By Joel P. Engardio
Fake news, global warming, deadly flu outbreaks, chemical weapons attacks in Syria and presidents for life in China and Russia.
With all the challenges we face in the world today, why is a commission created by Congress trying to build a $40 million memorial to World War I?
Because today’s great grandchildren are still fighting it.
How so? The answer is etched in stone outside the National Archives in Washington D.C, a half-mile from the planned memorial: “What is Past is Prologue.”
World War I, fought from 1914 to 1918, was the genesis of many issues we worry about today: mass media propaganda, global dependence on oil, pandemic disease, chemical weapons of mass destruction, Middle East conflict, the rise of China and Russia.
Once called the Great War for a scale of death and ruin never seen before, World War II went further and is better known. Yet World War I should be remembered as the war that changed the world.
“[It] created a completely different world order,” said Monique Brouillet Seefried, a member of the U.S. World War I Centennial Commission, in a blog post. “The conflict zones of today, in the Balkans, Ukraine, the Middle East and the South China seas are direct consequences of World War I.”
The way we live was also forever altered. Among the things invented, improved or popularized during World War I: Pilates, plastic surgery, blood transfusions, canned food, condoms, daylight savings time, aviation, jazz, psychotherapy, trench coats, wrist watches, Wall Street, the verb “binge.”
Instead of a high-profile spot on the National Mall, the World War I memorial is planned for the run-down and long-neglected Pershing Park. This underscores how it has become a forgotten war.
The last World War I combat veteran died in 2011, but we must remember why they fought. Understanding what happened in World War I can save lives today.
The deadliest part of the war was the H1N1 influenza pandemic. The virus killed more than 50 million people worldwide. Bill Gates recently warned a repeat of 1918 is likely and we’re not prepared for an illness that could claim 30 million lives in six months.
World War I also set off a conflict between government power and individual liberty that continues today. The Espionage and Sedition Acts limited freedom of speech in the name of national security, making it illegal to speak out against the war.
The 1916 Articles of War first mentioned sodomy as a punishable offense. It began a persecution of LGBTQ people in the military that ended in 2011 but has since resumed with a newly proposed ban on transgender service members.
My only personal connection to the Great War is my great, great uncle Wilford Sheltraw. He enlisted at 23 and returned by some accounts “shell-shocked,” which we recognize today as post-traumatic stress disorder.
Wilford died long before I was born, but my grandmother, his niece, often talked about him. She said he was the uncle who “never married,” who was “a fish out of water,” who “had a lonely life” and “took to the bottle.”
There is no evidence that Wilford was gay, but my grandmother mentioned him a lot after I came out. She didn’t want me to end up like him.
My husband and I have a framed photo of Wilford in his World War I uniform in our home. We want to acknowledge Wilford’s service to a pursuit of freedom that he wasn’t able to experience in his own life.
Zoe Dunning retired from the Navy Reserve 90 years after Wilford entered World War I. Dunning made history by coming out as a lesbian and serving as a commander before the “don't ask, don't tell” policy that banned openly LGBTQ people from military service was repealed.
Today Dunning is the only LGBTQ commissioner and one of four women on the 12-member World War I Centennial Commission.
Dunning wants to ensure the story of the war goes beyond doughboy soldiers. The women known as “Hello Girls,” a segregated African American regiment nicknamed the “Harlem Hellfighters” and LGBTQ people must be included. They all contributed to the war effort despite facing discrimination at home.
“LGBTQ people are invisible in World War I because their history is undocumented and unwritten,” Dunning said. “I can only imagine how hard and fearful life was for LGBTQ people back then. But they served and died during a critically important time in history. That’s why we need to recognize the diversity of American forces and honor all who served.”
As harsh as the World War I era was for women and minorities, it led to women winning the right to vote and sparked the civil rights movement. World War I bent the established order of 1918 just enough to launch a century-long march toward justice. The struggle for a more perfect union continues after decades of setbacks and successes.
At the National Archives, the inscription on another statue implores us to “Study the Past.”
World War I is a good place to start because it tells us how the world changed in an instant. It also explains why we’re still fighting the same battles. World War I can help us find a better way forward if we are willing to learn from it.