by Emmett R Smith
[11 April 2003
[WHILST I tinker with decadence and the craving for tragedy-images, I send ahead now the long piece about Pvt Glenn H Campbell. It explains itself. Just two days ago, on the evening of April ninth, Wednesday evening, I passed through St Clair, where I stopped at a service-station, the ‘Cenex’ station. There was a young fella at work, and one or two of his mates were hanging out….
[When asked, they acknowledged they are students at St Clair highschool. When asked if they knew of Glenn H Campbell, they did not. I refrained from a garrulous middle-aged man’s need to drive home any sledgehammer-points and left quiet-like. There had been a television-set going in the background of our brief conversation, and the young men had been watching a sports-show, a ball-game. They had not been watching news of our invasion of Iraq.
[They were polite young men; and, they were not overly-interested in Glenn H Campbell.
A Not-inconsiderable number of historians today, amateur and professional, find themselves in agreement with historian John Lukacs, that the events of the twentiethcentury marked the end of the modern age. The twentieth century was, as Lukacs points out, a short century. It ran from the outbreak of the Great War in 1914 to the collapse ofthe Berlin wall, and communism, in 1989. The decisive events of the century did not, however, center on the struggle between the classes, between capitalism and socialism. Rather, hypertrophied nationalism was the revolutionary idea that sank the titanic hopes of modernism on the reefs of two world wars.
A young soldier to die in the First World War, in the first avalanche of the collapse of the modern age, the first soldier to die from Blue Earth county in south-central Minnesota,
was US Army Private Glenn H Campbell, of St Clair. On 1 May 1917, together with six other young men from his home-town, his cousin Leo Anthony, Lloyd Wolcott, Edward Kroenke, Harry Feld, Clark Preston and Fannell Blomgren, Campbell enlisted in the army. After training in Missouri and Connecticut, the nineteen-year-old Campbell was sent to France in the Artillery. From 26 July 1917, he served in Truck Company #1 of the US Army First Division Ammunition Train. It was on duty as a driver with the First Division that Private Campbell was killed in action on 27 February 1918. He was but twenty now, and that he died, as the press-reports put it, in the “cause” of liberty and democracy, on the “altar” of liberty, is but the other side of the rhetorical coin of those times, for great numbers of idealistic young Americans did volunteer to go to war in April, 1917. And they did so for high ideals, feelings so abstract and so pure in their expression that it makes the heart ache to read all of it eighty-six years later. In this they were following the examples of their European cousins of August 1914. Unlike their European cousins, however, it may be supposed that these young Americans might have had some idea more of the horrors upon which they would enter in France. The war had been reported extensively and graphically in the American press, after all, and this was by no means just atrocity-propaganda. The manner in which men died in battle was frequently written up, a matter of violent explosions and dismemberment. To be sure, large sections of US public-opinion were non-interventionist, and their newspapers (the only mass media of the day, be it remembered) may have been interested to put across the more lurid accounts. Be that as it may, large numbers of young American men were not deterred:
They went to war to “make the world safe for democracy.”
IN Other words, young Americans of Glenn H Campbell’s generation heeded the call of a patriotism that was beginning on this Atlantic-side, also, to take on most un-conservative and expansive, climbing, tones. The global rhetorical reach of the American First World War, its claimed intentions for that world at war, was a new hypertrophy of patriotic speech. There had always been “manifest destiny” of course, but that creed had been westward-looking and “westward-ho!” The opportunity for over-reaching had not yet become clear to anyone (save for decimated and wretched tribes of reservation Indians). It is ironic, because of course a hallmark of the modern age as it culminated in nineteenth century positivism was optimism and a faith in progress. And, the new American declaration of a new intention in the world was deeply rooted in that scientific faith.
In the late nineteenth century in Europe, that optimism was abducted by aggressive nationalisms. So much so that “nationalism” was considered by many Americans to be one of the evils we were fighting in the Great War, even though those embattled nationalisms frequently, usually, made their own claims to “justice” and “self-determination.” Therefore, President Wilson reckoned, nationalism, being ineluctable, had to be defused and depotentiated of violence. Nationalism was to be handled as an acknowledged fact of human nature, a fact so simple that every footling ethnic enclave should at war’s end be given their own sun-place. That would be the answer…together with an international league to broker rows.
Only first it was necessary to win the war.
Our World War I grandparents, the grandparents of the generation now no-longer-young that is trying to fight “terrorism” (by which, of course, we mean our own fear of the future), were thus abducted also by a precisely identical nationalist semantic: We know what is right and just, what the world must have, and we will fight for that!
