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A century after the war that didn't end all wars

NONFICTION

My Fellow Soldiers: General John Pershing and the Americans Who Helped Win the Great War By Andrew Carroll; Penguin Press, 383 pages ($30)

The World Remade: America In World War I By G.J. Meyer; Bantam Books, 651 pages ($30)

You’d be hard pressed to find two more diverse takes on America’s involvement in World War I than the new books by Andrew Carroll and G.J. Meyer.

Carroll’s “My Fellow Soldiers” is warm and personal, emphasizing the heroism and pathos of the warrior, as the author memorializes the men and women who crossed the Atlantic for a cause larger than anything they ever imagined.

Meyer’s “The World Remade” is harsh and heady in its recounting of the politics and politicians both in Europe and at home who staked their careers, and in some cases their lives, on either dragging the United States into that European orgy of death, or keeping the Americans out of it.

This summer marks the 100th anniversary of the official entry of the United States into what has become known as the Great War. Neither of these titles deals with traditional troop movements or battle strategies of war books, like Max Hastings’ brilliant “Catastrophe 1914.” It is the authors’ dissimilar views of the same cataclysmic episode in the history of the West that piques the reader’s interest.

“My Fellow Soldiers,” while breaking little new ground, succeeds in shining a fresh light through personal letters and diaries on some of the famous Americans – along with the not-so-famous – who had a hand in reshaping the European continent.

Gen. John Pershing

 

Gen. John J. Pershing, the commander of all American forces in Europe during the war, is the unifying character in the Carroll book. It is through Pershing’s letters that the reader shares the grief and lifelong sorrow of his personal tragedy, the accidental deaths of his wife and three daughters in a house fire in California while he was deployed along the Mexican border.

Similar letters reveal the deep love he developed years later for a young artist he met in Paris, and a 29-year courtship that culminated in a private marriage at a time when the aged general was in the twilight of an illustrious public life.

It is Pershing’s own words, expressing the deep pride he felt for the men he commanded, his unwavering dedication to country and his innermost feelings for a woman young enough to be his daughter that infuse flesh and blood into this famous name from the past. But Carroll’s book is by no means the biography of one colorful, cantankerous, beloved general.

It is the story of two altruistic Ivy League aviators named Victor Chapman and Kiffin Rockwell who flew little more than motorized kites for the French. They both lost their lives in aerial combat, much like another member of the privileged class, Quentin Roosevelt, the youngest son of former President Theodore Roosevelt.

It is the story of future heroes like Gen. George Patton, Gen. George Marshall and Gen. Douglas MacArthur. All would make their names a generation later in this war’s sequel.

And it is the story of a junior officer from Missouri, a patriotic, small town businessman named Harry S. Truman, who wrote to his girlfriend Bess back home: “Don’t worry about me because no German shell has been made that can hit me.”

Letters are author Carroll’s currency. He is founding director of the Center for American War Letters, which has grown into a treasured archive of the accumulated hopes, dreams and sorrows of American men and women at war.

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Typical are the letters home of an Army nurse named Akta May Andrews who, like so many thousands, shipped off on a great European adventure only to be thrust into unimaginable suffering and death.

It is Nurse Andrews’ account of her brief encounter with former President Woodrow Wilson in the dreaded “Jaw Ward” at an army hospital in France that puts the lie to that president’s reputation as devoid of feeling.

She writes of Wilson’s insistence despite advice that he greet every man in this ward where most were unrecognizable because of disfiguring and mutilating injuries to their faces. Many of these men had no noses or jaws. “Upon leaving this chamber of horrors, the President was as white as death, and his hands trembled,” she wrote.  “He appeared to stagger! A look of suffering was on his face.”

In letter after letter from the famous and the unknown, a common theme emerges: an open and unapologetic pride in their country, and a will to do good in the world.

A hundred years later, many of the words might sound naive, but they were words written by a generation that bought in enthusiastically to the dream of America as the land of freedom and the example of righteousness for the world.

In contrast, Meyer’s “The World Remade” deals neither with the Americans who fought the war, nor for the most part with the battles that shaped it.

American troops undergo grenade gun training in France during World War I. (Library of Congress photo)

This work studies the imprecise art of governing during wartime. It is about presidential and congressional infighting, international bartering of territory and lives, regional politics, opposing ideologies and a deeply divided nation.

Meyer is what is generally referred to as a popular historian, an author whose subject is history. In this case, Meyer’s history is nuanced and dark. President Wilson, the central antagonist, is characterized as cold, calculating, duplicitous, self-righteous, sometimes noble, but mostly a wrong-headed egotist.

The Central Powers – that’s Germany, the Hapsburg Empire of Austria and Hungary, the failing Ottoman Empire and smaller adjacent countries – invaded and devastated neutral Belgium on their way to the outskirts of Paris as an act of preemptive self-defense.

And Meyer argues Kaiser Wilhelm’s U-boat strikes in the North Atlantic, like the sinking of the Lusitania which killed more than a thousand civilians including Elbert Hubbard of East Aurora Roycrofter fame, was justified by the British blockade of Germany and the suffering that blockade caused among German women and children.

Meyer’s Wilson was neutral only as long as he might be the peace broker. Once that clearly was no longer possible, he took his nation to war and clamped down on American civil liberties as never before, using the Espionage Act to punish even mild dissenters.

In Meyer’s telling, the Germans were spent by the time American troops arrived, yet managed to mount some strong battles against the green but enthusiastic doughboys before the Central Powers collapsed from exhaustion. Meyer’s Pershing is a stubborn old warrior who sacrificed tens of thousands of young men to prove America’s virility – and maybe his own – to the world.

And finally, Wilson allowed the Entente – by then basically France, Britain, Italy and the U.S. – to carve up Europe in a way that ensured a second world war in order that his dream of the League of Nations, his ticket to immortality, would remain part of the deal. Of course back home, a republican Congress facing a presidential election refused to approve the Democratic President’s League.

Meyer’s study of the politics of the war is thorough and could be captivating while dense and sometimes ponderous. His book contains all the elements of international intrigue, projected through a lens of film noir in which self-serving men on all sides are driven by greed and ambition.

The contrast between these tales of two wars could not be sharper. Carroll’s view is as human as Meyer’s is political. Maybe it’s the romance of men waging war for a just cause versus the reality of world leaders imposing their wills through deathly force which propel those contrasts to the forefront.

Or maybe the differences lie in how two authors view the aspirations, the motivations and the combined forces of good and evil which drive modern America.

Edward Cuddihy is a former Managing Editor of The News.

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