Rest in Peace: World War I and Living Memory

By Eliah BuresFebruary 3, 2014

Rest in Peace: World War I and Living Memory

Image: British Navy Officer, Claude Stanley Choules

THE LAST SURVIVOR of World War I died on May 5, 2011, nearly 97 years after the war’s outbreak in July 1914. This was Claude Stanley Choules, a veteran of the British Navy who had witnessed the surrender of the German High Seas Fleet in November 1918. The experience of trench warfare had already slipped from living memory two years earlier with the death of “the last fighting Tommy,” Harry Patch, in July 2009. The course of 2008 saw the deaths of the last known Italian, Ukrainian, Polish, Hungarian, French, German, and Turkish veterans. The final survivors from Serbia and Belgium died in 2004, the last from Thailand and New Zealand in 2003, the last from Guyana in 2000, and the last Algerian in 1998. The last to serve in the Great War in any capacity was Florence Green, a mess steward in the British Women’s Royal Air Force in the conflict’s final months. Ms. Green passed away on February 4, 2012, a few weeks shy of her 111th birthday.

There is now no one alive who remembers the First World War at first hand. The memory of the Great War, like the memory of all wars, has been a powerful source of identity for those that fought it. But the personal witness of the war’s estimated 65 million combatants has also done far more, shaping broader beliefs about the truth of warfare in the modern age. If World War II remains, to many, the “good war,” its predecessor is the quintessential “pointless war,” a cautionary tale of futile sacrifice and senseless industrialized slaughter, of militarism and nationalism run amok, and of an arrogant civilization engineering its own decline. As one prominent veteran, the novelist Erich Maria Remarque, put it, the war was “a meaningless surface of things joined to an abyss of sorrow.”

Today, with the Great War’s passage from living memory behind us and its centenary just around the bend, the time has come to rethink the conflict’s status as a poster child for the futility of war, a notion that has grown so myth-laden, so one-dimensional, so caricatured, that it does disservice to the anti-war agenda it was originally meant to advance. Indeed, those concerned with preventing war in the present may stand to benefit most from jettisoning this simplistic view of war in the past. A lack of realism, after all, has never been the best means of guarding against wickedness in the real world. In the midst of wolves, the Gospel tells us, we are to be wise as serpents.

Understanding how World War I became the “pointless war” requires understanding how the meanings assigned to the conflict have always been bound up with the witness of common soldiers. Coming on the heels of a 19th-century surge in literacy, World War I loosed an unprecedented flood of written retrospection. By no means all of these thousands of memoirs, diaries, and novels support a verdict of futility and meaninglessness. If some writers damned the conflict and the societies that waged it, other accounts, often better selling at the time, purveyed a range of patriotic, idealistic, or redemptive interpretations. But it is the “anti-war myth” that has come to dominate our memory of the Great War, a view repeatedly endorsed in recent years by the dwindling ranks of World War I veterans. Appreciating not only what is lost with the loss of living memory but what is gained as well can help us draw new lessons from the war George Kennan rightly called the “great seminal catastrophe” of the 20th century.   


Claims for the value of living memory are of two general kinds. The first concerns the vividness and accessibility of the past. “It is as though once living memory has been lost,” the literary critic Christopher Clausen suggested, “the event itself — its mixture of valor and horror, its power to warm or inspire, its sheer reality — becomes irrevocably diminished.” Reflecting on his conversations with American veterans of the Great War, the writer David Laskin argued that what we are deprived of is “more akin to poetry than history — an impression of the past… more textured, emotionally complex, and, in some ways, more baffling than anything [to be] gleaned from books, diaries, letters, photos, or film clips.” As one journalistic commentator on the passing of the World War I generation put it, their deaths “relegate the cataclysm they saw with their own eyes to the bloodless abstraction of recorded history.”

