My View of the Next “Greatest Generation”

(as seen on November 12, 2008)

Judith Collins McCormick

As a forty-two-year old female professor of literature, I find that my perspective on war has usually “[mixed] memory with desire,” as T.S. Eliot famously said. The memory part has come from the stories of others – my father, too young for World War II and too old for Vietnam, who taught college Freshman English in the days when it served as the “weeding out” class and any student who failed would probably be drafted to Vietnam; my mother’s father, who was too old for active service in 1917 so instead served state-side in Navy Supplies at Norfolk, where his duties included (once, anyway) moving the Admiral’s wife’s piano in the rain; and his younger brother who served as an army cook in the American Expeditionary Force (A.E.F.) in France and would say nothing of his experience until about 1960, when the only words he could bring himself to utter were: “There were dead people everywhere.”

The desire part has always manifested itself through the need to understand the literature I’ve chosen to study: American and English Modernism, the result, allegedly, of The Great War, The War to End War, later (ironically) called World War I. How did Western literature in general, and American literature in particular, move so quickly from Victorian high ideals to well, Eliot? And why, in seemingly all other fields of thought besides literature, has the First World War (1914-18) been so completely subsumed in our collective memory by the Second? On the 90th anniversary of the Armistice, I think I’ve finally hit on a single answer to my questions: Because, at what would later be defined more and more clearly as the true beginning of the twentieth century, the Western world wanted very much to create an ideal world – a utopia worthy of the promise of a new century (for instance, “making the world safe for democracy”). And they botched it.

They botched it for several reasons, not least because the various cultures whose governments became involved had very different ideas of how to define “ideal.” But they botched it also because of what the 1960s came to call a “generation gap.” Western literature from between about 1890 and about 1935 shows a definite shift in respect for previous generations. Ernest Hemingway’s returned soldier in In Our Time not only cannot explain to his mother what he has seen in the war but also has no desire to try, since what he sees as her outdated adherence to equally outdated propriety repulses him. In her memoir, Testament of Youth, Vera Brittain tells how she returned to England from nursing duty in Belgium only to become maddened by her parents‟ insistence that they were experiencing true hardships. And Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians lambastes four major heroic figures of the previous generation, calling into question not only their heroism but the truth of the heroic stories about them.

We get a pretty good idea why when we compare poetry about war between the Victorian and Modern ages: Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade” to Randall Jerrell’s “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner”; or poetry about love: Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets From the Portuguese to e.e. cummings’s “anyone lived in a pretty how town”; or poetry about religion: Hopkins’s “God’s Grandeur” to Eliot’s The Waste Land.

The generation gap probably began at the Battle of Mons, British newspapers hailing the troops as having exhibited “conspicuous bravery” in a courageous stand against the onslaught of a seemingly exponentially larger German force. But by the time of First Ypres, and then the Gallipoli campaign, the battles of the Somme and Verdun – not to mention Second and Third Ypres (when bodies buried in the mud during earlier battles were blasted to the top again) – the gap had widened considerably. The men in the trenches knew that the generals to the rear had no experience with gas attacks, or tank attacks, or airplanes strafing trenches and dropping bombs into them, or storm troopers wielding flame-throwers, or heavy artillery bombardments. The generals were planning attacks based on the last war they had fought – at Alsace, or outside Johannesburg, or up San Juan Hill. Meanwhile, the infantrymen were fighting this war and dying not only in large numbers but in utterly unspeakable ways, and in many cases they began to feel a certain amount more sympathy for their counterparts in the trenches opposite than for their own commanders. Paul Baumer in Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front first instinctively fatally stabs, then consciously nurses a French soldier who has been unlucky enough to take shelter in the same shell hole Baumer already occupied. The Unknown Soldier of William March’s Company K, when he knows he will die on the barbed wire in No Man’s Land, throws away all his identification so that the mayor of his hometown will be unable to say he died gloriously. As he does so, he is comforted by a German soldier from the trench opposite who has heard his cries and tries to make his death easier. The infantryman in The Great War began by fighting for the honor of his homeland, revering his superior officers, and ended by fighting mostly for the man next to him, revering only survival.

