Heroes today, gone tomorrow: Revisionist historian/novelist Slotkin (Gunfighter Nation, 1992, etc.) once more limns the national character by probing history that the nation has overlooked, in this instance the forgotten soldiers of WWI.
The soldiers of the Harlem Hellfighters and the so-called Lost Battalion were never really found in the first place; they worked at the edges of the nation’s consciousnes. Doubtless, Slotkin suggests, the nation would have preferred to fight the Kaiser with an army of white native-born sons, but one in eight Americans in 1917 was either foreign-born or of African descent. A detachment of New York blacks, many recent arrivals from the Jim Crow South, were formed into a command attached to the French Army, while Jews and Slavs and Italians newly arrived through Ellis Island were formed into a unit informally called the “Melting Pot Division.” Each would fight valiantly, the 369th Battalion on one flank of the Argonne Front, the 77th Division only some 20 miles away; each would be badly bloodied, such that of the latter, “nearly three-quarters…were either killed, wounded, or captured,” whereas the black soldiers—who, Slotkin notes in passing, introduced jazz to France along the way—were so badly mauled by German attackers that “the French withdrew them from the line and awarded the entire regiment the Croix de Guerre.” (One of their white officers, Hamilton Fish Jr., would become a leading isolationist politician.) So why don’t all American schoolchildren know of the exploits of these soldiers? Because they were embarrassments to the status quo; as Slotkin observes, the soldiers would barely be remembered except in the abstract, with the reshaping of their stories in films such as Bataan, whose makers “persisted in placing African-Americans in their war stories even when the premise for inclusion was rather thin” and allowed immigrants a voice.
Solid work, as is Slotkin’s custom, and of much interest to students of American history and ethnicity.