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Optimism at Armageddon: Voices of American Participants in the First World War.

By Mark Meigs (New York: New York University Press, 1997. ix plus 269pp. $40.00).

World War I is an historical event which has no obvious meaning for Americans, writes Marks Meigs in the introduction to his book, Optimism at Armageddon: Voices of American Participants in the First World War. Unfortunately, Optimism at Armageddon provides too limited a view of the American soldiers' war experience to lure those not already enamored with the Great War to it as a pivotal moment in American history. The optimistic words of American soldiers, so different from those American servicemen used during the Civil War and World War II, are at the heart of Meigs' analysis. Meigs agrees with the traditional view that American exposure to the war's horrors was limited. American soldiers, therefore, had every reason to view their future optimistically. In soldiers' uplifting words, however, Meigs also sees the imprint of wartime propaganda. Government officials, he argues, provided an explanation for every movement American soldiers made including recruitment, combat, relations with the French, keeping in contact with their families, memorializing the dead, and coming home. Meigs suggests that soldiers expressed overwhelmingly uniform motivations for fighting because the scale of modern battle gave them little time to be alone with their thoughts. Consequently, they readily accepted prepared responses to answer their families' inevitable inquiries. Soldiers were similarly thankful for the packaged tours of France arranged by military officials which saved them the trouble of figuring out a foreign culture on their own. Even in memorializing the dead, few former soldiers would admit that the names many corpses bore were in doubt. What mattered to them was that collectively America remembered all individuals.

Rather than resenting these intrusions, Meigs believes that soldiers found satisfaction in making the individual discovery that one was experiencing the war like everyone else. There were some who rejected these limitations - soldiers who deserted, married French women or left souvenirs (mostly babies) in France rather than taking them home. Overall, however, American soldiers returned to the United States glad to put the troubles of the Old World behind them and ready to participate in the prosperity and isolationism of the twenties.

It is not a surprise that Meigs finds the experiences of World War I soldiers so different from those of Civil War or World War II soldiers. The classic studies of these conflicts relied on uncensored letters, wartime surveys, or social scientists' field observations to reveal the "unofficial" record of the war. Meigs, however, depends heavily on both censored material and surveys of aged veterans conducted by the U.S. Army Military History Institute in the 1970s. Questions about these sources abound. Did soldiers make positive claims simply to get their letters past the censor ? Were veterans trying in later years to set their "patriotic" youth apart from the "disloyal" Vietnam generation? Meigs raises this second question late in the book, but he never explains why these fifty year old memories are privileged over others closer to the experience. The Bonus March in 1932, for example, was a well-documented public moment when many veterans re-evaluated the meaning of the war in distinctly negative terms. In many respects, the U.S. Military History Institute questionnaire is a continuation of the wartime trend directing soldiers to a certain interpretation of their experience by highlighting what information researchers consider valuable for them to remember. If this is the connection Meigs had in mind, however, he never makes it clear.

More troubling, however, is the failure to include material from the numerous official investigations completed during the war by American and French military intelligence officials into problems of morale, combat effectiveness, racial rioting, and French-American relations. Instead, Meigs relies on official studies completed during World War II which disguised the earlier turmoil in careful bureaucratic prose. These missing sources offer widespread examples of dissent within the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) which challenge the portrait of overwhelming consensus that Meigs draws. The assimilation of official propaganda images by individuals is certainly an important part of the wartime experience. Many of the missing investigations, however, reveal that AEF officials often saw failure where Meigs sees success. The leave system, for example, was a direct result of reports from the occupied army in Germany that American soldiers were beginning to write home that they had fought the war on the wrong side. The intention was to give American soldiers a personal reason to support postwar aid to the French. This clearly failed, even if the leave system successfully allowed troops to see France as tourists. Meigs writes that in 1919 amputees interviewed in New York were among the few to hold a bitter view of military authority, but this news would have been a surprise to Regular Army officials who spent the year testifying before Congressional committees to prevent the reforms which veterans were demanding in the military justice system and officer privileges. Meigs finds no examples of marriage between French women and black soldiers but this limited success in the Army's effort to prevent inter-racial liaisons leaves the erroneous impression that African-American soldiers did not find other ways around restrictive military regulations. A central theme in the letters and memoirs sent to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was the lack of prejudice that black soldiers discovered in France after extensive social contact with French civilians.

Meigs notes at one point that soldiers and commanders each possess different information as a war unfolds and in later years these disparate accounts enhance one other. If Meigs had made this the guiding principle of his study, the result would have been a broader, richer account of American participation in the First World War.

Jennifer D. Keene University of Redlands
COPYRIGHT 1999 Journal of Social History
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Keene, Jennifer D.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1999
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