By Richard Rubin
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 518 pp. $28
The 100th anniversary of a war means the snapping of a thread: Even those miraculous few survivors who sneaked into service, underage, in the war’s waning months and lived to be super-centenarians are gone. At the end of his homespun narrative of America’s experiences in World War I, Richard Rubin struggles to articulate what this passing means:
“You can read yellowed old books, watch grainy old silent films, peruse monuments verdant with decades of oxidation; you can stroll upon a forest floor still dimpled with shell holes, poke around crumbling concrete bunkers, zigzag through shallowed trenches, fill a grocery bag with jagged shrapnel picked from a freshly plowed field. None of it is anything like talking to someone who was there; or just looking at him as he lies in a hospital bed before you, mute; or even, simply, knowing that he is still alive out there, somewhere.” With the death of Frank Woodruff Buckles on Feb. 27, 2011, that knowledge is now entirely lost.
Ten years ago, Rubin set out to locate and interview as many surviving American veterans as possible: no easy task, given how little information was available about who or where they were. He crisscrossed the United States, visiting private homes and retirement communities from Oregon to Louisiana to Massachusetts, to ask men at the end of their lives to describe events from the beginning. With a median age of 107, the veterans had enlisted or been drafted in their late teens — when all of them were looking for adventure. None recalled any burning patriotic motive: They were hoping to escape tough rural childhoods, helping parents and siblings scrape a living from whatever was at hand. Nearly all had dropped out of school in early adolescence, and no postwar G.I. bill encouraged them to return — they became laborers, farmers, professional soldiers, salesmen, hard and tireless workers. In most cases, too, nobody outside their families had ever showed much interest in their stories, which are fragmentary, unrehearsed and more vivid to them than nearly everything that came later.
The scholar Samuel Hynes once summed up the myth that subsumed British memories of World War I in avalanches of memoir, poetry, fiction and history: Innocent young men joined up in droves to save “civilization” and instead were slaughtered by idiot generals. The power of that myth made it well-nigh impossible, in Hynes’s view, for elderly British veterans to separate their own experiences from those of Sassoon, Owen and the rest. Elements of the myth certainly seeped into the American collective memory of the war, but they did not wholly color it, so the stories Rubin hears are often unexpected, fresh and strange. Describing a man he saw killed, 106-year-old J. Laurence Moffitt of the Yankee Division does not strain to interpret the memory or assess its impact on him, but simply says: “His face was all blown off. I leaned down over him to tell him that his gas mask was off. Then I saw that his face was mutilated, and so I just left him for the fellows whose job it was to take care of the wounded.”
The book is strongest where Rubin allows these stories and these remarkable men to speak for themselves, but he too often intrudes with the eagerness of a history buff for whom no detail is uninteresting. His prolixity can be effective — in his prologue, a page-long sentence piles up the events, people and inventions that World War I predated, powerfully evoking its historical distance — but has diminishing returns. When the Kaiser is described as “bellicose, petulant, blustering, racist, anti-Semitic, xenophobic, paranoid, egomaniacal, megalomaniacal, conniving, treacherous, greedy, and possessed of powerful inferiority and persecution complexes,” the adjectival overload robs the sentence of its coherence.
With its subtitle referring to the “forgotten world war,” the book is guided by the conviction that its readers know little or nothing about the war’s basic history, which is then served up with the clunky humor of a high school teacher trying to engage a bored class: Pershing “wasn’t President Wilson’s first choice for the job; that would have been General Fred Funston. Funston, though, committed the fatal error of suddenly dropping dead a few weeks before America entered the war. So Pershing it was.”
Rubin is much stronger as a guide to the obscure corners of war history, such as Tin Pan Alley’s massive industry of war songs, which he displays with a collector’s zeal. His interview with Warren Hileman, a veteran of the American Expeditionary Force’s battles in Siberia against the Cossacks and Japanese during the Russian Civil War of 1919-22, gives a glimpse of the war’s distant reverberations: “How do you think we did at thirty below zero?” Hileman asks.
The book is also an invaluable reminder of the power of war to expose, and to warp, the values of a fighting nation. America in 1917 was racist to the core and maintained rigorous segregation throughout the military. One veteran, Howard Ramsey, describes to Rubin his gruesome work of transporting corpses for reburial in special cemeteries after the Armistice. As a white man, however, he was spared the worst of it: “ ‘The colored people did all the work,’ he confessed. ‘We didn’t have to handle the bodies or anything like that.’ ”
On the home front, President Woodrow Wilson’s Espionage Act of 1917 and Sedition Act of 1918 — sweeping prohibitions of any expression of opposition to the war — had a disproportionate impact on the country’s huge population of immigrants, who were dogged by suspicion and pressured and threatened into conformity (buying war bonds and joining up were unblushingly advertised as ways to prove one’s Americanness). In these stories of the suppression of dissent and of the country’s disgraceful neglect of the needs of returned veterans, it becomes all too clear that some things don’t change in the course of 100 years.
Joanna Scutts is a freelance writer and an adjunct writing professor at New York University.
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