In the struggle against all the clearly recognizable European forms of political evil, the lingua of perfection and “universal uplift,” and “victory,” held center stage. The rhetoric of America’s World War I, tarted-up in benevolence to be sure, was a language of the need to tell Europeans what to do, and that for their own good. No longer a polite window-dressing for more manageable operations in the world such as colonial-acquisition, the rhetoric of the entire Great War had become a new ding an sich, an end in itself. And, a further herald of the ending of the modern age:
For whatever else a crusade may be, it is NOT modern. It may evoke the twelfth century and our regression-fears. But since time remains unilinear, the language of “crusade” also pointed ahead to a what proved a (foreshortened) century of ideological war, war no longer modern but transcendental.
Theirs was a crusade, that generation of 1917 was told, “to end war.” Later, the relatives of those who fell, the fathers and mothers, friends and neighbors, the family and community of soldiers such as Pvt Glenn H Campbell, would receive letters from the front describing the deaths of their sons. The language of those letters is at once brutal and specific, and it is also curiously sentimental. The language of World War I death-letters remained at heart nineteenth-century, with an overlay of violent wound-description which was new and an anticipation of the fascination by century’s end in all quarters, with all forms of pornography and obscene imagery. The sentiments of those mortuary missives is cloying, and the generation that returned from France, the generation of “Gatsby” and gangsters and jazz and jism, would turn against that lingua with just as much brutality of naturalistic cynicism and rejection.
IT Is simply so, Campbell’s 1917 generation signed up to go to war on a wave of national enthusiasm such as had not swept the country even at the time of the Spanish-American war, another popular conflict. The last time young Americans had gone to war with this much elan was in 1861. Of course, young Americans had only gone to war on those three occasions in fifty-five years, and so war was still a romantic thing, the sun through distant clouds of smoke and a far shimmer of artillery-light on night-horizons. It may even be that faint bugle-calls figured in the fantasy….
For war is a fantasy, the most compelling one of all, perhaps. And the fantasy then was all the stronger, because none there were directly to gainsay it. After all, after the horrors of the American Civil War, after 1865, there had been a frontier. There had been somewhere for all the botched and battle-ruined to disappear, in the stuporous mining-camps and gold-rush cabins and railroad-gangs. The destroyed walking dead had somewhere to walk, room enough to walk off alone, and they were never a “socialproblem” such as the post-WW II anticomintern American elite feared the veterans of that war would become. Such as not a few Viet Nam veterans did become. Nevertheless, and as much as anything else because all human fantasy is supremely ambivalent, one may reasonably suppose that enthusiasm for this war of 1917 was by no means any more unanimous than for any other.
In Minnesota at least there is ample proof that neighbors of US Army volunteers such as Glenn H Campbell not infrequently were suspicious of the depth and sincerity of one another’s patriotic committment. Throughout the state, perfectly inoffensive “Germans” who in fact had emigrated from Saxony or Hannover, or Thuringia and Westphalia, before the proclamation in 1871 in Versailles of the “2nd Reich,” were roughed up, constrained to call their sauerkraut “liberty cabbage.” By extension, Mueller became Miller and dachshunds “wiener dogs,” which last didn’t quite come off…. Nor were the children of these immigrants wholly enthusiastic about going off to war in Europe; they knew their parents’ tales of what Europe was, why anyone sensible should leave it all strictly behind.
Indeed, right here at home in the Blue Earth county of Army-volunteer Campbell there were plenty of naysayers. Lots of these were the children, grandchildren, of immigrants from Europe. Be it remembered that the nineteenth century, the culminating point of the modern age now wholly at an end since 1989, was marked by an optimistic mass-exodus of peoples such as has never been seen before. It was a movement of human beings which throws into starkest contrast the horrors of post-modern refugee-life. I have said it was a movement of peoples, and from every nation and ethnic-stock did they come. Only they were as intent on leaving behind the harrowing and pogrom-ridden trap of ethnicity as they were on becoming a NEW people. They didn’t know what that could imply for the future, of course, but they would become Americans.
Their passion no doubt was inarticulate in their own languages except as grief at leaving the hallowed places of their blood and forebears and unbroken abuse-centuries; but, they were committed now to the language of hope. Theirs above all was the idea that if not they themselves, then their children anyway would learn to talk American, would be able to put the future, whatever that should prove to be, in the right words, the magic words that would make life better forever.
SIXTY Millions of Europeans came to America in the nineteenth century that ran from 1815 and the Battle of Waterloo to the 1914 Battle of the Marne. They came full of disgust for the otiose and closed societies they left behind, full of tears for all the loved ones left behind, and they came for the sake of their children and grandchildren-to-be. My Great-Grandfather Andrew Peter Jacobson, from Smaland in Sweden, was one of these. His son, my mother’s father, Joseph Jacobson was the germanophile son of a germanophile father; from their viewpoint, in class-ridden and stagnant, ridiculous, Scandinavia, the German peoples seemed altogether admirable and on the qui vive. After all, weren’t many of them on their way to America, too? And who else but industrious and brisk,clean, Germans ran the steamships that sailed regularly and weekly from Gothenburg and Hamburg, in the 1870’s?
