Saturday, November 17, 2012

Wars and remembrances

In one of those seemingly fluky bits of flotsam and jetsam in the course of history, this decade provides a cornucopia of opportunity for Americans to commemorate a round-number anniversary of wartime engagements this country has experienced.  I doubt that there will necessarily be a huge effort devoted to the 250th anniversary of that pre-independence conflict that went down for many years in the history books as the French and Indian War, back in the 1760s (though if I'm wrong by all means let me know), but it was a noteworthy war if for no other reason than giving young George Washington some of his first military experiences and probably fraying the bonds between colonies and mother country a bit.
On the other hand, the 150th anniversary of the Civil War is in full swing, and hard to miss if you live in certain parts of the country, like this part.  Of course, Richmond and Virginia are swimming in Civil War history, and also are possessed of a disturbing number of people who still seem to be fighting that war.  Still, it is hard to overstate the significance of the conflict, and it should be marked well.  I could wish that the commemoration were a little more cognizant of how the ideals behind that war were still floating around in modern political and civil discourse even today (perhaps Steven Spielberg can help with that).
While Virginia has occupied itself with marking the anniversary of the Civil War, its neighbor to the north has seized upon an earlier conflict.  All you have to see is a license plate from that state to know that it is capitalizing upon the War of 1812 and its bicentennial, due largely to the presence of Fort McHenry, the battle over which in that war gave birth to Francis Scott Key's poem that, more than a hundred years later, became our national anthem.  The War of 1812 is one of those buried conflicts in American history, its origins and causes hazy to most Americans and its most famous battle fought only after the war was over, technically (though news of the treaty signing had not necessarily made its way to the US yet).  In its own way it was a test of the still-fledgling country, not even fifty years old yet and not entirely accustomed to the international stage.  It wasn't exactly a conclusive war (aside from the US not being re-conquered by the British) and aside from the aforementioned post-treaty battle and Fort McHenry and the burning of the White House, not possessed of the most memorable events.
Later in the decade I'd guess we'll start hearing a lot about things that happened fifty years prior, during the Vietnam War.  The tenor will be different, I'd assume, with at least as much focus on things that happened on the homefront as on events in the war itself.  It will, of course, be well within the memory of some of those who observe it, unlike others.  The World War II generation is starting to pass from the scene; yes, the 75th anniversary of that conflict will come to pass in this decade as well, but for whatever reason I don't quite consider seventy-five to be such a round number as anniversaries go.  Even those that fought in the Korean War will be starting to pass from the scene as well.
And of course, the World War I generation is gone.
The past five or so years have seen the deaths of the final few veterans of that conflict.  Frank Buckles, the last US veteran of that war, died over a year and a half ago, and the last remaining veterans of Britain have passed in the interval since.  I assume there are some individuals still alive who lived through the war as civilians, probably as children, but none remain who saw the battles and the horrors that motivated such poets as Wilfred Owen or Siegfried Sassoon, or inspired such novels as All Quiet On the Western Front.  No one who experienced the remarkable Christmas truce, with soldiers of both sides remembering their humanity for a few hours.
I suspect the commemoration will be fairly muted in the United States.  We only entered the conflict officially in 1917, and most of that year was spent getting up to readiness and trying to raise combat forces enough to amount to anything.  And to be blunt, the US did not acquit itself so well on the homefront in that era.  It was not a good time to be a person of German origins in the US, to say the least, and it frankly did not matter what stature in society you might have held -- pastor, politician, orchestra conductor or performer or concert artist or dead composer -- you were likely to face repercussions.  The insistent flogging of "God Bless America" at public events in the days post-9/11 had its predecessor in the use of "The Star-Spangled Banner" (not yet officially the national anthem at this time) as something like a weapon at public events and in public discourse.  Once the US finally did get integrated into the war effort in Europe, only a little time passed (or so it seemed) until the armistice was declared.  US participation in the war did generate quite a bit of popular music -- "Over There," "Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit-Bag," and the like -- but in many ways the effect was ephemeral, and both culturally and politically we seemed to learn all the wrong lessons from it.
You might guess that I've had more than a passing interest in World War I, and it is true; some of my old musicological research involved that war and its consequences in American musical life.  I learned enough to be very curious as to how the centenary of that war will be observed, to the degree that it is at all, in this country.  I learned enough that I might have to figure out how to make a trip to Europe during the period 2014-2018.  I learned enough to doubt that a country can go to war and not lose some part of its civilized-ness in doing so.  I have learned enough to know that I will never learn enough.

[Shameless plug: if you are in Kansas City, go to the National World War I Museum.  Just go.  You may thank me later.]

Ernst Kunwald in custody of US Marshals, 1917:

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