Memories of the War to End All Wars

A review of ‘The Last of the Doughboys’

Memories of the War to End All Wars Memories of the War to End All Wars

Uncategorized November 25, 2013 0

American Soldiers in World War i. US Army Photo Memories of the War to End All Wars A review of ‘The Last of the... Memories of the War to End All Wars
American Soldiers in World War i. US Army Photo

Memories of the War to End All Wars

A review of ‘The Last of the Doughboys’

When Frank Buckles, the last known American combatant of World War I, died in 2011, it marked the end of an era. The Great War, The War to End All Wars, ceased to be a living memory in the United States.

Several years ago, journalist Richard Reuben set out to interview every surviving American veteran of the World War I that he could find. Each of the men interviewed passed away before the book was even finished.

As the war approaches its centennial, the resulting book, The Last of the Doughboys: The Forgotten Generation and Their Forgotten World War, offers a unique perspective.

Reuben’s book reminds us how long ago the war really was. The world was a very different place. If we think the Mexican border is a scary place today because of cartel violence, consider that at the time of the Great War, the U.S. Army had just wrapped up an expedition to Mexico targeting Pancho Villa. Cars were a new invention.

The doughboys were fighting a new kind of war. Airplanes flew in combat in large numbers for the first time. Poison gas was used to empty trenches. Flame throwers burned men alive. Machine guns rained death on waves of terrified young men.

All this new technology stood in stark contrast to the horse-mounted cavalry that was still a common sight on the battlefield. Soldiers often stormed trenches with axes and clubs, engaging in brutal hand-to-hand combat. It was that sort of war.

Reuben often switches to the first person, writing about the interviews themselves, about the challenges of finding these people and, once he had, of navigating their memories. Nobody interviewed was younger than a century old. He recounts his experiences with humor and paints poignant portraits of these men.

As with any other American war, it was fought by a wide range of people with equally diverse backgrounds. There were Southern farm boys, streetwise city kids, immigrants fighting for their new country. One soldier Reuben interviewed, an African American veteran from the South named Moses Hardy, was born to parents who had been slaves.

They also had a wide variety of experiences in the war. Of course we hear about life in the trenches and storming “no man’s land” in France. But Reuben also interviewed men who served in the strange and all but forgotten operation in Siberia, as they dealt with Communists, Cossack warlords and Japanese allies with their own territorial agenda. We are reminded that it was indeed a world war in every sense of the word.

Reuben uses a mixture of oral histories, letters, memoirs and official records to supplement and cross-check his interviews and reconstruct what really happened. He has to deal with with sometimes faulty memories or even outright fabrications by his subjects.

After such a long time, this is no easy task. Even so, Reuben does an admirable job trying to help us see the world as it would have looked to these men all those years ago.

Ultimately this book is less a comprehensive history of the war than a series of vignettes of human experience. That doesn’t diminish the value of the work—and arguably enhances it. The Last of the Doughboys is a valuable reflection on war and memory.