Civilians in a World at War: 1914-1918 by Tammy M. Proctor. New York University Press, 2010. Cloth, 363 pages, notes, bibliography, $35.00. ISBN: 978-0-8147-6715-3
That World War I was a "total war" has become a truism that we too often state without really understanding its ramifications. Tammy Proctor's Civilians in a World at War: 1914-1918 goes far in helping us comprehend how the conflict touched noncombatants in minute and global ways and how we have accepted and even embraced the militarization of our lives in the century since that war. Drawing upon a wide array of sources from Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas, Proctor examines the many roles that "civilians" played in World War I.
Proctor explores the evolution of the terms "civilian" and "soldier." By the time of World War I, "civilians" were seen as noncombatants who needed to be protected and defended, largely women, children, and elderly men. Soldiers, by contrast, were adult men who did the protecting. Ironically, these usages evolved precisely at the time when the lines between the experiences of soldiers and of civilians were increasingly hard to distinguish. Thus, the idea of the "civilian" as one who needed to be protected or defended had become psychologically important to justify the war even if it did not reflect reality.
Proctor uses seven of the book's eight chapters to discuss the different roles civilians played in the war, making clear that the soldier/civilian dichotomy was an illusion. Chapter one examines the process by which societies turned civilians into soldiers, emphasizing the difficulty of turning conscripts and volunteers into killers. Chapter two looks at those deemed "unfit" for service in the military (colonized peoples, minorities, women, children, and elderly men) who were enlisted to do the "work" of war while the soldiers "fought" the war. The third chapter considers the importance of the concept of "home front" as a separate, safe, domestic,
feminine space apart from the war. Despite this, Proctor documents a great deal of overlap and movement between the "home front" and the "battlefield." The fourth chapter explores those whose "home fronts" were located between battle fronts or on battle lines. These people were often forced to provide food, lodging, entertainment, and work for armies and as such their lives were significantly different than civilians living in the "home fronts" that were further removed from the fighting. …