When the clock strikes 11 a.m. this November 11th, a century since the end of the First World War will have passed. But for much of the country, little notice will be paid.
While historians have come to label the Korean War as the so-called “Forgotten War,” this title is perhaps better suited to the conflict first known as The Great War. Many countries, like Great Britain and Canada, observe November 11th as Remembrance Day, replete with solemn school assemblies, moments of silence for the honored dead, and a near universal wearing of a red poppy — a tribute largely to the over 9 million men who lost their lives in WWI between 1914 and 1918. But in the U.S., many Americans will go about their business as usual.
Part of this is understandable. American society and the press were deeply divided on the war from the beginning. With two years of fighting over and the horrors of the war’s major battles — Marne, Ypres, Verdun and Somme — in the rear-view mirror, the U.S. remained neutral in the chaos that was tearing Europe apart. Indeed, Woodrow Wilson’s 1916 reelection motto was “He Kept Us Out of War!” Even after war was declared (one month after Wilson’s second inauguration in February of 1917), pro-war sentiment never fully took hold, and dissent and dissatisfaction with America’s involvement in “Europe’s affairs” was high.
American troops didn’t land in France until June 1917 and did not engage in their first major battle until March 21, 1918 — defending the Western Front from a last-ditch German attack now known as the Spring Offensive. Within less than eight months, the war was over.
WWI lacks the blinding moral clarity of WWII. The sinking of the Lusitania, a British ocean liner and passenger ship, and the chance discovery of the nefarious Zimmerman telegram simply don’t compete with the horror of the heinous attack of Pearl Harbor in the American mind.
It’s hard to identify a “bad guy” in the First World War. The belligerents of WWI are complicated. Women, children, and unarmed civilians were abused and mistreated on all sides of the conflict. Chlorine gas was developed by the Germans, but both the British and the Germans deployed it on helpless men in combat. Instead of a crusade to help liberate the free world from Nazi and fascist tyranny, American involvement in WWI put it on the side of one group of nationalist and imperialist nations fighting another group of the same — all seemingly over Belgian neutrality.
The difficulty in wrapping WWI up in a neat and tidy “good v. evil” morality play is borne out in the disparity between the number of noteworthy films about each world war. Classic films about WWI can be counted on one hand. On the other hand, WWII boasts the cinematic achievements of “Saving Private Ryan,” “Dunkirk,” “Atonement,” “Patton,” “The Thin Red Line,” “Flags of our Fathers,” “The Longest Day,” and more than 50 other good films.
So, why should Americans care more about WWI? Why should this November 11th be a weighty and reflective day of remembrance?
There are important lessons to be learned from WWI.
War is a terrible, horrendous, and awful undertaking. WWI is perhaps the best example in modern history of how senseless and pitiless it can be. At the start of the war, many brave young enlisted men still held the opinion that war was a gallant and splendid thing. The realities of machine guns, barbed wire, trenches, and poison gas put an end to that illusion once and for all. Soldiers quickly understood General William Tecumseh Sherman’s warning from decades earlier that “the glory” of war was all “moonshine.”
As memorable as the heroic moments of WWII are — whether it be D‑Day, the liberation of the concentration camps, the Battle of Britain, Iwo Jima, or the miraculous evacuation of Dunkirk — we need to remember WWI as a reminder of the exceedingly high costs of war.
In just one and a half years of fighting, more than 116,000 Americans lost their lives and another 200,000 were wounded. To put it in perspective, more Americans died in WWI then those who died in the Spanish-American War, Korean War, Vietnam War, Persian Gulf War and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq combined, according to the American Battlefield Trust. Families across the nation were shattered and the lives of surviving loved ones were forever changed.
The unbelievable loss of life seen in WWI is a reminder that prudence, thoughtful debate, and, above all, prayer must guide the hand of the President and his foreign policy leaders today.
This Veterans Day, pray for our servicemen past and present. If you happen to see a veteran or serving member of the armed forces, make the time to shake their hand and thank them for their service to this great country. And take a moment to remember those who gave their lives in the largely forgotten Great War — lest we forget.
Joshua Lawson is a graduate student at the Van Andel Graduate School of Statesmanship.