WW1: Finding a Frame of Reference
Late at night I thumbed through The New York Times Book of World War 1 (Arno Press, 1980), a compilation of headlines in a home resource of fine books on military history. I knew that these stories were easily accessible through Proquest Historical Newspapers, but it was somehow more immediate and satisfying to see the pages that the editor, Christine Bent, took care to assemble into a thematic collection and one that made a certain kind of sense: how assassination triggered war of an unprecedented scale, aggravated by imperialistic foreign policies.
The first story was dated Monday, June 29, 1914, Heir to Austria’s Throne is Slain with His Wife by a Bosnian Youth to Avenge Seizure of His Country, and the last dated Sunday, June 29, 1919, Peace Signed, Ends the Great War, Germans Depart Still Protesting, Prohibited Till Troops Disband. I discovered how peach pits were conserved in barrels and used to line helmets; gas masks differed between the Americans and British, the French and Germans; clothing donations in the name of Father Knickerbocker were sought for the destitute of Belgium and France. I read how the Great War prompted President Woodrow Wilson to set forth a 14 point plan in which open covenants and open diplomacy were paramount.
I thought hard and could not recollect any living person I knew who served in the First World War. I was aware of Frank Buckles, aged 109 and last surviving U.S veteran. But could my great grandfather, a frail, deaf man, who emigrated from northern Italy to become a shoe maker in the Midwest, have served in his youth? I wished I had the foresight to ask my grandfather, remembering the two of them, asleep side-by-side on plush armchairs after a family Christmas dinner.
On different scales war was all around me, hovering, peppering the palate. I comforted a third grade friend who cast aside her metal POW bracelet the day she learned her18 year old brother died in Vietnam. I debated Star Wars with library school students from our Welsh country attics. I double-framed a small still life by my mother — the back, an 8.5 x 11 letter advising on travel security for the occasion of my wedding at the close of the Gulf War. I read headlines covering the Occupation of Iraq, wondering if, in another century, the Second Persian Gulf War will come to make any kind of sense, and questioning, with 104 months of U.S. involvement, how Afghanistan will fare.