A second, related claim is a variation on the old adage that those who fail to remember the past are condemned to repeat it. We invest the memory of calamitous events like war and genocide with a kind of moral force. The firsthand witness becomes the authoritative bearer, not only of a tale to be told (what it was like), but a lesson to be learned (what it meant). Like its legal counterpart, the moral witness offers to ensure some measure of future justice: if not “never again,” then at least “never forget.”

But the loss of living memory can also bring with it a liberation from entanglement in the past, and from the distortions to which all memory — individual or collective — is inevitably prone. The stories of eyewitnesses, sometimes even their sheer presence, can cast a powerful spell over the minds of contemporaries. It is hardly coincidental, Claussen noted, that the American South’s resistance to desegregation began to diminish around the same time that those southerners who had grown up with Confederate veterans seated around the Sunday dinner table left the political scene.

Might the Great War generation’s passing offer a similar liberation from the sway of living memory? Popular awareness of the war today, it should be noted, varies strikingly by national context. For most of Central and Eastern Europe, the events of 1914-1918, though no less bloody than elsewhere, have long since been overshadowed by subsequent invasions, revolutions, and civil wars. Fought by empires which were consumed by the war itself, and which often mobilized subject minorities against their own peoples (some two million Poles, for instance, were scattered throughout the German, Russian, and Austro-Hungarian armies), the First World War was a conflict of old elites and ancient dynasties. For countries like Poland and Russia, the war’s conclusion did not so much end armed conflict as inaugurate a wave of territorial disputes and political struggles. Poland, which fought Russians, Lithuanians, Ukrainians, and Belorussians on its eastern border, was not at peace until 1921. Extending and consolidating their 1917 seizure of power cost the Bolsheviks six more years of conflict. The fighting most formative for later collective identities, in other words, took place not during the war, but afterward.

For those nations that fought on the Western Front, World War I has found a more lasting place in the popular imagination. This is less true of the United States, which, though it sustained more combat deaths (approximately 53,000) in the few months of its effective involvement in the war than in the two decades of its presence in Vietnam, pays scant attention to the conflict. Snoopy’s showdowns with the Red Baron aside, there are few traces of the war in American popular culture today, and no monument to the fallen adorns the National Mall in Washington, DC. The February 2011 death of America’s last doughboy, the ambulance driver Frank Buckles, passed with only a smattering of commentary.

In Great Britain, by contrast, the war is truly the Great War. The poppies immortalized in John McCrae’s 1915 poem “In Flanders Fields” remain a potent symbol of the dead, and red poppies, purchased to support the Royal British Legion, are still worn in lapels on Remembrance Sunday or laid in wreaths on war memorials big and small. So embedded is a basic understanding of the war in British culture that it has continued to serve over the past generation as a ready backdrop to popular television shows — from the BBC sitcom Blackadder Goes Forth to Downton Abbey — and to bestselling historical fiction by writers like Sebastian Faulks, Ben Elton, Pat Barker, and Ken Follett. The war’s resonance in the former Dominions is, if anything, even stronger, as the sacrifices of Canadian and Anzac forces in the British war effort helped foster a sense of nationhood and prepare the way for full independence. “Anzac Day,” celebrated with dawn services every April 25 to mark the anniversary of the 1915 Gallipoli landings, in which the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps suffered heavy losses, remains a solemn event in the Antipodes. Portions of “In Flanders Fields” (written by the Canadian McCrae) appear on the Canadian ten dollar bill; an image of a poppy has appeared on the quarter.

In France, efforts to commemorate those who died in defense of the nation in World War I — or, as happened during the 80th anniversary of the armistice, attempts to rehabilitate the memory of those who mutinied in 1917 — can still stir lively debates, a sure sign of the war’s enduring significance for French national identity. In Germany, as in France and Britain, memorials to the local dead dot the countryside. Yet while the meaning of the Great War was vigorously contested in Weimar Germany prior to 1933, it has since been eclipsed by the Holocaust and World War II as an object of political dispute. When the war does enter German public discourse, it is usually less the conflict itself that is of interest than its position in a trajectory leading to the Third Reich. It is telling that the death of the last French poilu, the Verdun veteran Lazare Ponticelli, was honored by Nicolas Sarkozy with a state funeral in Les Invalides, while the passing of the last German veteran, Erich Kästner, escaped public notice for weeks and was ignored by German state authorities.

