One could be forgiven for not knowing that there is a memorial to the First World War in Washington, D.C. (Wikipedia | Google Maps). The first time I stumbled across it, it was as an exploration of a curiosity. I wanted to figure out what that unknown building was, barely visible through the trees along Independence Avenue. To approach the memorial is to get a sense of what it must have been like for a Renaissance-era scholar on grand tour of the continent to come to Rome for the first time, when the ruins of Rome were still that: ruins — mysterious, forgotten, pillaged, unkempt, crumbling, ignored. The First World War Memorial is lost in a grove of trees on the south side of the Mall. It’s like coming across an abandoned temple in a forest. The flagstone paving stones of the walk up to the memorial are lose, scattered, broken and on their way to gravel. The memorial itself is blackened with mildew, its marble cracked and stained. It is like a mushroom that popped up in a forest clearing after a rain. Completed in 1931, its archaic inscription simply reads “The World War.”
Our wars aren’t merely matters of fact, narratives or parables from which we are to take the vaunted historical lesson. Our wars are tropes: they represent certain touchstones of the American consciousness. The Second World War was the good war: the forces of good arrayed against the forces of evil, proving the directionality of history. The Vietnam War is central figure in the right wing Dolchstoßlegende. They are all morality plays. The First World War is a forgotten war because it does not signify anything that fits easily into the American mythos. It is an amorality play. Its obvious meta-narratives of miscalculation, system effects, the amorality of state interest, the fleetingness of progress, the shabbiness of war, the divisions of class interest and the meaninglessness of our social conventions around war don’t figure in U.S. discourse on war. So the event is simply excised from the national consciousness, not a part of the pantheon of nostalgia writ in Neoclassical white marble in the nation’s capitol.