Exclusive to M/m Print Plus

American Memory, Forgotten Wars

Map of location for the proposed WWI Memorial in Washington DC from the US WWI Centennial Commission website.

November 2018 not only sees the US midterm elections which will allow the American people to respond at the ballot box to the tumultuous and often exhaustingly toxic political environment during the Trump presidency. It also brings the less heralded and seemingly more distant centenary commemorations of the end of the First World War on November 11th, 1918. Yet another world historical milestone to be overshadowed by a relentless domestic news cycle dominated by a politics of distraction and fear that seems to harness racism, misogyny, economic inequality and outright violence to an unprecedented degree.

The First World War is modernism’s war. Its mythic trench landscapes, Hemingwayesque crises of masculinity, and home front struggles over race and gender would seem far distant from today’s embedded media war reporting, high-tech drone warfare and stealth bombing, digital surveillance and cyberwarfare, and paramilitary special forces operating in 170 countries around the world. Yet the WWI Centenary has received sustained media attention and repeated commemoration in Britain and Europe, most spectacularly by a controversial “Petals of Blood” installation at the Tower of London by artist Paul Cummins consisting of 888,246 ceramic red poppies, each representing a British or Colonial serviceman killed in the War. The Great War was also at the center of an ideological battle over the teaching of history in the national curriculum, with a Brexiteer Education Minister attacking Wilfred Owen, revisionist military historians, and the satirical TV comedy, Blackadder Goes Forth. Christopher Nolan’s Oscar-winning WWII movie, Dunkirk, which caught the melancholy Post-Brexit transatlantic imagination, represents stoical heroicized infantrymen who could easily have stepped like Tommies out of the trenches of the Somme in June 1916.

Design image for the proposed WWI Memorial in Washington DC from the US WWI Centennial Commission website.

In the United States, by contrast, the WWI Centenary has passed more or less unnoticed. In a piece entitled, “The first world war helped shape modern America. Why is it so forgotten?” the Guardian’s Washington correspondent noted that President Trump declined to appear at “the official commemoration of the US entry into WWI on April 6, 2017 at the National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, Missouri, where the most senior official was the acting army secretary, Robert Speer.” The President traveled instead “to his luxury estate in Florida for talks with the Chinese president, Xi Jinping.” The WWI memorial approved for Washington DC in 2013 has still not been built in its designated spot near the National Mall, where the Vietnam War memorial and new WWII memorial attract hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. Virtual mock-ups of the WWI monument proposed a relatively conventional, heroicized memorial featuring, of course, inscriptions drawn from Ernest Hemingway. More recent CGI designs show ghostly virtual citizens viewing a stark sculptural memorial wall. Commemorative exhibitions at the Smithsonian have had almost no media coverage, and as the New York Times recently noted, “Even the commission set up by Congress in 2013 to commemorate this year’s centenary calls World War I America’s ‘most forgotten war.’”

Design image for the proposed WWI Memorial in Washington DC from the US WWI Centennial Commission website.

Bearing Witness and Insisting on Complexity

Recognizing that modernism’s war is one of America’s “forgotten wars,” caught between a British and European “memory boom” and relative amnesia in the United States, is a powerful reminder of the unstable place of war in recent American popular memory.  It also reminds us that as scholars of literary modernism shaped by WWI we have a double responsibility. First, we bear must witness to the shattering impact of World War One that, as critics since Paul Fussell have argued, plunged an entire world into the crises of modernity wrought by the violent modernization of total war. Secondly, we must insist on the interpretive complexity of the war’s effects on memory across gender, race and class. The temptation is to counter the patriotic wartime propaganda and naïve beliefs about “a war to end all wars” by assuming a straightforwardly ironic critical pose that assumes our primary role as scholars and intellectuals is to demystify, insisting after the rupture of WWI everything changed. But the lesson of modernist—and non-modernist—responses to WWI is that demystifying is not enough, both because there are often profound aesthetic and historical continuities with what went before, and because the texts we read are epistemologically complex, often interwining fantasy and reality, the ideological and grittily real.

This seems an enormously important lesson for the present: the necessity of both bearing witness to forgotten conflicts and insisting on the complexity of interpreting their place in memory. Especially when the temptation is to assume that everything changed in November 2016. The toxic and polarized political and media environment of the Trump era puts pressure on concerned citizens—especially people who interpret texts and teach a younger generation for a living—to assume a reactive pose of fact-checking and demystifying falsehood when public discourse seems to have changed irrevocably and US institutions are under assault. Important then, to take a breath and remember what got us to this present crisis.

