Friday, April 26, 2013

Some two or three dozen supermen

The First World War has been mostly forgotten in America. With the Great Depression and a Second World War coming soon after maybe few wanted to remember. The monuments and plaques have faded into the landscape and few remember anymore the places and streets that were named to honor those who served. An online search of my own town turned up only Pershing Square in downtown L.A., a grimy and graffiti-covered monument near the 10 freeway, and "Clover Field" (now known as Santa Monica Municipal Airport) named after a local boy killed in the war. Few people I talked to even knew American soldiers in that war were called "doughboys." And it's a shame, really.

Richard Rubin spent the last ten years tracking down every veteran of WWI who was still living that he could find - all of whom were over 100 years old and all of whom are gone now. Some served in combat, others drove ambulances or trucks or trained for duties which they never got to perform. A few never even made it overseas before the Armistice was declared. One even fought in Siberia. (Siberia?!?) In The Last of the Doughboys: The Forgotten Generation and Their Forgotten World War Rubin recounts the experiences "over there" of those he met and interviewed, but this is not simply a collection of mini-biographies of those two or three dozen veterans. Instead he fills in the details of what it was like to live at that time, what their lives were like growing up and following the war, and why they enlisted. I found myself cringing at some of the stories and laughing at others, feeling outraged at the discrimination a few experienced, and sorrowing at the human cost. And yet I also felt a great sense of pride at the heroic deeds and the unassuming way they rebuilt their lives following the war.

Rubin also talks of his experiences interviewing the "forgotten generation" – how the interviews went, what it's like to talk to centenarians (most were hard of hearing), and the old 78 rpm records and sheet music from that era he has collected. He also tells of his own visits to those battlefields and still finding the scars of that war: the trenches and bomb craters, old shell casings in freshly plowed fields, and the multitude of monuments that show the French haven't forgotten the Great War, or the role Americans played in it. I was surprised at these "asides" at first, but soon found they not only put events into context but added a richness and color to the narrative, bringing it to life and making that time so long ago more relatable. This book probably doesn't have the kind of battlefield depth and detail a scholarly historian would be looking for, but for the rest of us amateur historians who just like a good history I can't recommend it highly enough.  (I received an advance copy of this book from Amazon Vine.)

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