Why WWI?

The moment it dawned on me that there might be something to this Internet fad, I remember, was on a day in 1998 when I thought to run an eBay search with the word, “Ypres.” Within seconds I was awash in artifacts -- aerial photographs, vases made
from artillery shells, antique Michelin guides -- having to do with the town in Belgium where the British Army suffered some of its most calamitous losses during the First World War. Here, in one place, were more of the sort of objects I covet than I would amass in a lifetime of sedulous thrifting.

Now, I am not one of these guys who spends his weekends reenacting infantry battles. With respect to the trench warfare of 1917 -- wholesale slaughter, industrialized and indifferent to individual heroics -- one might as well reenact the Spanish Flu. Instead, the relics of World War I that I collect have for me a very different, and very specific meaning: Each helmet or cigarette lighter or bit of trench art is a token of monumental disillusionment, a reminder of the greatest-ever historical failure of enlightened, middle-class, Christian civilization. Every time I walk by one of my relics of that disaster a bit of The Waste Land runs through my head.

I know you're thinking, this is what spending time in libraries does to people, and you're partially right. But in an indirect way it is personal for me as well. My hometown of Kansas City is the location, as it happens, of a 21-story World War I monument and a very large collection of Great War artifacts. As a schoolboy I approached these pieces with a form of patriotic reverence that was then slowly going out of style (it has since returned, in slightly altered form) -- an unproblematic extension of the “Good War” mystique of WWII back onto go-round number one. American wars were about freedom and honor, I thought. Certainly that's what the WWI items themselves insisted, in the high-flown rhetorical style of the period: Liberty Memorial, America's War for Humanity, Halt the Hun.

This last is the headline on a Liberty Loan poster that hangs in my house today: An aristocratic-looking doughboy, carrying a saber and with chin lifted nobly, interrupts a porcine, spiked-hat German just as he gets his hands -- and yes, they are bloody -- on a cringing woman with child. A friend of mine once gazed upon this poster for a few moments and then remarked with obvious disgust: “And our government printed that. Our government.”

My friend got it instantly. But it took me years to get it. It was difficult for
the idealistic young me to grasp that millions of brave men had once been ordered to die in an ill-planned and essentially futile conflict. It is still difficult, even for the cynical old me. It is a lesson that I must relearn periodically, with an annual re-reading of A Farewell to Arms and Paul Fussell's The Great War and Modern Memory. I make a point of watching The Grand Illusion every time it comes on TV. I am even thinking about traveling, for the 90th anniversary memorial, to the site of the battle of the Somme -- the infernal place where months of cocksure Allied preparation for a big offensive led instead to 58,000 British casualties on a single day, a day that Fussell describes as “one of the most interesting in the whole long history of human disillusion.”

Artifacts of World War II, however, fall in a completely different collecting category. Here I have managed to compartmentalize the illusion-free view of war found in books like The Naked and the Dead and cling instead to the martial idealism of my youth. I was raised in a household where it seemed as though Hitler had only just been defeated, where many of the jokes in my favorite comic (it was called Barnaby, and it ran in P.M.) had to do with wartime rationing, and where my favorite board game involved moving your piece around by correctly identifying Allied or Axis aircraft from their spotlit silhouette. Even now I find it deeply reassuring to watch Thirty Seconds over Tokyo and The Great Escape, and I would probably still build plastic models of P-47s if I had enough time.

Today we are in the grip of a different sort of pro-war sentiment, in which the cynicism is readymade and the disillusionment is built-in, in which our GIs are said to be eternally betrayed by journalists and (liberal) politicians back home. And as I sally forth to assail the masterminds of today's war, I find it helpful to gaze upon that steel helmet from 1916 and remember what its wearer learned.

Thomas Frank is the author of What's the Matter With Kansas?.