Edward G. Lengel: We've neglected WW I. We shouldn't.

Roundup: Talking About History

[Edward G. Lengel is an associate professor at the University of Virginia and the author, most recently, of "To Conquer Hell: The Meuse-Argonne, 1918."]

The last known surviving U.S. veteran of what was once called the Great War, Cpl. Frank Buckles of Charles Town, W.Va., recently toured the World War I memorial in Washington. Accompanied by his daughter and an aide, the wheelchair-bound 107-year-old rolled around the small, temple-like structure, stopping occasionally to acknowledge the applause of the small crowd that had gathered to watch. He did not comment upon the memorial's unkempt appearance -- it has been neglected for three decades -- but noticed that it honored only veterans from the city. "I can read here," he said in a soft, barely audible mumble, "that it was started to include the names of those who were local."

No one, apparently, had told him that the United States has no national World War I memorial. Buckles later modestly accepted tributes from President Bush and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates at ceremonies at the White House and the Pentagon, asking only that all of the recently deceased U.S. veterans of World War I be honored alongside him. It was little enough to ask, after nine decades of neglect.

As we observe Memorial Day, a hard truth remains: Americans haven't forgotten about the doughboys. We just didn't want to hear about them in the first place. The war's last and greatest battle involving U.S. soldiers, fought in the Meuse-Argonne region of eastern France during the autumn of 1918, sucked in more than 1 million U.S. troops and hundreds of airplanes and tanks. Artillery batteries commanded by men such as the young Harry S. Truman fired more than 4 million shells -- more than the Union Army fired during the entire Civil War. More than 26,000 doughboys were killed and almost 100,000 wounded, making the clash probably the bloodiest single battle in U.S. history. But as far as the American public was concerned, it might as well never have taken place. "Veterans said to me in their speeches and in private that the American people did not know anything about the Meuse-Argonne battle," Brig. Gen. Dennis Nolan wrote years later. "I have never understood why."

Back then, civilians justified their indifference by claiming that the veterans refused to share their stories. In reality, the ignorance was self-imposed. "The boys would talk if the questioners would listen," said one embittered ex-doughboy. "But the questioners do not. They at once interrupt with, 'It's all too dreadful,' or, 'Doesn't it seem like a terrible dream?' or, 'How can you think of it?' or, 'I can't imagine such things.' It shuts the boys up." Far from remaining silent, U.S. veterans wrote hundreds of memoirs, diaries and novels of their experiences. In Europe, Canada and Australia, such books were big business. In the United States, they went mostly unread.

World War I never made its way into U.S. popular culture. Movies, documentaries and miniseries about the Civil War, World War II and Vietnam are common, and trade publishers are always ready for new histories of Gettysburg or the Battle of the Bulge. But what about World War I? "Hollywood has not turned its gaze in this direction for decades," noted Gates. Since "The Big Parade" (1925) and "All Quiet on the Western Front" (1930), no significant movie has appeared about the U.S. experience in World War I. ("Sergeant York," from 1941, is a propaganda piece, and 2006's "Flyboys" is a silly excuse for special-effects wizardry.) Television offers similarly little, aside from the atrocious 2001 A&E movie "The Lost Battalion" and the 1996 PBS series "The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century," which gave only passing mention to the U.S. role....

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