“Happy motherf—ing Veterans Day,” Eminem wished his HBO “Concert for Valor” audience earlier this week. Apparently nobody told the Detroit rapper about the better part of valor.
Leaving aside the non sequitur reference to those with carnal knowledge of moms (a confounding curse given the impossibility of the vulgar phrase’s former component without the latter), the larger sentiment conjures up the confusion inherent in the holiday. Is Veterans Day a celebration, à la the Fourth of July, or a time for mourning, like Memorial Day?
Seventy-one-years ago George Patton voted unambiguously, as was the general’s style, for celebration. “In my mind we came here to thank God that men like these have lived rather than to regret that they have died,” he said on an Armistice Day remembrance while fighting yet another war in Europe.
The quote comes from a new book by Harry Crocker, The Yanks Are Coming! A Military History of the United States in World War I, on the 100-year-old fight that ultimately gave us Veterans Day. Like the day that wreaks calendar havoc by recalcitrantly refusing to accept a generic Monday designation, the war that gave us the holiday puzzles — its causes, its alliances, its consequences, its worth — a century after the fact.
Crocker does much to cut through the lingering confusion. He calls the brutal conflict “the war that made the modern world. It was the war that set the boundaries of the modern Middle East out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire. It was the war that saw the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which held together Mitteleuropa. It was a war that rewarded nationalism, which, perversely, had been the war’s original cause. It was the war that ended the Second Reich in Germany and witnessed the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia.”
In short, it was the war that set the stage for future wars. Because of this, we discuss the Great War less on its own terms than how it pertains to subsequent wars great and small. And even then, the lessons perplex.
For instance, World War I surely “rewarded nationalism,” as Crocker points out. But it also foreshadowed ideology as a force to rival nationalism. Austrian-born “Adolph Hitler himself avoided serving in the armed forces of conservative, reactionary Habsburg Austria in the First World War,” Crocker notes, “preferring what he saw as nationalist, progressive Germany.” And on the flipside the Bolsheviks, who would eventually use nationalism effectively as a unifying force, sold out their country to Germany during the war because they loved Communism more than Russia.
Crocker’s book contains a succinct 117-page history of the war, followed by more than 150 pages of enjoyable thumbnail sketches of the American players in the battlefield drama, followed by a section on the war’s aftermath. This middle section, providing portraits of George C. Marshall, Harry Truman, Douglas MacArthur, and others leaving a more sizable impression in later hostilities, demonstrates the degree to which we understand the Great War as a prelude to World War II, the Cold War, the War on Terror, and much else that followed. And in its failure to prevent future calamities, we see the Great War as a great failure.
Crocker vociferously rejects the idea that the war lacked meaning. It was shorter, with fewer casualties than the Second World War. “And if the First World War witnessed the collapse of the monarchies of Central Europe and saw the Bolsheviks seize power in Russia,” The Yanks Are Coming! points out, “at least the Western powers kept the Bolsheviks, preachers of world revolution, penned up within Russia’s borders. The Second World War ended with Eastern Europe in the hands of the Soviet Communists…. In other words, the imperfect outcome of the First World War was no worse than the imperfect outcome of the Second, and both were better than if the Central Powers or the Fascist powers had won.”
The “war to make the world safe for democracy” puts an exclamation point on the previous era’s arrogance and the “war to end all wars” highlights the war’s failure to achieve the lofty outcome some had imagined. Crocker insists, “The First World War was not pointless.” Indeed, but that an author feels compelled to write such a sentence — Has anyone anywhere ever even thought that about the Second World War? — highlights the degree to which the quite sensible idea that the Great War mattered in its own right faces skepticism.
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