This then was the atmosphere in 1917 in the much of rural Blue Earth County. Most farm-people were of German background of one sort or another; and, there were not a few Irish and Welsh, whom it may be supposed had their own ideas about ENGLAND. My Grandfather Joseph Jacobson, in the one-room schools of 1891 and 1897 in LeRay township, was raised to regard England as the enemy. Hadn’t we had to fight two wars to be rid of the British? And hadn’t they played fast and loose with the federal union during the Civil War? The fact that America would go to war twice at England’s side in the mercifully brief twentieth century did not remarkably soften his view; and, when I expressed my sixteen-year-old admiration of Sir Winston Churchill at the time of the death of the latter in 1965, my grandfather hissed at me through his seldom-worn store-teeth:
“That sonofabitch!” he chuckled
Later, in summer of 1968, the year of his death at eighty-three, when I told Grandfather that some people thought Churchill had deliberately arranged the Lusitania-sinking to bring America into the war, he said simply enough:
“I wouldn’t doubt it!”
My grandfather’s father had come to America so that his children could have a modern life. Although he might not have put it in exactly those terms, that is the just sense of what he did with his life. Above all we need to remember that the conventions of history often do not aid understanding. Quite apart from convenient and identifiable beginning-dates for the modern age set in the Renaissance and the discoveries by Columbus, for most of our ancestors the modern age did NOT begin emotionally and mentally until sometime in the ninteenth century.
The modern age for a majority of the European human biological mass only began when someone or other in each family-line rose up and came to America. The stagnant atmosphere of the Thirty Years’ War and the seventeenth century was the daily lot of most Europeans until the time of Napoleon; and, the decision to get out followed necessarily on the evil experiences of a brief generation in the first and sublimely nasty factories of the European post-Waterloo industrialization. (In America you might have to start out in a factory, but your children, by God, unless they acted like “damn monkeys”and wasted their chances, wouldn’t have be stuck there….)
ALL Of this, the ferment and upheaval of peoples, this great and vibrant nineteenth century culmination of the modern age, brought us to the threshold of what many indeed of Glenn H Campbell’s generation felt, believed, positively had been taught, would be the American century. And at the twentieth century’s end, America in fact would be the only one left standing of all the old wartime friends and foes; all prosperity in the world would be relative to America’s only seventy years after Private Campbell fell in France. He died because he was a member of an idealistic generation that would go to war despite the fearful reports from Europe of two-and-a-half years of futile trench-warfare. Campbell grew up in the atmosphere of scientific faith and optimism that was the apotheosis of modernism. Ideas of democracy, progress and optimism were not yet the shibboleths of unilateralism that they would become for the leadership of three generations later; and, there was an internationalizing component at work in all the talk then of “americanism.” If not a few, typically perhaps the children of the most recent immigrants, did not want to go back and fight in Europe against the invincible vilenesses that had driven out their parents, grandparents, still plenty of others did, among them nineteen-year-old Glenn H Campbell of St Clair, MN. As well as sentiments of non-interventionism, there was a driving need in that generation to do something grand and wonderful! The desire to go back to the old benighted countries and rescue Cousin Gustave Goose, mired in the epimethean miseries of centuries, to teach the inept and podgy fellow about democracy, that all seemed more than eleemysonary:
After all, if America failed to give to the world its gifts of freedom and opportunity, and democracy and self-determination more specifically, that old world unlighted by even a star of hope would simply generate ever-more hideous world wars. Whereas there was a wonderful future in store, to be served and protected for all mankind. Against this powerful impulse to serve the good, the true and the beautiful, no press-reports could stand; of the carnage at Mons (where the old pre-war British professional army died); the ten-months’ Battle of Verdun; the suicidal murder of the new British conscript-armies on the Somme in 1917. There were few pictures in the papers after all, and cinema news-reels were only in their infancy; one supposes that Campbell never saw even a single photograph of a European battlefield before he arrived in France. Nor would he have been dissuaded from enlistment had he done. By every report he was a fine young man.
What his family may have thought of Pvt Campbell’s initial enlistment-decision we do not know. What I do know is what my Great-Aunt Hulda said to me in 1969, about reaction in my own family to 1917 war-participation. She only told me this the year after Grandfather’s 1968 death:
When Hulda’s brother, the germanophile Joseph Jacobson, the son of germanophile Swedish emigre Andrew Peter Jacobson, learned that TWO of his cousins, Adolph and Karl Jacobson, had enlisted in the US Army all he had to say was:
“The God-damned fools.”
