Sunday, November 13, 2005

World War I and Soldier Motivation

From a paper given at the 2005 SMH:

...As Peter Kindsvatter has pointed out, it is a mistake to describe the soldiers in any war by universal clichés—the enthusiastic doughboy, the resigned World War II GI, the resentful Vietnam soldier. In World War I, despite the federal government bombarding them with great causes—beginning with President Woodrow Wilson’s declaration that it would be a war “to make the world safe for democracy”—some American fighting men began to exhibit skepticism toward idealistic declarations of why they fought. According to doughboy Lt. Howard V. O’Brien, “A soldier, toting a 100 kilo pack and cleaning harness, tends to get cynical and bored about ‘making the world safe for democracy’ and all that. He wants to clean up the Boche and get home….” Another man noted, “In truth I have not heard more than a half dozen times during my year in the army a discussion among the men or even the officers, of the principles for which we fight. We read of them here, there and everywhere but the men of their own accord and in an informal way seldom or never talk of them.”

Still, it would simply be untrue to declare that the doughboys ignored ideology in their descriptions of why they fought. Historian Ronald Schaffer has noted that various men wrote home to describe how they were, “engaged in a crusade,” and that their efforts would, “…save Liberty for the world…,” or “…save the world for democracy,” or provide, “…freedom and justice to all.” Lt. O’Brien, who talked of the cynicism and boredom of the soldier with making the world safe for democracy, also wrote, “Consciously or not, we are here to fight for democracy even if we make ribald remarks when you mention it.” In addition to this idealistic talk about causes, many of the men said that they went to war for a great adventure, or as a chance to get away from their ordinary lives. And, like those who came before and after, they also discussed comradeship.

An ambiguity had entered into the overall picture of how American soldiers described their reasons for fighting. These men were torn between a collective memory of Civil War soldiers divorced from causes but valiant and enthusiastic in combat and an all-out effort on the part of the federal government to make World War I an ideological crusade. However, the war would come to have a less ambiguous effect on the next generation of American fighting men. The memories of the Civil War and Great War would combine to shape the way the American fighting man in World War II described his reasons for fighting.

World War I all but completed the trend begun after the Civil War. The veterans themselves, much like their Civil War predecessors, individually went through a variety of feelings about their service. Some became disillusioned with the war, some did not. But in the decade following the armistice, the First World War grew less and less popular overall with the American people. This popular disillusionment began when the peace settlements that ended the war seemed to do anything but lead to a world safe for democracy. The unsatisfying peace led Americans into to a period of isolationism, during which many began to question why the United States entered the war in the first place. A popular view arose, backed by academics and intellectuals, that greedy financiers and munitions makers—the so-called merchants of death—had driven America to war to turn a profit. By the mid-1930s, Congress even convened a committee under Senator Gerald Nye to look into the issue. The Nye Committee’s proceedings supported the merchants of death view, entrenching that image into the American understanding of the war and effectively killing the notions of liberty, freedom, justice, and democracy that had seemed so important less than two decades earlier. Popular culture supported these conclusions. One teen from the 1930s later remembered that movies of the era taught that big business and war generally were the “siren call of the devil.” A poll taken in 1937 found that seventy percent of all respondents thought the United States should have stayed out of the war.

Although the ideological reasons for American entry into the war had been discredited, the veterans of the fight stood apart. Their intentions, at least, remained pure. Still, the understanding of their service also changed in the memory-making of the 1920s and 1930s. The most acute transformation occurred in high culture. There the American war experience could not be separated from the European. The war had been devastating for that generation of Europeans, and the literature and poetry of era reflected the devastation. Most famously, European veteran authors and poets like Wilfred Owen, Robert Graves, and Erich Remarque treated the war as a total catastrophe, with no redeeming qualities. American veteran writers like Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos mirrored the theme in their work, and thus became part of the so-called Lost Generation. For them not only did war have no great causes, but it did not lead to valor or heroism or any other noble traits in the fighting men. At least one World War II veteran discussed the influence of this literature, “My generation, brought up on A Farewell to Arms, All Quiet on the Western Front, and plays such as Journey’s End, was not easily persuaded that modern war made any sense at all. Most certainly none of us thought any longer of glory or military heroics.”

The influence of the Lost Generation conception of the soldiers’ war can be exaggerated, both in Europe and the United States. For one thing, as David Kennedy has written, “The postwar writers of disillusionment protested less against the war itself than against a way of seeing and describing the war.” The romanticism of their work portrayed the war as a personal escape for individual soldiers from the monotony of civilian life. And interwar American popular culture still exhibited plenty of romanticism for the fight. Although the film version of All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) was popular in the United States and repeated the same disillusionment themes as Remarque’s book, other widely-seen films took a different tack. Movies such as What Price Glory? (1926) and The Road to Glory (1936) emphasized the valor and bravery of the common fighting man in the war, and films on the air war treated individual pilots like latter-day knights.


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