The Centennial of the Guns of August and the Great War

By Book Review Editor
Sunday, June 15, 2014, 6:26 PM

Some years ago, I happened to be in London mid-November and had lunch with a dear friend, my long-time editor at the Times Literary Supplement. I noted he wore a small felt flower--a poppy, I realized--in his jacket lapel and asked him about it. He smiled somewhat ruefully and said, it's true, Americans have never thought of Remembrance Day, Armistice Day, the way the British do--or anyway, used to, he added, because even in Britain and France, historical memory of the Great War has faded.

By contrast, in America we celebrate Veterans Day on November 11--all American veterans. That makes sense to us--American entry into the First World War was at the last moment and we suffered comparatively little for it. There have been many more wars since, wars of greater American participation (starting with World War II), more commanding of our attentions and our feelings.  American feelings about World War I have never been the same as those countries in which, for a long time across the 20th century, November 11 really was a remembrance of the day the guns fell silent, in a war in which scarcely any family had not lost some loved young man.

It's also not irrelevant that America's remembrance of its war dead is deeply intertwined with its perception--established inextricably by the two wars that have defined this country's understanding of its war dead, World War II and the Civil War--that its soldiers died for something. There have been wars in which that has been widely doubted among Americans--Korea, for example, and for many Vietnam, and for that matter, the Great War.  But the tenor of America's remembrance of its war dead has long been established by the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural Address.

The morality of World War II is as much a part of remembrance in Europe as in America, of course. Yet the scale of the loss of life in the Great War, and a sense that it was mostly, well, senseless, has always conveyed a feeling that Remembrance Day is not quite so much about "sacrifice" as a terrible, tragic catastrophe in which young men swept each other away with machine guns.  The guns of August. The sensibility is not so much that of honoring those who died as individuals for their community--the just side, one hopes, but at least in the honorable conduct of arms--but instead a more neutral remembrance,  tragedy without moral winners.  It is remembrance from the vantage point of neutral reflection on enormous suffering and loss--sadness, but not with a great sense, or reason to have a sense of, gratitude to those who went and died in the previous generation. Pity, not gratitude.

There are hints of this sensibility in the Vietnam and Korean war memorials in Washington DC. It's a sensibility expressed principally by the absence of moralizing and an emphasis on the pity of war, the day-to-day courage and sufferings of the ordinary soldier.  Yet it is still different, because it is not merely about sadness over seemingly senseless death and loss; even these American memorials express a certain moral psychology beyond a sadness that is morally universal and morally neutral in its pity.  The Vietnam memorial, above all, architecturally embodies two moral sentiments that are deeply under-appreciated today, but which are at the heart, somewhat paradoxically, of the remarkable emotional catharsis elicited by the Vietnam memorial from Americans of every stripe: reticence and forbearance. Still, overall,  American remembrance of its war dead is characterized primarily by the gratitude of those who come after for the sacrifice by those who came before.

Today we are just two months away from the centennial of the outbreak of The Great War, August 14, 1914, and the guns of August. Though the moral sensibility of its remembrance today might focus upon tragic loss without moral winners rather than gratitude for sacrifice, and though today we call it the First World War or World War I rather than the Great War, its historical importance and centrality can scarcely be overstated. Not just for Europe but for the whole world, and for America, though it did not manage to see that at the time.  John Lukacs has made the point many times in his writings:

The principal event of the twentieth century--which was a short century, lasting seventy-five years, from 1914 to 1989--was the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. I need not expatiate what this catastrophe meant for Western civilization. The First World War led to the Second World War, and the Second World War to the Cold War. The two world wars were the two enormous mountain ranges in the shadows of which we lived until 1989.

1989 and beyond, I think we can add today.  Boundaries and maps drawn by the colonial powers in the Middle East and Africa; the end of the Austro-Hungarian empire and the Ottoman Empire; the Russian Revolution. So many, many consequences that are still with us today.

Over the next several months (speaking as His Serenity, the Lawfare reviews editor), I would like to run a series of posts on various aspects of the Great War. There is a slew of new books out on the war, some of which we will review here. But I'd also like to revisit some of the classic books, novels and poetry, films, photography, and other expressions and historical studies of the Great War.  The Grand Illusion, for example, which appeared on the eve of the World War II; Paul Fussell's pathbreaking work of literary criticism, The Great War and Modern Memory; Blaise Cendrars' memoirs of trench warfare in the French Foreign Legion; alongside works of history, strategy, law, and morality. And for that matter, The Economic Consequences of the Peace.

(Given the breadth of the topic of the Great War, I'm open to suggestions as to new or old works that might merit a post or review; no commitments, of course, but if you want to suggest that something related to the Great War that ought to be reviewed or receive comment, drop me a note at my Lawfare email, via the sidebar contact information.)