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An Incomplete Narrative: World War I and the Spanish Influenza
Global confrontation consumed the years from 1918 to 1920. Military conflict involved most of the world, directly or indirectly, as armies and navies struggled to achieve the goals of political figures. Unprecedented in technology, scope, and scale, total war devastated populations, regions, governments, and resources. Many books have been written to tell this tale. Great men are extolled and vilified. Soldiers are quantified in statistical tables. Descriptions of the wins and losses, battles and strategies fill hundreds of pages of military histories. These histories are incomplete because they leave out a major agent of change affecting the world in the very same years, the Spanish Influenza pandemic. Military historians ignore or minimize the agency of disease on the narrative of the war. Medical historians better integrate the two enemies—belligerent forces and disease—but minimize the narrative of the war. More people died of influenza and the accompanying pneumonia than in battle. Entire populations suffered, civilians and military personnel. This was an enemy no strategy could defeat. It targeted the most robust, those fighting the war and workers supporting the soldiers as well as the young and the elderly. Without combining the narratives of military conflict and medical victimization, neither of the two wars being fought simultaneously can be understood.
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