And that, “Huldy” said to me, was evidence of my Grandfather’s extreme disapproval, “…because we just didn’t talk at home that way like you all do now.” NICETY Of speech was a minor usufruct of the bourgeois, or European, or modern age; it was an early casualty in the escalating cascade into ruin of modernisn. Language-refinement died on the battlefields, in the trenches, of the Great War. In Mesopotomia and Egypt, at Galilee and in Palestine, all round the world as well as in France, fuck was acknowledged to be the ‘Great Australian Adjective’, which hardly does justice to the sheer linguistic reach this protean expletive. Nor did it matter to soldiers accustomed to digging fragments of other soldiers brains and intestines from out of their sunken and burning, squinting, eyes during endless hours of barrage on the Somme, at Kut, Gallipoli. They had been led to their deaths by a certain language-debasement, and language would become further debased to match the new terms of life at the as-yet-unperceived threshold of the postmodern. Having grown up summers in rural Eagle Lake, MN, in the 1960’s and not ten miles north of St Clair, remembering how one talked behind ones Great-Auntie’s back, and out of Grandfather’s hearing, it seems only fair to me to suppose that likely as not Private Glenn H Campbell adopted the speech-norms of the Army, his mates…. But what probably matters more than sociology, of course, is his service record:
As noted above, on 1 May 1917, Campbell enlisted with six friends from St Clair, “pals” in a widely-used term of the day. The young men were sent straightaway on the 2nd to Jefferson Barracks in Missouri; and, on May 9th Campbell travelled to Fort Wright, on Fisher’s Island off the Connecticut coast. Pvt Campbell was trained in the Fourth Company of the Artillery Corps and assigned on 26 July 1917 to US Army First Division Ammunition Train, Motor Truck Section, Truck Company No. 1. That unit was deported from New York on 7 August aboard SS Antilles, and they were among the first US soldiers to arrive in France. The surviving records are not clear about where Campbell was in France from the August-landing until November of that year; very possibly he underwent advanced training “in-country,” the purpose in part being to demonstrate to European allies that America was coming on into the war as fast as she could. For that summer of 1917 was grim on the Western Front:
British Field Marshal Haig was not a military genius, and scores of thousands of British soldiers were being ground to death by “Hun” artillery daily on the Somme, in misconceived frontal assaults with bayonets. The French Army was in mutiny, and Marechal Henri Omar Phillipe Petain was hard-pressed to restore morale in a program combining decimation of units and draconian hanging of “ringleaders,” while at the same time assuring the wretched French poilus of home-leave, the first time for most of them in the entire three years of the war! My third cousin Adolph Jacobson said to me, in the summer of 1965 or 1966, about his service in France with the US Army:
“Yeah, they drove us all over Hell for quite a while before we got into the line…make camp here, set up there, go someplace else….”
About the French soldiers he said:
“They was all little skinny fellers, not much to ’em, you know.”
About the British:
“Never seen any of them…we was sent in where they was all killed dead.”
And about the Germans:
“Oh yeah, Hell, I was in the firing-line when the armistice was signed and there we were all talking to the Germans in about fifteen minutes, you know….”
“COUSIN Adolph,” I asked (I was seventeen and much taken with the pure smartness ofaddressing a man in his seventies as “cousin”) “Why did you go in the army? Weren’t you scared?”
“Well, Hell, I suppose I was maybe but, you know, it was a chance to go away and do something, and we all thought it would be fun…it wasn’t too bad, neither.”
One supposes that on the point of crusades, old or “modern,” that there always was that element of sheer fun-seeking and excitement for young people, whether in 1095, 1861, 1917…or, now that America is at war in Iraq for the second time in twelve years, in 2003. We must not consider the boundary between the former modern age and the postmodern to be the border-line between two types of humanity; still less is it impenetrable to our understanding of the full panoply of human motives, purposes. PVT Campbell would not live to see the first armistice day; he was killed in the night on 27 February 1918, driving in a truck in convoy to the front.
