Guest commentary: Honor Doughboys on Vets Day

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Veterans Day is a perfect time to think about the men and women who have served in our armed forces, and how we as a country honor them. I’d like to focus on a group of particular American veterans, however, those who were called doughboys, the soldiers who fought in the First World War, and laid down their weapons November 11, 1918, the day of origin for the national holiday we now know as Veterans Day. In 1926, the US Congress passed a resolution commemorating Armistice Day, which read in part:

“ . . . the 11th of November 1918 marked the cessation of the most destructive, sanguinary, and far reaching war in human annals ... it is fitting that the recurring anniversary of this date should be commemorated with thanksgiving and prayer ... inviting the people of the United States to observe the day in schools and churches, or other suitable places, with appropriate ceremonies of friendly relations with all other peoples.”

VETERANS DAY seems as good a time as any to pose the question, what do we as Americans even know about the First World War, the Great War, the War To End All Wars?

The unfortunate truth is, World War I dramatically altered nearly everything in the world, yet we as Americans know next to nothing about it. The average citizen may recall something about poppies, “over there,” or the Red Baron (isn’t he the guy with the pizza? no, no, he was the one who fought Snoopy). America! Big Bertha is not just a golf club.

The historical significance of the First World War cannot be overstated. It reshaped the entire twentieth century. Its ramifications are still being felt. The rise of communism and its subsequent regimes and wars (Korea, Vietnam); World War II (some historians consider it a continuation of World War I) and its holocaust (the first modern-day genocide inflicted on the Armenians occurred in the First World War with the world casting a blind eye to it); the Cold War; and Middle East conflicts ... all have roots in the Great War. There is so much to learn about World War I.

THE YEAR 2014 will mark one hundred years since the war began. Today, the indescribable carnage, historical importance, and modern-day consequences of World War I are sadly glossed over in school classrooms and virtually ignored by media.

World War I forever changed our role in the world. The American Expeditionary Forces sent forty-three divisions to Europe, an unprecedented occurrence. About 4.8 million people from the US served in the armed forces in the nineteen months of our participation, of that total just over 2 million did so overseas. US casualties numbered well over 320,000 men. By contrast, the US had just over two million men fight in the Civil War over a four-year period. 

Even so, there has been comparatively little written about the US in the Great War. American public libraries can easily have ten times the books about World War II in contrast to World War I on the nonfiction history shelves. And that doesn’t even include biographies, movies, documentaries, etc.

HOW CAN WE begin to understand current ethnic, religious, and geo-political conflicts without possessing knowledge about the years 1914 to 1918? We still commemorate Veterans Day, but what do we know about the morning hours of November 11, 1918, when more casualties fell than the D-Day invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944?

We’ve all seen the iconic twentieth-century war memorials in Washington DC, possibly experiencing them in person:  World War II, Korean War, Vietnam War. They help us reflect, learn, and honor the sacrifices. Do you remember the national World War I memorial? Of course not, because it doesn’t exist. Fortunately, steps are underway to try and correct that shameful absence (please visit www.wwimemorial.org).

IN THIS country and perhaps elsewhere, our involvement in World War I has been downplayed, disregarded, and virtually ignored. Sadly, but inevitably, the men who served are now all gone. There is no way to thank them, no honor flights, no Main Street parades with marching doughboys.

Now, the best way to honor them is to learn about their sacrifices ... and remember.

The stories of the First World War must not be forgotten. Every veteran, both living and deceased, deserves to be honored. We’ve met the “greatest generation,” now let’s meet the generation that raised them. Your father, grandfather or great-grandfather was not just an old man. Chances are, he served in the Great War that changed his life and changed the world.

(Jennifer Rude Klett is a nonfiction freelance writer in Delafield, Wisconsin. She is the author of a book, Alamo Doughboy:  Marching Into The Heart Of Kaiser’s Germany, published by Branden Books of Boston, due out January, 2014. She is an honorary member of the Ninetieth Division Association. For more information, see jrudeklett.webs.com)

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