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Is there anything better than losing yourself in a good book,
whether fluffy novel or scholarly tome?
This blog is for long and short reviews of books read,
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06 April 2005

War is Swell?

I finished reading Thomas Fleming’s very absorbing Illusions of Victory: Americans in World War I a week or so ago. This is a no-holds-barred look at the politics behind and during America’s entry into the war in April 1917, including censorship of any anti-war sentiments (if you’re one of the folks at odds with the Patriot Act, this book might provide an eye-opener of how extremely restrictive the American government really can be).

On the other hand, if you’re looking for a completely unbiased look at this entire situation, be forewarned: this ain’t it. Fleming expends a lot of vitriol on personages on either side, but reserves his harshest criticisms for Woodrow Wilson. This is the flip-side to writings where Wilson comes off almost able to be recommended for sainthood.

I thought the portions of the book concerning how Americans against our entry into “the Great War” (including fiery Senator Robert LaFollette and Congresswoman Jeanette Rankin) were treated even more interesting because of my reading the old children’s/young adults’ series books from the early 20th century. I speak in several paragraphs on my St. Nicholas web page about how this one magazine threw itself into promoting the war effort to children. However, St. Nicholas was not a lone anamoly; in almost all the series books written between 1917-1920 (the Bobbsey Twins were a notable exception), the series’ protagonists, from the hiking and motoring Outdoor Girls and the close-knit Camp Fire Girls of Hildegarde Frey to the various series of Boy Scout books and other boys’ series books, all became involved in the war effort. The girls, of course, were relegated to serving tea and cookies at the precursors to USO halls or knitting for victory, but the older boys quit the Scouts, or whatever their organization, to join the Army or Navy or even the neophyte Air Corps to "join General Pershing’s forces in France and fight for Uncle Sam."

Ninety years ago these books were unabashedly patriotic and thus considered good reading for children. Today they are often absurd propaganda with plotlines full of violence and racial and ethnic stereotypes that make even students of history, who know this existed and aren’t shocked, laugh or cringe.

The latest of these epics I recently finished was H. Irving Hancock’s Uncle Sam's Boys with Pershing's Troops, or Dick Prescott at Grips with the Boche. Hancock’s hero Dick Prescott goes back many years to "The High School Boys" series, with "Dick & Co." as they are called in the descriptions, including Dave Darrin, Dan Dalzell, Tom Reade, Harry Hazelton, and Greg Holmes. Hancock then did a series portraying the boys in grammar school while also portraying their post-school lives: Dick and Greg go to West Point, Dave and Dan to Annapolis, and Tom and Harry become young engineers in three different book series. All or most of the boys (not sure what happened to Harry) then serve during World War I: Dick and Greg of course in the Army, Dave and Dan in command of escort ships, and Tom in the Air Corps.

With Pershing’s Troops actually opens in "Camp Berry, Georgia" where Dick and Greg, now young, manly, outstanding—all our heroes being manly and outstanding, of course—officers train with other "doughboys" for embarcation to France. While there they run afoul of not one, but two, German spies and a member of the Army who they suspect also is a spy.

In one absolutely jaw-dropping scene, Dick has to speak to three conscientious objectors. He pretty much views them as and then calls them cowards, and in persuasive arguments, actually convinces two of them that they can kill if their loved ones are threatened by German imperialism. The third he determines really is against killing, even in self-defense and finds a non-combatent role for him. But before this latter man leaves, Dick asks him to take his hat off and notes that it "has a pointed shape" and that he will remember what the head of a conscientious objector looks like!

Finally Dick and Greg are off on troopships and are fired upon by “the Hun.” Of all the ships in the Navy, guess who are captaining two small escort ships of their transport—yep, you guessed it, Dave and Dan!

Once in France they go directly to the front, met by fawning Frenchmen who thank God for Pershing and Uncle Sam’s boys. Although the French have been in these trenches for months, it is Our Hero Dick, during his first tour, who is the first one to notice one of the French privates is signalling the German line with little electric bulbs whenever an officer puts his head up! (Of course we readers should have suspected the French private was a bit "off"—he has a German name, Berger!) Through the private they find out one of the respected French officers is really a German and also a spy; when caught the scornful man makes a rich melodramatic speech about how he is proud of his German heritage and how German superiority will wipe out the French and the British and even the Americans…yadda, yadda, yadda.

Dick isn’t at the front for 24 hours before he’s captured by "the Boche," marched to a cattle car and taken away to a prison—and of course being Our Hero he is the only one with brains to escape when the train stops. He makes his way to a road where he is saved by a French farmer, who takes him to hide in a barn with another American soldier— guess what, it’s Tom Reade!

I don’t think I have to tell you Our Heroes get back to the Allied side eventually; these stories all end the same. The combination of adulation, coincidence, and jingoism is simply breathtaking.

But as counterpoint to Illusions of Victory, like Dick Prescott it can’t be beat as an illustration of how even the youngest citizens of the U.S. were shown the "right" side of the war in Europe.

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