Thomas Frank | Essays

Taking Things Seriously V


I collect First World War artifacts, but not because I am one of these guys who spends his weekends reenacting battles. I have trouble even understanding why someone would want to act out the trench warfare of 1917. This was wholesale slaughter, industrialized and indifferent to individual heroics. Take a number and die. One might as well reenact the Spanish Flu.

I regard this French artillery helmet as a token of monumental disillusionment, a reminder of the greatest-ever failure of enlightened, middle-class, Christian civilization. This was the event where the official narrative — delivered by statesmen, preachers, and leaders of industry — ran so contrary to reality that faith in those institutions was weakened forever.

As it happens, my hometown of Kansas City is the location of a twenty-one-story-high World War I monument and a very large collection of Great War artifacts. As a schoolboy I approached these pieces with the form of patriotic reverence that the museum and the monument embodied. American wars were about freedom, I believed. And honor. And protecting hometowns. It was difficult for the idealistic young me to grasp that what happened on the Western Front was that millions of brave men were ordered to die in an ill-planned and essentially futile conflict.

Today we are in the grip of a different sort of pro-war sentiment, a militarism in which the cynicism is readymade and the disillusionment is build-in, in which our GIs are always said to be betrayed by journalists and (liberal) politicians back home. Whenever some of that angry logic floats my way, I find it helpful to gaze upon that steel helmet and remember the lessons its wearer learned.

This short essay is excerpted from Taking Things Seriously: 75 Objects with Unexpected Significance, a book by Joshua Glenn and Carol Hayes in which they and other writers discuss the importance of objects in their lives. This is the fifth essay in a series to appear on Design Observer.

Posted in: Media

Comments [9]

Indeed. I wish some of our politicians would take a good look at that helmet . . . and take from it the same lessons you did.
Wailea Kango

The National World War One Museum (formerly known as Liberty Memorial) in Kansas City, Mo., as mentioned by Mr. Frank above, is amazing. It was recently expanded by Ralph Appelbaum Assoc., led by Josh Dudley, in 2006. The original memorial was designed by architect H. Van Buren Magonigle, and completed in 1928. You can still go up in the tower, too. If you get a chance, visit!

Very Respectfully,
Joe Moran

Have you read Paul Fussell's Great War and Modern Memory? It is a fascinating, illuminating look at that "official narrative" and its long-reaching effects.
M.A. Peel

Got mit uns (God for us)

After reading Jessica's post Remembering Paul Rand, I started looking at some of the work of George Grosz. (George Grosz was Paul Rand's teacher at the Art Students League of New York.)

I think George Grosz would agree with your thoughts on Taking Things Seriously in an anti-serious way. Above is a link to his portfolio cover for Got mit uns (God for us) now at MOMA. (1919, published 1920 Letterpress and lineblock). This political portfolio brought Grosz up on charges of defaming the Reichswehr.

"It is a mistake to believe if you paint circles, cubes or some profound jumble of lines that you are being revolutionary . . . Your brushes and pens, which should be your weapons, are empty straws. Go out of your rooms, . . . allow yourselves to be captured by ideas of working people, help them in the struggle against a rotten society." — George Grosz 1920/21
Carl W. Smith

It seems that warfare is a natural and will persist in one form or another for a very long time. It is horrible to think that we have not learned from the steel helmet and all the others that have come after it.

I think that Earnest Hemingway summed the problem of warfare up well.

Never think that war, no matter how necessary, nor how justified, is not a crime. ~Ernest Hemingway


Agreed, JasonP.

Hemingway also said, "Certainly there is no hunting like the hunting of man and those who have hunted armed men long enough and liked it, never really care for anything else thereafter."

A war as a large cultural event produces its own smaller, more personal wars. And I say this not with condemnation but with understanding gleaned from my own personal experience. War is a virus.

I would recommend On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society by Dave Grossman. Its an excellent read about how we overcome the natural human resistance to killing another human.

Imagine what positive things you could do with all that energy and organzation.

I'll be sure to take On Killing to the next NARAL rally I come across. I'm sure it will be well received.

Are you guys writing about the thing, or the things in the hunting, breeding, fore-, back-, under-, high-, or playground?


Gott mit uns

ga-ga-ga-ga- G loves

Sorry, it just came out.

learning to read

Thomas Frank Thomas Frank is the author of What’s the Matter with Kansas? and One Market Under God. The founding editor of The Baffler and a contributing editor at Harper’s, he is also The Wall Street Journal’s newest weekly columnist. He has received a Lannan award and been a guest columnist for The New York Times.

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