Over the Veterans Day weekend, surely every Irish-American radio host in the country played a recording of “The Band Played Waltzing Matilda,” preferably the classic version by Liam Clancy. I heard it on Sunday morning, on the voice of Seton Hall University, WSOU, but I’ll bet it was a staple of last weekend’s Irish programs.
It is interesting that the Irish feel such a connection to the tragedy and waste of World War I. After all, the Irish had very little at stake in the war, save as it allowed Padraig Pearse, James Connolly, Countess Markiewicz, Roger Casement and John Devoy a chance to plot a rebellion during Easter week in 1916.
True, thousands of Irishmen died on the green fields of France, fighting in British army uniforms. But their deaths are only dimly remembered, overshadowed by those who died in Dublin during Easter week. In the decades since the war’s end, the Irishmen who died in Flanders fields have slipped from memory, to the point where many less-informed people might be surprised to learn that thousands of Irishmen shed their blood for king and country during that terrible conflict.
On the other hand, the sacrifice of thousands of Irish-Americans who fought with the Fighting 69th and other units is remembered still, but for how long. World War I is receding from the nation’s collective memory as the veterans of that war disappear.
Perhaps now historians can pursue with greater vigor the futility of that war, and ask difficult questions that could not have been asked when the war’s veterans were still among us in great numbers.
For example, was America’s intervention in the conflict actually a disaster that led to all sorts of unintended consequences, some of which haunt us today?
Most people who know anything about World War I know that the United States entered the war after it had been raging for years, and that America’s doughboys got to the front just in time to save the allied powers of France and Great Britain.
But was that necessarily a good thing?
Consider what happened after the Yanks got over there: The revived Allied powers summoned the strength to resist a German offensive, and started pushing the Central Powers back towards their homeland. German resistance collapsed, and the guns finally fell silent at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.
At the ensuing peace conference, France and Britain insisted on humiliated Germany, leading to the eventual collapse of the post-war Weimar Republic. Embittered Germans sought to avenge their humiliation by turning to a man who was a corporal during World War I — Adolf Hitler.
What’s more, the post-war settlement redrew the maps of the world, including those in the Middle East. We still live with decisions made by the victorious French and British empires after the war.
What if, instead of an allied victory, the two sides in World War I had been forced to settle for a negotiated peace — in essence, a tie?
What if there were no victorious French and British leaders inflicting harsh conditions on Germany, and splitting up the spoils of the Ottoman Empire?
Today’s world surely would be different, and perhaps more stable.
Woodrow Wilson saw the conflict as a chance to spread democracy, or so he said. But that certainly was not the intention of any of the other combatant nations. For them, the war was a chance to win new treasures, expand their empires, and control new territories.
In short, World War I was one of the greatest catastrophes of modern times. And yet, it seems to be disappearing from our memories, or we simply recite the conventional wisdom about the war without really thinking about it.
Forty years ago, memories of the war were a good deal fresher, and some of us were eager to learn from the experience. As president, John F. Kennedy read a classic book about the war’s origins, “The Guns of August,” by Barbara Tuchman.
Tuchman showed how monarchs and field marshals and prime ministers of Europe mobilized their armies in August, 1914, without really understanding why they were doing it. They reacted, blindly, to events thousands of miles away. They didn’t seek to communicate with their would-be adversaries.
They marched their young men off to war in their millions without really understanding why.
John Kennedy insisted that his top aides read Tuchman’s book. He wanted them to understand the mistakes and misunderstandings that led to the deaths of millions.
And he didn’t want it to happen again. He said if the United States and Soviet Union ever engaged in a nuclear war, he didn’t want future generations saying what some now say of World War I: What were they fighting for? Was this war necessary?
Those who know the words to “The Band Played Waltzing Matilda” also know that the song is, in its own way, as powerful as any book in explaining the futility of World War I.
As the legless veteran watches his old comrades, “all tired, stiff and sore,” marching on Anzac Day in Australia, he hears the young people ask, “What are they marching for?” And he asks himself that same question.
On Veterans Day, we know why our troops marched in the nation’s towns and cities. If we are lucky, perhaps we can avoid the fate of that bitter legless soldier, who saw not glory but only waste.