This diversity in the extent and forms of remembrance does not, however, correspond to much diversity in how the war is now commonly understood. Representations of the conflict today, and in the Anglophone world especially, tend to be versions of what has been called the “anti-war myth” of the Great War. The literary critic Samuel Hynes, who traced its construction in the tide of war novels and trench memoirs that began to appear a decade after the war’s end, described this myth as “not a falsification of reality, but an imaginative version of it, the story of the war that has evolved, and has come to be accepted as true.” Neither an objective portrayal nor a comprehensive account, the myth is “an idea of what the war was and what it meant.”

The anti-war myth has grown so familiar — and, because it conforms to our collective expectations, so marketable — that it now stands virtually unchallenged as the common-sense view of the conflict. Ask someone what they think of when they think of World War I, and you will almost certainly encounter a predictable pastiche of gas attacks, muddy trenches, ubiquitous corpses, barbed wire, and terrifying high-explosive barrages. One envisions frightened young men, less agents in their own history than victims, sent “over the top” by incompetent generals, only to be mowed down by machine-gun fire. Those fortunate enough to survive this generational sacrifice returned home, one assumes, physically or psychologically scarred, and skeptical in either case of the values of the societies that had sent them to fight. Above all, it is the sheer suffocating senselessness of the war that rankles and sticks in the mind. As Captain Blackadder remarks in the aforementioned BBC series, just before being sent to his death in another futile attack, one could not even “get out of the war by pretending to be mad,” since, after all, “who would have noticed another madman around here?”

This condemnation is the stock-in-trade of some of the best writing to emerge from the Great War. Its ingredients can be found in the works of such well-known witnesses as Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, and Henri Barbusse. Perhaps more than anything, it was Remarque’s bestselling All Quiet on the Western Front (1929) which popularized the anti-war interpretation. The book told the story of earnest schoolboys lured into joining the war by the slick jingoism of their elders, only to have first their souls and then their lives snuffed out by forces of mechanized annihilation they can’t begin to fathom. Remarque famously described the novel as an attempt “to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped shells, were destroyed by the war.” But, as the historian Modris Eksteins has convincingly argued, the work is better read as evidence of its author’s own postwar malaise, which he discovered how to pin on the war. Remarque, Eksteins claimed, “was more interested in explaining away the emotional imbalance of a generation than in a comprehensive or even accurate account of the experience and feelings of men in the trenches.” Indeed, Remarque’s wartime experience — he spent at most a month or two in the front lines — was far more limited than his novel led readers to suppose.

So influential were these depictions of doomed youth in a tragic war that Paul Fussell, in his classic The Great War and Modern Memory, could present their anxious and ironic tones, their sense of absurdity and powerlessness, as the 20th century’s paradigmatic mode of truth-telling about war. “Every war is ironic,” Fussell proclaimed, 

because every war is worse than expected… But the Great War was more ironic than any before or since. It was a hideous embarrassment to the prevailing Meliorist myth which had dominated the public consciousness for a century. It reversed the Idea of Progress.

Fussell’s book, first published in 1975 in the shadow of Vietnam, is a good example of how, for readers already susceptible to this view of war, the very grimness of an account becomes an axiomatic guarantee of its truthfulness. In fact, at least part of the success of The Great War in Modern Memory — it won a National Book Award and, unusually for a work of literary criticism, was reprinted in a 25th anniversary edition in 2000 — seems traceable to its uncritical embrace of the anti-war myth.

