IT WAS "the war to end all wars." But nearly a century later, World War I has become "the Rodney Dangerfield war."
As the last few WW I veterans die out, it's time that the United States gives that war the respect and attention it deserves.
All across the U.S., WW I monuments are deteriorating or forgotten. While much attention has been devoted to the WW II, Vietnam and Korean war memorials on the mall in Washington, the WW I memorial is a distant stepchild. Located on the south side of the mall, the circle of columns and domed marble structure, dedicated in 1931, stands between rows of trees, relatively unknown to tourists.
"It's pretty much a forgotten memorial, which is a shame, because it's the only World War I memorial in D.C.," said Rebecca A. Miller, executive director of the DC Preservation League, in a November 2007 article by David Mark on Politico.com.
More than 2.1 million American soldiers, the "doughboys," went over there to Europe to fight in WW I. About 116,000 Americans were killed in battle, and more than 204,000 were wounded. The total number of deaths for all nations during the war are staggering: 8.5 million soldiers from 16 countries killed, 21 million wounded, 8 million civilians dead.
Veterans Day originally started as Armistice Day, in recognition of the cease-fire agreement with Germany on Nov. 11, 1918. In 1954, Congress changed the name of the holiday to Veterans Day to honor all American vets.
Ask an auditorium filled with high-school students today who Franz Ferdinand is, and 95 percent would likely answer "the European rock band with the cool video." Only a handful would know the name of the Austrian archduke whose assassination in 1914 led to World War I.
As to what a doughboy was, kids today would answer "the cute little Pillsbury puppet with the funny giggle" rather than the soldiers' nickname in WWI.
A big bookstore might carry 22 rows of World War II books, but only two rows on World War I. The stories of the sinking of the Lusitania and the emergence of American war heroes like Billy Mitchell, Eddie Rickenbacker and "Black Jack" Pershing have diminished with time.
What World War I needs is a new public-relations campaign.
It needs an advocate like Tom Hanks or Steven Spielberg, who spearheaded the drive to build the World War II memorial on the D.C. Mall. In recent years, there have been plenty of major movies and TV shows dedicated to World War II ("Saving Private Ryan"), the Korean War ("M*A*S*H"), Vietnam ("Deer Hunter," "Apocalypse Now"), and the Civil War (Ken Burns' PBS documentary). But the last significant WW I movie probably was "Lawrence of Arabia" in 1962.
AS PHILLIP Marchand said in a 2003 article in the Toronto Star, "The influence of World War II in the public imagination can be measured by the number of television shows and movies still being made with that war either in the background or the foreground.
"The Nazis, in particular, have proven to be a gift to the entertainment industry- they certainly show no signs of fading from movie screens, television screens or books.
"By contrast, World War I has little dramatic appeal. The contrast between good and evil is not so sharp as in its sequel, the visuals are dreary, with all that mud and trenches and unrelieved slaughter, and nobody knows much why it began or how it ended."
The time is ripe for a World War I epic movie or television miniseries that would reintroduce younger generations to the stories of their grandfathers and great-grandfathers who fought in the Great War.
Americans should rediscover and try to learn more about World War I. Unlike WWII, Vietnam and Korean war vet, the WWI veterans are no longer able to speak for themselves.
As monuments to this war deteriorate and fade from notice across the country, we should honor those who went Over There and lost their lives. *
Larry Atkins teaches journalism at Temple and Arcadia universities. His e- mail address is larryLTatkins@aol.com.