Today marks the 100th year anniversary for the dedication of the Tomb of the Unknown Solider. On November 11, 1921, President Warren G. Harding presided over the dedication of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery. An honor guard of eight World War I veterans accompanied the soldier’s casket as it was paraded from the Capitol to Arlington Cemetery to reside in the new memorial. Three more crypts have been added to the memorial since 1921 to include unidentified dead from World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War.
Remembering World War I in America (Nebraska, 2018) by Kimberly J. Lamay Licursi explores the American public’s collective memory and common perception of World War I by analyzing the extent to which it was expressed through the production of cultural artifacts related to the war. In the excerpt below, Lamay Licursi discusses why many scholars argue that there is a lack of collective memory for Americans surrounding World War I and how this impacted American veterans when they returned home.
Excerpt from the introduction
The most common response to the argument that Americans lack a collective memory of World War I is that they escaped the full impact of the war. The United States fought for a relatively short period of time in a land far removed from the everyday lives of most Americans. But generalizing the American experience in this manner is a disservice to those for whom the war was neither foreign nor benign. There were hundreds of thousands who fell into this category and many millions more who would have commiserated with their sacrifice. Perhaps Americans are heedless of World War I because it deviates from the myths that have sprung up around other more agreeably remembered wars. The Revolutionary War, Civil War, and World War II support the paradigm of “American exceptionalism.” They bolster the idea that Americans stand apart, either as bold patriots who fought for a semblance of equality among men, as noble warriors who fought to avert the breakup of an unprecedented national experiment, or as the forces of democratic good against Fascist and Nazi evil. World War I can make no claim to such pretensions, and its purpose was challenged almost immediately after it ended. An antiwar backlash arose as the revelry of the parades faded and the vast majority of soldiers came home unheralded, unsure of what they had fought for, and uncertain of their future in an economy that was reeling from a postwar economic slump. Criticism of the war grew in the 1920s and 1930s, when the banking and munitions industries came under increasing scrutiny for the role they might have played in pushing the country toward war. This was not a war that would fit easily into the American narrative.
There is little modern scholarship that specifically addresses American collective memory of World War I. While Winter, Hynes, and other prominent historians of the war have analyzed the larger European collective memory, or myth, of World War I, they have usually ignored the American experience. As a token reference, some may invoke Ernest Hemingway’s contributions to literary memory, but rarely in the context of American perceptions of the war. The preeminent scholar of memory and the war, Paul Fussell, suggested that early nineteenth- century Americans were literary naïfs and devoid of the skill required to capture the public’s imagination and contribute works of enduring value about the war. Hynes posits that American writers lacked the necessary experiences from which to construct a valuable soldier’s story. He believes the short tenure of American soldiers in the trenches, and their relatively limited experience in battle, provided little fodder for great literature. Even the great writers of the time, like Hemingway and John Dos Passos, had only a fleeting impression, if any, of the real war. As my analysis will point out, however, many soldiers did experience much more of the war than Hemingway and Dos Passos did, and while their service may have been much briefer compared with French and British soldiers who were at war for years, their experiences of war were often no less intense or traumatic and their literary skills were no less refined.
For further reading on what American soldiers experienced during World War I and how veterans were treated when they came home, check out these titles below.
World War I: The American Soldier Experience (Bison Books, 2011) by Jennifer D. Keene
An American Soldier in World War I (Nebraska, 2010) by George Browne and edited by David L. Snead
The War Against the Vets: The World War I Bonus Army during the Great Depression (Potomac Books, 2018) by Jerome Tuccille