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The Army’s Message to Returning World War I Troops? Behave Yourselves

The shelling stopped on Nov. 11, 1918, sending millions of American soldiers back to the United States to pick up where they had left off before joining or being drafted into the war effort. For one officer, the return meant facing a perfunctory public welcome and superficial support. “The quick abandonment of interest in our overseas men by Americans in general,” he observed three years after the Armistice, “is an indictment against us as a nation, not soon to be forgotten by the men in uniform from the other side.” The soldier, a former Army officer later identified as Herbert B. Hayden, anonymously published his observations in an essay for The Atlantic Monthly. The severe effects of combat-related injuries, like the ones Hayden described in his essay, drew more public attention during the 1920s, when the figure of the shellshocked veteran became part of larger debates over the government’s responsibility to care for its military forces.

The First World War saw more death than all of the world’s wars from 1790 to 1914 combined, and the American troops who arrived in France in 1917 were not insulated from the bloodshed. As one veteran remembered, fighting in the trenches was like “getting slaughtered as fast as sheep could go up a plank.” When the fighting ended the next year, any sense of idealism the American public felt when the United States entered the war was quickly replaced with weariness and a strong desire to move on. There was little consideration for the men who survived the war and what their long-term needs would be.

A series of posters — on display at the National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, Mo., until Sept. 15 — designed by the Army to show America’s discharged soldiers how they should behave once they returned to civilian life, provides evidence of the nation’s blindness to the toll modern war took on those who endured it. The Army didn’t want the flood of veterans returning home to become a disruptive presence or a financial burden on society.

All but one of the posters on display were designed by an Army captain named Gordon Grant, who worked as an illustrator before the war and was assigned to the Army General Staff’s Morale Section. Jonathan Casey, the exhibit’s curator, said these small posters were used as tools of social engineering. “The focus,” Casey explained, was “on staying clean for their families back home, and on taking the skills they developed or honed in the service and applying them in their own communities.” The posters were tacked on bulletin boards on Army bases and at demobilization sites around the country beginning in 1918.

Some of the posters seem to have been designed to shame returning veterans. They signaled that indulgence, indolence and sullenness were unacceptable attitudes for America’s veterans, without taking into consideration the potential underlying causes of such behavior. One poster depicts a veteran and a civilian standing in front of a cafe with a sign advertising “Beer & Ale.” Veterans may be out of the Army, the poster informs, but until they were out of uniform they shouldn’t act in ways that deviated from public perceptions of how they were supposed to behave.

Read entire article at The New York Times Magazine