CommunityFDL Main Blog

One Hundred Years Later, We Still Haven’t Learned

The Liberty Memorial in Kansas City, Missouri was recently designated as the official national World War I memorial, to go with its designation as the national WWI museum. Rick Baillergeon and Scott A. Porter, two retired US Army officers writing at Armchair General, describe the Liberty Memorial like this:

On December 2, 2006 [after being closed for extensive major renovations], the U.S. National World War I Museum at Liberty Memorial opened its huge bronze doors to the public. What the public witnessed was a $102 million, 80,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art facility. Tens of thousands of artifacts, stored away for years due to space limitations in the old museum, were now on exhibit for the first time. Entering the museum, visitors walk over the Paul Sunderland Bridge, a glass structure spanning a battle-scarred field of 9,000 poppies. Each poppy represents 1,000 combatant deaths during WWI, totaling 9 million combatant deaths from all the belligerent nations, not just the US. . . .

This is not a “dusty relic” museum. The exhibits themselves tell the human story, including soldiers and civilians caught in the horrors of war, and life at the home front. The exhibits not only contain what is possibly the foremost repository of World War I historical artifacts in the world, but interactive high-tech tables engage the visitor to experience WWI history and technology in 3-D, 360-degree images.

To get this recognition required action by Congress, which was given in the fine print of the National Defense Authorization Act.

Let that sink in for a minute. The official US memorial and museum to the War to End All Wars was given national recognition in the bill authorizing the spending of billions to fight current and coming wars. Lovely.

Not only that, but the 2015 NDAA is filled with prohibitions and restrictions about how the DOD and other agencies can spend this money. For instance, they can’t cancel this or that weapons program even if they want to (like the MQ-1 Predator aircraft and U-2 spy planes, for example – see sections 131 and 132), and money appropriated to study force levels in the Army can’t be used to cut those levels even if that’s what the study recommends (see section 1711). IOW, the ability to inflict the horrors of war shall proceed unabated. The Beast Must Be Fed.

But in the fine print, let’s toss a bone to Roy Blunt, Claire McCaskill, and others pushing for the WWI Museum and Memorial. No word on whether the DOD can spend any of this money on poppies.

But World War I has been letting a little extra press lately, thanks to what has come to be known as the 1914 Christmas truce, declared not by commanders and politicians, but by individual soldiers in the trenches. I’ve been a longtime fan of John McCutcheon, the folksinger heir to Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, who put the story of those trenches into song. In concerts, he introduces it like this (taken from his album Live at Wolf Trap):

There are some songs that as a writer that you write, and there are other songs that you just sort of write down. They come through you, and that was definitely the case with this next song, so I can speak with it with a certain amount of distance. This came to me totally as a gift – a five minute span, and it was there, and some of the most remarkable things that have happened to me in my life have happened to me because of this song.

Probably the most remarkable thing that’s happened to me, happened a couple of years ago when there was a little festival in Denmark, in a little town called Tønder. Every time I played, there was this little bevy of very old – and we’re talking old – German men, who’d come across the border and showed up at my shows. They usually came in late, came trotting up the aisle, and there usually wasn’t a seat left, so they just stood there at the edge of the stage and watched me – without expression – and turned around and left when I was done. My last set, and I’m watching these guys turn around to leave as I finish my last song, and I’m thinking, “Who are these guys?” So I set down my autoharp, or whatever I was playing, jumped off the edge of the stage and ran up the aisle, and caught the last guy. I said, “You guys have been really sweet, showing up all these places, but . . . what’s the deal?” The guy said, “Well, we’re here because of that song.” I said, “What song?” He said, “You know, that song. The one that’s on the radio. That’s how we heard about you and about this festival. Because all our lives, our families, our friends, they told us we were crazy. Couldn’t possibly have happened to us. But then we heard your song on the radio and said ‘See? See?’ because we were there.”

It happened 100 years ago, as soldiers’ letters home and newspaper accounts document, and John’s song (with a different more recent introduction) is here . . .

As I wrote before here at FDL, in posting about this song,

Sometimes those promoting war justify their dehumanization of the enemy by citing nationalism, economics, religion, cultural/ethnic differences, or simply by painting the “other” as monsters. Nations and religions and cultures are often quick to raise up their walls, to keep the so-called monsters at bay. Yet for all the differences trumpeted by the promoters of war, there is a common humanity shared by those on each side of the conflict.

Someone might want to break the news to the folks in Congress.


photo h/t to Charvex and thanks for putting it in the public domain.

Previous post

The Roundup

Next post

Saturday History: Seasonal Farming Tasks in the Great Depression



I'm an ordained Lutheran pastor with a passion for language, progressive politics, and the intersection of people's inner sets of ideals and beliefs (aka "faith" to many) and their political actions. I mostly comment around here, but offer a weekly post or two as well. With the role that conservative Christianity plays in the current Republican politics, I believe that progressives ignore the dynamics of religion, religious language, and religiously-inspired actions at our own peril. I am also incensed at what the TheoCons have done to the public impression of Christianity, and don't want their twisted version of it to go unchallenged in the wider world. I'm a midwesterner, now living in the Kansas City area, but also spent ten years living in the SF Bay area. I'm married to a wonderful microbiologist (she's wonderful all the way around, not just at science) and have a great little Kid, for whom I am the primary caretaker these days. I love the discussions around here, especially the combination of humor and seriousness that lets us take on incredibly tough stuff while keeping it all in perspective and treating one another with respect.

And Preview is my friend.