Monday, February 09, 2009

I attempt to explain U.S. history

While I blog, my daughter Annie sits next to me doing her U.S. History homework. The topic tonight is World War I.

"Who -- or what's -- The Big Four?" she asks.

I reel off names of three of the allied countries in the war: England, France, U.S. Can't think of a fourth. Russia?

"No, Italy." She's looking at a list in the book, "The Americans: Reconstruction to the Twentieth Century." The Big Four were the allied powers who assembled at Versailles on 11/11/09 to screw the Germans which led to the economic collapse of Germany, which led to Hitler, Blitzkrieg, The Final Solution and all the rest.

"No Man's Land?" She searches her text, which is the size of the Unabridged Oxford English Dictionary. No wonder these kids have bad backs. Get them a couple good paperbacks about the war and toss out the text. I recommend "All Quiet on the Western Front," "Johnny Got His Gun," "The Good Soldier Svejk," and "Soldier of the Great War." Just pick two.

I Google "No Man's Land" and come up with some photos showing dead soldiers hung up on barbed wire. I tell her that No Man's Land was the hellish space between trenches where most of the dying took place.

"What kind of weapons were used?"

I see what she's doing. She knows I'm keen on history and knows, with little prompting, I will blurt out a very long and convoluted answer. "What kind of weapons do you think they had?" I ask.




They started out with horses, which were obsolete when the tanks appeared. Your great-grandfather's Iowa cavalry unit went to France with all their horses and never rode them into battle. Too dangerous, what with tanks and machine guns and barbed wire.

"Did the horses get hurt?"

This kid loves her animals. Not a kid anymore, 15 with a birthday in March. "I don't think the horses got anywhere near the front lines."

She nods, puts away her work sheet and closes the book. "I'm going to work out."

She heads to the basement treadmill, leaving me thinking about World War I. What a pointless slaughter that was. My grandfather was gassed and ended up spending a year in the hospital after the war. On the plus side, that's where he met my grandmother, an Army nurse. This union led to my father and then to me and, eventually, to my daughter.

High school history doesn't track the vagaries of people's lives -- just the big themes like weaponry, world leaders and treaties. Those books I mentioned earlier, that's where you get the individual stories that illuminate the big picture. Svejk just wants to make it through in one piece, but people keep trying to kill him. Those people tend to be on his own side, which also baffles American pilot Yossarian in "Catch-22."

As often happens, we have to leave the final word to the poets. Here's Wilfred Owen, who was killed a week before the Armistice: "My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity."

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