Sunday, May 25, 2008

Rude Radio Hosts?

In a touching Washington Post Outlook section piece on how World War I is, for Americans, a "forgotten war," University of Virginia history professor Edward G. Lengel writes:

I recently asked the hosts of a Charlottesville radio talk show on war and remembrance why Americans seemed so uninterested in World War I. It all boiled down to circumstances, they answered. The United States wasn't in the fight for long and suffered relatively few casualties. Then the Great Depression intervened, followed by World War II, and people naturally forgot old sorrows. There must be more to it than that, I protested. World War I was hardly a forgettable conflict; during six months in 1918, 53,513 Americans were killed in action -- almost as many as in Vietnam, and over a much shorter period of time. Perhaps, I suggested, Americans simply found trench warfare too depressing. Annoyed, the hosts cut me off with a flippant remark. As the receiver clicked, I could not help feeling that they had helped prove my point.
Trying to discern who these rude radio hosts were, I came up empty. They couldn't be either Coy Barefoot or Rob Schilling, who are so polite to their guests it borders on indulgence. It's possible that this happened on WINA's morning show with Jane Foy and Rick Daniels but, if it did, the perceived rudeness was more likely the effect of shortage of time rather than indifference to Professor Lengel's point. Of course, he could have been talking to radio personalities on another station (maybe WVAX, the left-wing counterpart of WINA, or WCHV, which carries Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity).

I can offer my own theory as to "why Americans seemed so uninterested in World War I": We are taught in school that the roots of that war are found in European rivalries of the 19th century, the breakdown of the regime established at the Congress of Vienna, and Germany's desire to compete with Britain in world markets and attain at least equality in seapower.

Most of us no doubt also learned about the disarray of European diplomacy before and during the war, and how the aims of the war changed rapidly and several times between August 1914 and the Armistice. Britain, France, Germany, Italy, and Russia, and their various allies on both sides, simply couldn't decide what it was they were fighting for. (I summarize to the point of parody, but I don't want to belabor the issues.)

In other words, none of this had anything to do with the United States. There was no legitimate reason for the United States to intervene in "the Great War," and, it could be argued, the entry of the United States on the side of the Franco-British alliance upset the balance of power in Europe so that the Europeans could not settle the war for themselves.

Moreover, Woodrow Wilson's crusading and dissembling spirit (all that balderdash about the war being fought to defend democracy and that it was the "war to end all wars" -- Kellogg and Briand, call your office) led to an unjust post-war settlement that eventually led to the rise of fascism and Hitler's coming to power in 1933. (Keynes might have been wrong on most things, but he certainly knew about "the economic consequences of the peace.") As every schoolboy knows, the Second World War was nothing more than the second half of World War I, the completion of a process that began 31 years -- or more -- earlier.

With this historical background, it makes perfect sense that Americans would be detached and uninterested in World War I.

That doesn't make it any less sad in regard to the 53,000-plus soldiers, sailors, and Marines who died and the hundreds of thousands of other casualties. On Memorial Day, and especially on Armistice Day (Veterans' Day), they should be remembered.

Postscript: It is noteworthy that both Professor Lengel and George F. Will mention the sole surviving doughboy of World War I, 107-year-old Frank Buckles, in their columns today. Will adds near the end of his article:

The First World War is still taking American lives because it destroyed the Austro-Hungarian, Romanoff and Ottoman empires. A shard of the latter is called Iraq.

Those who fail to understand history may not be compelled to repeat it, but they certainly are compelled to live with its consequences.

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