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How not to learn our lessons

Ninety-six years ago this week, it was reported in Las Vegas that the government of France was looking for a Pioche mill worker named William Garrison.

Garrison had already received the U.S. Distinguished Service Cross for bravery in action in France during World War I, and the French were seeking him to bestow the Croix de Guerre on him. I haven’t been able to find out whether they found him, but I did locate his DSC citation.

He was serving as a private with a Signal Corps company, 101st Infantry Regiment, 26th Division of the American Expeditionary Force near Chateau-Thierry in July 1918. “Private Garrison displayed great personal bravery and skill in maintaining telephone lines between the regimental commander and the leading battalion for more than two days,” the citation reads.

“He patrolled the line continuously and repaired it when it was cut during bombardment. Knocked down frequently by exploding shells, and once buried beneath dirt and debris, he nevertheless stuck courageously to his task, thereby making communication possible.”

Even in an age when we are plagued by unnecessary war, World War I stands out as a preventable and unnecessary conflict. As it happens, the centennial of that conflict is now unfolding. Readers may be surprised to hear this. The commemoration of the centennial, which began on June 28 last year, has been understated and underplayed.

In the early 1960s, the centennial of the U.S. Civil War dominated all media. Magazines like Life magazine poured it on. Movies and television specials were made. There were endless commemorations and discussions.

But the centennial of World War I and its deadly aftermath is getting very little attention, and that is unfortunate, because we still live with the consequences of that war and that era.

One international dispute after another is at the end of a fuse lit in World War I and at the subsequent settlement conference. On the street where the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand occurred in Sarajevo, triggering the events that led to the war, there is a sign: “THE STREET CORNER THAT STARTED THE 20th CENTURY 1914-1918.”

In the wake of the war, British cartographer Percy Cox, acting for his government, invented nations that the United States today defends or attacks, like Kuwait and Iraq.

At the conference that wrote the treaty that formally ended the war, Nguyen Tat Thanh of Vietnam approached U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, seeking assistance with independence for his nation. Rebuffed or ignored by the white supremacist Wilson, Nguyen turned elsewhere for help, eventually leading his nation to independence as Ho Chi Minh. World War I and its aftermath was like that, the “peace” treaty leading directly to the horrors of Hitler and the next war.

This is a conflict that few U.S. citizens know or understand, and this centennial is doing little to increase our understanding.

U.S. Rep. Edwin Roberts of Nevada, a Republican, was one of 50 House members who voted against the declaration of war. In the name of the war, 80,000 acres of Utah land were taken from the Ute tribe. The last known living British veteran of the war, Harry Patch, who died in 2009, once said that it had been a war not worth fighting.

That war produced a lot of poetry, much of it by the soldiers who fought it. At first the poetry was glorious and patriotic. By the end, it was bitter. Wilfred Owen, a Brit who died seven days before the armistice, left this verse: “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.”

This is the meaning of the Latin: “It is sweet and glorious to die for one’s country.”

Those who were lost in that needless, pointless conflict, like young William Garrison of Nevada, are now forgotten. And every indication is that we are determined not to learn from the war that took them, though its needless, pointless legacy is on every side of us.

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.

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