A Conversation with Richard Rubin, author of THE LAST OF THE DOUGHBOYS

Author Richard Rubin with WW1 veteran William J. Lake of the 91st Infantry Division, AEF, 2003.

Author Richard Rubin with WW1 veteran William J. Lake of the 91st Infantry Division, AEF, 2003.

World War 1 Centennial Network founder Paul Cora recently had the opportunity to ask author Richard Rubin about his perspectives on the American experience in World War I based on his recent book THE LAST OF THE DOUGHBOYS.  What follows is an insightful slice of the back story behind the book and its author.


PC:  How did you become interested in finding and meeting America’s last veterans of the First World War- i.e. – has WW1 been a long standing interest for you, or was there some significant discovery or experience that made you want to embark on the project that ultimately led to your book?


RR: I’ve been interested in World War I since I was a child – for so long, really, that it’s hard to say exactly how it started.  Was it Snoopy?  Some old documentary that was on TV in the background as I played with Legos on the floor?   The framed portrait of my grandfather in his A.E.F. uniform that hung on the wall in my brother’s room?  I don’t know, but I do remember, very vividly, my mother pointing out the Bronx VA hospital one day as we rode past it on our way into the city, and she told me – this was in the mid-1970’s, when I was maybe 7 or 8 years old – that there were still men in there who had never recovered from being gassed in World War I.  That made a very strong impression on me.  Clearly.

I can say that I’ve also been interested in the notion of “lasts” for quite some time; I read the obituaries every day, and those are the ones I remember best – the last survivor of the Titanic, the last living speaker of a certain language, etc.  I even wrote an essay on the subject, “But Not Least,” for the Atlantic Monthly back in 1997.

The immediate impetus for this project was a radio interview I heard back in early 2003, in which the guest, who had something to do with commemorating World War II, said in a very urgent tone that 1,000 WWII veterans were dying every day, and that we needed to get their stories while we still could.  Usually I would just nod in agreement and keep on working, but for some reason, that day, I thought:  “Well, what about World War I veterans?  Can somebody still get any of their stories?”


PC:  How can today’s generations connect with the experiences and lives of the Americans who went “Over There” nearly a hundred years ago, in your view? What can their stories teach Americans today?


RR: World War I was, in a great many ways, the first “modern” war, not only in terms of technology on and off the battlefield, but in terms of the concerns and perspectives of the men and women who fought it, as well as those on the home front.  They spoke, for the most part, like we do; their faces look familiar to us.  When I look at one of those long photographs of a unit in the AEF, I often marvel at how much the men in it look like people I see walking around today, which is not the case with, say, the Civil War.  I’ve read 95-year-old letters from the trenches that are filled with slang – and even profanities – that I hear on the street every day.  More important, just about every facet of American life today – from civil rights and gender equality to population trends and agricultural policy – has its roots in the First World War.

Their story, really, is our story.  The war was controversial, to say the least; a lot of people didn’t want us to get into it, and some were even sent to prison for speaking out against it once we did.  The media were often complicit with the military and the government; foreign saboteurs wreaked havoc and sowed panic at home.  People were the objects of bigotry, even persecution, because of the sound of their last name or the color of their skin.  Soldiers wrestled with the wisdom of their orders, and questioned the malevolence of the enemy.  They were subjected to horrible new weapons, and saw and did things that threatened their equilibrium, and even their sanity.  Yet they also learned to overcome their differences, to work together for a higher good, to transcend hardship and do profoundly courageous things.  Their stories, in short, can teach us the value of our inheritance as Americans, and how we can emulate their example and honor their legacy.


PC:  What was the most surprising personal discovery in your research and writing of THE LAST OF THE DOUGHBOYS ?


RR:  Probably that these very old men and women – their median age was 107 – were real people, and not gods.  That sounds silly, I know, but I’d never met anyone that old before I started this project, and they seemed kind of mythical to me.  I think there was a part of me that believed, when I set out to find them, that I wouldn’t really be able to “interview” them, that at best trying to talk to somebody that old about things they had seen and done 85, 90, 100 years earlier would be like reading a book – a one-way interaction, in which they said what they had to say, and I just sat there, poised, to try to catch as much of it as I could.  But in most cases, I could actually have real two-way conversations with them, in which I could ask them questions and they could ponder the matter for a moment and then reply, specifically, to what I had asked; and, in some cases, ask me questions, too.  That seems like a simple matter, but I really didn’t know, going into it, if I could do something like that with someone so old.  Fortunately for me, I could, and to a much greater extent than I had any right to expect beforehand.  Now they seem so alive to me that, even though they’ve all been gone for years, I still catch myself thinking about picking up the phone to ask them just one more question.

The other thing that really surprised me – even more than what I just said – was how willing these very old men and women were to talk to me.  Not just willing – they were eager.  You always hear that veterans don’t like talking about their wartime experiences, and for good reason, and I’m sure this was the case with World War I veterans as much as others; I can’t tell you how many people I’ve heard from since this book was published who tell me that their father or grandfather fought in that war but would never discuss it.  For some reason, though, that wasn’t the case with these last living WWI veterans.  Maybe it’s because I came along so late, and they had at long last had enough time to make their peace with what they had seen and done Over There; maybe they realized how remarkable it was that they had lived so long, and felt some sort of obligation to do something important – like handing off their memories to someone younger – with their unexpected bonus.  Or maybe their willingness to talk was just a function of their stoicism, which I suspect is one of the things that enabled them to live so long.  They saw some terrible things; no one could have blamed them for saying “I don’t want to talk about that.”  But they didn’t.  I was very, very lucky.


