"Where Do We Go from Here?": Ernest Hemingway's "Soldier's Home" and American Veterans of World War I (2)

Article excerpt

During the summer of 1918, the Division played a key role, at the notorious battle of Belleau Wood, in checking the final German offensive that almost reached Paris. Here many Second-Division units, including both Marine regiments, lost more than fifty percent of their men. Service in almost every major campaign fought by the A.E.F. followed--including, as Hemingway accurately notes, "Soissons, Champagne, St. Mihiel, and ... the Argonne" (69). Any soldier who passed through this string of bloodbaths without being physically wounded, shell-shocked, or infected with disease could justifiably refer to himself as "a fugitive from the law of averages" to quote World War II cartoonist Bill Mauldin. Out of the twenty-nine American combat divisions that saw action on the Western Front (each containing, at full strength, approximately 27,000 men), the Second suffered the highest number of casualties--approximately 18,000 wounded and 5,000 killed--and received the highest number of replacements-more than 35,000 men (Stallings 375-77). In short, Krebs's war experience, unlike that of the vast majority of men who entered the U.S. Army in 1917 or 1918 (half of whom never left the United States), would have been one of unimaginable ferocity--a foretaste of what Marines endured, two and a half decades later, during the savage island campaigns in the Pacific.

Before considering further the implications of Krebs's grimly distinguished service record as it relates to the story's treatment of veterans's issues, I should point out that not every reader has accepted Krebs's military credentials. In a fascinating reading, entitled "`Soldier's Home' Revisited: A Hemingway Mea Culpa," J.F. Kobler contends that Krebs's claim to the status of combat veteran is fraudulent and constitutes an oblique confession of the lies and exaggerations spread by the youthful Hemingway following his near-fatal wounding on the Italian front. Essentially, Kobler bases this interpretation on three key pieces of textual evidence: first, that when Hemingway writes of Krebs having been "at," rather than "in," "Belleau Wood, Soissons, the Champagne, [and] St. Mihiel," he subtly indicates that Krebs may have served on these battlefields without actually participating in the fighting; second, that Krebs's lowly rank--that of Corporal--would have been inconsistent for a soldier who survived so many campaigns; and, third, that the "imaginative seed" for Krebs, if we accept his harrowing war record as a sham, is none other than the unheroic "kitchen corporal" featured in the Chapter 1 vignette of In Our Time.

Like all valuable criticism, "'Soldier's Home' Revisited" sends the reader back to the text reminded of its essential ambiguity, no longer so trusting of the critical truisms that Hemingway scholars have long taken for granted. Nevertheless, Kobler's specific arguments are not difficult to counter. Take the first point, which concerns Hemingway's use of "at," as opposed to "in." One need only glance at the title of the finest American combat memoir of the Second World War--E.B. Sledge's With the Old Breed at Peleliu and Okinawa--to see that Hemingway,s choice of preposition is not necessarily as incriminating as one might think. As for Krebs's rank, the rate of attrition within the Second Division indeed necessitated the swift promotion of men whose chief qualification (beyond at least some indication of leadership potential) was survival; however, as rosters for the A.E.F's most bloodied divisions demonstrate, not every experienced soldier sought promotion or received it.(4) Moreover, Krebs's rank, while humble, is still two notches above buck Private: before becoming eligible for promotion to Corporal, a soldier during this period (whether serving in the Army or the Marines) would first have to attain the rank of Private First Class, a grade that most doughboys never reached. And, finally, any discussion of the shadowy "kitchen corporal" as an "imaginative seed" for Krebs must first, it seems to me, wrestle with the question of the corporal's nationality. …