Arrogance of War

Edward Lengel

     ... historian. In To Conquer Hell: The Meuse-Argonne, 1918, Dr. Lengel honors the bloodiest battle in American history. (If remembered at all, it’s for Carey Grant’s movie portrayal of Sergeant Alvin C. York, Dr. Lengel’s cousin.) Other military history books Dr. Lengel has written include General George Washington: A Military Life. Dr. Lengel, in conjunction with the Papers of George Washington documentary editing project, received the National Humanities Medal. He makes frequent appearances on television documentaries and was a finalist for the George Washington Book Prize.

The bloodiest battle in all of U.S. history is practically invisible, but has important parallels to America in Iraq, says military historian Edward Lengel. He revisits the World War I battle at the Meuse-Argonne through the eyes of its soldiers, “Doughboys” who in three bloody weeks in 1918 paid a staggering price for American arrogance: 26,000 dead, 100,000 wounded.

"(The American commanders) had all the arrogance and twice the stupidity of the French in 1914. There was this unwillingness to listen. To find out what the Europeans had suffered. And what they had learned. We hear a lot about how arrogant and foolish the French and British and Germans were when they went into war in 1914. But they had no way of knowing what this war was going to be like.

“In 1917, 1918, Pershing and the others had every way of knowing. They observed the war. They saw what had happened. The British and French told them what it was like. The problem was that at the beginning, almost all of the divisions put into this battle were completely green. Completely inexperienced. Straight off the farm, or out of Manhattan, Chicago, places like, and all segments of society. A larger portion were immigrants who barely spoke English, if at all. They're incredibly brave, very patriotic.”

Disturbed that today’s media no longer reports on Iraq, Dr. Lengel says Americans are equally reluctant to hear about World War I.

“Especially about the poison gas which affected the Americans more than any others (because) their training was horrible. They did not know how to use the masks. They had absolutely nothing to prepare them psychologically or physically for what they experienced. They were just sent over there.”

Like today, returning soldiers had trouble adapting.

“They got practically nothing when they came back. They had trouble finding jobs. Trouble readjusting to civilian society. Many were functionally and physically disabled. The lungs of many were ruined by gas. And shellshock. And mental illness. All of the post-traumatic stress.

“(One of the Doughboys) writes after the War, ‘It turned me into something bad. Into a kind of person who's dangerous even to civilization, who’s dangerous to democracy.’ He felt in some ways he had become a menace.

“For most of them though, their humanity remained. We don't hear the story of what (Sergeant York) did the next day, after he shot the Germans with his 45 and captured 132 prisoners. He felt awful. He begs his officers to be allowed to go back to the battlefield and see if he can find anybody to save. He said he didn't care who it was -- if it was American or German -- he wanted to save somebody.”

Dr. Lengel sees parallels far beyond military ones drawn from three horrendous weeks in 1918.

“At the beginning of (World War I), the idea had always been that fighting is something that you do as a debt, it’s your duty to your society. For the first time, World War I creates this idea that society also owes something to the soldiers. That it goes both ways.”

[This Program was recorded February 7, 2008, in Atlanta, Georgia, US.]

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Related Links:

To Conquer Hell: The Meuse-Argonne, 1918 is published by Henry Holt and Company, the paperback by MacMillan.

In addition to the arrogance of the Generals, the arrogance and ignorance of diplomats led to the Second World War and to the current mess in the Middle East.  Terry Parssinen shares an interesting historical insight into the former; the mess in the Middle East has been addressed by many of our guests including:  Geneive Abdo, Richard Ben Cramer, Peter Galbraith, Reza Aslan, Sandra Mackey and Mia Bloom.

Susan Faludi address the misleading myths of the American warrior in The Terror Dream.

In Scribbling the Cat, Alexandra Fuller connects a community's responsibilites for the soldiers it creates in an even more profound way than the obligations Dr. Lengel describes.

Neal Gabler shows how popular culture (e.g., the movie about Sgt. York) sustains false heroic notions.

In her stories of how military service has been a promise and a disappointment to Blacks throughout American history, Gail Buckley includes the segregation, racism and false promises affecting African Americans who served in the First World War.

... and, here's a little background information on Paula Gordon and Bill Russell, the Program co-hosts.


We learn from history only when we know it. Our thanks to Edward Lengel for showing us this horrendous episode “from the bottom up”. In doing so, he’s provided another vital step toward a more sane path -- turning “us” into flesh and blood individuals, weaning ourselves from the poisonous anonymity of “them”.

It’s also good to see commanding officers made more human, particularly those precious few who eventually learned authority’s hardest and most pressing lesson -- the need for humility.

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