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More Gentile Than Grim: Letters Home from World War I
By David Chrisinger
At the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, I teach a seminar for student veterans on the history of American veterans coming home from war. In the fall of 2015, the students in my class analyzed hundreds of pages of letters that had been written by soldiers fighting on the Western Front during World War I who had grown up in the town where our university is located. As they read each letter, I asked them to highlight passages that struck a chord with them, that reminded them of their own experiences in Iraq or Afghanistan or elsewhere. What they found surprised them: the letter were more gentile than grim. I mean gentile in the non-religious sense, an inclusive sense, meaning belonging to the same group, which originates from the the Latin gentilis meaning ‘of a family or nation, of the same clan.’ The WWI soldiers were brothers, sisters, comrades.
The student veterans in Chrisinger’s seminar for student veterans at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, October 2015
“You can bet I’ll never miss any more wars if I know they are in progress.”
They were surprised, though perhaps they shouldn’t have been, that most of the letters are those of young and confident American doughboys, not the conflicted old men many of my students think of when they try to picture a veteran of the First World War. One soldier wrote in March 1918 that he’s “perfectly satisfied, feels great, sleeps like a log, and wouldn’t come back until we win the war for anything.” Another wrote that “this sure is the life. Why the hell didn’t I get into the Mexican war? You can bet I’ll never miss any more wars if I know they are in progress.”
Read more: More Gentile Than Grim: Letters Home from World War I, by David Chrisinger