11/11/2013 12:38 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

JFK and World War I: How We Celebrate Two Tragedies Tells Us Who We Are

11 November 2013. We call today "Veteran's" day, but it also celebrates the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. With the centennial year of World War I upcoming, are we beginning to remember. Sacral memories are already jumpstarting in Britain, but with the anticipation there comes anxiety, as Britons worry over how much to celebrate, how much to sacralize, and how much to self-castigate.

How will we Americans remember The Great War? How well I remember the fiftieth anniversary -- and fiftieths are very different from centennials. For one thing, participants are still around, and still vigorous memory-joggers. I knew a couple World War I vets, who marched, fifty years after, like proud old soldiers march, in our long-ago Westport Memorial Day Parade.

On 22 November America will mark another solemn event in its national life: The assassination of JFK. O'Reilly right-wingers may call it a "killing" in their desire to denigrate the moment, but most Americans will keep the occasion as a collective lamentation of the nation, almost as if it happened yesterday ...

Which in a way it did. Our United States has managed an eerie continuity over fifty years. In 1963 we were a nation of interstates and fast cars, fast food and iridescent technicolor operas we call movies. We are that still. Our TVs are bigger and louder, but they remain the centerpiece of life and home. In 1963 you could board a sleek Boeing jet in Dulles Airport -- newly dedicated by JFK -- with a three-digit designation beginning with "7." You still can -- and probably will.

America was the world leader, the biggest economy, the grandest and most intimidating military, and the most over-the-top nation in world history. It still is, dire warnings of doom notwithstanding (and those warnings graced 1963 too).

So the fiftieth awaiting JFK is truly available for Americans like yesterday. But the fiftieth anniversary of World War I, in 1964, was an entirely different proposition.

I was a newly minted 13-year old that July, and had just finished The Guns of August. Barbara Tuchman's sonorous grand tragedy had hit American consciousness like a counter-cultural bombshell. Because you see, we had totally forgotten. In amazing contrast to our eager anticipation of the JFK assassination, the collective suicide of the European West from 1914-1918 had been almost wholly forgotten by the zesty and boundlessly exuberant America of 1964.

In shocking contrast to us today, we who relive our JFK moment everyday in a great library of books and movies, and docudramas and reality TV: 1964 America World War I was like ancient folktale legend. It was so alien to the urgent reality of our life -- the real world all around us -- that it was almost unimaginable.

For one thing, it took place in grainy black-and-white video without any sound. Moreover it was about a handful of European powers that ruled most of humanity like they were slaves -- and when they finally decided to fight, their armies were full of horses -- so antique! Worse yet, these nations relentlessly sent millions of their young men marching into battle where they would be killed the old-fashioned way, one piece of shell fragment, one bullet, one life at a time.

1964 America was transfixed by nuclear fear, and could not imagine how civilized nations could find a way together to kill more than 10 million young men, day-by-killing-day, over four long years. We Moderns lived, after all, under the specter of an atomic holocaust. Did those Crazy-Ludwig Emperors, Sultan, and Czar not understand the mindless destructiveness of war? Not only did we Americans inhabit, in glorious Technicolor and stereophonic sound, an elevated mind but also an elevated consciousness. Surely we would never -- could never -- relapse into the brooding mausoleum of that silent, monochromatic world -- so alien, so primitive -- of fifty years ago.

Thus in the end what Barbara Tuchman forced us to see -- to see something unimaginable only fifty years past -- generated in response a national rationalization. We said to ourselves: "This was terrible, and now we remember. Good for us." I remember how we all dutifully watched the fiftieth documentary series on World War I, nodded our heads solemnly, and then forgot.

Yet in 1964 our country was poised at the edge of its own national precipice, in a place called Vietnam. Very soon we would know in our hearts what it meant, like World War I, to preside over the deaths of millions.

Remembering is important, but remembering uncomfortable truths is more important. Most important today is our collectively knowing that, unlike America in 1963-64, we have finally tired of war, and the deaths of so many -- at least for now. Perhaps we should be grateful for this pause and the space it creates for reflection.

Perhaps, this Veteran's Day, we have our most hopeful takeaway.