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Archive for Sunday, June 29, 2008

Country needs WWI reminders

June 29, 2008

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— In all of the sunshine fun and seaspray of summer, the small celebration being conducted along the eastern spine of Pittsburgh on today will attract scant attention. Highway rededications are small, fleeting events. There will be speeches that soon will be forgotten, and commemorative coins, and a military jet fly-over. Then there will be a bicycle race.

But in some ways, what is to happen on the street where this column is being typed has a larger meaning, one worth pondering as an election approaches and as the number of World War I veterans still alive dwindles to its final honored dozen scattered across the globe. The rededication of the Boulevard of the Allies is a moment to ponder a war long forgotten, but one whose impact remains with us, shaping our lives, our perspectives and, though it began almost a century ago, our future.

This grand boulevard - with its granite memorial columns topped by American eagles clasping the globe and its dedicatory inscriptions that haven't been read in years - was Pittsburgh's gesture of thanks to the allies who won the first war to have worldwide sweep and mechanized methods of mass misery.

This war brought upheaval to every corner of the globe. More than 20 million people lost their lives. Empires - the German, the Habsburg, the Romanoff, the Ottoman - toppled. (The British Empire remained, but it was not quite the same, and would crumble in a quarter-century.) The first communist state was created, and its virus threatened all the world.

Suddenly Europe had more republics than monarchies, though seeds of dictatorship were planted in the continent's soil and would sprout in a dozen years. And the ashes of World War I, a conflict fought with such noble ideals in such squalid conditions, built the foundation of an even more terrible global conflict that in turn would midwife even more industrialized forms of death.

"In all countries, the majority served and suffered for unselfish causes which they did not fully understand," the British historian A.J.P. Taylor wrote. "They all wanted a better world, though many of them wanted advantages for their own country as well."

The war spawned great novels that became great movies ("All Quiet on the Western Front," for example), great poems (Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Rupert Brooke) and great memoirs (those of Lawrence of Arabia and Winston Churchill, to start), but mostly great losses.

In truth, no novel, no poem, is quite as moving, quite as devastating, as simply reading the names of the fallen, recorded on the polished white granite war memorials that stand in every village in Europe - or on the walls of the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge and in university chapels throughout the continent, grim testimony to how a generation of leaders was chewed up in a battle of attrition in the trenches.

Between the crosses, row on row, is a lesson the city fathers of Pittsburgh understood when they gave their grand name to their grand boulevard, carved into the cliffs overlooking the Monongahela River. The roadway was conceived by Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. as part of his Pittsburgh Plan of 1911. When it was built, the boulevard, at $1.6 million per mile, was the most expensive road in the history of the world.

Forty years later a small controversy began to brew about the roadway, with Pittsburgh Press columnist Mary O'Hara agitating to change its name, perhaps to the Steel Skyway in recognition of the mills it overlooked on its way from Pittsburgh's commercial downtown at the confluence of three rivers, to its academic downtown where the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University now stand.

World War I is as far in the past for the readers of this column as the re-election of James Monroe was to the doughboys who fought the war. That is reason enough to keep referring to the road as the Boulevard of the Allies. We need to be reminded of the war of 1914-1918, even if Americans didn't enter the conflict until 1917.

This war was, as the great German historian Fritz Stern put it, "the first calamity of the 20th century, the Great War, from which all other calamities sprang." The war also liberated women - in this respect World War I, which opened military and manufacturing jobs to women, was the overture to World War II - and liberated all humankind from the restrictions, restraints and repressions, in art, language, manners and sexual behavior, of the Victorian and Edwardian eras.

"As Europe tore itself apart," the American historian David Fromkin wrote, "its overlordship of the rest of the planet came undone, and over the course of the century, literally billions of people achieved their independence."

So today, fourscore and 14 years since the beginning of World War I, let us salute the men who fought it and thank the foresighted leaders who gave the Boulevard of the Allies its proud, evocative name.

- David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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