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Guest Writer

The greatest generalization
World War I vs. World War II
by Neil Anderson

once asked my granddad what he remembered of the Great War. "Nothing," he said, "except the cocksucking Frog who shook my hand on Armistice Day and said, 'Merci, m'sieur, and please come again next time.'"

In fairness to history – and to the French – I made that story up. But it makes a larger point. Compared to the Great War, World War II sucked. In the United States, the Great War, now known more commonly as World War I, has fared rather less well in memory than World War II.

The end of WWI was a confusing, depressing mess, with ineffectual results like the League of Nations and the Weimar Republic. The end of WWII was a resounding triumph, with clear results like the less obviously ineffectual United Nations, and a bitter, decades-long cold war.

Middle-aged American men who feel rather embarrassed about having never experienced war first-hand, such as Tom Brokaw and Stephen Ambrose, like to assuage their guilt by paying sycophantic homage to WWII veterans. Such panegyrics, besides being stupid, also miss the larger point that almost everything worthwhile in 20th-century culture springs from WWI, not WWII.

Take literature. At first glance, this might seem like a dead heat, with Robert Graves’ "Goodbye to All That," Erich Remarque’s "All Quiet on the Western Front," Humphrey Cobb’s "Paths of Glory" and even Hemingway’s "A Farewell to Arms" on the one hand, and Gore Vidal’s "Williwaw," John Horne Burnes’ "The Gallery" and Richard Matheson’s "The Beardless Warriors" on the other.

But the three WWII novels, while excellent in themselves, in fact serve as ironic demonstrations of the declining standards of the American reading public. All three are virtually forgotten today.

Vidal’s book is an effective war novel that, almost in passing, parodies Hemingway’s style so effectively that no intelligent person, after reading it, could ever take Hemingway seriously. Burnes’ book celebrates the people of Italy, one of the nations with which we were at war. Matheson’s book focuses on the teen-agers who served as human sacrifices on the European front. The first two books are out of print, and the last only made it back in print last year, after a decades-long interval. In short, the novels have not found the audience they deserve.

The most famous novels of WWII are Norman Mailer’s "The Naked and the Dead," James Jones’ "From Here To Eternity," Joseph Heller’s "Catch-22," Thomas Pynchon’s "Gravity’s Rainbow" and Kurt Vonnegut’s "Slaughterhouse Five" – a quintet of bombastic, self-aggrandizing, really bad books.

Heller, the worst offender (Pynchon escapes this distinction only because so few manage to read his book), actually lifts his most famous scene from R.C. Sherriff’s play, "Journey’s End," written in – wait for it – 1928. That example is the most devastating rejoinder to anyone who claims that any of these five novelists broke new ground: they didn’t, they just dressed up old stories in the trappings of authorial self-indulgence.

And then there was music. In the aftermath of WWI, it was difficult to pretend that the war had accomplished anything besides the needless deaths of millions of people. There was a lot to be depressed about. The American response was to create that most joyous of music forms, jazz.

Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, Bix Beiderbecke and Bing Crosby all successfully drowned genuine sorrow in genuine cheer. They created danceable songs with a poignant undertow.

Their WWII successors – Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and Frank Sinatra – drowned the false euphoria at the end of WWII in all-too-genuine self-pity. Modern man, after WWII, was much more of a depressed narcissist than he had been formerly, and popular culture was all too eager to pander to him.

And finally, there was poetry. The case for WWI poetry is so strong that all it requires is a listing of its greatest poets: Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, Rupert Brooke, Edmund Blunden.

WWII’s greatest poets? Roy Fuller? Alan Ross? Sidney Keyes? Mercifully, I'll go no further.

To would-be adulators of the same ilk as Brokaw and Ambrose, I ask that they consider before compounding their sins, the virtues of subtlety, wit, intelligence and, above all, having the compassion to prefer – all things being equal – not to bore one’s audience.

It’s a lesson that too many of the artists of the WWII generation forgot.

See more from Neil in our archives.

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