The generals commanded the infantrymen, and the statesmen commanded the generals. Both groups of elders later helped to author the Treaty of Versailles, which allowed Hitler to rise to power in Germany, leading to World War II. The Treaty’s authors, after having declared at the start that this would be a “war to end war,” returned after the Armistice to the only things they really knew – colonization, revenge, and humiliation. They divided Germany’s colonies in Africa and the Middle East among themselves, levied crippling economic sanctions on Germany, and forced Germany to “admit” that it had been the only aggressor. The infantrymen from the trenches of World War I, however, became the statesmen and generals who commanded World War II, and their survivors created the peace that followed. The Marshall Plan is a clear example of the differences when compared to the shortsighted vindictiveness the Allied victors displayed at Versailles. Those who saw the First World War from the trenches – who had at first believed in what Wilfred Owen called “The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est / Pro patria Mori” (1913) only to see the lie exposed and the Great Cause forgotten in the greed of the men who had recruited them with that lie – then commanded the Second World War from behind the lines and from the houses of government. It took their understanding of what their elders had botched to conduct the Second World War and its peace to more humane and practical conclusions.

This semester, I have put my fascination with First World War politics and experience to some use in a course in the literature of World War I, and I have found, not for the first time, that my students have taught me at least as much as I’ve taught them. I’ve designed the cours chronologically by setting, rather than by publication date, so the class has gone through the war from the beginning. They began by reading the early idealistic poetry and the early letters and memoirs, and they seemed for at least a short time to believe in Rupert Brooke’s hopes for an England made more glorious by the deaths of its young men for her sake and in Ernst Judger’s eerily similar hopes for a more glorious Germany. Then they experienced Fred Henry’s disillusionment in A Farewell to Arms, aged with Paul Baumer in All Quiet on the Western Front, and felt the aching beauty Wilfred Owen conveys, even through increasingly vivid and nauseating images of the gas-permeated mud surrounding him, in which he died one week before the Armistice.

I write this on November 12, 2008. Yesterday, as a class, we celebrated the Armistice. We walked downtown to a small coffee shop, pretended we were in Paris and that the war was over. And yet, for at least two of my students, the war is not yet over. One has a fiancé training at Ft. Benning for service in Afghanistan, the other a good friend already serving in Iraq.

Suzanne told me privately about her fiancé on the first day of class, as an attempt to explain what she expected would be days when she looked “a little out of it.” I wondered if she should take the class at all, as I knew it was bound to be disturbing for her. But she seemed determined. Suzanne has said little to nothing during class discussion all semester, but her journal entries speak determinedly of loyalty, duty, honor, and patriotism – the same sentiments First World War veterans came to sneer at. I often wonder how she sees the rest of us, who have rather gloried in the graphically-described horrors as more reason for ending war altogether, as World War I was intended to do.

Elizabeth, however, is more voluble. Her friend sends her e- mail messages, telling stories of his unit’s latest experiences in Iraq. She told the class one day that she usually responds with “Well, in my war …” before she goes on to tell him what she’s been reading. She laughs as she says it, but she doesn’t tell us his stories, only her response. He is in love with her, she thinks, and behind her laughter is a nervousness which may well come from something similar to Catherine Barkley’s regrets in A Farewell to Arms. Elizabeth spends much time hoping that her friend will come home, that he will be whole, that he will find a girl who loves him in return, and that he will be happy – and she worries that he won’t.

I worry, too. Last semester, one of my smarter, more thoughtful and circumspect students – also an Iraq veteran – came to my office mid-semester to say goodbye. He was not about to be redeployed. Instead, he explained, he was withdrawing from school because, due to some uncontrollable urges his doctors ascribe to his PTSD, he had beaten senseless the ex-boyfriend of his current girlfriend. He didn’t know how many classes he’d have to miss due to court dates, and he might even have to “do time.” Withdrawing from school, he said, was the responsible thing to do. He shook my hand, thanked me for my efforts to that point in the semester, and walked out, straight-backed and firm.

