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Alvin York: A New Biography of the Hero of the Argonne.

Alvin York: A New Biography of the Hero of the Argonne

By Douglas V. Mastriano

Lexington, KY: University

Press of Kentucky, 2014

336 pages


The prolific English writer, journalist, and historian GK Chesterton once wrote, "Religious liberty might be supposed to mean that everybody is free to discuss religion. In practice it means that hardly anybody is allowed to mention it." Although each person is entitled to his or her own opinion about this assertion as it applies to general society, all scholars should be concerned if it suggests historians should shy away from discussing religion and spirituality when it must be addressed. In this thorough biography of Alvin York, the American hero of the Great War and Medal of Honor recipient, Douglas Mastriano avoids that mistake and allows the role and significance of York's devout Christianity to take center stage, which is almost certainly the way York and those who knew him best would have wanted his story told.

According to Mastriano, York's faith is the critical thread in his life's tapestry, and a knowledge of his religious beliefs and his spiritually motivated actions are as essential to understanding York the soldier and veteran as they are to understanding York the conscientious objector. Mastriano offers compelling evidence in support of this approach. The fact that York's faith and behavior--characterized by hard work, humility, kindness, generosity, selflessness, and extraordinary moral and physical courage--often seems too good to be true probably says more about us and our biases than it does about York.

Mastriano moves through York's life in a traditional, chronological way, covering his pre-conversion years as a rowdy bar-hopping troublemaker, his Christian conversion in 1915, which dramatically changed his behavior, his failed efforts to receive an exemption based on personal pacifist convictions, and his change of heart on this matter after his company and battalion commanders convinced him that the Bible did not prohibit Christians from fighting in a just war (which they believed the war with Germany was). The story continues with descriptions of York's general competence as a soldier in training, both in the United States and in France, and York's initiation into combat in "quiet" sectors of the Western Front. As expected, the book thoroughly describes and examines York's amazing--he and others would say miraculous--actions in the Argonne on 8 October 1918, when he led a small group of comrades around the flank of a German strongpoint and knocked it out by capturing 132 enemy soldiers and killing a number of others. While York's conversion to Christianity was the fulcrum of his personal life, this combat success changed his public life beyond all recognition, making him arguably the most famous common soldier of the twentieth century.

For Mastriano, York's superb skill with firearms, his phenomenal bravery and cool-headedness, and his very survival are all best understood as an outgrowth of his extraordinary religious life and character. But so too was what happened immediately after: York asked for permission to go back and look for the wounded directly after he turned over his prisoners. He also made no mention of his accomplishments to family and friends, refused offers to parlay his new-found fame into lucrative business deals back in the United States, and ultimately devoted his own life to improve the lives of his neighbors by working to bring roads and schools into his impoverished and neglected valley near Pall Mall, Tennessee. Only when he was convinced the telling of his story would help his nation understand the threats from Germany and Japan in 1940--and the proceeds would bring resources to his valley--did he finally agree to cooperate on a film about his life (Sergeant York, with Gary Cooper starring as York). It really is a remarkable story of human development and virtue, and Mastriano tells it well.

In addition to more fully integrating York's faith into the story of his life as a soldier and veteran, this exhaustively researched biography gives readers the most detailed account of what happened in the Argonne in early October 1918 and exactly where in that hilly, tangled, disorienting forest York and his fellow doughboys accomplished their incredible martial feat. Mastriano's extensive use of US Army records, German sources, archeological fieldwork, and ballistic analyses enabled him to confirm the exact location of York's engagement. Additionally, the research that led to Mastriano's book also contributed to the creation of the Sergeant York Historical Trail in the Argonne, which can be walked today to understand better the location of the event (this reviewer had the privilege of enjoying the trail in the fall of 2011).

Scholars of the Great War, and especially of the US Army's experience in it, will benefit from discussions of York's unit's training regimen; the descriptions of small-unit battle in the Meuse-Argonne; and the clear explanation of the connections between York's attack and the giant battle's other most famous tale--that of the so-called "Lost Battalion." It also provides evidence for the German Army's continued effectiveness as a combat force as late as mid-October; like many other AEF units in the Meuse-Argonne, York's regiment suffered severely in attacks both before and after the 8 October event. This book is invaluable to both the general reader and the scholar.

Reviewed by Lt Col Mark E. Grotelueschen, USAF, PhD, Associate Professor of History. Chief, Military History Division, Department of History, USAF Academy
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Author:Grotelueschen, Mark E.
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2015
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