In 1914 Michael Zataney, born in the village of Zgharta in what is now Lebanon, lived in Birmingham, Ala., and looked forward to becoming an American citizen. The Zataney family left what geographers call "Greater Syria" to escape the oppression of the Ottoman Turks who had ruled the area for 400 years. Culturally diverse and fertile, Greater Syria lies between the Mediterranean Sea and the Syrian Desert and stretches from the Anatolian Plateau in the north through contemporary Lebanon and Palestine to the Sinai Peninsula.
Zataney was an optometrist, having acquired his skills at the Illinois School of Optometry, and practiced in northern Alabama fitting eyeglasses for patients who lived outside the area’s larger towns. When the events of August 1914 exploded into the most devastating conflict in history, Zataney could not have imagined that the First World War would touch him with fatal consequences.
Interlocking alliances dictated that war would spread quickly across Europe and beyond. The Allied Powers – Great Britain, France, and Russia – found themselves at war with Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Ottoman Empire soon joined the conflict on the side of Germany in November 1914.
Early in the war, even before the struggle on the Western Front in France degenerated into trench warfare and industrial-scale killing, President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed U.S. neutrality: "We must be impartial in thought, as well as action." American neutrality, however, did not prevent U.S. banks from extending loans to the Allies or weapons manufacturers from selling France and Britain vast quantities of ammunition and other war materiel. It did not stop the U.S. from accepting the British blockade of Germany.
And when a German submarine sank the British passenger liner Lusitania, testimony that the ship was carrying only civilians and non-lethal goods enabled American interventionists, keen for the U.S. to enter the war on Britain’s side, to whip up a storm of anti-German feeling. After the war, however, German counter claims made at the time were found to be correct: the liner had been transporting American-manufactured munitions to the Allies.
Americans were divided about entering the war. President Wilson and the Democrats campaigned in 1916 with the slogan "He kept us out of war," even though Wilson’s secretary of state, William Jennings Bryan, had resigned the previous year in protest of the president’s "warmongering" policies. In any event, on April 6, 1917, following the German sinking of several American merchant ships in the war zone surrounding the British Isles, Congress voted to declare war on Germany.
Intervention in a foreign conflict still lacked enthusiastic public support. Many immigrants, for example, had come to America to escape conscription and wanted no part of Europe’s quarrels. The Wilson administration, therefore, had to sell the war to the American people. A week after entering the conflict President Wilson issued an executive order establishing the Committee on Public Information. A government propaganda office pure and simple, the Committee encouraged and legitimized a barrage of pro-war bluster from politicians, newspaper editors, popular songs, theatrical productions, and even the pulpit. Slogans like "make the world safe for democracy," "end militarism," and "the war to end all wars" sold the war to the public.
Whether conscientious objectors, immigrants, or intellectuals, those reluctant to support the war were stigmatized as unpatriotic or draft-dodgers or "slackers," unwilling to do "their share." The Sedition Act of 1918 actually made public opposition to the war illegal, and a number of prominent Americans, including Eugene V. Debs, the socialist presidential candidate, were imprisoned. Randolph Bourne, for whom Antiwar.com’s publisher is named, strongly protested America’s entry into the conflict, arguing that military force was the wrong way to spread democracy and that war strengthened the state at the expense of its citizens. Bourne lost his livelihood when the magazines he wrote for, such as The New Republic, refused to print him or were themselves shut down when the Wilson administration refused them access to the mails.
Although Michael Zataney registered for the draft as the Selective Service Act required, he was not called up. Carried along by a flood of American patriotic feeling, however, Zataney enlisted in May 1918. He was sent to Bartlesville, Okla., for brief training as an infantryman. A few weeks later, he came home to Birmingham on furlough to see his family. He also visited Dr. H.A. El-Kouri, a prominent physician and the informal leader of the local Syrian community. Dr. El-Kouri later recalled Michael telling him, "I want no greater glory than to die for the USA and the Allies. Turkey must be crushed, and the Syrians liberated." In light of subsequent events, El-Kouri’s recollection sounds too good to be true, but Zataney apparently made similar remarks to Simon Klotz, the French consul to Alabama.
Furlough over, Michael reported to Camp Sevier, S.C., to join the 321st Infantry Regiment of the 81st Division. The division soon sailed for France, and Michael’s battalion disembarked at Le Havre early on the morning of Aug. 13, 1918, to begin a month of intensive training to transform men into soldiers. This was essential because, in the words of Cpl. C. W. Johnson, author of The History of the 321st Infantry, most of the men were "raw recruits, some having less than two weeks training when they were sent overseas."
By August 1918, U.S. war production was in high gear; tons of American war materiel filled a vital and urgent requirement for the Allies, but the paramount need was for men to fight the Germans. In March 1918 there were 85,000 American soldiers in France, but by late summer American troops were arriving at the rate of 50,000 per week until their numbers totaled 1.2 million by September. These men were vital to Allied plans to bring the war to a swift and victorious conclusion before the end of 1918. One leg of that strategy was an American offensive in the Meuse-Argonne region, and Pvt. Zataney’s regiment would be assigned there.
