What do we talk about when we talk about world wars?
My Facebook feed filled up this weekend with salutes to veterans. My friends were mostly Americans, and so most of these (indeed, I’d bet all of them) were tributes to U.S. soldiers. For Americans, of course, Sunday was Veterans Day, but for the British and others it was Remembrance Day. Remembrance Day–Armistice Day, as I think of it–is a more fitting holiday than Veterans Day. It asks us to remember something particularly awful and shattering, the war that the United States has largely forgotten: the war that an American president promised would end all wars.
Every year at this time, I remember the victims of the First World War–the British and the Americans, the French and the Germans, the Australians and the Serbs, the Russians and the Austrians–but I also remember the way that men’s lives were often squandered by thoughtless, pedantic, and careless generals. Too often, as Siegfried Sassoon predicted, their sacrifice has been turned into an argument for offering new generations of young men (and now women) the opportunity to be remembered in wreath-laying ceremonies. There is something about the spectacle of civilians (particularly in the United States) ritually intoning “Thank you for your service” that seems to miss the more profound solemnity of Remembrance Day. (That said, it seems the poppies have gotten out of hand.)
The gulf between Commonwealth and American understandings of war and remembrance is fairly easily depicted. The First World War is all but absent from the U.S. memory and conversation; the Second World War–now probably more than ever the “good” war–dominates, with the Civil War (equally, I would argue, now remembered as a “good” war) maintains a steady beat of support.
Unsurprisingly, Americans and British use different words for the two global conflicts of the twentieth century (“World War I” and “World War II” for Americans, “First World War” and “Second World War” for British):
What was more striking, however, was how alive the First World War is in Britain and how forgotten it is in the United States. This difference has persisted for a long time. In the interwar period, for instance, the Americans never quite got around to adopting the term “The Great War” while the British only stopped using it when they came to the crushing realization that there was going to be a second.