From November to January, 1918, Campbell is said to have been “in winter quarters” with his unit, after which his outfit was stationed at Sanzey, France, a few miles north of the provincial city of Toul, near St Michiel What their duty consisted in was of regular deliveries to the front of ammunition, daily (or nightly) on the same route. In any case, the convoy, the Ammunition Train, passed through a small village called Menil-la-Toul and through a point three-quarters of a mile beyond called by the soldiers “Dead Man’s Curve,” as several soldiers had been killed there. There under artillery fire on the night of 27 February 1918, Pvt Glenn H Campbell was wounded and killed by shrapnel of an explosive-shell striking the roadway. The fact of his death was duly reported, and the Mankato Free Press account appeared on 4 March 1918 together with a report on March 6th of memorial services:
The language is what the standards of the day considered to be the dignified report of a hero’s death. Pvt Campbell, the “first Blue Earth County boy [NB]“ to do so laid down his life in France “for the cause of liberty and democracy.” Responding to “his last bugle,” he “was, indeed, a fine young man” whose death-report brought both “gloom” to St Clair and a “feeling of just pride, in the fact that he was the first man from Blue Earth county to sacrifice his life on the altar of liberty.” The report of the memorial service follows the same line (Campbell had been buried in France, although his remains later would be returned to Minnesota), and it was the occasion of both religious services and exercises in the St Clair town hall. Interestingly, at the latter venue, both the Mankato presbyterian minister T R Paden and the St Clair catholic priest Rev Father O’Connor spoke. There was a mixed choir, a lengthy series of resolutions of sympathy by the Red Cross Chapter of Blue Earth County were read to the survivors; and, “about thirty” of the Mankato “Company C Home Guards” drove from the city in autos to St Clair, to attend.
Nowhere is it mentioned that Pvt Glenn H Campbell had a girlfriend a fiancee, but he was survived by his parents Mr and Mrs Henry Campbell, and two brothers, Merle and Arleigh, and by his uncle and aunt, Mr and Mrs Stephen Foster, of Mankato. Nowhere in the first Mankato Free Press-reports of early March 1918 are the nature and scope of Campbell’s fatal injuries described in detail, although the news-reports before US entered the war had been more than graphic sometimes; and, again after the war the sufferings of young Americans in combat would be revisited horrifically Thus it was in the case of Pvt Campbell. On the second page of the Free Press for 15 February 1919, there appeared two long columns of stuff about Campbell’s death; and, there is a voyeurism about this glimpse into the physicality of an individual death, as well as of a family’s, a mother’s, grief that is unsettling. Perhaps because one realizes that the family had to have chosen to make public to the unnamed Free Press writer the substance of a private correspondence, for the much of the story is the transcription of two letters which Mrs Campbell received in the year after her son was killed. Given the details of the physical injuries to her son, Pvt Campbell’s mother was displaying publicly an almost Baubo-like grief. If privacy, indeed the ample opportunity for hypocrisy, had been one of the treasures of the bourgeois, or modern, age, this public exposition in the press of a small provincial middlewestern city was a clear sign that the old order was passing irrevocably away.
A bereft parent did not need to dissemble anymore:
“France, August 21, 1918.–My Dear Mrs. Campbell:
“….One of the men in your boy’s [NB] company gives the following information:
“‘He was my pal and I was on the seat with him at the time Campbell was killed. We were on our way to the front with a load and just as we came around “Dead Man’s Curve” where several men were killed, a shell struck the side of the road and a piece of shrapnel went right through Glen [sic]. He jumped off the truck and hollered, “I’m all right,” and fell dead by the side of the road. Glen was the finest kind of scout and the best friend I ever had, and a quiet cool-headed fellow, not much to say, but a good worker. The company has lost several others but none of them are talked about and missed like Glen.'”
MRS Campbell’s correspondent, Mr William S Innis, a Red Cross assistant director in charge of precisely this same sort of correspondence, was obviously beleaguered with work, certainly to go by the August letter-date. Equally obviously he was at pains to produce a letter both truthful–one expects out of an obscure loyalty to the horror he had no doubt witnessed personally–and yet consoling, that would leave a bereaved family with the feeling that their child and its fate was nonetheless valued, special and meaningful.
The effect is one of congested and unrelieved horror.
Mr Innis supplies details of Pvt Campbell’s funeral (he was buried in grave 184 in a “special American military cemetery,” there was a chaplain, the Salvation Army provided a flag for Campbell’s grave on Decoration Day; and, indeed, Major Anderson of the Salvation Army had already eulogized Campbell just shortly after his death). Then Mr Innis quotes Pvt Campbell’s Company Lieutenant William Avery:
“[He] spoke very strongly about what a fine man Campbell was and said: ‘I felt specially bad about the matter personally and wanted to write his mother but couldn’t some way get it done. He was specially well thought of by his company and officers.’
