- World War I: The American Soldier Experience by Jennifer D. Keene
It has become almost axiomatic among those of us who teach the era of the First World War that this period of American history is critical but that our students know precious little about it. In fairness to those students, their lack of knowledge is a function of a lack of attention paid the war in the United States. High school curricula do not generally devote much time to a war that has all but disappeared from American memory, a circumstance that even the approaching one hundredth anniversary of the start of the war and a Steven Spielberg adaptation of War Horse seem unlikely to change. Most high school and college textbooks devote minimal coverage to the war and some of the key monographs, like David Kennedy’s Over Here: The First World War and American Society, are now starting to show their age.
If this trend is to be stopped or reversed, it will be through books like Jennifer Keene’s latest. Keene has established herself as one of the world’s foremost experts on the social, cultural, and military experiences of the United States in the era of the First World War. Her work understands the war as a key turning point in American history, but also adds important comparative and transnational dimensions. The latter helps students and scholars alike to see the war not in terms of American Exceptionalism but in terms of America’s relationship to the world more generally.
World War I: The American Soldier Experience reflects these themes and many more. It follows American soldiers from their recruitment and conscription through their training then to the battlefields of Europe and back. Throughout the book, she places these experiences both in their American and European contexts. She is careful to show when and how the American experience did differ; she argues, for example, that one key difference lay in the Americans knowing in 1917 that they were preparing for a total war. The Europeans had to learn that lesson the hard way from 1914 to 1916. But Keene is careful not to separate the Americans from the war more generally. Thus this book places the American experience of war within that of the wider world.
The book deals with much more than its title might suggest. It covers a wide range of topics including the experience of Americans in France, both on the fighting front and in their dealings with French civilians; the experiences of women and ethnic minorities; and the creation of memory after the war. There is no effort here to either romanticize the war or to depict it in triumphalist American tones. Nor, however, does Keene attempt to downplay the war’s importance or treat it merely as a prelude to the even larger war to come. Instead, she treats the war on its own terms and presents one of the best one-volume approaches available.
This book is ideally suited for classroom use. Keene’s writing style is powerful but accessible, and the book is well organized. It includes a timeline that begins with the Mexican crisis of 1914 to help students put the outbreak of war in Europe into its proper context for Americans of this era. The timeline ends in 1924 when Adjusted Compensation certificates were issued to American war [End Page 227] veterans. Those certificates were at the root of the Bonus Army crisis of 1932. Thus does Keene see the war not as a discrete event, but as part of a flow of American history that includes foreign interventions as well as social welfare policy. Her choices in the timeline reflect those of the text itself: the war is not an event to be treated as a parenthesis in American history but as an event explicable by the patterns of American history that occurred both before and after it. Illustrations, a glossary, and a bibliography (which includes fiction, films, and web sites as well as scholarly treatments) all...