Fighting the Great War: Reconsidering the American Soldier Experience

Jennifer D. Keene, Chapman University

This article was originally published in Historically Speaking volume 13, issue 1, in 2012. doi: 10.1353/hsp.2012.0008


Why men fight is a particularly apt question to ask about the American soldier in World War I. Unlike Europeans in 1914, Americans went to war with their eyes wide open. They had already seen the worst of industrial warfare both on the high seas when the 1915 Lusitania sinking illustrated the dangers of ocean travel and on the battlefield when the 1916 battles of the Somme and Verdun left no doubt about the staggering casualties trench warfare engendered. Nonetheless, Americans displayed a certain naive enthusiasm for war in 1917. When American soldiers arrived overseas, French soldiers noted how much the U.S. troops reminded them of themselves in 1914, filled as they were with energy and optimism for a quick, easy victory against Germany. The cheering crowds, the smiling doughboys, the ultra-patriot war bond posters: these are the images that create the portrait of a nation eagerly engaging in a war whose conclusion would cruelly dash their expectations of it being "the war to end all wars."