War I vs. World War II
asked my granddad what he remembered of the Great War. "Nothing,"
he said, "except the cocksucking Frog who shook my hand on
Armistice Day and said, 'Merci, m'sieur, and please come again next
In fairness to history and to the French
I made that story up. But it makes a larger point. Compared to the
Great War, World War II sucked. In the United States, the Great
War, now known more commonly as World War I, has fared rather less
well in memory than World War II.
The end of WWI was a confusing, depressing mess, with
ineffectual results like the League of Nations and the Weimar Republic.
The end of WWII was a resounding triumph, with clear results like
the less obviously ineffectual United Nations, and a bitter, decades-long
Middle-aged American men who feel rather embarrassed
about having never experienced war first-hand, such as Tom Brokaw
and Stephen Ambrose, like to assuage their guilt by paying sycophantic
homage to WWII veterans. Such panegyrics, besides being stupid,
also miss the larger point that almost everything worthwhile in
20th-century culture springs from WWI, not WWII.
Take literature. At first glance, this might seem like a dead
heat, with Robert Graves "Goodbye to All That,"
Erich Remarques "All Quiet on the Western Front,"
Humphrey Cobbs "Paths of Glory" and even Hemingways
"A Farewell to Arms" on the one hand, and Gore Vidals
"Williwaw," John Horne Burnes "The Gallery"
and Richard Mathesons "The Beardless Warriors" on
But the three WWII novels, while excellent in themselves, in fact
serve as ironic demonstrations of the declining standards of the
American reading public. All three are virtually forgotten today.
Vidals book is an effective war novel that, almost in passing,
parodies Hemingways style so effectively that no intelligent
person, after reading it, could ever take Hemingway seriously. Burnes
book celebrates the people of Italy, one of the nations with which
we were at war. Mathesons book focuses on the teen-agers who
served as human sacrifices on the European front. The first two
books are out of print, and the last only made it back in print
last year, after a decades-long interval. In short, the novels have
not found the audience they deserve.
The most famous novels of WWII are Norman Mailers "The
Naked and the Dead," James Jones "From Here To Eternity,"
Joseph Hellers "Catch-22," Thomas Pynchons
"Gravitys Rainbow" and Kurt Vonneguts "Slaughterhouse
Five" a quintet of bombastic, self-aggrandizing, really
Heller, the worst offender (Pynchon escapes this distinction only
because so few manage to read his book), actually lifts his most
famous scene from R.C. Sherriffs play, "Journeys
End," written in wait for it 1928. That example
is the most devastating rejoinder to anyone who claims that any
of these five novelists broke new ground: they didnt, they
just dressed up old stories in the trappings of authorial self-indulgence.
And then there was music. In the aftermath of WWI, it was difficult
to pretend that the war had accomplished anything besides the needless
deaths of millions of people. There was a lot to be depressed about.
The American response was to create that most joyous of music forms,
Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, Bix Beiderbecke and
Bing Crosby all successfully drowned genuine sorrow in genuine cheer.
They created danceable songs with a poignant undertow.
Their WWII successors Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, John
Coltrane and Frank Sinatra drowned the false euphoria at
the end of WWII in all-too-genuine self-pity. Modern man, after
WWII, was much more of a depressed narcissist than he had been formerly,
and popular culture was all too eager to pander to him.
And finally, there was poetry. The case for WWI poetry is so strong
that all it requires is a listing of its greatest poets: Wilfred
Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, Rupert Brooke, Edmund Blunden.
WWIIs greatest poets? Roy Fuller? Alan Ross? Sidney Keyes?
Mercifully, I'll go no further.
To would-be adulators of the same ilk as Brokaw and Ambrose, I
ask that they consider before compounding their sins, the virtues
of subtlety, wit, intelligence and, above all, having the compassion
to prefer all things being equal not to bore ones
Its a lesson that too many of the artists of the WWII generation