Just in time to keep talking about our impressions of World War I comes an article from the Canadian Press: From ‘Downton’ to ‘War Horse,’ First World War stories endure in popular culture. I’m not sure just how seriously to take it, since the writer seems to think the war started in 1915 (how else would the centennial begin in 2015?), but I was struck by the quotes from Irish writer John Boyne. Boyne says that the World War II has had more cultural influence because “It has a recognizable enemy and a recognizable evil at the centre of it,” while “when people think of the First World War, they think of the trenches, if they think of it at all.”
I think that simplification cuts both ways. It make it easy to name-check the first war whenever we want to say that “war is futile,” and the second when we say that “war is hell, but necessary.” Neither gives us much guidance it what to do in the present. If anything, the two solitudes made it easy to skimp on the judgment and go straight to whatever point we felt like making.
This year, let’s break the cycle. Read Wartime, Paul Fussell’s cynical study of Allied soldiers like himself, or Isabel Hull’s Absolute Destruction, which points from German World War I policy towards the atrocities of the next war. Get into the shades of grey; it’s worth the trouble.