To understand the conflict’s legacy, consider what might have been.
In the spring of 2015, my undergraduate son and I drove the length of the 1914-1918 Western Front, from the British battlefields in Flanders through the French zone in Champagne and Lorraine to the American cemeteries and monuments: Chateau-Thierry, St. Quentin, Belleau Wood, the Argonne. The nearer we approached the American sector, the fewer tourists shared the sites with us. Under the Menin gate at Ypres—a massive memorial to Britain’s lost—we were jostled among half a thousand men and women, boys and girls. In the overwhelming Meuse-Argonne cemetery, the largest American military burying place in all Europe, we stood alone.
A Twitter follower offered me a memorable explanation of the weak hold of the First World War upon the American consciousness. “Americans prefer the sequel: better villains, bigger explosions.” There’s something to that. But if this earlier war has faded from national memory, its aftermath shapes American culture.