America’s recent war in Iraq (2003–2011) and “forgotten war” in Afghanistan (2001–present) also have an uncertain place in historical and popular memory compared to the Second World or Vietnam; they are distant wars without clear objectives or outcomes fought by an all-volunteer military of less than 1% of the population (since the abolition of the draft in 1974) separated by a “civilian-military divide” from a US public which often seems disengaged or uninformed. These “forever wars,” long in duration and catastrophic in their human and economic costs, lack either persuasive official narratives or a cohesive popular memory. To what extent has this forgetting of wars which have lasted the entire lives of many of our students contributed to the current political crisis and uncertainty? 

The wars have exacerbated the polarization of American political life. They brought home the lack of accountability for politicians, public officials and military commanders who justified the 2003 invasion of Iraq and continued military engagement across the globe. The wars instilled popular skepticism about the media who embedded with the military for the invasion of Iraq and who failed to challenge false claims—and “fake news”—about WMDs in Iraq or links between Saddam Hussein and the 9/11 attacks. The “long wars” have also normalized a post-9/11 climate of fear and apathy, the expansion of domestic surveillance and popular disregard for the consequences of US economic and military power on people of color in the Global South. It’s considered unpatriotic to discuss the impact of the vast US military budget (nearly $720 billion this year) on our societal and economic priorities or the influence of military research funding on our universities. Unchecked federal spending on vast military budgets blocks civic debate about the possible alternatives to a permanent war economy. And the domestic arms transfers of vast quantities of surplus military hardware (bought with taxpayer dollars for use in Iraq and Afghanistan) to city police departments escalated the militarization of policing that dates back to the Reagan-era War on Drugs, and which has been protested so powerfully by the Black Lives Matter movement.

Reading across Wartimes and Living with Crisis

As scholars, we often accept the wartimes of particular conflicts as compartmentalized states of exception that don’t speak to each other. War literature also has a somewhat dubious, siloed status in the academy, like that of genre fiction. But I find my students are able to readily negotiate its fluid boundaries, and to explore whether they too have grown up in a war culture. My students readily connect to Great War poetry, as they do to Hemingway’s short fiction from in our time, or Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, as they do to less canonical WWI writing by W. E. B. Du Bois, Mary Borden or Vera Brittain. Making contemporary connections between the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the militarization of policing of communities of color (and the killings of citizens like Michael Brown or Tamir Rice protested so powerfully by Black Lives Matter) can be challenging, let alone excavating longer histories of US warmaking and power projection in the Global South. Yet our students are up for it. The forgetting of the First World War—like the still ongoing “forgotten war” in Afghanistan or the war in Iraq—has much to teach us both about our disturbed relationship to war as scholars and citizens and the effects of the normalization of a state of “forever wars” on our media and national political life. Teaching Mrs Dalloway again, as well as Du Bois, George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara, and Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage, I’ve been struck by how clearly modernist writers understood the pervasive power of militarization to cut across a whole society, and by their skepticism about whether a post-war world might even exist given the pervasive reach of militarist imperialism, white supremacy and patriarchy.

Reading modernist writing about war teaches us that, even a hundred years on, its myths are intertwined with reality and that the urge to demystify has to be tempered by a willingness to explore. These myths are pretty familiar: the myth of the trenches and No Man’s Land of the Western Front as the topos of modern warfare; the myth of WWI as a European as opposed to a global war; the myth of the panoramic commanding vision of total warfare clashing with the individual collapse of vision in the trench labyrinth; the literary myths of modernist rupture, combat experience as higher knowledge and the ironic disillusion of the Lost Generation. Add to this mythologized history written by the victors and by the defeated; gendered, class and racial mythologies; the battle over military history; and the still ongoing post-war mythmaking. Read in this light, WWI literature is best approached as a mix of rupture and continuity, crisis and reconstruction, fragmentation and consolidation.

As other contributors to “In These Times” have incisively noted, if we have the stomach or will for it, teaching and writing about modernism can be invaluable preparation for dealing with this ongoing crisis. Thinking the present as scholars of modernism, we need to consider the seductive modernist tropes of discontinuity, rupture and fragmentation alongside the longer historical continuities of reconstruction, consolidation, and ongoing militarization. As Stuart Hall noted in his essay “Gramsci and Us” of the brutalist “reactionary modernization” of Thatcherism and Reaganism in the 1980s:

There is nothing more crucial, in this respect, than Gramsci's recognition that every crisis is also a moment of reconstruction; that there is no destruction which is not, also, reconstruction; that, historically nothing is dismantled without also attempting to put something new in its place; that every form of power not only excludes but produces something.

