Doughboys, the Great War, and the Remaking of America

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Jennifer D. Keene. Doughboys, the Great War, and the Remaking of America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001. xvi, 294 pp. $36.00, ISBN 0-8018-6592-1.

Summary

In Doughboys, the Great War, and the Remaking of America, author Jennifer D. Keene provides a vision of World War I military experience rooted in the process of change wrought by conscription and the dawning of the welfare state in America. She argues through examination of the experience of the citizen-solder that these two are connected through World War I and its aftermath. The new breed of conscripted citizen-soldiers also catalyzed change in the war experience itself and the army as an administrative entity.

Through reformulating the conception of conscription as a civic duty, “all areas of military life—training, leadership, combat, discipline, race relations—became battlegrounds where citizen-soldiers and army officials vied for the upper hand” (3). Specifically, when faced with citizen-soldiers lacking extensive training, army officials were forced to revise disciplinary action taken against actions performed out of ignorance versus those more serious in nature. Just as discipline and obedience became more negotiable than absolute, “in acquiescing to these demands [for racial segregation], the army compromised its own unilateral authority to set internal military policy and direct the behavior of all troops regardless of their preferences” (82).

With the reduction of traditional protocol and ways to identify itself as the army and those who served as soldiers, officials instead developed new forms of cohesion and character that were a compromise between the orthodox notions of top officers and the realities of life in the trenches. These officers built a “cult of aggressiveness” (36) with the intention of emulating Progressive ideas about assimilating and motivating large groups of individuals more efficiently. The culture built on aggression, however, revealed the tensions of the growing Great War noncombatant labor and service troops. This undesirable and nonaggressive station, although utterly necessary to the bureaucratic and logistical needs of the growing army, did not inspire troops “to act and feel like soldiers” (51) and required white soldiers to mix with black soldiers who were relegated to noncombatant divisions.

After the war these distinctions were blurred in the post-war veteran agenda based primarily on lobbying by the American Legion and also on politicians’ recognition of veterans as a partisan bloc. Spearheaded by the American Legion, the veteran agenda sought to provide financial assistance to all servicemen, not because of service itself, but to recoup lost wages as a result of the time spent away from the job and the jobs lost during the war years. In arguing that all those who served deserved compensation, regardless of position or duty, the American Legion sought to establish social, political, and professional equality, regardless of combat status.

In order to build their case to the President and Congress, the veterans organized in military fashion to march to Washington. Not only did the veterans demonstrate the determination of their mission, but they further came to embody the poor and working class in America. Despite resistance by officials at all levels of the military, Congress, and the Hoover administration, the American people “sympathized with the Bonus March out of the conviction that Hoover was not expanding government services fast enough to mitigate widespread suffering among the working people of the nation” (180). Congressmen, in their efforts to win the favor of the veteran bloc and restore legitimacy with other voters, eventually acquiesced to the compensation requests. Keene argues that by “comparing this renegotiation of the wartime social contract with the struggles of other generations or populations to define what the state owed them highlights the importance of this episode in the history of entitlements and the welfare state” (175) which lasted through the monumental changes of the GI Bill and the advantages afforded to World War II veterans upon their return home.

Commentary

Amy Lechner, Fall 2007

Doughboys, the Great War, and the Remaking of America describes changes in the U.S. Army from the early days of American involvement in World War I through the results of the changes after World War II. Keene describes how soldiers catalyzed change on the day-to-day level of interaction among soldiers and officers (such as the salute changing from a gesture of respect to one of camaraderie) to the governmental policy changes that led to the GI Bill in the middle of the twentieth century. Part of the process of change is described—primarily through lobbying and organizing for veterans’ economic benefit. However a missing piece to the analysis is that of the administrative and bureaucratic face of the U.S. Army. Keene hints at the growing complexity of the organization itself, but leaves much of it out. While the argument is compelling, Keene would have been better served to focus more on one level of change—the micro daily level or the macro administrative level. Further, since so much of the argument rests on the notion that administrative changes caused by World War I veterans led to a different World War II experience, the absence of discussion of the Army at an institutional, administrative level is notable.

More attention to the army administration would have also been useful since Doughboys presents such a rosy view of the war that focuses on matters of protocol (saluting, courts martial, boxing, and medals, for example) that distance the fact that a deadly, dangerous war was occurring. Keene argues that “rather than concentrating on the immorality of the war’s catastrophic violence, Americans focused on monitoring the aspects of army life over which they could exercise some control” (24) that evolved into federal policy change. However, more focus on the horrors of the war itself would have strengthened that analysis of the citizen-soldier mindset and how the bureaucracy struggled to maintain control when faced with the citizen-soldier experience in battle.

Given Keene’s focus on citizen-soldiers and their influence on procedure and policy at multiple levels, it is curious that in her description of the context of the veterans’ social contract that she would call upon the reform experience of women and African Americans. She makes the distinction that “during the war, an array of feminist and black organizations attempted to construct a social contract with the state; in return for loyal wartime service, they would receive recognition of social, political, and professional equality…Great War veterans based their claim on the proposition that they should not be unfairly punished for having done their civic duty with diminished social and economic prospects upon their return home,” (163) comparing social reform with economic reform. In order for this comparison to be useful for the reader’s understanding, Keene needs to be more specific here in defining what the terms of wartime service were (especially for women), but also in summarizing the other organizations’ social contracts and ways they were different.

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