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May 27, 2008

Remember Also the Doughboys

Doughboys Speaking more of stories we don't want to hear, Edward G. Lengel, author of To Conquer Hell: The Meuse-Argonne, 1918, honors the "doughboys" of World War I, whose experiences and sacrifices have not received popular attention:

. . . 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. . . .

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?

In his column, George Wills talks about the last doughboy, whom Lengel mentions at the beginning of his op-ed, Cpl. Frank Buckles, age 107:

The eyes of the last doughboy are still sharp enough for him to be a keen reader, and his voice is still deep and strong at age 107. He must have been a fine broth of a boy when, at 16, persistence paid off and he found, in Oklahoma City, an Army recruiter who believed, or pretended to, the fibs he had unavailingly told to Marine and Navy recruiters in Kansas about being 18. He grew up on a Missouri farm, not far from where two eminent generals were born -- John "Black Jack" Pershing and Omar Bradley.

"Boys in the country," says Buckles, "read the papers," so he was eager to get into the fight over there. He was told that the quickest way was to train for casualty retrieval and ambulance operations. Soon he was headed for England aboard the passenger ship Carpathia, which was celebrated for having, five years earlier, rescued survivors from the Titanic.

Buckles never saw combat, but "I saw the results." . . .

On June 28, 1914, an assassin's bullet in Sarajevo killed the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian empire. The war that followed took more than 116,000 American lives -- more than all of America's wars after the Second World War. And in a sense, the First World War took many more American lives because it led to the Second World War and beyond.

The First World War is still taking American lives because it destroyed the Austro-Hungarian, Romanoff and Ottoman empires. A shard of the latter is called Iraq.

The 20th century's winds of war blew billions of ordinary people hither and yon. One of them sits here in a cardigan sweater in an old wood and stone house on a rise on a 330-acre cattle farm. In this case, and probably in every case, the word "ordinary" is inappropriate.

(Image © The Washington Post)

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Mike Perry

Quoting George Wills: "The First World War is still taking American lives because it destroyed the Austro-Hungarian, Romanoff and Ottoman empires. A shard of the latter is called Iraq."

Wills should know his history better. The First World War only "destroyed" those empires in the same sense that a winter flu epidemic has a serious impact on the residents of nursing homes. All three empires were doomed. The war only affected the precise circumstances of their demise. In the case of Iraq, that influence wasn't particularly great.

The Ottoman's alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary gave Britain and France the excuse they needed to divide much of the post-WWI Middle East among themselves. But given the region's abundant oil and its proximity to the Suez Canal, they would have almost certainly have done that anyway.

The real impact of the war is that it ended badly, sowing the seeds for the Second World War, a war that really did result in changes, such as the brutal Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe, that might otherwise never have happened. And few can look at what is happening to post-Cold War Russia without facing the somber possibility that it is an ill-fated nation, that, whatever happens to Russia, it almost always bodes ill for the Russians themselves and for the world.

The real danger with our War on Terror, particularly in Iraq, is that, like WWI, it too may end badly due to the same unhealthy political constellation of forces--liberals, pacifists and internationalists--that prevented World War I from ending definitively enough to break Germany of its zeal for militarism and aggressive war.

G. K. Chesterton wrote on precisely that theme during WWI, warning that, "Pacifism and Prussianism are always in alliance, by a fatal logic far beyond any conscious conspiracy." If you believe with pacifists that war is always evil, then Germany's role is WWI is no worse than that of France or Belgium or (today) that Saddam is no worse than "Bushitler." The "fatal logic" that drives pacifists to see a moral equivalence between good and evil is nothing new.

Chesterton went on to warn that, if Germany was not forced to change, within a generation there would be another war still more horrible. In 1932, the year before Hitler took power, he went even further, warning that the Germans would choose themselves a dictator and that the next war would break out over a border dispute between Germany and Poland, precisely what happened in 1939.

The real rationale for our being in Iraqi is that it offers a chance for us to break the pattern of violence begetting violence that's been endemic in the region for many centuries. The most important impact of our presence there isn't being covered by the news media, clueless as ever about what really matters. It lies in the day-to-day contacts between our soldiers and those Iraqis who'll be providing the nation with its leaders for most of this century. We're doing in one corner of the Middle East what Europe failed to do with Germany after WWI, showing by our example and presence how to change a destructive culture into a healthy one.

My hope is that, when they return home, the Christians among those soldiers will be dissatisfied with the narrow and emotionally self-centered obsessions that dominate many Evangelical churches and began to take the bold and well-thought-out steps needed to deal with our own not-inconsiderable social ills. Like the Iraqis, we live in a country that needs a lot of repairs.

--Michael W. Perry, editor of Chesterton on War and Peace: Battling the Ideas and Movements that Led to Nazism and World War II


Jason Taylor


England and France would hardly have considered a global war desirable merely for the purpose of dividing up the Middle East. The conquest of the Middle East was a necessary by-product to eliminating Turkey from the war. It is hard to see what else they could have done with the conquered territories but set up the Mandate. And assuming sinister motives is both uncharitable and unrealistic. Motives were mixed as always. Germanies "militarism" is ill-defined, and was hardly worse then that of others and claiming it to have been something special is a combination of world war i propaganda and a backward projection from wwii. The term "Prussianism" is offensive and bigoted because living in the Polish border region is not an ideology. As for it being moral equivalence to say German "militarism" was no worse then that of France or Belgium, those are random choices and one might also consider Serbia and Russia. Moral equivalence does have a point when morals are equivalent. In any case the term militarism is a vague and Orwellian one used to mean "something bad". Almost every society in the world can be called militaristic in some way and untidiness of language makes for vulnerablility to manipulation.
And if the rationale for Iraq is to break the pattern of violence, good luck with that one. I always thought of the rationale for Iraq as maintaining a credible deterrant, aquiring and shoreing up local allies, suppressing a perrenially menacing regime and making a better government as a pleasant by-the-way. Breaking the pattern of violence is breaking human nature and is therefore utopian. Moreover we have recently found the pattern of violence most useful when the enemies misbehavior has gotten it into blood feuds with numerous Iraqi clans. And in any case "break" is such a violent word.

Jason Taylor

Also saying that wwi did not destroy the Romanoff, Hapsburg, and Ottoman Empires because their fall was "inevitable" is faulty. Empires don't die of old age, they die by violence. If some other catastrophe had caused the fall of those respective empires, that catastrophe would have been the cause.
In point of fact I think the cause of WWI was the inordinate dependancy of Europe on conscription for defense. Europe until recently was like six or seven passengers in a leaky lifeboat in the North Atlantic. Every generation or so something would unbalence it causeing everyone to flop about in panic. World War I was really no different in cause from an eighteenth century war and if it had been fought by regulars it would not have been thought of any differently. Conscription however is unethical except when national survival is at stake because it violates proportionality. It is also impractical because conscripts have to be convinced that national survival is at stake. Lower stakes confrontations however can be fought by professionals who are after all volunteers fighting at least partially because it is simply their job. And if World War I had been fought by professionals it would have been just another war and we wouldn't worry as much about what caused it and who was to blame.

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