Saturday, October 30, 2010

Why are there not more Great War books in the US?

For those of you who don't know me, I am the author of about 50 books and novels.  I write science fiction, military history, and business books (for the most part).  I really lead a double-life.  During my daytime hours I work for one of the Big Four accounting firms in their IT department.   It's like having a secret identity except it is no where as cool as being a super-hero. 
I am writing a blog to keep my writing skills polished, keep my creative juices flowing, and to enjoy myself a little bit. 
My first topic is one close to my heart:  Why are there not more Great War books in the US?
As a writer who has two published histories of the Great War and one coming out in a few weeks (Lost Eagles, University of Michigan Press); I have had to struggle to find the right publishers.  A number of mainstream publishers didn't weren't interested in doing books on WWI because they didn't believe there was as market for them. 
Wow.  Really?
There was over a million Americans involved in the St. Mithel offensive; despite being one of the last offenses of the war.  We didn't have a million troops involved in D-Day; so you'd think that it would have prevailed in our collective conscience. 
WWI introduced U-Boats, mines (on a large scale), Dreadnought battleships, rapid-fire artillery, flamethrowers, tanks, fighter and bomber aircraft, gas weapons, and countless other deadly innovations. 
There are several factors that drive the lack of interest (by publishers) in WWI books.  First, the Great War is overshadowed by events in WWII in the public conscience.  We still have veterans alive from WWII whereas all but a handful of WWI vets have "gone west."  There are grandfathers and great-grandfathers still able to tell their stories of combat from WWII whereas WWI is now a war that is dependent on the records and documentation left behind. 
Another factor that comes into play is that America's involvement in WWI was very late in the war and our combat operations were short-lived.  Oh sure, Americans were fighting starting in 1914; but they were volunteers in the French Foreign Legion and eventually the Lafayette Flying Corps and Lafayette Escadrille.  While iconic characters for sure, the rest of the United States didn't get involved directly with the war until April of 1917 when war was declared.  Even then we didn't have troops on the front lines and in battle until mid-1918.  With the war ending in November, America's contribution to the victory was noteworthy, but short compared to the time and losses suffered by our allies. 
Like the Korean War, the Great War is often overlooked or glossed over.  I was disappointed recently at the reopening of the Smithsonian's American History museum which had a single almost embarrassing display case on WWI.  While the artifacts were wonderful, it was sad to see it overlooked. 
But I would challenge that the Great War is making a strong comeback in terms of literature; and I hope the publishing world is taking note.  More books are coming out each year about the war and the subject matter is solid and offers new perspectives and directions.  Some of the books that have come out in the last year have really shed new light on topics and have broken the stereotype that the Great War was a boring trench war with great losses and little gains. 
The Great War laid the foundations not just for WWII but for the Cold War and the world we live in today.  The study of WWI and active research in this war helps us understand the context of policy and diplomacy now.


  1. There are a number of problems why The War To End All Wars isn't as "popular" as WW II.

    1. The enormity of the slaughter: cavalry charges into machine gun fire, poison gas attacks, no man's land, fighting months on end for mere yards and trench warfare don't lend themselves to the popularized heroics of Operation Overlord or The Battle of Midway.

    -Matt Chaplin

    2. Speaking of Midway, save for Jutland WW I is bereft of major naval engagements.

    3. The surviving documentary film footage is not as obviously not as prevalent as subsequent wars. However, the Military Channel did put together an outstanding ten part miniseries on the Great War.

    4. There aren't any WW I veterans left alive. My great-grandfather served under Pershing in France but NEVER talked about the war. He died when I was 13. Both of my grandfathers served in WWII (Army Air Corps in Italy and a Marine on Tarawa) - they both talked about the war but obviously edited themselves. My great Uncle also served on Tarawa and he talked a bit more but he had a great conversation starter - the Japanese took his eye on that island.

    5. The end of the war - 11th hour, 11th day of the 11th month is very alliterative but the Peace reached was more like a Pause. The seeds sown there would be reaped within a generation.

  2. I would have to agree, I have looked for books on WWI only to find there are few good ones, and the ones I do find are all about the same subject. My great-grandfather was in WWI, tragically suffered too many mental scars upon his return home.

  3. I don't know Matt.

    In terms of naval battles - beyond Jutland there was the cruise of the Emden, the battle of the Falkland Islands, Dogger Bank, and a few others. Jutland gets all of the glory...but there were others.

    I agree there's a lack of archival footage...or is there? I spent a lot of time the last two summers on my days off going through the Signal Corps footage at the National Archives. There is a lot of footage that simply is never used.

    Now, on the veterans issues - you are dead on (pun intended).

    There were over a million Americans on the ground during the Meuse-Argonne and St. Mithel offenses. In fact, there are more Americans buried at the Meuse-Argonne cemetery than in any WWII cemetery. At one point there were 2/3 more but their families requested the remains be sent back to the US.

    In my latest book I did a lot of research on the French Foreign Legion and what I came away with was that the first year of the war, before the rise of trench warfare, it was a very fluid war - shattering a lot of the myth.

    I believe this is a rich field to read about. I know it's great to write about.


  4. In some ways, I think the introduction of all the new technologies can work against WWI's popularity amongst mainstream audiences. The war was a huge paradigm shift, and many people have a hard time accepting that people would knowingly charge machineguns on horses. "That's so stupid! I would never do that!" is a common comment heard all too frequently in many middle school history classes. Kids have asked me many times about how soldiers could have been so dumb to stand in ranks for musket fire. It's hard for many people to put themselves in perspective to realize just how revolutionary the Great War was. In WW2, the hard lessons were already learned and a lesson learned seems like common sense to those who have learned it. Anything else becomes "stupidity." It's sad, but it's true.

    Also, the Great War is usually overshadowed by WW2, because WW2 is a "feel good" war. The Nazis were clearly bad guys (the holocaust, black uniforms for the SS, funny accents, etc), which meant we got to be the good guys. Liberating concentration camps (whether the reason we went to war or not) is the stuff of heroes while battling over territory is 'imperialism.' The only other time it's easy to claim being a good-guy (and not have too many second-guessers) is in a defensive war against an unreasonable aggressor. The only times the US has fought on our home soil it was to 'stop paying so much taxes,' 'The Brits burned the white house,' and 'brother vs brother' so we can't claim too many of those. In WW2, we have Pearl Harbor. The world was losing, they sucker punched us, and we went on to win the war from behind. It's a classic underdog coming back from behind story. It "feels good" to people. The motives as to why we entered WW1...well, many people like to point out how the Allies owed us more money than the Axis. There's not the same clarity of purpose as taking down Hitler.

    That said, I think it's great you're writing about WW1. If anything, it gives you a chance to make more of a mark since there are fewer writers. WW2 is a bit overdone at this point. As a kid, I myself thought all of the black powder wars were boring due to reload times, 'why don't they just duck?,' and a variety of other reasons until I started reading Sharpe's Tiger. Fiction or not, it put things into perspective for me when I saw the value of ranks and forming square and I started to get more interested in the entire Napoleonic era, because of them. Maybe the Great War needs some more fiction treatment?

    Oh, and sorry about just dropping in. I happened to see the link for the blog, and...well, the internet breeds opinions so I thought I'd chip in. Hooray for the interwebs!

  5. Mikallo,
    These are pretty valid points. I especially agree with your thoughts about the wealth of WWII books and authors. Though I have to admit, in doing my latest book I have crawled through the OSS records - and I could be writing books until I am an old man given the topics there.