Louisiana’s biggest memorial to World War I is LSU’s Memorial Tower, erected in 1923 as a monument to Louisiana residents who had died during what was hopefully — and inaccurately, as it turned out — called the “war to end all wars.” Upon entering the tower, visitors can find the names of 1,447 fallen Louisiana warriors.
We must wonder, though, just how many LSU students — or their parents — know what Memorial Tower is meant to memorialize. We wonder, too, how much the average LSU student knows about World War I itself. It was a terrible, bloody conflict that advanced America’s stature as a world power and set the stage for the terrible carnage of World War II. All of that makes World War I worth remembering, although historical memory fades.
That’s why the arrival of “Dead Wake,” Erik Larson’s new best-seller about the sinking of the Lusitania, is such a welcome occasion. If anyone can make long-ago history seem riveting and relevant, it’s Larson, whose previous books include “Isaac’s Storm,” about a 1900 hurricane; “The Devil in the White City,” which chronicles a serial killer afoot in the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair; and “In the Garden of Beasts,” the story of an American diplomat in Hitler’s Berlin.
Larson is a former reporter for The Wall Street Journal who writes about history with the urgency of breaking news. That’s why his books have sold millions of copies. He brings that same skill to the story of how a German submarine sank the British luxury liner Lusitania on May 7, 1915, claiming nearly 2,000 lives, including 123 Americans. The incident helped build momentum for America’s eventual entry into World War I, although Larson points out that U.S. involvement in the war was a long time in coming, even after the Lusitania’s demise.
Why does any of this matter today?
Although the German government had clearly warned that ocean liners traveling off the coast of Ireland would be in danger, the Lusitania’s owners green-lighted its cruise anyway — an intelligence oversight that speaks to our ongoing modern concerns about how to prevent violence against Americans overseas.
Larson’s chronicle of the emerging tactics of submarine warfare also foreshadows today’s age of military know-how, in which technology increasingly enables combatants to physically detach themselves from the carnage they cause.
But that carnage costs real human lives, as the names displayed at LSU’s Memorial Tower should remind us. The tower commemorates a period and a conflict that few LSU students probably know about. We hope their professors put Larson’s “Dead Wake” on the required reading list.