Alcoholics Anonymous was a child of the great wars of the twentieth century. Its founder Bill W. was a young artillery lieutenant in World War I when he had his first encounter with God, his religious experience in Winchester Cathedral.
If we look at the stories in the Big Book, we can see a whole series of men who had served in the United States military during that war: Bill Van Horn ("A Ward of the Probate Court") served on five fronts from Alsace to the North Sea. William Ruddell ("A Business Man's Recovery") lied about his age to join the Army, and stayed on in Europe drinking after the war was over. Pat Cooper, in his story "Lone Endeavor," talked about his drinking when he was serving in France. Fred, the Jewish man who wrote "New Vision for a Sculptor," enlisted in the Army to fight in World War I, because he wanted to help bring freedom to the persecuted Jews of Europe. Horace R. "Popsy" Maher served in France, and Harold Sears ("Smile With Me, At Me") enlisted in the Navy, where he became a radio operator. The author of "Ace Full-Seven-Eleven" was drafted into the Army and began his career as a crooked gambler once he was there.
People from other countries served as well: Jim Scott ("The News Hawk") was an Australian who served in a Canadian regiment during World War I, and the author of "His Conscience" also served in the Canadian Army.
Fitz Mayo ("Our Southern Friend") attempted to enlist during World War I, but could not pass the physical, which made him feel like even more of a failure in life. He finally felt redeemed when the Army accepted him in World War II, but then, in tragic fashion, soon developed cancer and died.
After the First World War was over, Gertrude Stein famously said to Ernest Hemingway, "All of you young people who served in the war. You are a lost generation." The various kinds of post-traumatic stress syndrome which they suffered left many of these veterans bitter, skeptical, and suspicious of any talk about God or the spiritual life, and it had also affected even men and women who had never been on the battlefield: the flappers of the Roaring Twenties rebelling against old-fashioned moral standards were also part of that Lost Generation, along with the cynical stock brokers and businessmen who ran the country into the Great Depression with their attitude of "live fast and take no thought for the morrow" -- who then began leaping from the windows of tall buildings when their financial bubbles collapsed and burst.
Bill Wilson was typical of this Lost Generation, this génération perdue. On pages 10-11 of the A.A. Big Book, he described the state of total spiritual despair into which he had fallen by November 1934, when Ebby came to visit him:
With ministers, and the world's religions, I parted right there. When they talked of a God personal to me, who was love, superhuman strength and direction, I became irritated and my mind snapped shut against such a theory.
To Christ I conceded the certainty of a great man, not too closely followed by those who claimed Him. His moral teaching -- most excellent. For myself, I had adopted those parts which seemed convenient and not too difficult; the rest I disregarded.
The wars which had been fought, the burnings and chicanery that religious dispute had facilitated, made me sick. I honestly doubted whether, on balance, the religions of mankind had done any good. Judging from what I had seen in Europe and since, the power of God in human affairs was negligible, the Brotherhood of Man a grim jest. If there was a Devil, he seemed the Boss Universal, and he certainly had me.Alcoholics Anonymous and the Twelve Steps were developed not only as a way to enable alcoholics to stop drinking, but also as a way to heal the spiritual malady which had left so many modern men and women, by the 1930's, lost in the same state of dark nihilism into which Bill W. had fallen: wandering "without hope and without God in the world." A.A. sat them down and told them, no more pretty pictures of the world or snake oil promises that saying a few religious phrases will magically solve all your problems. But what we will give you is a spiritual basis for hanging on to your sanity even when the bombs and shells are exploding all around you, or you are left standing on a street corner, crippled from your war injuries, haunted by fearsome memories, hungry, and jobless. It will be intelligible to people who have single-handedly steered small sail boats through the towering waves of Caribbean storms, or ridden a motorcycle from coast to coast, or ventured during the old days through the dry sands and rocky crags beyond the Euphrates river in search of ancient Roman ruins.
And in the years following the publication of the Big Book, one of the most successful A.A.-centered models which were developed for alcoholism treatment was originally founded as a purely military method devised at Lackland Air Force Base in 1953 by A.A. member William E. Swegan, an Air Force sergeant who was a Pearl Harbor survivor, who was working with famous psychiatrist Dr. Louis Jolyon West. This model was further developed in the mid-1960's at Long Beach Naval Station by psychiatrist Dr. Joseph J. Zuska and A.A. member Commander Dick Jewell, and subsequently proven to work just as well for civilians: former First Lady Betty Ford, Billy Carter (brother of former President Carter), and Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin were among the famous people later treated at the Long Beach facility.
What was important about A.A.'s battlefield background? The fact that it was born among military people, meant that it was devised from the beginning to work even when people were shooting at us, and the whole world around us seemed to have collapsed into violence, insanity, hopelessness, and despair. We could be sick or wounded and at the point of death and it still worked.
Two A.A. meetings were spontaneously set up by A.A. members in New York City at Ground Zero immediately after the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Towers on September 11, 2001. That was where you went when the grief and horror threatened to overwhelm your spirit.
Yet you could go to regular A.A. meetings and see people smiling and laughing, and treating one another with incredible gentleness and compassion, in spite of -- or perhaps because of -- all that they had been through. It is a spirituality of love and service for the toughest of the tough and the bravest of the brave.