PC:  The American national memory of World War I is different from that of most other nations which were involved (and, indeed, different from that of the other conflicts Americans have fought over the last century), and getting Americans interested in the centenary of the war therefore presents a special challenge.   What, in your view, were the strongest elements which went into the making of our national collective memory of “The War to End All Wars”?

RR: There were two:  The first was the trauma America suffered as a result of the war.  In just nineteen months, we lost 117,000 men; afterward, people started wondering what it was all for, and many of them had a hard time coming up with answers.  After all, we hadn’t been attacked, as we would be a generation later at Pearl Harbor; and as it became more and more apparent that the world hadn’t been made Safe for Democracy, and that this war hadn’t Ended All Wars, A lot of cognitive dissonance set in, and America withdrew into itself.

One of the results of that was that Americans, who had produced an awful lot of books about that war while it was going on, and for a few years afterward, stopped writing about it pretty suddenly.  The British, though, never did – if anything, their output on the subject increased as years went by – and so British histories, which were the only histories still being written in English, eventually supplanted American histories as the narrative of the war in this country.  Back then, the British were still pretty upset that America hadn’t entered the war when they did, in 1914, and their histories of that era have a pronounced anti-American bias:  Their view, in essence, is that America showed up quite late to the party, and didn’t really do anything once they got there.  (Some British historians still believe this.)  Over the course of decades of this treatment, most Americans, I think, adopted this tragically inaccurate view of their role in the First World War, and, in my experience, American World War I veterans weren’t the type to stand up for themselves and remind people that they had, in fact, made an indispensible contribution to winning the war.  They weren’t the kind of people who cared to draw attention to themselves.  Now that they’re all gone, I think we owe it to them to set the record straight.  Americans should know just how much we did to win World War I, and how differently things would have turned out if we hadn’t fought.

PC:  As a project, how would you compare the experience of researching and writing THE LAST OF THE DOUGHBOYS with that of your other major writing projects, especially CONFEDERACY OF SILENCE ?

RR:  Most of what I do as a journalist involves researching a story thoroughly and then seeking out people to interview about this or that aspect of it.  In this case, I didn’t have the luxury of researching the story first, because the people I was hoping to interview were very, very old, and I needed to get to them right away.  So I spent several years finding and interviewing people, and was only able to begin research after that phase of the process was finished.  What that meant was that, with very rare exceptions, I wasn’t able to follow-up with the subject if I discovered some discrepancies between their stories and the official record (which I often did), because they had already passed away.  So in a way, I did this book backwards.

Confederacy of Silence was a memoir, which meant that most of the research I did for that book involved plumbing my own memory; even so, the writing process for The Last of the Doughboys was fairly similar to the writing process for Confederacy of Silence.  In both cases I had a tremendous amount of information to organize and then fit together like a mosaic.  And both books were really, in some way, a matter of inviting the reader to take a journey with me:  In Confederacy, the journey was to the Mississippi of my 20’s, in the 1980’s and ‘90’s; in Doughboys, it was to the homes, and the memories, of the last few living veterans of the First World War.  The books I like to read most all seem to involve some kind of journey or other, so perhaps that’s just how I’m inclined to view a good story.

I was a history major in college, but I’m not an historian, and I’m certainly not a military historian.  While I always take great pains to make sure everything I write is entirely factual and accurate – part of that is my training as a journalist, and part is just my personality.  That’s one reason that it took me ten years to write Doughboys, when I finished Confederacy in about a third that time – that, and the fact that there was just a great deal more information to process, and triage, and organize, and verify.


For more information on THE LAST OF THE DOUGHBOYS and author Richard Rubin, visit his website here.

Richard Rubin will also speak in York, Pennsylvania on Saturday October 12, 2013.  For more information on the WFA East Coast Branch Fall 2013 Symposium, visit the Branch website here.



New Book THE LAST OF THE DOUGHBOYS Due in Spring 2013

Author Richard Rubin with WW1 veteran William J. Lake of the 91st Infantry Division, AEF, 2003.

Author Richard Rubin with WW1 veteran William J. Lake of the 91st Infantry Division, AEF, 2003.

Beginning in 2003, writer Richard Rubin set out to locate and interview the last surviving American veterans from the First World War.  Eventually finding several dozen, aged 101 to 103 and spread across the country, Rubin gleaned from their recollections a picture of their generation’s experiences “over there.”    “They shared with him, at the last possible moment (they are all gone now) the story of America’s Great War,” according to publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.  “They were nineteenth-century men and women living in the twenty-first century: self-reliant, humble, and stoic; never complaining, still marveling at the immensity of the war they helped win.  A decade in the making, The Last of the Doughboys is a sweeping new look at our forgotten World War, and a moving meditation on character, grace, aging and memory.”

Rubin’s difficulties trying to find those last living American veterans of World War I were considerable.  In the book’s introduction he describes the problems of his quest and attributes his success in locating interview subjects not so much to any veterans organization or American directory, but rather to the French Government which in the late 1990s undertook a remarkable project in which the French Legion of Honor was bestowed on every living American veteran of the war.  With this list of recipients as a starting point, he began his search for the last surviving Doughboys.  The story is told in a compelling first-person style in which the reader shares the author’s perspective as  he recounts making contact and getting to know his remarkable subjects.  The stories of their experiences, their long perspectives on life, and the author’s insightful context forhis project, make The Last of the Doughboys a moving tribute to the American veterans of The Great War.

The Last of the Doughboys, from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, is due out on May 28, 2013.