The fighting’s intensity varied from sector to sector, and Zataney’s unit was initially deployed to a quiet area in the Vosges Mountains. But on Oct. 9, after a preparatory barrage of 4,000 shells, German infantry attacked with fixed bayonets. The green soldiers of the 321st Infantry held their ground and repulsed the attack with minimal losses. A week later the 321st was relieved by a French infantry unit and began 10 days of intensive training for offensive operations.
On Nov. 1 Pvt. Zataney’s regiment detrained at Verdun and took up positions about two miles northeast of the fortress over which much German and French blood had been shed earlier in the war. C. W. Johnson recorded that the destruction and desolation around Verdun was so thorough that "nothing was left standing, not a tree nor even a bush." With no natural cover, any daylight movement outside their trenches exposed the men of the 321st to mortal danger.
Nov. 10 found Zataney’s company dug in at the edge of Moranville, six miles east of Verdun. The next morning at 5:00, the armistice to end the Great War was signed in a railway dining car at Compiegne. Hostilities were to cease six hours later at eleven o’clock. As the dawn of Nov. 11 broke over the Western Front it was common knowledge that an armistice had been signed, and many American soldiers, including those of the 321st Infantry, wondered why orders to attack the German trench line had not been rescinded. But armistice or no armistice, all operational orders remained in force. At 6:00 a.m., Michael Zataney’s regiment moved out of its positions near Moranville and advanced eastward toward the village of Grimaucourt.
By 7:30 a.m. the three infantry battalions of the 321st reached their staging area south of Grimaucourt and began to advance. German machine-gun fire was incessant, but heavy fog initially shrouded the infantrymen as they slogged across a marsh. The Americans pressed their attack home and reached the German lines at 11:00 a.m. Word passed that the armistice was in effect, but the fighting did not come to an immediate halt. Hand-to-hand combat continued for some minutes after eleven o’clock. When firing finally stopped, the soldiers of the 321st Infantry looked up and down the captured German trenches and back toward the open ground of "no-man’s land" that they had crossed. And they marveled at the immense silence that now engulfed them.
Between 6:00 and 11:00 a.m., 22 soldiers of the 321st had been wounded and nine killed. One of the casualties was Michael Zataney, mortally wounded in the closing minutes of the Great War while knocking out a German machine-gun emplacement. Michael had been struck by three bullets just below the heart and lived long enough to be carried back across no-man’s land and to an American field hospital at Ancemont where he died. Word of his death did not reach his mother until Nov. 27, the day before Thanksgiving.
Michael Zataney died for his country, the United States, as he said he was prepared to do. But part of his struggle was to free Greater Syria from the tyranny of the Turks. Syria was indeed freed from the Turks, but the rule of the Ottoman Empire was replaced by the rule of two other imperial powers, the French and the British. Zataney was undoubtedly unaware when he enlisted in the U.S. Army in May of 1918 that two years earlier the British and the French had initialed a secret understanding, the Sykes-Picot Agreement, in which they declared their intent to dismember the Ottoman Empire and rule the region themselves.
France and Britain administered Greater Syria as a colonial possession under the façade of a League of Nations Mandate for 25 years. The region was to be governed for the benefit of its people, but like all colonial powers, the French and British put their own interests first. They divided the area into the artificial states of Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Palestine, creating the new borders by imperial whim, which restricted the free flow of people and goods. Worse, the French in 1939 ceded the Hatay province of Syria to the Republic of Turkey, successor to the Ottoman Empire, while the British facilitated the establishment in Arab Palestine of a "Jewish national home" which became the state of Israel in 1948.
That Michael Zataney should die in a meaningless local attack in the final hour of the First World War and that the land of his birth should pass from one colonial ruler to another as a result of the victory he fought for are sad and ironic in equal measure. But the real lessons for posterity can be found in the warmongering lies and dishonest sloganeering that led to American intervention in the first place. Just as Randolph Bourne cautioned, the sword did not make the world safe for democracy. The Great War was not the war that ended all wars, and militarism continues to this day to be an international scourge in both free and authoritarian societies. Measured against the grandiose rhetoric that sent a million young men to France, one might conclude that Michael Zataney and thousands of his comrades died in the muddy fields and rat-infested trenches of the Western Front for no good reason.
Louis Farshee is the author of The Way of the Emigrants, Badawi and Catherine Simon in America, to be published in March 2010 and from which this article is adapted. Louis is a native Alabaman and holds a graduate degree from the University of North Texas. John Taylor received an A.B. in Near Eastern languages from the University of Chicago, a B.A. and an M.A. in Oriental studies from Cambridge University, and an MBA from Columbia University. He served two years active duty in the United States Army, reaching the grade of sergeant, and spent six years in the reserves. Before making his career in the oil and gas business in Texas, he worked in the Middle East as an archaeologist, banker, and civil servant. Taylor is a life-long Republican.