War and remembrance

By Michael Humphrey 

This essay changed before it was ever written. It changed in a quiet corner of the National World War I Museum, which opened on Dec. 2 under the Liberty Memorial.

I came to the museum to report on its patriotic pomp, its morbid fascination with weaponry and its hyper-technological gadgetry. I came to get fuel for an essay about the human fascination with war, to find seeds of the assertion by German novelist Thomas Mann before the beginning of World War I: “War would be a purging and a liberation.”

Having watched the fervor during the build-up to the Iraq invasion, it seemed this form of sanitized bloodlust certainly is alive and well.

But I was wrong, at least partially. I left feeling that Kansas City’s newest museum provides a real opportunity to teach peace. Mann’s quote is used in the beautifully written introduction film and, in some ways, it prepares the thoughtful observer to look at war in a new light.

Don’t misunderstand –I have now seen enough grenade launchers, rifles, field guns and combat planes to last my lifetime. But sitting alongside the trappings of military might are poignant reminders of war’s profane blight.

Most effective is the replication of the trench that runs throughout the first half of the museum and culminates in an amazing multi-media display that signals the US entry into the war. The trench depicted holds no romanticized idea of camaraderie and courage. It is a ghostly recounting of soldiers’ actual experiences – living in muck, waiting to destroy or be destroyed, with many crushed to death by the weight of their own barriers.

Also highly evocative are the glassed-in booths for “Reflections”, a quiet place to listen to music, poetry, speeches and remembrances of the war. This is where my essay changed course.

One of the poems in the booth is “Dulce Et Decorum Est” by Wilfred Owen, which ends, the narrator tells us, with a Latin phrase that is translated, “It is sweet and right to die for your country.”

But as you listen to the poem – in which he describes a soldier who has just been gassed – you see that this museum is offering a subtle counterpoint:

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace 
Behind the wagon that we flung him in, 
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face, 
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin; 
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood 
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs, 
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud 
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, 
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest 
To children ardent for some desperate glory, 
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est 
Pro patria mori.

As I sat listening to this poem, I looked out of the booth to see teenage children mesmerized by an interactive computer table that showed how submarines launched their charges, how camouflage was developed, how airplanes bombed cities.

The World War I Museum is what you make of it. Designer Ralph Applebaum, who is also credited with the US Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Clinton Library, has created a story rather than an editorial. His firm’s work evokes discussion more than either patriotism or dissent. The suffragist movement, civil rights, anti-war protests all get a place in the conversation, albeit small.

But if there is any place where the museum might tip its hand towards peace, it is at the end of the circular journey.

Just as the introduction sets up the war, a concluding movie summarizes its aftermath. The narrator talks about the nearly 10 million dead, soldiers and civilians, and asks, “Did they die in vain?”

There’s no answer, no fife-drenched music to suggest, “No, of course a soldier never dies in vain.” The question is left hanging there.

“It was called the War to End All Wars, but it certainly did not,” the narrator continues and ends the short movie with the all-important question: “Is peace possible?”

There is one last room to browse after that movie, images of what WWI wrought. The final panel in that room is a picture and quote of novelist H.G. Wells. Maybe for symmetry they should have ended with another quote by Thomas Mann, from later in his life: “War is only a cowardly escape from the problems of peace.”

But Wells’ quote is also memorable: “If we don’t end war, war will end us.”





  1. Gene Desaulniers said


    What a great piece of journalism. I personally experienced the devestation left in the Phillipines during World War 2. When will we learn that negotation is a much more realistic way to settle our differences. Keep up your good work.

  2. Hope you get this, Mike. Thank you for the Olive Branch and for this commentary on the “new” WWI Museum.

  3. Mary Patterson said

    My Dad and I both stood there crying as the trench was below us and bombs were exploding. The museum is a powerful experience. We seem to have forgotten Gallipoli and the old military phrase “Don’t reinforce failure.”
    WWI is a great tool to teach children and adults about the horrors of war.

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