I planned to write quite a different blog post, but then the Internet reminded me that today is the hundredth anniversary of the start of World War I, so that other post will have to wait.
All I can really remember about how I came to my interest in World War I is that sometime in middle or early high school, I saw a picture of some soldiers and thought that was the last time guys looked truly hot in uniform. Tell me, who doesn’t love a man in puttees? My mom told me my great-grandfather, who fought in France and spoke of the war only in reference to French girls in order to annoy my great-grandmother, would have appreciated that.
Also, I think it partly came down to a question of fairness. I’m an American. Americans can talk World War II all day long, but we’re kind of lost when it comes to World War I. That’s partly because we weren’t in it very long, but I think there’s more to it than that. World War II calls up more emotions Americans are comfortable with: clarity of purpose, a solid win. As a culture, we don’t like to dwell on the past, no matter how much it affects us. And what’s the use of a war no one could really win? I became interested in that neglected war because I saw that it was neglected, overshadowed by its bolder, more triumphant offspring. All wars are sad, but World War I seemed to me especially so, not as if the events were sad, but as if the war itself—insofar as wars have a consciousness—were sad.
World War I will always appeal to storytellers because it’s such a perfectly constructed tragedy, almost too perfect to have occurred naturally, as if it were scripted to wring the audience’s hearts. For a century, World War I has provided the raw material for excellent works of literature. It’s sometimes called the most literary of all wars, and maybe that also piqued my interest, because the military and diplomatic history of the war doesn’t interest me any more than military and diplomatic history ever does. (Not much).
I’ve grown out of my high school belief that F. Scott Fitzgerald was The Best Writer Ever to Live (Sorry, Dr. Bruccoli. Please think I am still smart.), but his take on the war in Tender is the Night rings truer to me than any other:
“This western-front business couldn’t be done again, not for a long time. The young men think they could do it but they couldn’t. They could fight the first Marne again but not this. This took religion and years of plenty and tremendous sureties and the exact relation that existed between the classes. The Russians and Italians weren’t any good on this front. You had to have a whole-souled sentimental equipment going back further than you could remember. You had to remember Christmas, and postcards of the Crown Prince and his fiancée, and little cafés in Valence and beer gardens in Unter den Linden and weddings at the mairie, and going to the Derby, and your grandfather’s whiskers.”
“General Grant invented this kind of battle at Petersburg in sixty-five.”
“No, he didn’t—he just invented mass butchery. This kind of battle was invented by Lewis Carroll and Jules Verne and whoever wrote Undine, and country deacons bowling and marraines in Marseilles and girls seduced in the back lanes of Wurtemburg and Westphalia. Why, this was a love battle—there was a century of middle-class love spent here. This was the last love battle.”
You see what I mean about why World War I appeals to writers and other artists? Half the work is done for you before you get there. I’d love to write about World War I, but I don’t know if I could do it right. Perhaps I am too American, too ready to grin into the sunlight, too unwilling to look back and grieve properly, to walk purposely into the darkness of a time which brought no real triumph—and indeed no satisfying conclusion.
What period of history draws you back time after time? Why do you think that is?