This past fall, I was invited to participate in a veterans’ panel to commemorate WWI.
While teaching a literature course at the Air Force Academy, I had the occasion to think and read broadly about WWI. What I mainly took away from the experience was a deep impression of scale. The privations and casualties of the first mechanized war touched every person in most European countries. Many small English towns lost every single combat-able young male.
The costs of war manifest themselves everywhere, from the scarcity of everyday pleasures like butter and sugar, to the death of loved ones. In these ways, the experience of WWI was the polar opposite of what many lament about our 21st century wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: we don’t feel them in their costs to our nation.
In many analyses of WWI, European culture suffered from outdated, romantic notions of warfare radically out of touch with the arbitrary and horrific violence of chemical weapons, bombs, and machine guns. WWI was unlike any war before it.
Despite the obvious impacts at home, WWI was in its time hard to apprehend given the existing conceptions of war. Also with our current conflicts, there seems to be a problem with our ability to connect with a war we cannot easily imagine.
Afghanistan and Iraq, with their dissolved battle fields and their often confusing ethnic tensions, combat drones, and uncertain objectives, leave us without a clear narrative through which to understand their events. Arguably, it was – or is – unlike any war before it as well. And without a clear narrative, it’s difficult to imagine, to empathize, and ultimately to appreciate military members.
The great thing about participating in the veterans’ panel was connecting with civilians at Indiana University who wanted to connect with the experience of Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom. I think the blurring of the original reasons of invading Iraq – the lack of WMDs – makes it even more necessary and difficult to understand. Hearing veterans tell the stories offers a form – the soldier’s story – to what easily can seem impenetrable from afar.
But many wars, especially ones lacking the perspective of history, cannot be tidily summarized. So I think the best we can do is what we did. Converse. Share. Listen to soldiers’ stories.
I’m grateful to be at a university that cultivates those opportunities for this generation of veterans.