“Let me assure you…your son died in a glorious cause and I am sure your pride in him must be very great…. Very sincerely yours, William S Innis,”
NEXT, Pvt Glenn H Campbell’s mother would receive from Philadelphia a letter dated 8 February 1919, from First Lieutenant Clinton L Spences (their correspondence had crossed to-and-from Europe). He evidently had been sent to Officer’s Candidate School from the Ammunition Train, but had served together with Campbell in their earliest days in the war, in October 1917. Now, on the night Campbell was killed, Spences was on duty as a “mounted agent” with the Ammunition Train Headquarters Company, “but I got all the statements next morning…North about three miles [sic] of Menil-la-Toul was a curve that was continually fired on by the Hun, but which had to be passed going and coming every trip. It was there on this curve that the shrapnel from the exploding shell tore through the radiator and pierced Glen’s [sic] side and going on through [sic]. It was a large piece of shell and death was quick and painless…The boys on his truck said ‘there was just a moan when he was hit,’ and they had him taken off the truck at a ruined village just ahead where in a cellar there was an advance hospital…These things I tell you Mrs. Campbell, knowing your heart aches for our pal, but I feel sure you would rather know…Your boy was a good clean lad in heart, a hard worker and a good, obedient and courageous soldier…If I have made clearer to you the things you would know I am glad for I have a little mother of seventy and had my brother or I passed beyond I know it would have been a balm to her to know how we went…I sincerely hope that the terrible pain of your great loss will quickly grow into a more resigned and tender feeling (and) I hope the cross you bear will become lightened in some way by my letter to you.
“Sincerely, First lieutenant Clinton L. Spences.”
WHEN One is done reading such letters from that time not so long ago, when many of those who would grow up and fight in the Second World War were being born (they in turn to become parents of that untested generation no-longer-young that is now slouching in power and growling out over the world), one can only pause to take ones breath. The immediate postwar reaction to all these scores of thousands of condolence-letters, to all this loss and grief and death, would be the categorical and embittered Jazz Age rejection of the bad dream just ended. To us, now, forever and ever cut off from that old-fashioned modern era of eighty years ago, it all seems unreal.
Did they, could they possibly, have really talked and thought that way? Well, obviously they did; it is our understanding that is the problem, one not made easier since we are so deceptively cut off from our grandparents (and now great-grandparents) by the computerized new forms in which the universals of anger, fear, greed and lust have long since disguised themselves. But as was pointed out above, the ages are not hermetically sealed away one from another; and, it will just do if we realize now that at bottom the whole anguished business centers on a key perception which we perhaps may understand better because of our precious, if otherwise footling, postmodernity:
A generation in power was seduced by its discourse-form and the resulting fantasy of transcending itself and all of human power’s messy, ambivalent, constraints; and, for sake of their reality-description, they seduced and murdered hundreds of thousands of their sons with the best will in the world; all in the service of their narrative of the good and the true and the beautiful. The modern dream of progress simply gave them no choice. All of the protagonists in that war based their nationalist inflations on fantasies of scientific objectivity and “truth.” And those who saw clearly this much at least, namely that “your” version of the “truth” was false, had therefore no choice but to fight the war. It was just that awful, and there was no way out of it.
In the first immense collison of nationalisms in the new century, American nationalism trumped all with its unilateral gaudy proclamation to the warring world, of an immense and profound, exhausting, internationalism.
Hence the postwar despair-revolt in the West.
The modern spirit had been delivered the first fateful blow, the first of the great nationalist upwellings of the twentieth century that would destroy modernism. Read in this way, the repudiation of the League of Nations by W G Harding Republicans, and the isolationism of C A Lindbergh fifteen years later, is not only symptom of a certain willful North American bucolia. It may also have been the case that rejection of a flawed covenant and the desire just to mind one’s own business were the healthiest prophylaxis the interwar American political-body could produce under post-war circumstances of moral hangover and psychological disinflation; an attempt, if you will, by the structure and forms of modernism to scab over and protect themselves in their last intact homeland.
And there was plenty to be scabbed over.
THE Soldiers who did return from France in 1918 did not necessarily think any of it had been worthwhile. I remember that in 1965 or 1966, in Eagle Lake, MN, just a few miles to the northwest of St Clair, an old, old woman called Mrs Schlekau said in my hearing and about the experience of either her late husband or brother, in World War I:
“He just didn’t think it would do any good!
“He said about all the Germans back in Germany, all you could do was shoot all of them because they had such hard heads…and there was too many of them to shoot in the first place anyway.
“When he came back he said it was just a bad business and we’d wind up going back there again someday….
This man had come from Germany and then enlisted to show his loyalty to his new country. He’d been a butcher in Hamburg and Mankato; when he came back from France he “had to” find other work. He went through some hard times, said Mrs Schlekau, but he got some money from the government one day in the mail.
A “sheck” she called it.
THE Soldiers who fought in France in the first installment of the twentieth century’s replay of the Thirty Years’ War incurred fearsome sufferings; and, afterward, they received nothing like the benefits which would be the lot of their cannier sons after World War II.
