“The Diary of Alvin York” and Doughboys, the Great War, and the Remaking of America

Alvin York’s diary is the first account we’ve read that was written by a soldier during a war, rather than much later, like we’ve seen with Plumb Martin and Watkins’ accounts. York, of course, wasn’t even allowed to keep a diary for fear of it falling into German hands and giving away important information. When asked by a captain if he was keeping a diary York told him he wouldn’t say whether he was or not and that “… I didn’t come to the war to be captured, and I wasn’t going to be captured, and that if the Germans ever got any information out of me they would have to get it out of my dead body.”

York definitely glossed over the harsher aspects of war, especially death, which he tended to mention in passing. He probably had trouble expressing himself at the time, but also his intense religious devotion allowed him to accept the terrible events that surrounded him and move past them, much like Watkins.

York, who I can’t help but picture as Gary Cooper, was certainly an amazing and respectable fellow, capturing 132 Germans essentially on his own during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. He clearly didn’t view himself as anything special and remained humble despite his medal of honor and his warm, bombastic hero’s reception by the country. He just wanted to get back to his family, future wife, friends, and peaceful mountain life.

Doughboys, the Great War, and the Remaking of America expresses WWI in terms that students are rarely taught. Though I’ve always found the Great War to be interesting, I never considered that it had an extremely large impact on America (besides contributing to the excess that we see in the 20s), as we were only involved for such a short time. It seems many Americans share the same view. However, the war did have a great impact, especially on the development of the Army into the institution it is today. This was the first American war in which most of the soldiers were conscripts. Consequently, this set the stage for the relationships between soldiers and the military and veterans and the federal government throughout the 20th century. Also, many WWI veterans became activists, introducing the G.I. Bill and other legislation into Congress, which allowed WWII vets to be among the most privileged of veterans.

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