Vera Brittain had seen many soldiers, but there was something about these troops that made her stare.
They marched with a “bold vigor in their stride,” the 24-year-old British nurse observed, “with such rhythm, such dignity, such serene consciousness of self-respect.”
Who could they be?
It was April 1918. The war had already killed Brittain’s fiance, the poet Roland Leighton. Now, she worked in hospital wards overcrowded with men wounded in the German offensive that had come crashing through the Western Front three weeks earlier. The situation seemed hopeless, and Allied commanders desperately urged their troops to hold on despite staggering losses. “There is no course open to us but to fight it out,” Sir Douglas Haig grimly told his battered British army.
After more than three years of war, England and France were scraping the bottom of the manpower barrel. Yet here were these obviously first-rate troops marching past the hospital in Etaples, France, as Vera Brittain stood staring in wonder. Perhaps they were Australians or New Zealanders? No: “I knew the colonial troops, and these were different,” she realized.
“They looked larger than ordinary men,” Brittain wrote. “Their tall, straight figures were in vivid contrast to the undersized armies of pale recruits to which we were grown accustomed.”
The mystery was solved when she heard the shout from a group of nurses standing behind her: “Look! Look! Here are the Americans!”
AMERICANS TODAY SELDOM RECALL the history of World War I, but it was in that conflict that U.S. “doughboys” proved themselves equal to any soldiers in the world — and established an enduring reputation for toughness.
Today, many Americans agree with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid that the war in Iraq is already lost, and that U.S. troops are “accomplishing nothing” by their presence there. As conclusive proof of the war’s hopelessness, they cite the more than 3,600 U.S. combat deaths over the past four years. It isn’t hard to imagine what the American troops who brought victory to the Allies in 1918 would think of such defeatism.
By June 1918, the powerful German offensive had pushed to within 50 miles of Paris, and many believed that the Americans had arrived too late to save the day. As U.S. troops moved into action near the Marne River, they were met by retreating French soldiers. The demoralized French called out, “La guerre finie” — the war was over. No, the Americans reassured them: “We’re here.”
On June 3, 1918, a brigade of U.S. Marines was sent in against the Germans who were attacking west of Chateau-Thierry. Sgt. Dan Daly yelled to his men, “Come on, you sons of bitches! Do you want to live forever?” The Marine brigade had 1,087 men killed in action that day at Belleau Wood. But when it was suggested that their decimated unit be withdrawn from the front line, an American officer replied furiously, “Retreat, hell! We just got here!”
THAT INDOMITABLE SPIRIT SOON turned the tide, and the Allies emerged victorious just seven months after Vera Brittain had first seen those tall, vigorous American troops marching toward the front. By the time peace came, the war had claimed the lives of 48,000 U.S. troops.
Our contemporary “get out now” crowd would no doubt protest this comparison of World War I to the war in Iraq. Latter-day defeatists angrily charge that the Bush administration launched this war under false pretenses, and declare that the continuing carnage in Iraq is futile.
Sic semper hoc.
During and after World War I, critics insisted that President Woodrow Wilson had deceived the American people, winning re-election on a peace platform in 1916, only to push America into the war a few months later. Today’s conspiracy theorists on the left — who claim our troops are dying in Iraq because of some sinister plot between Zionists and Halliburton — are mostly reiterating and elaborating the old “merchants of death” thesis that portrayed World War I as the secret scheme of a cabal of international bankers and armament manufacturers.
Critics claim that the war in Iraq is pointless, that U.S. military involvement there can neither discourage terrorism nor promote democracy. Yet was America ever involved in any conflict more pointless than World War I? Though the Allies won the war, they botched the peace, and the “war to end all wars” proved merely a prelude to (indeed, some would say, the essential cause of) the horrors of World War II.
“The causes of war are always falsely represented, its honour dishonest and its glory meretricious,” wrote Vera Brittain, who lost not only her fiancÃ© but two close friends and her only brother in World War I, a war in which nearly 750,000 British troops were killed.
Whatever false representations preceded the war in Iraq, and whether or not the U.S. presence there can bring lasting peace to that volatile region, our troops now fighting terrorist insurgents still possess the same “bold vigor” that so impressed Vera Brittain. For such incomparable warriors, the suggestion of American withdrawal still deserves the same response it got in 1918: “Retreat, hell!”
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