Considered in the light of a century of US wars, of which WWI saw the American’s entry onto the global scene, modernism’s double face can remind us of this contradictory logic.

Viewed from the vantage point of 2018 America, the most urgent myth for us to confront about modernism’s war is the no less ideological formula of WWI as a “forgotten war.”  The military historian Andrew Bacevich recently noted on the book jacket of the Library of America’s new Centenary volume, World War I and America: Told by the Americans Who Lived It, “Situated at or near the top of America's long list of ‘forgotten wars’ is the Great War of 1914-1918. The United States entered the conflict belatedly, and most Americans soon regretted having done so at all. Now, a century later, comes A. Scott Berg’s brilliant anthology to make remembering possible and even imperative. The result is gripping, simultaneously sobering and illuminating.” In his book America’s War for the Greater Middle East, Bacevich, like other commentators, uses the same term to describe the “forgotten war” in Afghanistan, now the nation’s longest foreign war. Cheeringly for literary scholars, he argues that literature still has a role to play “make remembering possible and even imperative” in order to understand a more distant “forgotten” American war a century ago that decisively transformed the US role in the world and pushed domestic social battles into high relief. As historian David M. Kennedy has noted in Over Here: The First World War and American Society: “Americans went to war in 1917 not only against Germans in the fields of France but against each other at home” (41).

In my own work I have argued that silences in war culture are always actively produced. The military service of African American troops in the 369th Harlem Hellfighters Regiment, for example, remains anything but forgotten, a potent historical counter-memory of white supremacy—as does the historical trauma of the race riots and lynchings of the “Red Summer” that followed on all too rapidly on their return from Europe. This postwar era of revived white supremacy and Jim Crow segregation in the US South also saw the construction of monuments to the Confederacy and the Southern war dead of the US Civil War. These are the very same controversial war memorials that civil rights activists and mainstream politicians alike are seeking to remove from cities like Charlottesville, Baltimore and Maryland. This layering of the memory of one American war on top of another is typical of the palimpsestic quality of US war culture.

WWI also saw the expansion and normalization of propaganda, censorship and surveillance, and the beginnings of the permanent war economy. On the home front in the United States, opponents of the war were subjected to an unprecedented array of wartime legislation by the emerging national security state that continued into the interwar years: the Espionage Act passed in 1917 was bolstered by the 1918 Sedition Act under which Eugene Debs, the Socialist Party anti-war presidential candidate, was jailed and later pardoned. Although Congress repealed the Sedition Act in 1920, the Espionage Act remains in force a century later, a covert legacy of the “forgotten war.”

Holding onto the “Pity of War”

Literary critics like Paul Fussell, Samuel Hynes and George Mosse have come under fire for fostering a mythic version of the conflict as a futile war fought by a heroic, disillusioned and suffering soldiery commanded by incompetent General Staff, “Lions led by Donkeys.”[1] They continue to draw the ire of military and social historians who blame them for reading WWI through the poet Wilfred Owen’s “pity of war.” Some British revisionist military historians—and politicians—have recently argued, by contrast, that WWI should be commemorated as a “war of national survival,” even a national victory.

The central problem with Fussell and Hynes’s work, I would argue, is not that it produced an ironic or tragic vision of WWI. As Mosse argues, the insistence of writers like Wilfred Owen on “the pity of war” is of crucial importance in an era that has seen neo-fascist resurgence, populist intolerance of immigrants and refugees, a retreat into isolationism and a weary acceptance of a seemingly endless War or Terror. So we give that up at our peril. The military revisionists are wrong, though, to want to throw out modern irony or pity with the bath water. Rather, I would argue, the problem is that both Fussell and Hynes have a blind spot about the “combat Gnosticism” they celebrate in their criticism of a selective tradition of WWI writing, despite their celebration of poetic irony and gritty realism. As James Campbell has argued,

The critical tradition that I identify as mainstream and dominant is one that equates the term “war” with the term “combat.” . . . This is what I mean by combat gnosticism: a construction that gives us war experience as a kind of gnosis, a secret knowledge which only an initiated elite knows. Only men (there is, of course, a tacit gender exclusion operating here) who have actively engaged in combat have access to certain experiences that are productive of, perhaps even constitutive of, an arcane knowledge. Furthermore, mere military status does not signify initiation, but only status as a combatant. It is not the label of "soldier" that is privileged so much as the label of “warrior.”[2]