This relative neglect of the First War veterans was of a piece with the larger willingness shared by the much of Americans to simply put the war wholly out of mind, its motives, its horrors, its futile purposes. Hence the rejection of the League of Nations; and, President Harding’s early 1920’s proclamation of “the return to normalcy.” (For
normality, ie; the crassness of a certain element of American academe is attested by the fact that for eighty years some college people have affected to sneer at this delightful so-called neologism, seemingly because of the no doubt easily-projected crassness of its speaker. In fact, normalcy first occurs in English in the eighteenth century, although it languished in obscurity until President Harding resurrected it, and in the process played into the savagely sarcastic bad graces [and sidesplittingly funny essays!] of H LMencken.)
The people simply wanted to forget, or at least to put out of their minds, an evil knowledge they hoped would never again be needed: there was the looming impression in memory’s background of a nightmare and mincing, industrial, machine that had ground and ground and ground to the continuous roar of gunfire, young Americans for over a year and a half, Europeans for more than four years. The world of trench warfare, indeed, was a form of what a son-survivor called Adolf Hitler would later refer to scathingly as “degenerate war;” and, in fact that war-form would never manifest itself in a suffering world again.
To be sure, there was not utterly a nonstop barrage of artillery for four years and three months in Europe, in France; but, there was enough. When the firing ceased and it became quiet, said veteran Adolph Jacobson, of Swanville, Minnesota, “A feller’d get awful damn nervous waiting.”
Waiting for the gunfire to break out again.
THE Very type of injuries that maimed and killed soldiers in 1917 and 1918 would be foreign to the equally horrible, but distinctly other, experiences of their World War II sons. At this point it becomes important to understand how Pvt Glenn H Campbell died, because as graphic as are some the press-reports we have seen, they fundamentally unitein a lie. Namely in the claim that Pvt Campbell died outright. Indeed, there is only one entry in the written record to be cited that specifies any interval between Campbell’s dismemberment and death. It consists of but a few sentences in the entry about him inthe Mankato Free Press’s l920 volume, Blue Earth County, Minnesota, In The World War:
“…[O]n the night of February 27…just as the truck was rounding the curve, a shrapnel shell struck the roadside and exploded. Part of the shell tore away the radiator of the truck and striking Campbell in the side, passed completely through his body.
“He was immediately removed to an advance hospital in a cellar in the shattered village, where he died a short time later.”
This makes for grim telling:
A peculiarity of early twentieth-century iron-foundry is that explosive shells in fact did not break apart very well. The result was that instead of a cloud of pieces which might shock and knock out the whole body of a victim, if not kill him outright, great chunks of dismembering iron would fly through the air. When one of these struck, if one was lucky the result was decapitation. Otherwise an arm or leg was most often torn away, leaving the rest of the body unscathed. Or as in the case of Pvt Campbell, one was in fact cut in two. But death was NOT instant as often as one would think, would earnestly want to hope. Under the shock of such injury, the arterial system can and does shut, and bleeding to death then happens only as a slow venous seep.
There is plenty of time for agony.
JUST As Mr and Mrs Campbell had ample time to mourn their dead son before his remains were returned to Minnesota over three years later, from “grave 184 in a special military cemetery” in France. Together with another dead soldier of Blue Earth County, Joseph Bauer, Campbell’s body was returned to the platform of Mankato’s Union Depot shortly after eight o’clock in the Friday evening of June 24th, 1921. The unnamed Free Press writer noticed especially the difference between this homecoming and all of the bright send-offs of four years before:
“As the flag-draped coffins were taken from the train there was not the gathering of patriotic people gathered there that there was when those same boys marched away to war. A little old lady garbed in black…and a sister whose eyes were dimmed with…weeping had not forgotten one hero, their dead son and brother, Joseph Bauer. A man whose face showed the lines of suffering (stood) with bared head as another coffin draped in the Stars and Stripes was taken from the train. [Mrs Campbell] greeted the sight of the flag-draped casket with sobs and tears…To one side were two ex-servicemen who bared their heads as the flag-draped coffins passed by. Another, an old gentleman, an ex-Civil War veteran, was uncovered also. These men had fought and bled overseas [sic]. They too had not forgotten the dead….”
By now, the parents of Glenn H Campbell were living in Mankato, at 514 West Pleasant street, a house built by Mr Campbell that still stands. Accordingly, the funeral for Campbell was conducted at Centenary Methodist Church, services being conducted jointly by presbyterian minister Rev T Ross Paden and Centenary Pastor E H Knehans. Afterward, the Spanish-American War veterans of the American Legion escorted the remains of Campbell to their interment with military honors, in the St Clair, Minnesota,cemetery.
AND So home at last, home had come the mortal remains of Pvt Glenn H Campbell, United States Army.
