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Doughboys, the Great War, and the Remaking of America

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Jennifer D. Keene. Doughboys, the Great War, and the Remaking of America. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003. See the JHUP book reference here.

Jennifer Keene, (see her bio here) in her study of the experience of American soldiers who served in World War I, sets as goal to fill what she contends is a significant inequality in the focus of scholars of World War I when compared to more popular conflicts: the Civil War, World War II, and the Vietnam War. She suggests that in light of other wars, World War I is seen by many as a “dissatisfying experience with little transcendent significance.” She states as purpose a quest for the true importance of the Great War in American history by telling the story of the generation who served in that war and the way in which their experience shaped American society. Her thesis is that World War I was, in fact, a pivotal experience because it led to a transformation of the federal Army into a stronger national institution. Critical to this change was what she considers the most sweeping social welfare legislation in American history, the G.I. Bill, driven by the generation who would fight in the Great War. Her conclusion is that the Bill changed dramatically the experience of the millions of American men who would participate in mass military service in the twentieth century and was a direct result of the mistakes made by the military in the care of World War I servicemen. She approaches the subject less as an examination of the traditional themes of military battle tactics and strategies and more as a study of the experiences of citizen-soldiers. This allows an in-depth view of topics such as training, combat, discipline, race relations, experiences in France, health care, and the re-entry process after the war. The result is a sobering view of war’s realities at the troop level, a far cry from typical ideologically-based accounts of the Great War. One of the most important conclusions of Linn’s work is that this generation of citizen-soldiers refused to conform to the expectations of military officials and so found their collective voice, becoming political and societal advocates for military reform. Their biggest effort was on adjustment in postwar compensation, a cause they eventually won in 1936 after prolonged lobbying and activism. At issue was the government’s contract with citizen-soldiers, and the debate expanded to include the government’s obligations to the poor.

Keene chooses a chronological organization of her material and follows the experience of the common soldier through conscription, training, and deployment overseas. She describes in a fresh manner the experience of black soldiers abroad and the startling revelation that they were more highly regarded and better treated by the French than by their own countrymen. She continues their story through the post war years and their battles for compensation, finishing with the history of the G.I. Bill.

Keene brings strong academic credentials to the work and an impressive resume. At the time of this book’s publication, she was an assistant professor of history at the University of the Redlands in Redlands, California. She is currently the Chair of the Department of History and a Professor of History at Chapman University. She has been recognized with the Wang-Franklin Professorship in Scholarly Excellence award (2007-2009). Professor Keene received her Master of Arts from George Washington University and Ph.D. from Carnegie Mellon University.

Her work should be of interest to both military and social historians as well as those investigating the experience of black soldiers in the military. She provides an impressive notes section revealing a plethora of primary source materials. Keen’s work is noteworthy for its examination of the pluralistic military tradition of professional and citizen-soldiers. America had to conscript, train, and deploy a huge army in a short period of time and made many errors in the process. Her coverage of this aspect the Great War was exceptional. The text also provides an interesting take on America’s commitment to civilian control of the military. The power of the states and the federal government to raise and manage a large conscription force was tested as was the responsibility of civilian government to those soldiers upon return to a peacetime society. Fascinating issues of contractual obligation to fair wages are covered in depth. Inherent in the latter issue is that fact that rational military considerations alone rarely shape military policies.

Keene demonstrates that once again, that the United States was able to raise an army fairly quickly in support of a perceived threat to the nation’s security. However she also highlights the cost in lives of that rushed effort.

This is an impressive addition to the scholarly base of American military history albeit of decidedly different focus. Highly recommend.

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