Four Questions for Steven Trout, The Center for the Study of War and Memory
"Many of the issues that surfaced because of the war have never gone away"
By Lee Febos
Dr. Steven Trout is a professor at the University of South Alabama, where he and his colleague Professor Susan McCready lead a unique organization -- The Center for the Study of War and Memory. The Center is an interdisciplinary team of scholars committed to advancing the study of war remembrance in all its forms -- including public memorials, civic rituals, works of literature and film, television programs, and web sites. The Center hosts speakers and conferences, offers online scholarly materials, and serves as a resource on all matters related to war commemoration. We were able to talk to Professor Trout about the Center, his work there, and his thoughts on World War I in America.
Whose insights helped you to bring out your interest in the subject of remembrance? Why do you feel this research in memory is useful?
I first saw the value of a memory-studies approach to the subject of war when I read Edward Tabor Linenthal’s amazing Sacred Ground: Americans and their Battlefields (1991), a foundational work in the field. Linenthal focused his book on several major battles in American history—the Alamo, Gettysburg, and Little Big Horn, among them—but unlike military historians he wasn’t interested in the specific reasons why one side won and the other lost. Instead, he looked at the way Americans have made sense of these battles over time, a messy process, as it turns out, invariably defined by controversy and conflict. Specifically, he studied what happened on each battlefield after the last shot was fired, tracing the erection (and, in some cases, the removal) of memorials by various and often competing constituencies, as well as the evolution of battlefield rituals, such as reunions and reenactments. Reading the book, you come to realize that remembrance is itself a kind of battlefield with warring forces and winners and losers. I’ve kept this metaphor in the back of my mind ever since reading Sacred Ground.
When it comes to the First World War, Jay Winter’s Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European Cultural History (1995) made a big impression on me when I read it more than twenty years ago. The book is an interdisciplinary tour de force. Like Linenthal, Winter was interested in cultural remembrance, but his research leaned more in the direction of the arts. To understand how Europeans processed the memory of an unthinkable war, Winter looked at statues, paintings, films, and works of literature, moving effortlessly from one medium (and one nationality) to another. His book has influenced my own approach to memory studies a great deal.
Research on cultural memory matters because we need to think carefully about what we are doing when we participate in public remembrance. War memorials are often inscribed with the language of permanence. The dead will be remembered “forever.” Their deeds will be honored “eternally.” And so forth. But memory-studies scholarship tells us that nothing is permanent, that remembrance is, in fact, a fluid process. Many memorials are modified over time, their meanings altered. Others hide in plain sight, no longer holding any relevance for the people who pass them each day without ever really seeing them. This suggests that remembrance has less to do with the past than it does with the needs of the present. Scholarship in this field also demonstrates, again and again, that all memorials are political in some way. They may promote the shared memory of one group at the expense of another. Or the version of the past that they enshrine may involve as much forgetting as remembering. Being conscious of such dynamics may help us as a society to create more thoughtful and more inclusive representations of the past.
Which mediums of research have you found to be most useful in pursuing your work?
I was trained as a literature scholar, and so using novels, memoirs, poems, and plays as evidence for arguments about memory remains my go-to approach. However, I’m also deeply interested in cinema, a medium that touches a far greater number of people and thus probably provides a more reliable barometer of what a culture is collectively thinking at a given moment.
War paintings from the era of the First World War fascinate me because painting was, at that time, such a highly regarded mode of recording history and preserving memory. It even outshone photography, which people considered at once reliable (as a mirror of reality) and shallow, lacking the higher truth accessible only to the painter’s eye. Incredibly, the governments of most combatant nations, including ours, actually created official artists programs that sent volunteer painters to the front (or as near to it as possible), where they could see the war for themselves. And these programs often tied-in with plans for future memorials and national galleries, where the resulting art work would be displayed. I’m currently coediting a book with Margaret Hutchison (Australian Catholic University) that examines fourteen different First-World-War paintings from twelve different countries. I had no idea before beginning that project that even the Ottoman Empire, for example, had a program to ensure that its visual artists would witness the war firsthand. In short, during World War I, war paintings mattered in a big way as documentation and as a form of remembrance—something that would change dramatically during later twentieth-century conflicts, when photography and film reigned supreme.
What were Americans’ views of the “War to End All Wars” in the years and decades following the conflict?
