Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Bodies of War: World War I and the Politics of Commemoration in America, 1919-1933
Reviewed by James Thomas

Bodies of War: World War I and the Politics of Commemoration in America, 1919–1933

By Lisa Budreau
Published by New York University Press, 2010

The enormity of the Great War forced nations and their people to learn new ways to wage war and to cope with the resulting numbers of losses never before imagined. Lisa Budreau's book Bodies of War is the story of America's painful journey in learning what to do with the mortal remains of the young men who lost their lives, how to honor them, and the role their families and their government would have in the commemoration of their ultimate sacrifice.

Click on Image to Expand

1919 Photo of the U.S. Meuse-Argonne Cemetery Under Construction

Each of the countries whose soldiers fought in the war had to decide how best to deal with the men who died, and although the number of Americans killed in action was significantly less than those of most of the other nations, in many ways the problems were more difficult. The precedent of grand Civil War cemeteries, the government's promise to bring home all American soldiers killed on foreign soil, and the great distance to the European battlefields combined to make the task particularly difficult.

Finally, when the choice was given to families to leave their loved ones in U.S. cemeteries in France or bring them home, those who chose not to bring them home were given an opportunity to travel at government expense to visit those cemeteries.

Budreau tells this story, with all its interwoven political, social, and racial divisiveness in a way that is not only solid history but thoroughly fascinating as well. In a story that could easily become morbid and depressing, she writes with sensitivity and treats her subject matter with a dignity and respect not always displayed in the actual treatment of the war dead.

Order Now
Today, walking among the silent markers in the far too many cemeteries of the Great War, it is difficult to imagine the complex story behind the men's remains reaching these final resting places. It is, of course, impossible to imagine the pain and suffering that ended so many lives too soon. Lisa Budreau takes on the enormous task of uncovering and telling the story of a government and people confronted with a task larger and more difficult than any could have realized. She tells of the bureaucratic as well as the physical nightmare of burial, exhumation, identification, transportation (both near battlefields and across oceans) and final interment of the tens of thousands of bodies, while never allowing the huge numbers to minimize the fact of them being individuals.

Names and descriptions of how particular men were killed in action maintain the reality of their loss. Individual stories of families faced with those losses and especially the tales of mothers who made the pilgrimage to see sons' grave sites brings poignancy to that reality. While telling these stories Budreau wrestles with the overall social and cultural impact of the war and the way the United States used the war and loss of so many to help define itself through commemoration of those losses.

Bodies of War is an outstanding book and should be included in any Great War collection. For historians and Great War enthusiasts alike, Lisa Budreau's book details a part of the story of the war's aftermath too often overlooked but fundamental to the understanding of how a nation copes with loss and the honoring of her sons' ultimate sacrifice.

James Thomas

No comments:

Post a Comment