I have also often watched PBS’s News Hour with Jim Lehrer when at the end of the program Lehrer introduces a series of names and photographs of those recently killed in either Iraq or Afghanistan. And then those names and photographs have played before my eyes in silence. I have sat tense and fearful that I would see the face and name of a former student when, as Vera Brittain said of a cousin killed at Gallipoli in 1915, “I didn’t even know he was out.” To a point, I understand Suzanne’s and Elizabeth’s tension, and yet I don’t – I can’t – understand completely.

Elizabeth was also the student who experienced the most violent reaction to the death of Vera Brittain’s fiancé Roland Leighton at the end of 1915. I had been assigning small selections of Vera’s and Roland’s letters and a chapter or two at a time of Testament of Youth, expecting that they would get to know and to like Vera and Roland, as well as Vera’s brother Edward and his two friends Geoffrey and Victor, before all but Vera were killed. Had I realized the effects their deaths, one by one, would have on my students, I might not have done so. On the day we were to discuss Roland’s death, three students, including Elizabeth, stood outside in the hallway as I approached and threatened to boycott class because they were “in mourning.”  A couple of weeks later, they looked daggers at me throughout class after Geoffrey and Victor had “died of wounds” in 1916, as if I had personally ordered the boys “over the top.” But by the time Edward was killed in the summer of 1918, they were sad, but they had read so much of mutilation and death that they were no longer able to feel outraged. They were veterans.

A former professor of mine, when I related these stories to him, commented that mass psychosis was not generally considered a positive educational outcome. And yet, I wonder.

I had believed my students to be harder and more resilient than I, younger and, in the words of David Brenner, “twelve feet tall and bullet-proof.” And they are. But they are also closer to the ages of the soldiers whose lives and deaths we study. And they know soldiers whose experiences remind them of those we study. The survivors of the First World War celebrated the Armistice ninety years ago yesterday, and when I produced a sheet of Canadian Remembrance Day poppies for my students to wear to the “café,” each dutifully pinned one over his or her heart. Through Mel Gibson’s portrayal of the not-quite-good- enough Frank Dunne, as well as letters from real survivors, they have experienced the massive losses and the heart-wrenching evacuation of Gallipoli. Through Anne Perry’s First World War mystery series, as well as Roland Leighton’s letters, they can almost smell the stench of the Western Front. They now understand how literature went from “The Charge of the Light Brigade” to “The Death of the Ball-Turret Gunner”; it got there through Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est.”

But they know more than that, too.

They know that, really, no one is “twelve feet tall and bullet-proof.” They know that while most young men who go to war do return, many don’t. They know that those who return will not be the same. And they know that who lives and who dies is not determined by who is good and courageous and who is not.

They know that the grunt in the infantry, while he is there because he loves and respects his country and wants to defend it as well as its ideals, is also there hoping and praying to come home – to have grandchildren as well as stories to tell them. And as they read, and as they discuss what they’ve read, they think of their fiancés and their friends, and they want to hear their stories – for a long time to come.

They also know about the politics of the current Middle-Eastern wars, about September 11th, about weapons of mass destruction, about lies and half-truths from politicians, about democracy being a better fit for some cultures than for others. And they, like the grunts in the infantry about whom they read, know that the generation fighting, while still thoroughly dedicated to the principles of democracy and to protecting the homeland, have begun to mistrust their elders – those who are, in some cases, still fighting the last war.

They want to know how these wars will affect the twenty-first century, and whether they will do so as significantly as the First World War affected the twentieth. I cannot answer them. I am forty-two years old, and I teach the past. My students, wearing their poppies and quoting Wilfred Owen, are the future.

