I do not think that the lack of interest in World War I in the United States stems from the unpopularity of the war at the time. Most Americans supported the war effort in 1917–18, and although isolationism came in vogue during the 1920s and 1930s, disillusionment did not take hold in America like it did in Europe. Vietnam was much less popular, and yet it receives much more attention today than World War I ever did. And while the film footage of World War I cannot compare to that of World War II, there is in fact a lot of interesting footage in archives; and of course the lack of film footage of the Civil War has not dampened popular interest in it.
You describe some of the war’s most interesting dramatis personae. The American historian Barbara Tuchman treated many of them in her wonderfully written (if not always historically accurate) book The Guns of August, which was published over forty years ago and remains popular. Likewise, as you say, there are people like Lawrence of Arabia and the Red Baron. Spurring an interest in such figures has never been difficult, however. Books and movies about the air war and Lawrence’s exploits are omnipresent, even in the United States. Why? Because they all retain some element of the romantic image of warfare to which Americans remain so attached. Hollywood recently came out with yet another movie about the air war, Flyboys, which centers on the Lafayette Escadrille. The movie’s creators had a lot of fun with computer-generated special effects (even so, the movie flopped). But can you imagine any Hollywood producer investing money in a movie about life in the trenches, or the Hitler Channel (uh sorry, I mean the History Channel) producing a new documentary about World War I on the ground? No, it’s just too ugly. It’s so much easier not to think about it.
Evidence of the American mindset can be seen in the recent attempt to revive R.C. Sheriff’s brilliant World War I play, Journey’s End, on Broadway. Originally written in 1929, the play had a tremendously successful revival in London in 2004. On Broadway in 2007, it flopped. Perhaps the parallels with Iraq were too painful. More likely, as a reviewer for Variety implied, the ground war just didn’t seem exciting enough.
What I’d like Americans to remember is that millions of their ancestors were unable to indulge the same luxury of just turning away. A whole generation of young men went over there in 1917–1918—commanded in many cases by officers whose minds remained fixed in the nineteenth century—and faced the realities of modern industrialized warfare as no American soldiers ever had before. The results, inevitably, were both traumatic and transformative.
This is one in an occasional series about the Virginia Festival of the Book, to be held in Charlottesville, Virginia, on March 26–30, 2008, and sponsored by my employer, the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.