"Love & Death in the Great War" By Andrew J. Huebner

Apr 2, 2018

“Love & Death in the Great War”

Author: Andrew J. Huebner  

Publisher: Oxford University Press

New York, 2018

Pages: 390

Price: $35.00 (Hardcover)

The question arises all too often; how do we get citizens to enlist in the armed forces and fight our wars? How do we motivate the conscripted to give their utmost? How do we, as a society, convince the mothers, fathers, siblings and spouses of warriors that sending their loved one into battle is the right thing to do?

What is the element of persuasion that will inspire soldiers to sacrifice perhaps everything for their country?

Andrew Huebner, of the UA history department, examines these questions as they relate to the U.S. in WWI, and the answers are sometimes predictable, sometime surprising, and, throughout, in conflict with one another.

Huebner explains how the war in faraway Europe was sold to American farmboys. 

It was sold in part as protecting democracy and human rights in Europe, sold idealistically but not very successfully. Sacrifice was personal, not theoretical.

It was argued that serving would enhance personal growth, be good for the family, cement traditional gender roles, enhance the manhood of those who volunteered, and to a lesser extent, the manhood of those who were drafted and then served. Huebner writes there were concerns about "withering male vigor" and slippage in the female domestic roles. Now American women could emulate Penelope, awaiting the return of Odysseus.

It was surprising to me that our nation thought we had fallen into dissolute ways by 1914 and needed to be made great again. 

The war would be redemptive, coming along in time to save American family values.

Of course, as is demonstrated very nicely through letters to and from the front—always an excellent way to study war—newspapers, propaganda posters and political speeches, all these claims are fraught with tension, irony, and contradiction. 

Huebner illustrates his points through the war experiences of three soldiers, fairly typical, from Wisconsin, Missouri and Alabama, and their families.

The doughboys who fought would be chivalric warriors coming to the aid of the French in the war to defeat the Germans, portrayed as savage and bestial, the “rapists of Belgium” and of French womanhood.

Depicting Germans in this way was a chore since a huge percentage of Americans were of German descent and Germany was understood to be the home of Beethoven and Goethe.

On the one hand, sending men away from their families might be thought of as damaging, but, through constant worry and through letters, the families were bonded tighter than ever. The soldiers were in Europe protecting their families in Wisconsin and Alabama from German savagery. If not stopped, the Germans would be in Selma next, attacking your sister.

On the other hand, once in Europe, these American boys need to be warned, even shielded from the immoral, lascivious French women who, now free from Teutonic rapine, were seducing innocent American lads. And wine was everywhere.

Some men were unfaithful and many fretted about whether their mates back home were steadfast.

American women, needed in the labor force, or bravely serving in France, did not feel their traditional gender roles to be solidified. Woman suffrage would be just around the corner.

In the end, families were both strengthened and damaged, but in any case, despite the high-flown rhetoric and government propaganda, most men risked death out of love for their country, town and, especially, family.