Public Broadcasting Service, one of the antique “Big 4” of television corporations, televised a three-part series “The Great War.” Normally I don’t watch PBS because I find their effete and high-handed and unnecessary grubbing of public tax dollars to be a toxic combination. But, this being military history I was curious of how badly they would butcher the men and women and society that prosecuted the war. Watching three episodes I was pleasantly surprised just how subversive the producers’ editorial viewpoint was. The Great War didn’t refer to World War I except to illustrate the major battles of the war: what defines manhood, and the war of tyranny and liberty.
Being that the show was aired on PBS instead of more rah-rah channels, or sent straight to DVD in the Walmart discount bin was a surprise to me given its editorial perspective. Perhaps this was a case of Inigo Montoya’s observation ‘it doesn’t mean what you think it means.’ The main story-line defining manhood took four distinct tracks: a contrasting study of Woodrow Wilson and General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing; women as avatars of the Pacifist movement, men in combat, and African-Americans.
The war of tyranny and liberty story-line was the other unifying thread of the show. This was presented as Woodrow Wilson presenting himself as a principled, highly moral man with global visions who just happened to hate blacks and Republicans so much that he willingly destroyed everything he held as valuable, including his own self.
Woodrow Wilson, born in the lovely Shenandoah Valley of the defeated Confederacy and later president of Princeton and governor of New Jersey (a reverse carpet-bagger), was at first presented as the great Progressive Democrat who hated war, and who loved America so much that he wanted only Good. Once reelected that Wilson was shown to be a façade, a mask of pretentious ambition that was powered by a severe hate and disrespect for his fellow human beings and their values. This caused confusion on my part – this is PBS!? Why are they presenting and supporting everything Glenn Beck said about Woodrow Wilson? So, Glenn Beck was correct? I doubt the folks at PBS even understand liberty.
Wilson’s purge of the African-Americans from the civil service and military was breath-taking. He accomplished more than any and all KKKlansmen of all time, including Hillary’s cherished mentor, one each Senator Byrd of West Virginia. Wilson’s animosity was carried through from draft registration, with a corner of the registration card to be torn off if the applicant was African-American, through the all-black 15th Infantry (NY Army National Guard, aka the Harlem Hellfighters) having to scrounge uniforms and equipment to train. After the war ended and African-Americans returned, they faced large scale race riots and mass murder. Not against Asians, Hispanics, Native Americans, and immigrants of other religions and ethnicities. Just blacks, and Wilson did nothing to stop the violence.
Wilson had his eyes on another prize: leadership of a global brokerage called the League of Nations. He wouldn’t just be our POTUS, but leader of the world. He was defeated by his own hatred of the then Senate Majority Leader, Henry Cabot Lodge (R-MA). When the Versailles Treaty was submitted for review and ratification, Lodge baited Wilson by delaying the process. Then, to guarantee the treaty’s defeat, Lodge submitted amendments that gave Wilson everything he wanted, including American membership in the League of Nations. Wilson directed senate Democrats to vote against the treaty, which then failed.
It is an interesting paradox: whomever says they do good grows evil.
The producers used the person of General John J. Pershing to provide a contrast to Wilson. Like Wilson, Pershing lost his wife prior to America’s entry into World War I. Unlike Wilson, who had three daughters, Pershing’s three daughters died, along with his wife, in a tragic house fire. Both men remarried – Wilson to a woman, Pershing to war.
What struck me was film of Pershing visiting a cemetery during his reconnaissance of the front as part of his assessment. Pershing was presented as an absolute: upright morally and ethically, courageous, a combat veteran, and a leader of African-Americans during the Indian Wars of the late nineteenth century. In the cemetery, Pershing does a double take, leaves his entourage, removes his lid. And then you see his facial expression. It is brief.
I’ve seen that look before on veterans and I don’t believe I can describe the internal emotion with any justice. We deal in retail death – localized and controlled. Pershing witnessed the results of wholesale death, grave markers by the acres. Pershing understood he would responsible for sending tens of thousands of men to their deaths, and it was his responsibility alone. Wilson, far removed from the battlefield, would not accept that responsibility. Responsibility is for servants. Wilson’s shift from calculating pacifist to self-promoting Historic Hero was complete.
Wilson was elected and re-elected as a Principled Pacifist aligned with other Principled Pacifists William Jennings Bryant and Jane Adams. The peace-at-all-costs movement was presented as a feminizing influence on America’s men. Once reelected, Wilson had the freedom to do what he wanted to do, and his exchanged his principles for a new set, just as one changes from a work coat to a dinner jacket prior to cocktails. Wilson’s War was waged on the Civil Liberties front: citizens were encouraged to turn each other in to be lynched, tarred and feathered, or imprisoned. Law enforcement, from Supreme Court justices to the local Peace Officer used the powers of their offices to hunt down and destroy anyone who opposed the war for any reason. No free speech, no free practice of religion, no freedom to assemble, no no no. Real men go to war. Real women love and support the men who go to war, and as courageous as men the women face death in the hospitals. All others are feminized girly-men or overbearing witches. This was an incredible editorial position to take – on PBS no less.
This point was further emphasized by the producers in telling the stories of three Americans who joined the French Foreign Legion, and the stories of the 15th Infantry (NY ARNG, an almost all-black unit), the Rock of the Marine (3rd Infantry Division), the Marine Brigade, and the Lost Battalion. Legionnaire Pete Seeger’s letters home had a theme: ‘be proud of me because I am a man.’ Even his poem “Rendezvous with Death” promoted this theme. Seeger’s rendezvous wasn’t quick or painless, but it was met. Real men stood up, left the safety of the trenches, and walked slowly across no-man’s land to face machine guns to kick ass and take names, but they were all out of ink.
The 15th Infantry was a black regiment with white officers, and was presented as Pershing’s rebellion against Wilson’s extreme racism. Wilson wanted all African-Americans away from the field of battle – no honor, no glory, just blisters from digging field latrines. Black Jack Pershing’s ethic of loyalty to his civilian Commander-in-Chief required him to go along with Wilson’s disgusting orders. That same ethic lead him to ensure his subordinate commanders did not have to make the decision to employ African-Americans in the fight, but nonetheless to get African-Americans into that fight. When a politically safe opportunity arose, he sent the 15th to work with the French. The 15th went on to achieve fame for its ferocity and successes in combat.
Wilson’s conduct and arrangement of the legal and moral environment in America lead to unasked questions, which I’ll ask of you:
- Must America set aside some part or all of our civil liberties in order to successfully prosecute war?
- Should we lose wars, such as Vietnam and in Iraq, because we allow citizens the freedom to participate on behalf of the enemy, while under the protection of the Bill of Rights?
Overall, I found myself enjoying the presentation of “The Great War.” World War I was merely illustrative of the Great War: the great war of racial acceptance, of gender respect, and the on-going war against the foundational principles of liberty in America. PBS hasn’t had that viewpoint for decades, so it was a surprise. World War I is a telling of the tale of what it is to be human that is worthy of further study.