Academic journal article Parameters

Alvin York: A New Biography of the Hero of the Argonne

Academic journal article Parameters

Alvin York: A New Biography of the Hero of the Argonne

Article excerpt

Alvin York: A New Biography of the Hero of the Argonne

By Douglas V. Mastriano

Lexington, KY: University

Press of Kentucky, 2014

336 pages



The prolific English writer, journalist, and historian GK Chesterton once wrote, "Religious liberty might be supposed to mean that everybody is free to discuss religion. In practice it means that hardly anybody is allowed to mention it." Although each person is entitled to his or her own opinion about this assertion as it applies to general society, all scholars should be concerned if it suggests historians should shy away from discussing religion and spirituality when it must be addressed. In this thorough biography of Alvin York, the American hero of the Great War and Medal of Honor recipient, Douglas Mastriano avoids that mistake and allows the role and significance of York's devout Christianity to take center stage, which is almost certainly the way York and those who knew him best would have wanted his story told.

According to Mastriano, York's faith is the critical thread in his life's tapestry, and a knowledge of his religious beliefs and his spiritually motivated actions are as essential to understanding York the soldier and veteran as they are to understanding York the conscientious objector. Mastriano offers compelling evidence in support of this approach. The fact that York's faith and behavior--characterized by hard work, humility, kindness, generosity, selflessness, and extraordinary moral and physical courage--often seems too good to be true probably says more about us and our biases than it does about York.

Mastriano moves through York's life in a traditional, chronological way, covering his pre-conversion years as a rowdy bar-hopping troublemaker, his Christian conversion in 1915, which dramatically changed his behavior, his failed efforts to receive an exemption based on personal pacifist convictions, and his change of heart on this matter after his company and battalion commanders convinced him that the Bible did not prohibit Christians from fighting in a just war (which they believed the war with Germany was). The story continues with descriptions of York's general competence as a soldier in training, both in the United States and in France, and York's initiation into combat in "quiet" sectors of the Western Front. As expected, the book thoroughly describes and examines York's amazing--he and others would say miraculous--actions in the Argonne on 8 October 1918, when he led a small group of comrades around the flank of a German strongpoint and knocked it out by capturing 132 enemy soldiers and killing a number of others. While York's conversion to Christianity was the fulcrum of his personal life, this combat success changed his public life beyond all recognition, making him arguably the most famous common soldier of the twentieth century. …

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