It is important to recognize, however, that the anti-war myth has not always enjoyed such hegemony. In the 1920s and 1930s, it vied with a powerful “pro-war” position for interpretive rights to the conflict. For German writers (and veterans) like Ernst Jünger, Franz Schauwecker, Werner Beumelberg, and Edwin Dwinger, the war’s violence was less victimizing than empowering. Life in the trenches had meant an experience of comradeship and newly awakened feelings of national belonging, and an encounter with emotional intensities denied by the security of civilian life. Far from senseless suffering, the war had been a transcendent event, a revelation of the beauty of collective struggle and the nobility of self-sacrifice for high ideals. The war, Jünger declared in 1922, had created a “wholly new race, intelligent, strong, and full of will.” Not all prophets of the pro-war myth were Germans, but it was in Germany that the pro-war myth bore its most sinister fruit, helping prepare the way for Hitler’s rise to power.

Yet if the pro-war interpretation has aged poorly, discredited by its fascist associations, the anti-war position has only benefited from the passage of time. Subsequent wars have done little to dispel the popular belief that war is madness. The Cold War arms race, with its threat of an even more thorough and senseless apocalypse, along with the peace movements of the 1960s and 1970s, provided fertile soil for countless paperback editions of Remarque and popularizing statements of the anti-war case such as the epic 1964 BBC documentary The Great War. (With episodes entitled “For Such a Stupid Reason Too” and “Hell Cannot Be So Terrible,” the series left little room for ambivalence.) The 1996 PBS/BBC co-production The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century reprised the argument in shorter form for a new generation. Among the clearest indications of the triumph of the anti-war narrative was the meeting, in 1984, of Helmut Kohl and François Mitterrand at a ceremony commemorating the dead at Verdun, long a symbol for the deranged logic of the entire conflict. More than a gesture of Franco-German reconciliation, their protracted handshake was a sign that the Great War’s frightful lessons had finally been learned.  


It is a curious fact about the great war that one of its most important legacies was a highly politicized notion of the “war experience.” The idea that the war had disclosed to its combatants a truth, one whose communication to the non-initiated was both urgent and difficult, was at the heart of each of the rival “myths” to which it gave birth. Whether the war experience was invoked to mobilize martial energies or to warn of future tragedies, whether it was celebrated as a quasi-sacred event or exposed as a horrifying agony, it was the authority of those who were there which captured the imagination and legitimized the message. The significance of the war and its essential experiences confirmed one another. More than any other conflict in modern times, the meanings ascribed to the Great War have hinged on the witness of common soldiers, on the testimony of what it was like to fight in places like Loos, Passchendaele, and Verdun.

Living memory, from which we expect not only the vividness of an experience but a moral too, has thus weighed more on our brains in the case of the Great War than we might suspect. To say that the memory of soldiers has mythologized the war is not to dismiss all claims; rather, it is to recognize that memory and experience are complexly related, and that recollection is colored by more than the events it relays. As the psychologist Daniel Schacter puts it, we do not so much “retrieve copies” of our experiences as “recreate or reconstruct” them. In doing so, we “bias our memories of the past by attributing to them emotions or knowledge we acquired after the event.” The past self who experienced and the present self who remembers are not identical. The act of remembering even traumatic experiences can also be powerfully therapeutic, offering the chance to retrospectively transform the chaos and inscrutability of unfolding events into something like narrative coherence, from which their significance can then be read.

Like Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, many of the most famous accounts of fighting in World War I are postwar recollections in this sense: they interpret wartime experiences from a standpoint aware of how it all turned out, slotting incidents into a narrative arc only available after the fact. The gulf between immediate reactions and postwar attitudes could be extreme. As Samuel Hynes has pointed out, Robert Graves’s description at the time of the day the war ended noted that “things were very quiet,” with a “perfunctory” church service and “grouses about demobilization.” A decade later, in his acclaimed memoir Good-Bye to All That (1929), Graves transformed the event into a highly literary scene of walking at night across ancient battlefields “cursing and sobbing and thinking of the dead.”

