Myers: We ignore the war that shaped our world


“We learn from history that we learn nothing from history,” George Bernard Shaw said.

Two years ago in this space I expressed regret that a year of the four-year centennial of World War I had passed and the U.S. had mostly ignored it.

The fuses to many of our current problems were lit in that war, and yet we show little interest in why we have, or do not have, a stake in places like Kuwait, Iraq and Syria. The answers are in the past. The consequences are in homes and veterans’ hospitals all across our land. It would be nice to have a better understanding of why we were drawn into those places.

The U.S. Civil War centennial in the 1960s was the occasion for an enormous outpouring of lectures, books, magazines, television programs, movies. Where has been the similar outpouring about World War I?

In the past couple of weeks, a few observances were held around the U.S., apparently because Congress voted on April 6, 1917 to enter the war. What was then called the Great War apparently did not become important until the U.S. entered it. (Nevada’s lone U.S. House member, Rep. Edwin Roberts, voted against going to war, by the way.)

In the Las Vegas Review-Journal this week, Keith Rogers reported on a display about the war at the Leatherneck Bar and Grill.

In Fernley, at the Nevada Veterans’ Cemetery, there was a ceremony.

Former Nevada regent Howard Rosenberg read excerpts from letters written home from Europe by the great-grandfather of a friend of his.

These are helpful, but they are only a start.

A PREVENTABLE WAR

Even by the standards of wars, World War I was disgracefully unnecessary and preventable.

It produced a remarkable amount of poetry, much of it by those who fought it. Poetry may have been the best way to explain the conflict. (The war’s poetry can be read at the Poetry Foundation’s website at http://tinyurl.com/lw692bu.)

The verses started out much like the war did, with patriotic fervor.

As the war bogged down in the trenches and year after year passed and the soldiers learned how foolish it was, the verses turned more and more bitter.

On June 12, 1918 Nevada’s Churchill County Standard published “In Flanders Fields,” the poem that was then on its way to becoming immortal. It was written by Canadian physician John McCrae to vent his anguish after seeing a good friend die a gruesome death in the second battle of Ypres. McCrae wrote it one day after watching 22-year-old Alexis Helmer killed in battle. It became one of the most famous war poems of human history and achieved near mythical status in Canada, which has it imprinted on the ten dollar bill.

On Dec. 23, 1915, 20-year-old British poet Roland Leighton, fiancé of Red Cross nurse Vera Brittain, died of wounds suffered near Hebuterne, France, the first of most of Brittain’s closest friends (including her brother) killed in the senseless war that inspired her to write “Testament of Youth” to try to make some sense of it all. “Testament” was made into a movie in 2014.

On July 4, 1916, U.S. poet Alan Seeger, 28, was killed at Belloy-en-Santerre as a member of the French Foreign Legion. It has been written, “In his letters, Seeger told of crowded quarters, filth, cold and misery; but only his romantic views of the war make their way into his poetry.”

On Nov. 4, 1918, two weeks before the war ended, English poet Wilfred Owen was killed in action while leading an Allied raiding party at the Sambre-Oise Canal in Ors, France. His verse resonated with the public in the wake of the pointless world war, and again with antiwar youth in the 1960s.

One of his verses: “My friend, you would not tell with such high zest/ To children ardent for some desperate glory,/ The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est Pro patria mori.”

The Latin lie is from Horace’s Odes. It translates as, “It is sweet and proper to die for one’s country.”

Dennis Myers is an award-winning journalist who has reported on Nevada’s capital, government and politics for several decades. He has also served as Nevada’s chief deputy secretary of state.