Friday, March 14, 2008

The End of Historical Memory of the Great War

Yesterday word came that the last French veteran of World War I died at the age of 110. Less than a handful remain in the rest of the world, with only one in the US, 107-year old Frank Buckles of West Virginia. So, the last memory of the Great War is about to die out.

My point here is not to glorify it all, far from it. That war was a horror, if not as deadly as its successor, WW II. The literature inspired by it is one of horror and alienation: A Farewell to Arms, All Quiet on the Western Front, and even the more depressing war scenes from The Lord of the Rings (Tolkien served in the trenches of France then). My point is that we should fear that the consciousness of how horrible war is and has become should not fade, even as those who experience it die off.


nihil obstet said...

Now the template for large-scale war is World War II, "The Good War". The knowledge that war is horrible has been replaced by the few-bad-apples excuse that some horrible things happen in war.

Kaleberg said...

Shouldn't that be "living memory", not "historical memory"?

I really don't know. There is a large community in America still traumatized by the Vietnam War which led to a revulsion similar to that of the 1930s with the bans on war toys and the like. Unfortunately, there is still the problem that war works in its horrible way.

World War II was unusual in the US because so many men served, and that created a generation with a level of solidarity that is lacking today. The WWII vets had the power to create a new society which the baby boomers took as a given, and many have sought to destroy.

Each war, including WWII, has its memory of horrors. That's why they keep needed new names for soldier's melancholy. In some ways I more regret the passing of the WWII generation. Without them we will lose not just a war time experience, but an important peace time experience as well.

Sandwichman said...

Don't worry. There'll always be another war from which to remember the horrors of war. said...

Yes, I should have said living memory, not historical memory. It does seem to be the case that although its horror was greater, there was less of this alienation coming out of WW II. It did seem to have more of a purpose to it than the totally pointless WW I.

Of course most wars are thought to have a purpose. But we often see things developing so that the original purpose becomes completely lost in the tide of unanticipated consequences. So, with WW I most people on both sides thought it would be over very quickly. Kind of reminiscent of the US adventure in Iraq on that score.