Monday, June 30, 2014

The Silent Generation

            Hello, everyone. I’m not going to apologize for the long break in between entries, because instead of writing here, I’ve been trying to finish a longer piece of fiction I’ve been working on. Remember that “short story” I posted a couple parts of? Yeah, it’s over 115 pages now. You can read it here, if you’d like. I think you’d like.
            So anyway, if I’m supposed to be doing that, why has this popped up? Well, to be honest, 115 pages of writing the same dude necessitates a break every once and awhile. But more to the point, I came across a review for a game called Valiant Hearts, a stylish PS4 puzzler based during the First World War. It looked good and whatnot, but $60 is a bit much for a puzzle game, especially when I don’t own a PS4. Mostly the second one.
            However, the review coalesced with other thoughts that have been streaming through my head. I’ve been mentioning for awhile that this year is the 100th anniversary of WWI, and until 2018, there’s going to be all sorts of interesting, smaller anniversaries. I really want to make it to Europe at some point during the interval to see what they’re all up to over there. If Russia doesn’t have some sort of tongue-in-cheek “Oh hopefully we don’t have a huge Bolshevik Revolt and have to pull out!” commentary on the 2018 World Cup they’re going to host, I’ll be very disappointed.
            Only two days ago (6/28) was the anniversary of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand being assassinated by Gavrilo Princip. I’ve been following the @RealTimeWWII and was pleasantly surprised to find they’ve got a sister account in @RealTimeWWI. I’m going to start teaching (hopefully) before the 100th anniversary of the Armistice, and I plan on having a “What was going on in Europe 100 years ago today?” board. Spoiler alert: WAR.
            I’ve already written on World War One before, here, and I must say, damn good reporting, Dickinson. Such use of mnemonics I’ve never seen. I covered the beginning of the war and how it was a pretty great comedy of errors using MAINS and high school drama.
            The video game review back there, I feel, missed a pretty big opportunity to expand upon their subject material. Sure, it describes if the game is good or not (answered with a resounding “meh”), but it ignores the game’s timely release and specific historical relevance. The review mentions that very few games are made about WWI, but moves quickly on.
            I’ve been recently spoiled by excellent medium-form writing about things, mostly sports, like Matt Ufford’s amazing piece on why you should cheer for the USMNT. He takes an exciting, timely event in the World Cup and expands upon it with pride and interesting writing. I wish that this review could have done something similar. Take the game, review it; its mechanics, its graphics, the plot, whatever. But I wish IGN had used the review as a jumping off point. There aren’t many video games about WWI. In fact, there aren’t many anythings about World War I. Few movies, few museums, few History Channel documentaries, and no patriotic pining.
            Maybe this is American-biased, and in France they can’t stop talking about the Great War. But there hasn’t been any sort of coverage, here, about the 100th anniversary of all of this business. There are plenty of opportunities for discussion to spring forth- the U.S. plays Belgium in soccer tomorrow (IMPORTANT SIDENOTE: GO USA), the country that was invaded by Germany to bring England and France fully into the war.
            Why do we pay no attention to World War One? What makes this incredibly interesting time completely pass under our national radar?
            There are many answers, some easier than others. For one thing, the fighting itself was mainly boring. A video game about taking potshots at what might be a Prussian helmet or instead a particularly pointy log would not be a very engaging experience. A movie comprised of 90 minutes of muddy people complaining about fungal infections on their feet wouldn’t sell many tickets.
            In addition, World War Two dwarfs its older brother in scale and is more recent. Of course people would talk more about a war that claimed more in national resources and still has living participants. Some would argue that the war itself was more important to the modern world, and they’d probably be right.
            We can compare the influence of historical events to an extent. The world was certainly more affected by the French Revolution than the Whiskey Rebellion, even if the former brought a short lived French Republic while the other spurred the creation of the Constitution. But before the First World War, the Ottoman Empire still existed, Russia was ruled by Czars, and the Cubs were winning World Series.
            World War One was an incredibly influential event. It redrew maps just as much as the Second. Poland was created, colonies traded and resized, and France gobbled up some German territory. Iraq and Iran were given to British oil interests, and everyone lived happily ever after. Even though WWII was larger, deadlier, and more recent, WWI has more than enough cause to be discussed in the same scope.
            More than maps and families, WWI changed beliefs. Before this war, conflict was glorious. Going to war made boys into men. Poets wrote about the glory of war. Brotherhood and camaraderie were forged under fire. Nationalist sentiment had been growing for decades, and war was a way to prove your commitment to your country.
            The cruel, inhuman face of war was finally laid bare during the disgusting trench warfare and artillery shelling found all along both fronts. Instead of glory, war brought despair. Poets like Wilfred Owen decried war as disgusting and tragic. Instead of brotherhood, incoming fire brought hideous injury, both physical and mental. For the first time, a primitive version of PTSD was recognized and treated. Works of literature like All Quiet on the Western Front- penned by a German- crossed national lines to bring the realistic horror of the war to public consciousness.
            Ever since WWI, war has been changed in the minds of citizens. Nobody clamors to go to war. Volunteering for the military isn’t seen as an expression of masculinity, but instead an incredible sacrifice. World War One changed the very idea of what war was, from glorious to intolerable.
            The hardest answer about the silence surrounding WWI to prove is also what I think is most important. World War One was incredibly influential and important, but humanity at large learned very little. It seems counter-intuitive, given the brilliant argument I just made about war’s very definition changing. But remember that the war was popularly thought of as the end of conflict on such a wide scale- so awful and horrible that nobody would dare repeat it. Needless to say, it didn’t hold up to that distinction. Less than 20 years later, Germany invaded Poland, and the Second World War began.
            The lessons taught by WWI fell on deaf ears in the immediate years after the Armistice. It took an entire additional war to force people to face the truth that the Great War had revealed. Everyone listened to WWII; in the years since, the globe has been more peaceful than any other time in its history. But WWI taught the same lessons, and was ignored. It’s the reason we call those involved in the war “The Silent Generation.”
            World War One is forgotten for the same reason the Korean War was forgotten. The lessons it taught us (“War is Awful”/ “Maybe Communism Shouldn’t Literally Be Fought”) were ignored. The wars where the lessons were proven, World War Two and Vietnam, dwarf their respective predecessors in size and influence. The Silent Generation and the Forgotten War, two brothers in being overlooked.
            In addition, WWI was incredibly morally neutral. In the other post, I talked about how it was really a team effort of ineptitude and posturing rather than a clear-cut morality play. In World War One, France was fighting for revenge against Germany from the Franco-Prussian year of decades past. Serbia was the little guy drawn into the war, not fun, but THEY TOTALLY ASSASSINATED A DUDE. Germany was unfairly punished with reparations, but they did the same exact thing to Russia when they pulled out in 1917. America stayed out of the war for the lion’s share and then proceeded to take credit for the victory. Who were the good guys? The ones fighting for the right to oppress people in colonies, or the ones fighting to keep entrenched monarchies in power over oppressed ethnic minorities?
            World War Two, though, is as close as we’ll get to Good vs. Evil in real life. Sure, a lot has been made through propaganda since the end of the war, painting the Germans and Japanese as malicious and deliberately evil, twisting their mustache and laughing like Snidely Whiplash, which is ridiculous. But in real life, the Germans command put skulls on some of their uniforms. Who designs a uniform to include the international symbol for poison and death and tries to retain a moral high ground? It’s pretty clearly evil to persecute people based on race, and World War Two had plenty of that.

