Over the last few decades, the obituaries of World War I veterans have come, according to historian Martin Gilbert, like “like a muffled drum.” With the recent passing of Frank Buckles — the last doughboy — Pershing’s army has finally retired from the field. The drum is stilled and put away.
What was once called the Great War is largely forgotten, obscured by the vivid moral clarities of the greater war that followed. Confused school children are left to ponder the question posed by Andrew Roberts: “Why should a Maori New Zealander have died in Turkey and been buried in Greece because an Austrian had been shot by a Serb in Bosnia?”
Actually, the first war was a preview of what would follow. Machine guns. Civilian bombing. Unrestricted submarine warfare. Poison gas. All were technologies that allowed killing without aiming, applying the tools of mass production to the business of slaughter. Death became impersonal, mechanical and vast.
Some of history’s most malignant ideas got planted in the churned earth of that struggle. “Jews and mosquitoes,” wrote Kaiser Wilhelm II, “are a nuisance that humanity must get rid of in some way or another. I believe the best would be gas.” The German government put Vladimir Lenin on a sealed train from Zurich toward Russia, hoping to destabilize an enemy. Adolf Hitler, a soldier in the trenches, vowed vengeance.
From laughably trivial beginnings, World War I shaped history on a massive scale. A whole continent suffered nervous collapse; another rose to unprecedented prominence.
Europe’s failure of nerve was understandable. A million Britons died. Among French men who were 19 to 22 at the outbreak of the war, more than 35 percent were buried by its end. France was left with 630,000 widows.
The trauma was deep. Constitutionalism and liberalism appeared weak and discredited — a contrast to totalitarian confidence and purpose. The very idea of human progress was overturned. In France and England, ideals of glory and courage seemed obscene beside the images of bodies on barbed wire. It was a time of fatalism, cynicism and dark humor. Said Philip Larkin: “Never such innocence again.”
But the United States, in contrast, was at the beginning of innocence. The European tragedy was the American arrival. At the start of 1917, the American Army had a little more than 100,000 men, lightly armed with no large-scale combat experience since Appomattox. By August 1918, America had deployed more than 1 million soldiers to Europe. It was the energy of a rising nation.
Frank Buckles remembered himself, in those days, as “a snappy soldier ... all gung-ho.” The Army he joined established durable impressions of Americans — fresh off farms, gawky, wide-eyed, singing, violent. The Germans, wrote John Keegan, “were now confronted with an army whose soldiers sprang, in uncountable numbers, as if from soil sown with dragons’ teeth.”
British and French officers saw the arriving Americans as enthusiastic but inefficient. Americans saw themselves as cleaning up the messes of a tired civilization. Europeans thought the United States claimed too much credit for minimal sacrifices — about 50,000 battle deaths in total, compared to Britain’s loss of 20,000 men on the first day of the Somme offensive alone. A pattern of awe and resentment was established. John Maynard Keynes called President Woodrow Wilson a “blind and deaf Don Quixote.” Wilson argued, “If America goes back upon mankind, mankind has no other place to turn.” Perhaps both were right.
In the following decades, America lost the innocence of the Fourteen Points and the League of Nations, but not the sense of national purpose that brought Americans to the Argonne Forest. It was the same spirit found on D-Day and in the long defense of Europe from Soviet aggression.
That enthusiasm, in some quarters, has waned. Economic self-doubt turns a nation inward. Global engagement is often difficult, expensive and thankless. Some long for America to be, once again, merely a nation among nations.
But the forces that led the United States into World War I were not random or unique. America moved beyond its shores on the momentum of its founding principles — a belief that freedom is worth a fight — along with a growing recognition that our nation is not immune from the disorders of the world.
Times change. Old battles, once fresh in their horror, are forgotten. But America still produces men and women like Frank Buckles. And sometimes mankind has no other place to turn.
Michael Gerson is a nationally syndicated columnist for the Washington Post. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.