In episode five of Perdition’s Teeth, “Homestead,” the narrator informs us that, as he traipses across a barren expanse of farmland, Seeger is reminded of Flanders’ field and no-man’s land, the colloquial term for the space between the trenches of the Allied and Central powers. The dust-driven plains of the Great American Desert, and the waste land of mud and barbed wire that characterized the Western Front, on which Seeger fought, bear some clear similarities: their hostility, their alien appearance, and their silent threat of imminent danger would parallel one another in Seeger’s mind.
But what did World War One mean for America? For Americans? The United States didn’t join the war until April of 1917, after the release of the Zimmermann telegram (a drama of high intrigue by itself), though after the sinking of the Lusitania by German submarines, a movement towards “Preparedness” emerged. But initially, US popular opinion was against joining the war, with many different groups favoring neutrality for different reasons (Irish Americans because they were loath to aid the British, for the example, and many German Americans still had ties to Germany). Woodrow Wilson won a second term in 1916 in part thanks to the slogan, “He kept us out of war.” And even when the US did enter the war, they were beset by a variety of problems: the standing army at the start of the war was not large, and racial relations within the US military were fraught, to put it mildly. But, as David Smith noted last year in The Guardian, “[T]he war had seismic implications for the US economically, socially and culturally,” pointing out that in many ways US involvement in World War One paved the way for the cultural shifts of the twentieth century.
For Seeger, much as for John Dos Passos or Ernest Hemingway, his enlistment would have come about as the US hastily assembled almost five million troops to ship out to aid the Allied forces. With the French and British militaries in poor morale, the arrival of a bunch of Americans was looked on as a godsend. As Vera Brittain writes in her memoir, Testament of Youth:
“Look! Look! Here are the Americans! ”
I pressed forward with the others to watch the United States physically entering the War, so god-like, so magnificent, so splendidly unimpaired in comparison with the tired, nerve-racked men of the British Army.
Although American involvement in the war was relatively brief, and casualties relatively low with respect to raw numbers, it nonetheless affected a generation of writers — and disaffected many of the people called to enlist.
Though the American deployment only lasted a year and a half, American soldiers met the same horrors that their British, French, and Commonwealth allies had been enduring for three years when they entered the fray. The scars would last a lifetime, and within the fiction of Perdition’s Teeth, we can see those traumas lingering on Seeger’s mind. He puts on a blase attitude, but his actions show a desire for the world to make sense and for things to go back to making as much sense as it did when he was younger.
Many of the men who came home were hollowed out by the experience, and they fought with the government for their pensions for years afterward. Many of these soldiers, while they had been paid at the time of their service, were required to wait for their whole payment — they were promised $1.25 for each day serving overseas, and $1.00 for each day serving in the United States (roughly $15 and $12 in 2018 dollars.) The exact amounts were agreed upon in 1924…but were not to be paid out until 1945, twenty-seven years after the war ended.
In the summer of 1932, a year before the events of Perdition’s Teeth, 17,000 out-of-work veterans, and 26,000 sympathizers, marched on Washington, D.C. under the banner of the Bonus Army, demanding immediate cash payment of the money they had been promised. On the 27th of July, former Major General Smedley Butler, in Washington to advocate for the Veterans, walked through the camp, ate with the protesters and stayed with them. The following day, he delivered an off-the-cuff speech to them. He told them that they were within their rights, and that they were fine soldiers. He told them that they needed to keep their humor and be mindful that the public eye was upon them.
This would prove to be an important moment.
Later that day, the protestors clashed with the police, and two of them were shot, but the police were driven off. The army was then dispatched: General Douglas MacArthur and then-Major George S. Patton personally led the 12th Infantry Regiment and the 3rd Cavalry Regiment, supported by six M1917 light tanks against the protesters. It was thought by many that the army was coming out to parade in honor of the veterans, and a crowd of spectators assembled to watch. They were quickly disabused of this notion when Patton ordered a cavalry charge, leading crowd to cry out:
The protesters were then set upon by infantrymen with fixed bayonets and tear gas, who pursued them back to their camp in the Anacostia Flats and brutally demolished it. Fifty-five veterans were injured, one hundred and thirty five were arrested, and the violence resulted in one miscarriage and the death of a twelve-week-old infant.
MacArthur claimed that they had assembled and attempted to overthrow the government, but this was a transparent lie. This event led to the ouster of President Herbert Hoover, and the election of President Roosevelt, but it had more and further-reaching effects.
It is possibly this event that was the final nail in the coffin for Smedley Butler as a military man, leading him to eventually write in the Socialist magazine Common Sense:
I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer; a gangster for capitalism. I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. I helped purify Nicaragua for the International Banking House of Brown Brothers in 1902–1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for the American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went on its way unmolested. Looking back on it, I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.
It is not only the war itself, but its still-unfolding half-life, that would come to mind for Seeger as he makes his way towards the barn, and although he hasn’t yet — at the time of the story — become as disillusioned as Butler, he can no doubt sense his world crumbling around him.. The impact of the First World War, not only on our imagined detective or his historical context, but to this very day, continues to turn itself up, like long-buried landmines uncovered live (article dates from 2014).