At the beginning of World War I, combatant soldiers, steeped in nationalism, looked at war as a way to demonstrate their courage and achieve glory. Although they didn't enter the war until 1917 and didn't see battle until the following year, American troops were no different. For many of them, the idea of war was completely illusory, as they would quickly find out. This difference between their illusions of grandeur and the catastrophic reality of the war is the ironic theme of Hemingway's short story "Soldier's Home."
Harold Krebs goes off to fight as a United States Marine from a small midwestern town, just like millions of other young American men. Krebs fights in some of the most intense battles of the war, including at the Battle of Belleau Wood, where American forces suffered more than 10,000 casualties. This represented more casualties than the Marines had suffered in their entire previous history.
That things were certainly not glorious for Krebs is suggested in the story's second paragraph, which describes a photograph of Krebs with another soldier and two German women. Rather than being a heroic chronicle of Krebs's war experience, it is an underwhelming picture showing two soldiers in ill-fitting uniforms with two girls who are "not beautiful." The Rhine River, a longtime symbol of romance and heroism, "does not show in the picture."
Krebs is even robbed of the glory of bragging about his exploits upon his return, as he comes home late and "the greeting of heroes was over." When he does try to talk about the war, nobody really wants to listen. They are no longer interested in the "atrocity stories." When he attempts to embellish his actions with lies, he later feels "the nausea in regard to experience that is the result of untruth and exaggeration." He even has to acknowledge that, despite the exhilaration of going to war, he had been "sickeningly frightened all the time."
Not surprisingly, then, Krebs' homecoming is disastrous. He no longer feels at home in his small Kansas town and has no idea how to react to the pressure put on him by his father and mother, who are living in a different reality. For Krebs, his hometown only increases his alienation, and he decides at the end of the story to "go to Kansas City and get a job" in order to satisfy his parents and attempt to rebuild his life after the brutal trauma of war and homecoming.