THE Return home of the remains of America’s Great War dead was the occasion of perhaps scores of thousands of similar scenes all over this land in the 1920’s. That additive effect had as much to do with the end of Wilsonianism as any positive enthusiasm for the new-found distracting trivialities of bathtub-gin and shingled hair, rolling ones stockings and ramming around in the automobiles which now were swarming over America. Television wasn’t necessary (and, radio would not be available widely until later in the decade) to spread this mood, which was nonetheless a mass-mood. A bemused mute grief made its way in the country, one belated soldier-funeral at a time. The generation’s incomprehensible sorrow was made poignant by the new and escapist hedonism all around, no doubt; a frenetic round of cigarets and dance and illegal liquors that is its own giveaway. But we will wrong our understanding of the reaction of the American 1920’s to dismiss it all as despairing anguish and mad frivolity.
Modernism was still far more full of life than that, in America certainly.
Equally certainly, modernism’s heirs had been given no end of a bloody lesson in overreaching, about the finite limits on any, perhaps all, progress-doctrines pushed too hard, too far, in the imperfect human world, that abode of decay. Nevertheless, the generation was now in recovery, so we must not underestimate the strength and political power of its conviction and conclusion:
Non-intervention and isolation might well have served to keep the modern age alive and very well indeed in North America; and, still alive in the world that North America was to cover, would have in any case covered, throughout the remainder of the twentieth century with its ever-more powerful media! Had isolationism prevailed in the 1940’s in North America, the modern age would be with us still under the eaves of the twenty-first century.
To what purpose, the reader will ask? To what purpose these speculations?
MY Answer is that it all serves to drive home the point of historian John Lukacs, about the role of the public opinions, and the resulting behaviors, of the mass of the people atany given point in time:
What is as often decisive, often far more decisive, is the spontaneously unfolding consensus of what people think is going on, as much as what is “really” happening. That, and the resulting overall direction of the society’s behavior, its actions. In America in the 1920’s and 30’s, as we know, there was a strong desire to remain to the side in what seemed to an intractable world’s violent affairs. Further, as I hope to have shown here, that decision had it held up for another decade at least would have yielded a host of interesting consequences, both for America, the world and the always-inevitable transition from the modern to the postmodern age.
Indeed, I will go further:
I will say here that had Germans, not Japanese, attacked America sometime in the early 1940’s, perhaps to the extent of air-raiding New York City (Luftmarschall Hermann Goering could well have ordered the bombers be built, the prototypes were in existence), the American impulse to a second war-outing in the world would have been by no means universal. Equally, there is no guarantee, had we fought then, that it should have been at Britain’s side.
America far more likely then would have undertaken an occasionally aggressive, but hardly expeditionary, defense. I base this conclusion (no doubt lamentably) on the subjective basis of what I remember hearing as an adolescent in the 1960’s, growing up in the American upper-middlewest. The veterans of World War II, by then men in their forties and early fifties, at least those who fought in Europe, pretty much considered that England “wasn’t worth a good God damn!” More, they reported this to have been their general feeling in the matter before they’d shipped out to the ETO. The experience, unpleasant to young American men, of WARM beer only exacerbated a certain cockstrong-unlike into positive dislike:
“A bunch of pussy sonsofbitches!” said World War II veteran and my second cousin Leland Jacobson to me in the 1960’s, about the English (as with my grandfather, I’d been on in his hearing about Sir Winston Churchill, and it had gotten on his nerves).
This is evidence of what was a strong a priori feeling throughout the North American heartland, and all I am saying is that, had the Nazi Germans done something stupid, that Americans would have stepped forward in defense of the nation; and, they very possibly then would have voted out President Roosevelt and his circle in 1940, or 1942 and 1944. Alas, because we are human beings, it took the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor to bring about a replay of enthusiasm in America akin to that for the First World War.
In 1917, in the first round of the twentieth century’s thirty-years’ war, young men flocked to the colors for sake of a flawed idealism that was nonetheless powerful and in fact marked the beginning of the destruction of their value-system, rooted as that was in the modern age. In the second war-outbreak, enthusiasm for war was because of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The impulse to enlist was much closer to the traditional and conservative, if you will reactionary, modern impulse of patriotism; alas, with a strong admixture of racial horror and fear. Without such a base thrust out of terror’s belly, unseemly as it may be to say so to our postmodern benevolence of sympathy and toleration (for we DO delight to tell ourselves this stuff about ourselves in the literature now, constantly), there would not, could not, have been a rush of universal enlistment. The further irony is that it is the fact of a Japanese attack that signals definitively, and before the mid-twentieth century, the end of the bourgeois or modern, or the five-hundred-year-old European, age:
FOR The first time since the Mongol invasions of Europe and South Asia, during the high medieval thirteenth century and the Arab-muslim golden age (which Mongols and not zionists would destroy), an Asian power walked the world-stage.
[Emmett R Smith all rights reserved 11 April 2003]