World War I is America's forgotten war. To the extent that it's remembered at all, American involvement has become a kind of cartoon: Fresh-faced...

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“Lost Battalions: The Great War and the Crisis of American Nationality”
by Richard Slotkin
Henry Holt, 639 pp., $35

World War I is America’s forgotten war. To the extent that it’s remembered at all, American involvement has become a kind of cartoon: Fresh-faced Doughboys set sail for France, donned funny-looking helmets, broke through the bloody stalemate of trench warfare and returned home to the Roaring Twenties.

In “Lost Battalions,” Wesleyan University American studies professor Richard Slotkin argues that just about every aspect of this popular image is wrong.

The true heroes of the war in Slotkin’s view were the black and immigrant soldiers who fought loyally and often with exceptional bravery for a racist country that barely tolerated them. In recounting the experiences of two units from the New York slums — the black 369th Infantry known as the Harlem Hellfighters and the 77th “Ghetto” Division composed largely of Jewish and Italian immigrants from the Lower East Side — Slotkin has written a complex, engrossing history of a shameful period.

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When the U.S. entered the war in April 1917, one-eighth of the nation’s population was African American and one-third foreign born or the child of a foreign-born parent, a situation that gave rise to an urgent dilemma. Though the armed forces desperately needed manpower, “real” Americans wondered whether ghetto-dwellers would or could fight like men.

Leaders resolved this crisis by devising a “new social bargain” with the nation’s minorities. Immigrants and blacks were given to understand that loyal service would make them real Americans and ultimately bring them real civil rights. It worked. “If this is our country, then this is our war,” insisted black leader W.E.B. DuBois, as young men from Harlem and the Lower East Side enlisted.

It certainly was their war as far as action was concerned. The 369th fought for 191 days, the longest continuous service of any American regiment. “Two Negroes Whip 24 Germans,” raved a New York paper after Henry Johnson, a black porter from Albany, N.Y., and a comrade left a pile of German corpses in their dugout.

The Ghetto division became legendary during the climactic Battle of the Argonne, when 675 of its men were cut off behind enemy lines and endured five horrific days of bombardment (including friendly fire) with no food or relief. Charles Whittlesey, the WASP commander of the Lost Battalion, had initially dismissed his immigrant recruits as the “worst possible material.”

In the depths of their ordeal he confided to a fellow officer, “George, as long as you and I live we will never be in finer company.”

In the end, however, the medals and the camaraderie counted for little. No sooner was the war over than Red Scare paranoia gripped the nation. Anti-Semitism was on the rise as Jews got blamed for the Bolshevik Revolution. Race riots erupted in 1919 as blacks hoping to make good on the wartime social bargain fell afoul of white resentment.

Hellfighter Henry Johnson was shunned after he told a crowd in St. Louis that white officers had deliberately sent black soldiers into the worst of the fighting. He died broke and alone in a VA hospital in 1929 at the age of 32. Charles Whittlesey, depressed over the futility of the war and the shabby treatment of veterans, committed suicide in November 1921.

It’s vignettes like these that sustain “Lost Battalions” over more than 600 pages. But finally, the book is just too long. Part of the problem is the structure, which forces Slotkin to double back as he tells the parallel but never converging stories of the black and immigrant units. A more serious flaw is that the book’s real hero is not a minority soldier but the tragic old stock officer Charles Whittlesey.

But these are quibbles. Slotkin is that rare breed — a scholar who can write — and in “Lost Battalions” he does a magnificent job of combining harrowing dispatches from the battlefield with penetrating analysis of the politics of race, class and ethnicity.