- On the Battlefield of Memory: The First World War and American Remembrance, 1919–1941 by Steven Trout
From 1917–1918, the United States was transformed dramatically from its nineteenth century inclinations to a modernized nation, grappling with both its own rapidly evolving industrialization and its new role in international affairs. Domestically, until the eve of the Second World War, a social war raged concerning the memory of the country’s eighteen months of combat. And yet, with little substantive research into its influence on American attitudes and identity, World War I remains “shrouded in ambiguity and contradiction.” (2)
In his book, On the Battlefield of Memory: The First World War and American Remembrance, 1919–1941, Steven Trout explores how post–World War I society attempted to find meaning in “America’s first overseas crusade” despite its emergence as a “source of cultural disruption and splintering.”(3–4) His work is a definitive volume of the “politics of memory” that shaped the interwar era. It is a chronicle of how complete communities, disillusioned by a romanticized myth of the Civil War, grappled with the “killing power of military technologies carried to a grotesque extreme.” (109) Addressing the cultural response to the war’s senselessness—what Ernest Hemingway described as a “hole in the fabric of American culture”—this book [End Page 315] dissects the “miscommunication, conflicting perspectives, and failed memory” (28) that marked the era and became the unofficial legacy of World War I.
President Woodrow Wilson’s idealistic principle that Allied victory in the Great War would make “the world safe for democracy” proved as illusory as it was impractical. In the end, with the horrors of unprecedented mechanized carnage, naïve notions of warfare’s glories were gone. Confronted with innumerable deaths, eventually reaching a total of 17 million combined combatant and non–combatant fatalities, victory for the survivors seemed pyrrhic, without cause, and devoid of logical comprehension. U. S. troops leaving the European battlefields were nonetheless issued victory medals accompanied by a final order—one related to the “governmentally sanctioned” version of their experiences during the war. In essence, attempting to edit the memory of how soldiers had participated, wartime propagandists and actual combatants were set on a collision course: “Unlike past military commanders,” Trout asserts, “the AEF’s leaders wanted not simply to win the war but… to see the war become a truly usable past.” (50) As such, World War I became simultaneously a point of celebration and condemnation, fueling misunderstanding after misunderstanding about the nature of American involvement and the meaning of the losses sustained by the country.
Since neither coherent remembrance nor unifying commemoration was ever fully achieved, the story of the war’s memory cannot be related in a normal, straightforward fashion. Instead, Battlefield’s central argument focuses on the shaping of Great War memory. Development of this thesis requires congruent activities. First, Trout establishes the vocabulary necessary for a meaningful discussion of the war’s effects on the nation. Clarifying, among other things, “remembrance” and “collective memory,” he systematically undertakes the task of dispelling the abstractions and ambiguities in the language of the war’s interpretation. His clearly defined lexicon underpins an analytical approach that draws connections and comparisons between the war and architecture; architecture and art; art and literature; [End Page 316] literature and national policy; policy and the decades–long struggle to establish a specific version of remembrance that justified American participation in the war.
All the while, Trout underscores the trauma that endured, well after the war itself. Inasmuch as he clarifies the confusion with vocabulary that, at its core, fueled much of the debate around “memory culture” (a phrase this reviewer uses more inclusively than in the book), Trout addresses the contradictory positions of disparate factions of society, all vying for the accepted version of the war’s memory. From battlefield monuments to “living” memorials, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and Cult of the Fallen Soldier, the Bonus Army, the...