomers", i.e. the children of those men and women who fought in World War Two, are the consumers of that film and its successors, like "BAND OF BROTHERS" and various others focusing on the war in Europe and war in the Pacific, are the ones who saw those films and read those books.

Conclusion: Boomers are the ones most likely to honor their own parents who fought in that war. They are most likely to have heard the stories of battles won. They are the ones most likely to understand what was at stake. They are the ones who revere what their parents did to transform the American concept of the world and believe that it is Americans' duty to lead the world and prohibit wars.

3. Boomers are the ones who for the past 4-5 decades generationally controlled the school curriculums, wrote the textbooks, ran the Memorial Day and Armistice Day events in the USA. They controlled the concepts taught to children and to the public at large about both World Wars.

Conclusion: Boomers' perspective is that those who fought in World War One were brave and heroic, but their sacrifices mattered little. The world became a worse place. The Greatest Generation finished the work the previous one did not accomplish.

4. "Boomers" have been for more than 3 decades the consumers who buy books more than any other age group.

  • They are the ones with the highest literacy rate.
  • They are the ones with the most money. (This is especially true since the 2008 financial crisis where, in USA, those who retain their basic wealth are most likely to be over 60 years of age.) I could quote numerous studies on this, sponsored by governmental and financial institutions, but I wish to be brief and encourage you to look for the proofs which I know are there. After all, I am a Boomer myself!)
  • They are also the ones who were taught in high school and college that World War One was futile by being required to read the literature written by those who lived during that period. Boomers have read "ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT" and "A FAREWELL TO ARMS." Both books speak of the raw horror of war and its futility in general.
  • To pour on more despair, we could add the other novels of the post-WWI generation, all of which speak of ennui and futility. Here I include many of the works of Hemingway (FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS, THE SUN ALSO RISES) and Fitzgerald (THE BEAUTIFUL AND THE DAMNED, THE GREAT GATSBY, TENDER IS THE NIGHT).

Conclusion: What the Boomers know and feel, they have taught their children: World War One produced a lost generation of aimless, self-interested people who never got their act together. The result was another war that had to be fought and won. Grandpa and Grandma did that.

5. "Boomers" are active readers. They buy a lot of books. In fact of all age groups, they buy the most books in stores and now, on line.

  • Yes, American men read newspapers and magazines, and to them books come third. They buy thrillers, mysteries and World War Two action adventure plus now stories of current war. 
  • But the ones who buy the most books are women. What do women buy? Studies for years by various groups, including national writers organizations, show us that every time a woman walks into a book store, she buys at least 1 book and more often she will buy 2-3. Usually, she is a destination shopper, one with a purpose. She may buy a gift (for a family member), or a specific type of book like a travel guide or a cook book, and she will buy at least one paperback for herself. That paperback is fiction. It is also usually what we call in the trade, women's fiction which includes romance and historical romance.
  • Women are the cultural transmitters within their families. They teach social mores, concepts and themes to their children. For a woman reader and her family, this truth stands: If you are what you read, then so are your children.

Conclusion: Until recently when publishers in the UK and Commonwealth countries began to predict their own increased public interest in World War One period, books about it were few and tended to be non-fiction. As more are published, women readers will learn more and perhaps the attitudes toward the war in the USA will begin to change.

While you may now accuse me of carrying a banner to encourage a greater interest and respect for those who gave their all in 1917 and 1918, I will respond by asking, "Why not?"

Last week, when my husband and I stood amid the sea of 4000+ graves of our men and women buried in the St. Mihiel Cemetery near Thiacourt and we asked the administrator how many come here to Eastern France to pay their respects, her response was, "Not enough. Most Americans visit Normandy."

It is time we Americans broadened our horizons, traveled more broadly and thought about war more critically.