WWI: Hail-or Farewell
This article appeared in the September 13, 1919 edition of The Nation.
Woodrow Wilson ran for reelection in 1916 on the slogan "He Kept Us Out of War"—for three years, anyway.
(Written in anticipation of the parade arranged to take place in New York city on September 10 in honor of General Pershing. The return of the commander of the American Expeditionary Force to this country last Monday has not only been an occasion for his popular acclaim, but has stimulated speculation in regard to General Pershing's possible entrance into politics and his attitude with respect to problems of the day.)
This week, so the papers say, General Pershing will march up Fifth Avenue at the head of the famous First Division. The First, remember, is the division of regulars that was among the first to land in France and the first to fight—that went through practically every major operation in which American troops participated, that gained the most ground and had the heaviest casualties—and that now is the last, or almost the last, to come home. If there is glory in war, the First has won it; if there is virtue in sacrifice, the First has achieved it.
Probably this will be the last of the great parades in New York. The chapter is closed. The world has been made safe for—for democracy-in-moderation, as Ibsen would say. Except for a few thousand Americans still left on the Rhine, a few other thousands in Siberia, and a few others engaged in manifestations within the territory of our southern neighbors, we are at peace with the world.
But why dwell on ironies? It will be worth seeing, that parade. The banners will be flung out on the Avenue, and great crowds will pack the sidewalks and lean from the windows. There will be cheering, and from their perches on top of the arch at Madison Square the eagles will lean down and scream a welcome to the victors—to young America, home from the wars. Ta-ra! Ta-ra! What savage-hearted poet first invented bugles? Out of what lurid mist of dim ancestral memory comes this sudden exaltation—mingled strangely of hate and pity, grief and desire? Why these clenching hands and troubled faces that I see about me?
I shall not be able to stay away. I shall be there, gazing and wondering with the rest, and with the rhythm of the marching feet quickening my pulse. "Good," says the National Security League; "he is a Patriot." At which I blush violently and resolve that, heaven helping me, I shall cast the bugles out of my blood and be a man instead of a fool and a savage. And I should like to communicate my resolve to some of those marching thousands. Not that I think they are feeling especially patriotic. I have no illusions on that score. But for the grace of God, and the fact that I came over in a small detachment, unattached to any division, I might have been marching in their shoes. I know how they feel. "For God's sake why don't they leave us go home?" they are saying. And, "It's great when you see it from the sidewalk, but when you're plugging up the street with a hump on your back—say, buddy, how long is that avnoo?" And finally, of course, "You wait until I get out of uniform—"
Very well, I'll wait, although I haven't very many illusions about that either. Two or three weeks from now those fellows will be free, with the humps off their backs and the clamps off their tongues. Will they say to themselves, as I said to myself: "I don't like the army, because I find it a thoroughly unbearable institution. I think it turns out an extraordinary quantity of morally and spiritually diminished individuals—bullies and boot-lickers. It is hostile to individuality and all too frequently embalms the authority of the popinjay like a fly in amber. The position of the enlisted man in the army is somewhat like that of the unorganized laborer in civil life—except that the laborer has the protection of the civil courts, whereas a soldier seldom cares to risk a court-martial conducted by a jury of his superiors, by a jury of another species. Labor never had any rights except those which it won for itself. In the same way the enlisted men in the army will never have any rights except those which they demand and win for themselves."
Those are some of the things which they might say—and say them out loud. But will they? And will they make any effort to translate certain very genuine grievances into effective reforms? "Only those who are not afraid to die are worthy to live," wrote Theodore Roosevelt, who was a man, at least, although a savage one. Judged by the Rooseveltian maxim, these men are worthy to live. But will they live—and how? War kills the spirit as well as the flesh of youth. Are they spent, or have they still to give? To these men as they march past, shall we say "Hail"—or "Farewell"?
But I am forgetting. I was told to write something about the General, and here I have been tactlessly wasting my time on the proletariat of his army. There he is, marching at the head of the column. I crane my neck to see. I am very curious about him, as are the majority of those he leads, I imagine. Does anybody know Pershing? A great leader, they say. But whom does he lead, and whither? The corpse of the old world lies mouldering in its grave, despite all the efforts of our elder statesmen to resuscitate it. But the youth of the world will go marching on. And youth wants leaders—and friends. Who are you, General, and what are you? The enlisted men of the army found a good friend in Lieutenant-Colonel Ansell. He fought a good fight for the amelioration of the court-martial system. How about that, General? Where do you stand? And about the C. O.'s, who are still in jail, and who so far haven't found any friends at all except radicals and "pro-Germans," who don't count—how do you stand there? As a man of courage and a man of sense, you know that it frequently takes more courage to face social ostracism and jail than it does to face bullets. Recalling once more that Rooseveltian maxim, one might say that these men also have a right to live, and to live in freedom. But the President and the Secretary of War don't think so, General. So wouldn't it be worth while for you to whisper in the President's ear something to the effect that Lincoln was not afraid to pardon, and why should Mr. Wilson be determined to show himself so much less brave, less worthy, and less wise?
Of course, these things may be none of our business, and none of yours, you being just a plain soldier. But if, as has been suggested, you should aspire to other leadership—if you should aspire to lead not an army but a nation—? We are curious, General. And youth needs friends. Who are you, and where do you stand? The world moves, the world marches. To you, also, shall we say "Hail"—or "Farewell"?