Last month, World War I fought World War II. The winner was the war to end all wars. No, the other one.
June 6, 2014, marked the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion; June 28, 2014, marked the 100th anniversary of the assassination that started the First World War. Which one do you think the American news media spent more time on? You can’t answer that just by cross-googling the events with news sources; everyone covered both. Nor can you trust facebook groups, or likes, or twitter attention; there’s just too much diffusion between varying commemorative pages. What you can collate is network airtime, particularly on right-leaning talk radio and the “soft” news shows that make up part of America’s morning ritual – Today, Good Morning America, Morning Joe, Fox and Friends, The View. Well, the contest wasn’t even close.
Last month, President Obama gave a speech commemorating the 70-year anniversary of the turning point of World War II. Did he give a speech about the outbreak of World War I? Nahhh. Would it surprise anyone to learn that so far in 2014, Netflix has rented Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998) more than Spielberg’s War Horse (2011)? Nahhh. Even on the Hitleristory channel, all the WWI documentaries are about what Churchill, FDR, and Hitler were doing from 1914 to 1918. Now, nobody in any esteemed media source is going to tell you that World War I always “loses” to World War II. That’s why I’m bothering with this post.
I understand the contingencies here. The Normandy landings were about sacrifice for victory; Gavrilo Princip’s killing of an Austrian Archduke was closer to terrorism. In one case, we look back and may feel proud of men doing their violent duty; the other we look back on like a 9.0 earthquake, a terrible violent spasm. (We could talk about commonalities between military violence and terror violence, but forget that for the moment.) And yes, one very directly involved millions of Americans, while the other led to American sacrifice three years later. The Great War is still a Great Deal in Europe, particularly in France, where their heroism seems more valiant compared with 25 years later, and Britain, where their poppy pins keep anyone from forgetting, but over here it’s turned into more of a Great Meh. The recent France-Germany World Cup match was a bigger deal here…without anyone drawing any 100-year parallels.
Besides the difference in American involvement, we might also pin the June-anniversary discrepancy on the fact that one happened 30 years before, and those 30 years were important ones: radio, photos and movies became ubiquitous enough to give us enduring sounds and images from France in 1944, compared to near-nothing from Sarajevo in 1914. In those 30 years, every surviving soldier of the First World War has died, while there’s still a few hardy WWII vets who can be propped up on CNN. Sure. But that’s all the more reason that a less profit-driven, more responsible media – say, one looking for the root causes of ISIS taking over Iraq – would devote more energy to a story that Americans know less well.
I mean, when have you ever heard of a 70-year anniversary of anything? Really. Name another one without googling. I didn’t think so. (75, maybe.) On the other hand, we have always paid attention to important centennials, from the American Revolution (they made a World’s Expo for it, today’s equivalent of one week of all internet traffic going to the same site) to the Civil War (hello, civil rights) to the Statue of Liberty to Titanic. Perhaps all the big 100-year commemorations of World War I are coming, when we look back on the Battle of the Somme, or the first V-Day, but let’s face it: this was the First World War’s big chance for a Normandy-like splash. The media blew it.
Is there a problem with the different natures of the century’s two World Wars? As Bill Maher was joking on his most recent show, The Great War is the only war he knows whose conflict can’t be stated in a single, Hollywood-pitch-like phrase. Compared to the Manichean good and evil and sweeping battles of The Big One, memories of World War (The Small?) One are of needless battles, frustration, inertia, entropy, waste: the minute you see those trenches and barbed wire and too-big helmets, you know no one’s going to make any kind of leap forward, metaphoric or otherwise. Beyond ending empires, beyond ending the power of royalty, WWI ended faith: events were so absurd as to make their survivors look to Freud, Marx, Darwin, surrealism, modernism, any –ism other than deism. Looking back on an all-too-ironic war, historians have concluded the most bitter irony of all: Germany and Austria could have controlled the continent and had everything they wanted, economically, if they had not risen to the calls for war. As The New Yorker recently pointed out, the problem for us now, comparing current rising conflicts to the two World Wars, is which lesson we learn: restraint and diplomacy, which could have prevented WWI, or force and non-compromise, which could have prevented WWII. Perhaps it’s not all that surprising which one Americans prefer to remember. Perhaps the dates could have been switched, and CNN would still prefer to warn us of another Munich than lament a treaty breakdown in Croatia. We’d rather learn from fighters than fools, right?
Kids, if you’ve heard all about Hitler, and almost nothing about Kaiser Wilhelm II, I can only tell you that there are thousands of books to help you. Anything I say here will be utterly reductive, way too over-summarized. Yet I feel true populists must know about our rich history, which includes both World Wars. Perhaps you’re not too young to remember late November 2000, or mid-September 2001, or late September 2008. If you were watching the news, there was a lot to be scared about. But for a few weeks at a time, there was also a palpable, vertiginous sense of possibility, of coming out the other side with a nation or even a world that might be very different than the one we theretofore knew. This was the world for six long years, from the summer of 1914 to the summer of 1920, when the Spanish flu finally seemed to abate, when the Bolsheviks won the Soviet civil war, when our own race riots concluded. As the dust finally settled on all those war-sparked, world-shaking spasms, Americans knew that 1920 would be nothing like 1910 (in the way that 1910 was like 1900): we, the people, instituted women’s suffrage, radios, cars, celebrities, Hollywood, knee-length skirts, short hair, billboards, education equality, Prohibition, the League of Nations (okay, we had to take back those last two)…we made the American century even as we made the world that led to World War II. So yes, let’s remember the millions dead and honorable veterans of both wars, but on the 100th anniversary of the summer that changed the world, let’s lower our heads and think of possibilities. Even Shakespeare knew that we learn as much from the fool as we do from the fighter.