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Tuesday, June 27, 2017

June 27, 2017: The US and World War I: The American Expeditionary Forces (AEF)

[On June 26th, 1917, the first 14,000 U.S. soldiers arrived in France to join the Allied effort in The Great War. To commemorate that centennial, this week I’ll be AmericanStudying the U.S. and WWI—share your thoughts and contexts in comments, please!]
On three interesting histories and contexts for the million U.S. soldiers who fought for General John Joseph “Blackjack” Pershing in the Great War.
1)      Doughboys: The slang term for U.S. soldiers didn’t originate in World War I; it apparently dates back to the Mexican American War, with a somewhat unclear or contested etymology (the two most likely derivations are the resemblance between brass uniform buttons and doughnuts; or the chalky northern Mexican dust on their uniforms that made soldiers appear to be made of “adobe,” which was then translated as doughboy). But it was during the Great War that the term became ubiquitous with American soldiers, and I would argue that the reason is a telling one: that this was the first international war in which U.S. troops fought alongside those from many other nations, and so such a shorthand linguistic nickname was necessary both to highlight American participation in the conflict and to distinguish our soldiers from those other groups (each of whom apparently had their own parallel nicknames, including Tommies for British soldiers and poilus for French ones).
2)      Influenza: As I wrote in this post, the 1918-1919 influenza epidemic was deeply interconnected with the Great War, both in its origins and how it spread around the world. And the epidemic hit American soldiers very hard, with more than 40,000 dying from the disease in the fall of 1918 (among the nearly 400,000 who were stricken by it, almost half of the U.S. force). The idea that the war’s unprecedented and horrific levels of death and destruction fundamentally changed the world is one of the most familiar and widely shared historical narratives; but a case could be made that it was influenza, not the war, which most fully produced those effects, not least because returning soldiers carried the disease with them and thus spread it to nations (such as the U.S.) that had not seen or experienced the war’s destructions first-hand. At the very least, it’s impossible to separate the war from the epidemic, as the AEF’s tragic experiences reflect all too clearly.
3)      The Bonus Army: Another familiar American historical narrative is that over the last half-century (since Vietnam, the narrative generally goes) the nation has stopped taking good or even adequate care of its veterans. That narrative (which leaves aside veterans of color, on whom more tomorrow) is largely based on World War II, when returning veterans were greatly aided by policies like the G.I. Bill. World War I was a different story, however, as reflected by the stories and histories of the Bonus Army (or Bonus Expeditionary Force, as they called themselves), the group of WWI veterans and their families who marched on Washington in the spring of 1932 to demand promised but greatly delayed compensation for their service. Better remembering the Bonus Army would thus help us likewise better engage with both the longstanding issue of veteran care and the specific experiences shared by many of the million men who made up the American Expeditionary Forces.
Next Great War Studying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other WWI stories or contexts you’d highlight?

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