Tuesday, July 16, 2013

My grandfather died a month and a half ago, at the end of May 2013, at the age of 95. He was a World War II veteran. It's incredible to think about all the things that happened during the span of his lifetime.

And then I read The Last of the Doughboys: The Forgotten Generation and Their Forgotten World War by Richard Rubin. Over the decade or so before this book was published in 2013, Rubin managed to find remaining members of my grandfather's parents' generation, all over 100 years old, and interview them about their service in the military and government during World War I. For Americans, the First World War, at the time "The War to End All Wars," is usually overshadowed by the Second World War, since the U.S. was in WWII a longer time and had American territory directly attacked. The Last of the Doughboys does a very good job of bringing focus back to the earlier world war, fought during the earliest years of modern technology (for example, one of the interviewees recalls delivering belts of ammunition to machine gun emplacements -- using a mule-drawn wagon). It's amazing to get personal perspectives on everything from trench warfare to race relations a century ago from people who were there, and were old enough in 1917-8 to fight or work but still lived into the age of cellphones and the Internet. (Rubin notes that he would never have been able to track down as many living veterans as he did without Internet resources, particularly lists from a French government program started in the 1990s to honor Americans who served on French soil).

There's also a fair amount of non-interview historical material which is also very interesting, particularly the sampling of sheet music art and lyrics for patriotic songs of World War I (and some less patriotic ones from immediately before the war). The book also covers stories such as those of the "Yeomanettes," women who were able to serve as members of the Navy (though doing work on land) during the war, and the treatment of war veterans after the end of the war and particularly during the Depression. In short, it covers a lot of ground, but this does a good job of introducing current readers to times that should not be forgotten, and providing a tribute to the individual people who fought or worked behind the lines in this important juncture of history.