There were many competing views, which is one of the reasons, ultimately, why World War I became so overshadowed by World War II. Americans who lived through the “War to End All Wars” couldn’t agree on what the conflict meant, and so there was no master-narrative or stable body of cultural myth to explain it to future generations. Some Americans continued to believe that the defeat of Imperial Germany had been an absolute necessity. Others questioned whether the United States should have entered the war at all. World War II—the so-called Good War—was a much larger and longer conflict (recall that the American intervention in 1917-1918 lasted just 19 months) that seemed to make more sense. The United States could take pride in having helped to decisively defeat fascism. The meaning of World War I was, in comparison, murky. What exactly did the Allied victory in that conflict achieve, apart from setting the stage for a much bloodier conflict? Where was any evidence that American participation had made the world safe for democracy?
Opinion polls in the 1930s indicated that a majority of Americans regarded the nation’s entry into the war as a mistake and that they opposed further entanglements with Europe. But this doesn’t mean that memories of 1917-1918 were entirely bleak. I think it’s possible to separate what Americans thought about the outcomes of the war from what they remembered—or chose to remember—about the experience of the war. About one out of every four World War I veterans joined the American Legion during the 1920s, and based upon what they read in the Legion’s magazines it appears they clung to a deeply nostalgic version of their wartime service. This view lasted into the 1930s and continued to be held even by veterans who simultaneously believed in isolationism.
Many Legionnaires believed that service in war made one a real man, whatever the results, and I think this model of masculinity was far more commonly accepted in the 1920s and 1930s than we usually assume. You see it in many of the war films from that era, sometimes side-by-side with scenes critical of the war’s conduct and outcomes, and throughout the literature. Even members of the so-called Lost Generation—American writers, that is, who supposedly viewed the war through the lens of overwhelming disillusionment—felt ashamed if they failed to experience the conflict as combatants. Despite receiving a red badge of courage when he was nearly killed by a trench-mortar projectile in 1918, Ernest Hemingway hated having served in the American Red Cross, and he later made up stories of fighting in the Italian Army. F. Scott Fitzgerald felt humiliated because his unit never made it overseas. The literature scholar Keith Gandal has cleverly called these writers (along with William Faulkner, whose pilot training never carried him further than Canada) the “Generation that Lost Out.” I think that’s about right.
In short, Americans in the 1920s and 1930s may have debated what the First World War did for America—or for the world—but faith in the manly virtues of war experience remained common. We know this, in part, because so many American soldiers who joined-up in World War II found inspiration in their fathers’ stories from World War I.
What do you see as some major differences between our contemporary understandings of the war and conceptions held in the 1930s and 1940s?
Over the past thirty years or so, some of the most valuable scholarship on America and the First World War has traced the impact of the conflict on immigrants, racial minorities (especially African Americans and Native Americans), and women, an approach reflected in recent works of popular history such as Stephen Ives’s PBS American Experience documentary The Great War. As a result, we now have a better understanding of the war as it was experienced by what was (then and now) a diverse and multicultural nation.
Most Americans living eighty years ago would have found this kind of multi-layered, polyphonic understanding baffling. The debate over the meaning of the war tended to swirl around central images of men—white men—in combat, with far less recognition than we see today of contributions by soldiers of color and women of all races. As a result, scholars have had to work hard to excavate or reclaim the histories of people who were marginalized at the time, an effort that has truly enlivened and deepened the historical discussion.
Also, because we are further away in time, it’s easier to criticize the American war effort. And there’s a lot to be critical of, including the truly scary expansion of federal power and surveillance in 1917-1918, widespread vigilantism against German Americans and others, the mistreatment of black servicemen within a rigidly segregated military, and the shaky combat performance of the American Expeditionary Forces, which arguably repeated many of the mistakes that the British and French had made, with terrible casualty rates as a result. In some respects, the historical understanding today is perhaps darker than it once was.
At the same time, our vantage point at the centennial allows us to see that World War I was a defining event for America.
Many of the issues that surfaced because of the war have never gone away. We’re still trying to balance personal freedoms with security interests, and we’re still trying to sort out America’s place in the world. Will we lead globally? Or tend to our own interests at home? What happened in 1917-1918 couldn’t be more relevant, and I suspect that it will stay that way for a long time to come.
Lee Febos is a Fall 2018 Intern with the U.S. World War One Centennial Commission.