One of the most revealing before-and-after comparisons has only recently become available. In 2010, Ernst Jünger’s Kriegstagebuch, 1914-1918 appeared in print, some 12 years after its author’s death at the age of 102. This “War Diary,” which records in meticulous detail Jünger’s 44 months on the Western Front, formed the basis for a host of memoirs, of which Storm of Steel is undoubtedly the most famous. First published in 1920, Storm of Steel underwent numerous revisions, evolving throughout that decade into a manifesto of a “new nationalism” that recast Germany’s battlefield defeat as a spiritual victory, the fiery birth of a new and hardened warrior-elite who would redeem the nation. Even in the amended 1961 edition on which the recent English translation is based, Storm of Steel remains an arresting counterpoint to the received wisdom about the war.

What is striking, however, is how this classic statement of the pro-war myth differs from the war Jünger recorded in his diaries. Indeed, the Kriegstagebuch reveals a soldier who, though clearly the narrator in embryo of works like Storm of Steel, was more susceptible to the war’s grim absurdities than hitherto suspected. If the Kriegstagebuch never gives up on the war as a heroic adventure, it also records moments of clear disillusionment. As Jünger wrote in May 1917, in a meditation on the war’s devastated landscape: “When will this shitty war come to an end? What might one have seen and enjoyed during this time… But still no end in sight.”

There is, in fact, hardly a trope, image, or barb familiar to students of the anti-war myth that fails to find its way into the Kriegstagebuch. Jünger resents the orders of staff officers and begrudges ideas about the conduct of the war from those “rear-area pigs” less acquainted than he with conditions in the front lines. The gulf between the truth of actions Jünger has taken part in and the sanitized accounts that appear in official communiqués calls forth responses ranging from bemusement to disgruntled annoyance. Time and again he catalogs the miseries of rain, mud, cold, lice, boredom, shabby quarters, meager rations, interrupted sleep, and sheer exhaustion. And above all there is the ubiquitous presence of corpses: the soft feel of bodies beneath one’s feet; the unmistakable smell of decomposing flesh, particularly unwelcome at mealtime; the sight and sound of maggots; bodies bloated and covered in flies; the discovery of corpses — or, more often, a mélange of their component parts — while digging in; and the relentless effects of artillery, disturbing and dismembering bodies long dead like a plow turning and breaking the soil. (“Not even the dead,” Jünger dryly notes, “are permitted to rest in peace.”) Death, when it comes, strikes randomly and from points unknown. That the liberal consumption of alcohol figures so prominently in Jünger’s diaries is hardly a surprise.

Yet Jünger’s Kriegstagebuch is by no means an “anti-war” document. His years of grief and squalor had been too leavened with redeeming moments — the “sporting” thrill of patrol, the pleasures of a “rough life among men,” what Jünger calls the “magnificent spectacle” of devastated villages — to result in a rejection of the war. Its attitude can only be described as ambivalence. But if Jünger’s later memories of the war privileged certain moments over others, it is because they sought to convey not just the documentary truth of the war, but its literary truth as well. They sought, in other words, a sense and coherence in the war experience which were only accessible once the war had been lost and the measure of the postwar world had been taken.

And herein lies an important lesson. It is not just that memories are made of flexible stuff. Nor is it that “experience,” as the historian Joan Scott has argued, is less an objective source of knowledge than something whose invocation allows identities to take shape. (In Jünger’s case, the political identity of a foe of Weimar democracy, whose position and message were grounded in a particular rendition of his “experience.”) Rather, it is that sometimes living memory has to relax its grip on an event for the rest of us to discover it anew. Jünger’s own living memory of the war — his desire, that is, to retain narrative control over the meaning of his experience — led him to brush off repeated requests to examine his original diary. Only in 1995, a few years before his death, was the diary made available to scholars. And only in 2009 was permission to publish received from his widow. Far from impoverishing our access to the reality of the trenches, Jünger’s passing made available a source whose length, richness of description, and proximity to conditions of life at the front make it virtually unparalleled in the literature of the First World War.  