America at this point in the discussion
            Our most popular wars are all like this- clear cut Good Guy vs. Bad Guy. Slavery is bad. Fascism is bad. Legally binding militaristic alliances and monarchies that hold sway over nationalistic ethnic groups are holy crap you guys aren’t even paying attention any more. Moral ambiguity is boring in war.
            Here’s the worst part, especially for a history teacher: I’m not sure there’s much room to fully flesh out the war. Many times, WWI is glossed over, if discussed at all. Years pass but history class stays an hour long. The curriculum has to stretch as more events are crammed in. In order to fit in the full extent of the war, something else has to be removed. What in history is worth removing to make room for this forgotten war? As someone who loves history more than just about anything else, I DON’T KNOW. Maybe less about the Revolutionary War, I guess? On a global scale, the revolution wasn’t that important. Like, just show students my school dance allegory, and they’ll fill the rest in. History classes have a hard enough time getting from the Constitution to now. I never had a history class make it past the first Gulf War. What's going to happen with the extra 50 years that I'll be teaching?
            World War One deserves every mention we can provide it. It taught us the realities of war harder than any other before it. It changed the map of Europe and the world. It brought America out of isolation and set the path to superpower status. It pretty much caused World War Two. Yet we still largely ignore it. That's bad. Let's not do that.

            Final notes: English-speaking Microsoft Word recognizes Blitzkrieg as a word but not Gavrilo Princip. World War Two is grammatically correct, but World War One draws a squiggly green line for incorrect capitalization. Even our robots don’t care.

No comments:

Post a Comment