Colonel McCormick’s War

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A few more steps bring the visitor into a command dugout. A life-size figure of an artilleryman calls in ranges over a field telephone. In the shadows lurk two equally life-size rats. Only the stenches and the ubiquitous “cooties”—lice—of this underground world are missing. Another side exhibit features a map of the 1st Division’s other battles. The horrendous casualties it suffered at Soissons and in the Argonne go unmentioned here, but in a final picture, showing the division parading up Pennsylvania Avenue, a soldier on horseback carries a sign: FIRST DIVISION KILLED : 4899, WOUNDED : 21,433, DSC’S AWARDED : 356.

The museum director, John Votaw, says Cantigny tries to strike a balance, telling the division’s story without glorifying war or suggesting that the exhilaration of battle can offset its awful destructiveness. That picture does the job for the 1st Division’s AEF days.

Standing there, I was swept by one of my most vivid memories from the Argonne. At a crossroads I encountered a stone pylon on which is listed all the names of the 1st Division men who died in that gigantic cauldron. Twenty-five years before there was a Vietnam monument, I had the impulse to run my fingers across the names, trying to imagine what it was like for Kelly and Barnes and Cohen to die in that distant, forgotten place, where French farmers now plow their terraced fields. For anyone who has had a father or a grandfather in the AEF, the World War I section of the Cantigny Museum evokes deep feelings. But for most people it will be closer to history than memory.

In The Mystic Chords of Memory , his fine analysis of the relationship of memory to history, the historian Michael Kammen has noted a major trait of American historical memory: the tendency to depoliticize the past and minimize the bitter quarrels that once raged around the history now being remembered. So, in the World War I section of the museum, you will find no mention of Colonel McCormick’s publishing what some people consider the single most important newspaper story in history, the June 9, 1919, “leak” of the Versailles Treaty, accompanied by a wholesale attack on it and President Woodrow Wilson. From that moment the treaty and Wilson’s Presidency were doomed, and America’s attitude toward World War I began a surprisingly swift slide toward disillusion. Not the least of Cantigny’s many paradoxes is its celebration of American heroism in foreign wars that Colonel McCormick concluded were colossal mistakes.

In the other sections of the museum, the 1st Division’s operations in World War II, Vietnam, and Desert Storm are evoked with the same flair for dramatic detail and with the same careful excision of any hint of the blunderbuss style of McCormick’s politics. In many respects the World War II section is the high point of the tour. Visitors are asked to sit down in what at first seems to be a small theater. Then they glance up and see looming over them the hull of a ship, covered with thick-roped cargo nets. A film begins on the front wall, and they are suddenly in a landing craft, heading for Omaha Beach on D-day. It is as close to the reality of battle as anyone is likely to come without actually getting shot at.

There are glimpses of the beach, the sound of an officer’s voice ordering his soldiers to keep their heads down, narration by men recalling how seasick they were, how scared, the sounds of big guns and small arms. Finally, as the film ends, the screen lifts, and the visitors walk across the front of the landing craft onto a replica of Omaha Beach as it looked a few hours after the men of the 1st Division’s 16th Infantry Regimental Combat Team had fought their way inland. The hushed newcomers stand beside marooned landing craft and gaze at a litter of discarded helmets, guns, and other equipment in a tangle of barbed wire. Just ahead stands the interior of a German blockhouse. Only the bodies—there were some twelve hundred casualties and wounded on that murderous strip of sand—have been omitted.

It was here that the 1st Division became the Big Red One, that name so full of lethal overtones for the enemy and for the men in its ranks. Throughout history armies have had elite units on which generals could rely when the going got especially tough. Again and again throughout the 1st Division’s fighting march across Europe, from Normandy to the Battle of the Bulge, it played this role. General Eisenhower called it “my Praetorian Guard.” The price it paid for this acclaim was a casualty rate of almost 50 percent.

From Europe’s blasted landscape visitors move to the green underbrush and half-light of South Vietnam’s triple-canopy jungle. In glass cases are lifesize figures of an American infantryman and a Vietcong guerrilla, their clothing and equipment exactly reproduced. In the tradition of excising politics, there is little mention of the terrific acrimony and anguish this war created on the home front.