The final disappearance of those who might tell us “I was there, and this is how it was” augurs a similar relaxation on a larger scale. With the centennial of the war’s eruption just over the horizon and a flood of World War I books, cover stories, and documentaries about to break, there is hope that something more than genuflections to the old anti-war myth awaits us. For there is no question that our cultural memory of the war is but a selective fixation — in monuments, rites, symbols, and especially stories — of the more diverse memories once held by veterans themselves. Some tales become canonized while others are forgotten, and even famous accounts get read in one-dimensional ways. One forgets that Robert Graves disavowed “anti-war” intentions in writing Good-Bye to All That. Or that Henri Barbusse was opposed more to war in the abstract than to taking up arms in so just a cause as the crusade against German militarism. Or that Siegfried Sassoon, though tireless in his rebuke of the armchair warriors back home, was also a zealous officer famed for his bravery in confronting the enemy. One forgets, too, that some of the war’s victims were also killers.

Scholars have been unraveling the anti-war myth for decades, but if the popular image of the Great War has failed to budge, this is partly because living memory has stood ready to confirm expectations. The oral historian Max Arthur’s 2005 Last Post, which promised “the final word from our First World War soldiers,” is a telling case, offering what is in fact a breviary of the anti-war myth. Thus the assertion of William Roberts (d. 2006) that “the Great War was a lot of political bull. There shouldn’t be wars.” Cecil Withers (d. 2005) echoed the sentiment, adding that “[t]hese days, if any trigger-happy politician wants to start another war, it’s my job to let people know what that means.” For Alfred Finnigan (d. 2005), World War I “started out idiotic and it stayed idiotic. It was damned silly, all of it.” And Harry Patch, whose 2009 death occasioned anti-war poems and even an anti-war song by the English rock band Radiohead, lamented “[a]ll those lives lost for a war finished over a table. Now what is the sense in that?” Admonitions about the senselessness of war were in fact the universal tidings of the war’s last veterans. As Le Monde reported in the wake of Lazare Ponticelli’s death in 2008, his final years were devoted to delivering the message: “To the children, I say and I repeat: do not make war.”

These are, and will remain, testimonies worthy of reflection. It would be perverse to deny that war is a source of tragedy, and dangerous to glorify it. But the trouble is that such warnings slide too easily into the grooves of a long-established narrative, and the witness they bear creates obstacles to uncluttered thinking, not only about the Great War, but about war in general. Instead, we are left with spectacles like Steven Spielberg’s saccharine 2011 film War Horse, noteworthy only for its novel extension of the anti-war myth to the animal kingdom. Even as tremendous a book as Dexter Filkins’ The Forever War (2008), based on his time as a war correspondent in Iraq, cannot resist ending its account of America’s war against Islamic fundamentalism with a visit to a World War I-era British cemetery in Baghdad. Walking among the graves of soldiers fallen in the Mesopotamian campaign against the Ottomans, Filkins quietly permits the scene to suggest a similar dearth of sense and purpose in America’s misadventures in the same land some 90 years later. Again, the Great War is reflexively trotted out as a metaphor for war’s vain wastage of human lives.

The reality of the World War I “experience,” like the reality of the experience of any war, was more complex. Charles Carrington, whose A Subaltern’s War (1929), published under the pseudonym “Charles Edmonds,” deserves to be better known, provides a corrective. Indeed, Carrington, a veteran of the bloody Somme and Passchendaele offensives, makes plain that the baffling question why men continued to fight such a war of attrition only really perplexes from the vantage point of the anti-war myth. In an epilogue to the first edition that took aim at the “literary fashion in war books,” Carrington declared that “it is not honest to deny the existence of happiness which was actually derived from the war.” Horrors and hardships were hardly continuous, he pointed out, and they were balanced by the pleasures of rest, the chance for adventure, and the comforts of comradeship.

