A generation worth celebrating

They called it the Great War. It was the bloodiest conflict the world had ever seen – no small feat – and by April 1917 millions were dead or wounded, and much of Europe was in ruins.

For more than two years the United States had sought to stay neutral, but Germany’s repeated aggressions demanded action. Americans understood that if the world was to be made “safe for democracy,” as President Woodrow Wilson declared, they must fight.

More than 4,700,000 people were mobilized, half of whom served overseas. That was a huge commitment for the United States, whose military was decades away from the height of its power. But when the guns at last fell silent, the world could not deny America’s doggedness in battle and willingness to share in the sacrifice for freedom. Across France and Belgium, thousands of gravestones testify to that sacrifice.

The “war to end all wars” was, of course, no such thing, and its horrors were soon eclipsed by an even bloodier, costlier conflict. World War II is fresher in our collective memory, partly because we still have nearly 1 million of its participants among us. But the first world war deserves far more attention than it receives in our classrooms and national remembrances. Its centenary is an opportunity to elevate its story in the context of our American journey and a challenge to do better by those who died fighting for the freedom of others, thousands of whom are honored namesakes of American Legion posts worldwide.

The U.S. World War One Centennial Commission is raising awareness through social media and other channels about the personalities, places and effects of the Great War. Working with the Library of Congress, the National Archives and others, it has built an incredible online resource center for educators, ready for use.

The commission, by resolution, has The American Legion’s support. Among its key initiatives is the creation of a long-awaited National World War I Memorial at Pershing Park in Washington, D.C. Plans call for starting construction this winter, and a dedication on Nov. 11, 1918. 

There’s also 100 Cities/100 Memorials, a project of the commission and the Pritzker Military Museum & Library to encourage restoration and maintenance of World War I monuments nationwide. Matching grants of up to $2,000 are available, an opportunity for American Legion posts that want to repair and maintain local memorials. Several have submitted grant applications ahead of the June 15 deadline.

Those of us who serve or have served in the military owe a debt to our Great War predecessors. They broke the dawn of air and undersea combat. They pioneered military technology that we take for granted today. More, they recognized that the struggle to stay free isn’t just an American one, but a human one.

The men and women who went to war 100 years ago founded The American Legion before they even left Europe, to preserve the bonds of service and to support their fellow veterans and their communities. In uniform and out, we benefit from the World War I legacy every single day. It is a generation worth celebrating, now and forever.