The Iraq war veteran writer, critic and environmentalist Roy Scranton has drawn on this to critique what he calls the “trauma hero narrative,” which presents American veterans as both heroes and victims of the violence they have perpetrated. This places veterans under an impossible burden of representation, thanked for their service but isolated from the rest of America. Recent US veteran and civilian writers have risen to the challenge of confronting their—and our—complicity with the wars.[3]

Iraqi writer and critic Sinan Antoon offers a postcolonial critique from Iraqi civilians’ point of view of what he calls “embedded poetry” that “views Iraq and Iraqis from an observation post and through military binoculars. And whatever it sees is filtered through a version of the war’s official narrative. The occupier is a victim trapped in a foreign landscape, fighting a war in an incomprehensible place.” Modern maps of post-WWI Iraq as an artificially constructed nation have also been mobilized to represent Iraq as a failed state, thus absolving the United States of responsibility for the disastrous destabilizing effects of its catastrophic 2003 invasion. It is much harder to find Iraqi and Afghan representations of the wars’ terrible impact, though the recent success of books in translation like Ahmed Sadaawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad is a promising sign.

Looking back at the German “myth of war experience” of WWI from the end of the twentieth century, Mosse asks haunting questions relevant for our own era of seemingly permanent warfare:

did the confrontation and transcendence of the war experience and death in war lead to what might be called the domestication of modern war, its acceptance as a natural part of political and social life?  Did the Myth of the War Experience entail a process of brutalization and indifference to human life which was to perpetuate itself in still greater mass violence in our own time? (11)

Mosse’s questions were directed primarily at the ways Germany mythologized WWI in its defeat after 1918. But they resonate powerfully into the American present. This is a heavy note to end on. Here Siegfried Sassoon’s poem for the first Anniversary of the November Armistice, “Aftermath” (1919) offers a more literary reflection on the ways that the trafficking in memory can promote amnesia, distraction or remembrance:

Have you forgotten yet?....
For the world’s events have rumbled on since those gagged days,
Like traffic checked while at the crossing of city-ways:
And the haunted gap in your mind has filled with thoughts that flow
Like clouds in the lit heaven of life....

When we encounter the myth of a “forgotten war,” we have to ask: forgotten by whom and why? The next step is to find and listen to the voices of those by whom America’s wars are remembered.


[1] Jay Winter and Antoine Prost, The Great War In History Debates And Controversies, 1914 To The Present (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005). See Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory  (New York: Oxford University Press, 1975), Samuel Hynes, A War Imagined: The First World War and English Culture (New York: Atheneum, 1991), and George L. Mosse, Fallen Soldiers Reshaping The Memory Of The World Wars (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990).

[2] James Campbell, “Combat Gnosticism: The ideology of First World War Criticism,” New Literary History 30 (1999): 203–15, 204.

[3] There is now more than enough war writing from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan to fill a syllabus. Notable recent US war writing includes short story collections by Siobhan Fallon, You Know When the Men Are Gone  (2011), and Phil Klay, Redeployment (2014), as well as Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War (ed. Matt Gallagher and Roy Scranton, 2013). Critically acclaimed Iraq and Afghanistan war novels include Helen Benedict, Sand Queen (2011); Kevin Powers, The Yellow Birds (2012); Ben Fountain, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2012); Lea Carpenter’s Eleven Days (2013); Sinan Antoon’s The Corpse Washer (2013); Matt Gallagher’s Youngblood (2016); Roy Scranton, War Porn (2014); David Abrams, Fobbit (2012); Michael Pitre, Fives and Twenty Fives (2014); Elliot Ackerman, Green on Blue (2015); Jesse Goolsby, I'd Walk with My Friends If I Could Find Them (2015); Chris Robinson and Gavin Kovite, War of the Encyclopedists (2015), Brian Van Reet, Spoils (2017). Influential veteran memoirs include Anthony Swofford, Jarhead (2003); Kayla Williams’s Love My Rifle More Than You (2005); Brian Turner, My Life As A Foreign Country (2014); and Matt Young, Eat the Apple (2018). For poetry and drama, see for example, Brian Turner, Here Bullet (2005) and Philip Metres, Sand Opera (2015), and Maurice Decaul’s play Dijla Wal Furat: Between the Tigris and the Euphrates  (2015).