For Carrington, the “moment of disenchantment” only arrived after the peace was signed. It was then that “the spell which had bound us for such a long time was broken; the charm failed; an illusion came crashing down about our ears and left us in an unfamiliar world.” A Subaltern’s War was Carrington’s attempt to tell a more candid story. “No corrupt sergeant majors,” he wrote, “stole my rations or accepted my bribes. No incompetent colonels failed to give me food or lodging. No casual staff officers ordered me to certain death, indifferent to my fate.”

It would, however, be no less wrong to present the honest ambivalence of Carrington, or Ernst Jünger, as emblematic of the “war experience.” The underwhelming truth is that there is no such thing as a single representative story of the Great War. Anyone interested in the diversity of testimonies that emerged from the war (and the pressures and motives that shaped them) need only consult Leonard Smith’s The Embattled Self: French Soldiers’ Testimonies of the Great War (2007) or Brian Bond’s Survivors of a Kind: Memoirs of the Western Front (2008). “The truism of tragedy and victimization in the Great War,” Smith argues, “certainly enables us to interpret testimony clearly, but at the cost of closing off our understanding of the creativity with which soldiers grappled with their predicament.” Part of this “creativity” involved recourse to a host of narrative strategies to make sense of their wartime experience — as a rite of passage, say, or a tale of “mastering” the extremes of death and disfigurement — all essentially different from the more familiar moralizing narratives of tragedy and trauma. Bond likewise demonstrates “the tremendous variety of war memoirs in, for example, their style of presentation and in their authors’ attitudes to the war, beyond the handful of classics admitted to the literary canon.” These include “unapologetic warriors” like Alfred Pollard, author of Fire-Eater (1932), who relished the war as a chance for martial glory; and Frederic Manning’s masterful Her Privates We (1930), which unsentimentally depicts the scrounging, scrimshanking, gossiping, and boozing of common soldiers, whose exhaustion and grim resolve to do their duty give the lie to any simple notions about “disenchantment.”

The reader of these works might also reflect on whether the cause of peace today is best served by recycling myths about war. For one thing seems clear: cloaking the Great War in a mystique of incomprehensible horror has not made war any less likely, or any more humane. Like all such auras, the anti-war myth may even exercise a dark fascination. As François Truffaut is supposed to have said, there is no such thing as an anti-war film, since the action of warfare, however barbarous, cannot fail to excite. What is decidedly not served, in any case, is the task of understanding, which involves the uncomfortable recognition that war can mean a good deal more than just senseless agony. A sober anti-war position ought to concern itself not only with war’s horrors but with its attractions: what leads people to go off to fight in the first place, and — crucially — to continue once they’re there.

It matters, after all, whether World War I soldiers remained in the trenches through “coercion” or “consent” (to borrow terms from an ongoing revisionist debate). It matters, in other words, to how one plans to prevent the next war whether one believes that millions were led to the slaughter by self-serving politicians and heartless generals, or whether one thinks millions died as self-conscious defenders of nations and empires in causes they believed were just. As Leonard Smith has put it, to pay attention to forms of consent is to stress “the internalization on the part of millions of Europeans in and out of uniform of at least some of the values for which they claimed the war had to be fought.” Employing the notion of “war cultures,” historians of the consent school ask about the beliefs and symbols which made the Great War seem worth fighting, and which led contemporaries to stick it out even as the conflict’s unforeseen brutality became clear. If support for the Great War was at times manufactured and cajoled, it was also often negotiated, argued for, acquiesced in, and granted in full awareness of the risks involved. For soldiers in the 1914-18 war, consent could mean the duty of citizenship, obligations to tribe or family, defending the homeland, loyalty to comrades, or even the chance for excitement and escape from civilian life — none of which adds up to the cliché of a pointless war or a tale of passive victimization. Combatants were driven not only by “sticks,” as historian Niall Ferguson has noted, but by “carrots” too.

