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Great War Memories


John Quiggin, riffing off this Edward Lengel column, suggests that the respective experiences of Europe and the United States in World War I may explain cultural differences on the use of force:

In any case, in the long run, the absence of this most bloodily futile of wars from historical memory has been a huge boon to the war party. With a historical memory of war dominated by the “Good War” against Hitler and the Axis, it’s unsurprising that Americans have been much more willing than the citizens of other democratic societies to accept war as part of the natural order of things.

In Europe by contrast, the Great War and its consequences are still ever-present, and the Second World War is correctly seen as the inevitable product of the First. With all its faults, the EU is widely supported simply because it has been associated with sixty years of peace. Even in Australia where the Gallipoli campaign has long formed the basis of the official national myth, it has been impossible to avoid the fact that thousands of young Australians suffered and died in the most horrible ways, fighting people of whom we had barely heard and with whom we had no quarrel of our own, in a futile diversion from a futile war. Honouring those who died goes hand in hand with a general recognition that they died for the failures of the world’s leaders and that the only proper lesson from their deaths is to hope that we can avoid war in future.

There’s certainly something to this, although it bears repeating that the World War II experience of Europe and the United States also differ in dramatic ways. The level of raw destruction visited upon Europe during both World Wars is something alien to the US experience, apart from that of the American South during the Civil War. Moreover, I’m not convinced that the immediate reaction to the Great War in the United States was isolationism, and not pacifism; I think that there were some significant strands of pacifist thought that extended across the Atlantic, resulting (among other things) in the Washington Naval Treaty and a series of other interwar agreements designed to prevent future conflict. The Great War did not, for the United States, result in a shift to European levels of military spending and conscription; other than in the naval arena, US military commitments remained proportionately smaller than the European powers. For example, per capita military expenditure in the US during the interwar period ran roughly half that of either the United Kingdom or France.

I think that the detectable divergence in European and US attitudes towards war (and the fundamental shift in how Americans viewed war and military service) came after World War II, when the US began maintaining its first large peacetime standing military forces. Over the weekend I watched Fort Apache (released in 1949) for the first time; my first thought is that it is a less ambitious but in some ways more successful film than either The Searchers or The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. My second thought is that it is, in large part, a paean to military life; its tribute to the United States Army is something that might not have been understandable to pre-war audiences. In part this is because World War II conscripted more American manpower than World War I, and for a longer period, but I think it also reflects a shift in how Americans thought about military service and the military in American life.

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