I can teach them that while academic study and popular imagination have focused on mid-century wars – the American Revolution, the American Civil War, and World War II – America has in fact defined itself, stage by stage, in wars at the starts of centuries – and then forgotten them. Between 1812 and 1814, we won what has been called a second independence from Great Britain, solidifying our existence by proving ourselves a second time against the greatest military power in the world. But then at mid-century we engaged in a civil war which forced us to recreate the American identity we had reasserted earlier. Between 1917 and 1918, we established ourselves as a rising world power, eventually to replace Great Britain as a builder of empires. But the Treaty of Versailles arguably led to the Second World War, and its peace resulted in the Cold War. When that ended, in many small states around the world, we rediscovered the same nationalistic divisiveness which had sparked the assassination of Austrian Arch-Duke Franz Ferdinand in June of 1914. Virtually unnoticed by much of the Western world for the rest of that century, Versailles also created much of the territorial troubles in today’s Middle East, and so now, in the twenty-first century, we fight there, finding often that we have misjudged the sentiments, not to mention the abilities, of the cultures among whom we wish to “make the world safe for democracy.”

But I cannot teach my students what to do with this knowledge; I can only hope that they will find that answer for themselves.

I have no doubt that our performance now in the Middle East will shape the whole twenty-first century as our participation in France did the twentieth, but it will do so largely because it affects the generation which will lead the twenty-first century. John Bourne, Peter Liddle, and Ian Whitehead titled their two-volume collection of essays on the history of World Wars I and II: The Great World War: 1914-45? This title both frightens and encourages me as I contemplate possibilities for the twenty-first century. If our current wars could really end all war, that would, of course, be the best outcome. Yet even if these wars manage to serve only as examples of what their commanders‟ children and grandchildren should not do, and if the next generation can use those examples to help them see what they should do, then we will still have accomplished something Great – despite the humbling realization that the leadership of my students’ generation will have come from its understanding of how ours botched it.

Works Referenced

Bourne, John, Peter Liddle, and Ian Whitehead, eds. The Great World War: 1914-45? London: HarperCollins, 2000.

Brittain, Vera. Testament of Youth. New York: Penguin, 2005.

Brittain, Vera, et al. Letters from a Lost Generation: The First World War Letters of Vera Brittain and Four Friends: Roland Leighton, Edward Brittain, Victor Richardson, Geoffrey Thurlow. Eds. Alan Bishop and Mark Bostridge. Boston: Northeastern UP, 1998. The quote within this article comes from p. 158.

Browning, Elizabeth Barrett. From Sonnets from the Portuguese. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 5th ed. Eds. M.H. Abrams, et al. New York: Norton, 1986. 1077.

cummings, e.e. “anyone lived in a pretty how town.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. 2nd ed. Eds. Nina Baym et al. New York: Norton, 1985. 1398-99.

Eliot, T.S. The Waste Land. The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry.

Eds. Richard Ellman and Robert O ‘Clair. New York: Norton, 1988. 491-504.

Gallipoli. Dir. Peter Weir. Writ. Peter Weir, David Williamson, Ernest Raymond. 1980. Paramount DVD, 2005.

Hemingway, Ernest. A Farewell to Arms. New York: Scribner’s, 1995. Hopkins, Gerard Manly. “God’s Grandeur.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 5th ed. Eds. M.H. Abrams, et al. New York: Norton, 1986. 1581-82.

Jarrell, Randall. “The Death of the Ball-Turret Gunner.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. 2nd ed. Eds. Nina Baym et al. New York: Norton, 1985. 2312-13.

Owen, Wilfred. “Dulce et Decorum Est.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 5th ed. Eds. M.H. Abrams, et al. New York: Norton, 1986. 1912-13.

Perry, Anne. At Some Disputed Barricade. New York: Ballantine, 2007.

Strachey, Lytton. Eminent Victorians. New York: Modern Library, 1999.

Tennyson, Alfred. “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 5th ed. Eds. M.H. Abrams et al. New York: Norton, 1986. 1176-77.

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