For most Americans, the war is little more than the answer to an exam question about the origins of World War II, an easier-to-understand conflict that many believe forged what broadcaster Tom Brokow dubbed the country’s “Greatest Generation,” men and woman with a strong sense of personal morality and national responsibility. Unpopular from the start, America all but forgot World War I soon after it ended in 1918. Its veterans and literary chroniclers became known as the “Lost Generation.”
Yet the PBS program kicked up lively debate. “The Great War” professed the noble goal of introducing Americans to a war described as having profound and lasting national impact. Those who knew little of the U.S. role responded enthusiastically.
But listeners more aware of the war’s history were left disappointed if not angry. Many deplored the amount of time PBS gave to the war’s run up and the social issues of the day. The time spent on African-American combat units (the Harlem Hellfighters), women’s rights and the Native American code talkers was seen as excessive, if not pandering to liberal politically correctness.
The war’s original combatants — France, Britain, Russia, Germany, and even Austria — were at odds for clearly military or diplomatic reasons. Treaty obligations had compelled the involvement of Britain, Russia, France, and Germany, which also saw a military opportunity. National defense drew in France and Belgium.
However contorted these reasons may seem a century later, they gave Europeans agreed-upon notions about the meaning of the fight. While the European view doesn’t ignore the war’s broad-reaching social aspects — the class struggle and the changing status of women — it does treat these themes as subplots. Europe focuses on the blood and guts military drama. Even today, the most popular literary expressions of the war remain combat narratives, including Erich Maria Remarque’s “All Quiet on the Western Front” and Ernst Junger’s “Storm of Steel,” both men veterans of the war.
Yet America remains confused about its motives. Disagreement over the PBS series rekindled century-old debating positions.
In 1917, America was a reluctant new superpower unsure whether to play peacekeeper or policeman. Some Americans believed helping out beleaguered England was a national duty. Others wanted nothing to do with the Old World they’d left behind.