Far from a surrender to militarism, gaining critical distance on the anti-war myth of the Great War can help bring perspective to today’s anti-war politics. With public opinion now against the Iraq War — a recent Gallup poll found that 53 percent of Americans consider the March 2003 invasion a mistake, compared to only 24 percent at the time — another powerful narrative of tragedy and trauma is beginning to ossify. The skeleton of this new anti-war myth was already present in Michael Moore’s 2003 Oscar acceptance speech (delivered as bombs were falling on Baghdad), which damned George W. Bush as a “fictitious president” who took us “to war for fictitious reasons.” Moore’s 2004 film Fahrenheit 9/11 married this indictment to charges of incompetence, monied influence, and indifference to the unjustified suffering inflicted on soldiers and families. A raft of disillusioned Iraq War memoirs — Paul Rieckhoff’s Chasing Ghosts, Brandon Friedman’s The War I Always Wanted, and Michael Anthony’s Mass Casualties, among others — have since appeared which can provide this view with the authenticating voice of direct experience. The U.S. occupation now over, the swirl of stories and claims can settle into a common-sense idea of the war as yet another futile debacle wrought by generals and politicians.

But like the anti-war myth of the Great War, this interpretation isn’t so much wrong as simplistic, and even comforting, in its unambiguous assignment of blame. For a response to the Iraq War that is not mythopoeic, but rather demythologizing, we might look to a different, if no less outraged, anti-war speech. This was the commencement address delivered by journalist Chris Hedges at Rockford College in May 2003. Hedges, a former war correspondent, spoke of the allure and moral corrosion of war, themes elaborated in his 2002 book War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning. Without letting the Bush administration off the hook, Hedges observed Americans’ collective self-exaltation as we watched “Shock and Awe” and delighted in televised proof of our military power. In an admonition that applies equally to soldiers and civilians, he argued that the “seduction of war is insidious because so much of what we are told about it is true — it does create a feeling of comradeship which obliterates our alienation and makes us, for perhaps the only time in our life, feel we belong.” Faced with scandals and deficits and the tragedy of 9/11, Americans found in war a diversion, a feeling of nobility and selflessness, and “that ecstatic bliss that comes with belonging to a crowd in wartime.” Hedges’ audience, as though obliged to corroborate this censure, answered with a barrage of hisses and defiant chants of “USA! USA!”

Whether or not future generations will remember the Iraq War as another “pointless” war is uncertain. Yet Hedges, by reminding us of at least some of the deep sources of our support for war, prompts us to ask the questions that can forestall any facile mythmaking. How, as soldiers or civilians, did we consent to the invasion and long occupation of Iraq? More importantly: how, as a nation, do we continue to allow our identities and meanings to be invested in war? It may be that we can best mark the centennial of the Great War and honor the suffering it caused by resisting the urge to mythologize our own wars, whether as paradises or infernos. After all, such myths have proven a poor prophylaxis against renewed outbreaks of war fever.

“Can war be prevented?” Charles Carrington asked in 1929. He answered in the affirmative, but added the following disclaimer:

We shall cease to fight to the death so soon as we rid our hearts of envy, hatred, and malice. Since this seems improbable at the moment… we can take precautions just as we take them against shipwreck. Among these will not be found vote-catching treaties, abuse of friendly nations, jeers and sneers against the police work done by soldiers and sailors, misrepresentation of the facts about war, nor any of the seven-devils which may enter when the devil of militarism is driven out. 


Eliah Bures is a historian of modern Europe.

LARB Contributor

Eliah Bures is a historian of modern Europe. He is currently finishing a dissertation on friendship in twentieth-century Germany at UC Berkeley.


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