Saturday, September 4, 2010

In battle, all that matters is the moment

The Long Way Home: An American Journey from Ellis Island to the Great WarI'd never had much of an interest in the First World War, but after reading The War to End All Wars by Russell Freedman, this book which I received from Amazon Vine caught my attention. But it isn't just a war story; The Long Way Home: An American Journey from Ellis Island to the Great War by David Laskin is almost two stories in one.

Focusing mostly on 12 individuals, the first tells in sepia-toned language the immigrant story of their lives in Italy, Poland, Russia, Ireland, and Norway; the poverty, hardship, and persecution many endured (I was reminded of Harry Bernstein's excellent memoir The Invisible Wall). But opportunity lay in America, so they braved the crowded ships, often resettling in immigrant neighborhoods surrounded by their own kind and created a new life as best they could. But the war changed everything, and the second half takes a dramatic shift to tell of their service in the mud and trenches of Verdun and the Argonne. Where individual details and stories are missing Laskin fills in from the experiences of contemporaries and paints a grim picture of the life of the WWI soldier. They returned no longer Italian-Americans or Polish-Americans or hyphenated-Americans of any sort, but simply Americans with another heritage.

"They had gone into the army expecting Jews to be cowards, Italians to be thieves, Germans to be spies, Poles to be lazy, Irish to be disloyal - but even in the thick of combat they stopped to acknowledge how wrong they had been." (pg 245)

David Laskin writes powerfully at times, although occasionally the whole feels a little uneven. But it's well-researched and a compelling read and reminds us that America is a better nation for the service and sacrifice of those who answered when called. And while the issue of immigration is in the forefront here, Mr. Laskin refrains from editorializing here on today's debate and keeps the focus on the history, letting it speak for itself. Still, it offers some very salient food for thought. And it will probably make you want to thank a veteran for their service.

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