There is no national World War I memorial in Washington, D.C.
And there was no high-level representative from the current presidential administration at the 2017 centenary event commemorating the U.S. officially entering the war on April 6, 1917, said Matthew Naylor, president and CEO of the National World War I Museum and Memorial, located in Kansas City, Mo.
"Regretfully, the president and the vice president have not attended any of the official commemorative activities to date," said Naylor, also a member of the U.S. World War One Centennial Commission.
These surprising facts underscore what those in the Great War business see as a lack of respect in the U.S. for their conflict, a situation they are trying to highlight and rectify in this anniversary year of the end of the horrific slog through, mostly, the fields and forests of France.
One method is the plan to finally erect a national memorial in a D.C. park between the White House and the National Mall -- although not on the mall, where all of the big war memorials are located. (There is a small WWI memorial on the mall dedicated just to Washingtonians who served.)
Another is the slate of events leading up to the Nov. 11 centennial of Armistice Day, the end of the war, including an interfaith worship service that morning at Washington National Cathedral.
But perhaps the most populist is the superb outdoor touring exhibition mounted by Naylor's museum that is currently up in, of all places, the park directly in front of Chicago's Navy Pier.
Its goal is stark and, in itself, a little shocking: "Introduce World War One to the American public," said Naylor, which is quite a statement for a conflict that had such an impact on American life.
If you're thinking the city's permanent carnival midway isn't the most natural spot for a soulful, contemplative exhibition that melds a mini-course in U.S. involvement in the war with large-scale photographs of Great War locations as they look today, yeah, maybe.
But "Fields of Battle -- Lands of Peace: The Doughboys 1917-1918" creates its own reality. Set up like a row of tombstones in a military cemetery, these roughly seven-foot-tall kiosks look at first glance like an art show.
The images by Michael St. Maur Sheil, a veteran British news photographer, are presented at beyond poster size. They seem to offer tranquil nature photography until you peer closer and see the rusted artillery shells, the mossed-over remnants of the German bunker, the name scrawled on a cave wall by the U.S. soldier who didn't make it, the small-type place names familiar to the relative few in this country who have studied the war: Belleau Wood, Cantigny, etc.
"It is part of the commemorative activities honoring the service of the United States in World War I," said Naylor, who was in town earlier this month for a meeting of the Centennial Commission, the founding sponsor of which is the Pritzker Military Museum & Library, on Michigan Avenue. "We wrote it for a non-museum, non-history audience. It's intended for people who know nothing about World War I and who don't go to museums. And so we've used contemporary photographs by an artist named Mike Sheil who took just about a decade to take nearly 100,000 photos of the battlefields as they look today. And then from that we selected about 65, and then we paired those up with some historic photos and then wrote about 20,000 words that run with it that tell the story of the journey of the American doughboys in World War I."
As one of the most visited tourist attractions in the Midwest, the pier site has foot traffic galore, which is exactly why Naylor is so enthusiastic about the exhibit there, free of charge and up through Nov. 18. The pier itself has a World War I link: Built in 1916, Municipal Pier became Navy Pier in 1927 to honor naval veterans of the war.
And the exhibit is in a place at the pier where the vibe isn't as cotton candy as elsewhere; big art installations typically fill its spot, between the new-ish fountain in Polk Bros Park and the new welcome pavilion, home to the loudest HVAC system in Chicago (presumed).
People can pass by "Fields of Battle -- Lands of Peace" on the way out to the pier proper, but what seemed to happen, on a mid-day visit earlier this week, was that one person stopping to look more closely inspired another, and so on, until soon enough a small platoon of tourists was taking it in.
You don't have to read all the text, of course. It is meaningful simply on the levels of art and memory. But if you pay close attention, you'll learn the best theory for why American soldiers were nicknamed "doughboys": Dusty Texas land settled on American infantrymen's uniforms during the Mexican War, giving them the appearance of being covered in flour, and the nickname stuck.
You'll learn that the term "chatting" derives from "chat," a British name for the lice that were common in World War I's trenches and that the men would sit and pick at as they talked.
You'll see a harrowing cameo by Floyd Gibbons, famed Chicago Tribune war correspondent, who lost sight in his right eye when the troops he was with came under intense German fire at Belleau Wood, near France's Marne River.
"Perfect withering volleys of lead swept the tops of the oats just over us," Gibbons wrote. "I was busily engaged flattening myself on the ground."
You'll read tales of the hastily assembled (and more hastily trained) American Expeditionary Force -- the name for the entirety of U.S. troops, which would number 4.35 million -- learning quickly and rapidly earning the admiration of allies and enemies alike.
And you'll learn the reasons the U.S. got into the war in its final years, the great impact its influx of soldiers had in bolstering the wearied Allies, and the lasting effects of the massive, multi-continent conflict.
"World War I was the first time that humankind combined military action with industrial power and modern weaponry and explosives to unleash devastation upon fellow humans," the exhibition says.
It re-ordered geopolitics, ending the old empires of Germany, Austro-Hungary, the Ottomans and Russia. It saw the U.S. emerge as the global leader in economic and military strength and as the only superpower.
"It is arguably the birth of the American century," Naylor said. "It is what defines the emergence of the U.S. onto the world stage."
And it exacted a stunning price. Tallies vary widely, but it was clearly the most devastating war up to that point in history. Encyclopedia Brittanica puts the toll at 8.5 million military personnel killed (including 116,000 Americans) and possibly another 13 million civilians who died from all the resultant displacement, disease and starvation.
Yet for all that, the war still needs explaining over here.
"European media will always be asking me, 'So, Naylor, why is it that the U.S. doesn't seem to know much about World War I?'" said Naylor, who points out that his Kansas City museum, situated beneath the official national memorial, the Liberty Memorial Tower, is in Trip Advisor's top 25 of U.S. museums.
"I think there's two principal reasons. The first is that it's a really messy, complicated war. It involves countries and empires that aren't around anymore, you know? And then secondly, it's overshadowed by the Civil War and World War II in the public narrative."
Those wars had a much higher U.S. casualty rate and much clearer good and bad guys, while "the U.S. was involved in (World War I) for a relatively short time, and it was 'over there,'" he said.
But people who take the time to understand it, Naylor said, perhaps by slowing down and doing a little reading before riding Navy Pier's Ferris wheel, will come to understand that "for the U.S., it was such a defining engagement."
This article is written by Steve Johnson from Chicago Tribune and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.