World War Two is, as we all know, “the Good War,” and those who fought it, “The Greatest Generation.” In Looking for the Good War: American Amnesia and the Violent Pursuit of Happiness, Elizabeth D. Samet, a former professor at West Point, shows that beneath those glib characterizations much more was going on, and a lot more followed. With wide reading and references to film noir, comic books, American westerns, even Shakespeare as understood by Civil War America, she shows how both the Civil War and World War Two have been gradually mythologized, no longer rooted in accurate and sober understanding of what actually happened. Collective amnesia and creative reinforcement of Americans as reluctant fighters in only justified wars has set us up for continued deadly follies.
What was actually the case, she asks herself, leading up to, during, and following World War II? Was it really a golden age of unity, idealism and sacrifice as it has lately come to be seen? Showing that the answer is no, she asks how the current myth came to be, and what weight such beliefs have in the life of a nation.
“Has the prevailing memory of the “Good War,” shaped as it has been by nostalgia, sentimentality, and jingoism, done more harm than good to American’s sense of themselves and their country’s place in the world? Has the meaning of American force been perverted by a strident, self-congratulatory insistence that a war extraordinary in certain aspects was, in fact, unique in all. Has the desire to divorce that war from history–to interpret victory as proof of America’s exceptionalism–blinded us to our own tragic contingency?”
Joining other recent closer looks at American history ¹ and how it has been understood by historians and Americans at large, Samet reminds us that beneath the gauzy memories of unity and sacrifice in a great and necessary effort Americans were almost evenly divided about any necessity at all until the attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941; significant opposition continued even then. The war in Europe had been going on for two and a half years; Czechoslovakia had been dismembered, France had had capitulated, British cities had been bombed, German armies had captured major cities in western Russia and were at the gates of Moscow, yet in the United States as late as June, 1941 Charles Lindbergh was telling 30,000 in Des Moines that the British, President Roosevelt and the Jews were pulling the U.S. into war.
It was not just isolationism, a belief in “fortress America,” that kept Americans aloof from the European war. As late as February, 1939, a massive fascist rally had been held at Madison Square Garden. Tens of thousands marched under Nazi flags, hundreds of thousands listened to radio personalities praising fascist values and actions. Even as America joined the war, many held racial views very similar to those being proclaimed in Germany. In 1942 alone there were more than 240 riots and other racial incidents across the United States.
Using an impressive array of literary sources as proxies for “memory” Samet shows shows how recently this “golden age” of World War II has come about. Re-reading the reporting, stories and novels coming out of the war, she finds little to none of the glamor and nobility of more recent war writing. Writers such as John Hersey, John Ciardi, Studs Terkel, Paul Fussell (Wartime, 1989,) J. Glenn Gray, Ernie Pyle wrote accurately, and honestly but with little celebration of what they experienced. Proud of courage and endurance, certainly, but not cloaked in the gold of glory. The characters in the major novels from World War II were ambivalent, snarky, as ready to fight each other as fight alongside them. Virtually everywhere the soldiers are contemptuous of the leadership. Norman Mailer’s General Cummings in The Naked and the Dead is a barely closeted fascist. The Gallery by John Horne Burns writes of Americans in Naples who do what soldiers do. Irwin Shaw in The Young Lions writes of disgust with the whole myth of comradeship in war. J.D. Salinger in several short stories expressed disgust with the false idealism applied to combat; war was a bloody, inglorious affair. ²
In fascinating a fascinating chapter titled “Thieves Like Us” Samet finds evidence in pulp crime novels and film noir of the 1940s were tuned to the not-so-rosy culture of the war years and immediately following. Surprising to me, she points out that many of the down-and-outers, cynics, grifters, and hard-luck guys in those popular stories were returning veterans. Though not featured in films, the condition of returning Black veterans was even worse, as reflected in the stories and novels of Chester Himes, among others. Women in these films reflected the split image they had in reality: pretty, sweet girls back home the veterans hoped to return to, and newly independent women with ideas and money of their own from war-time work, often presented with misogynistic portrayals of broads, vixens, good-bad girls and femme fatales.
Overlapping with film noir as the war ended were American westerns. Having fallen out of favor in the 1930s, often with returning soldiers as directors, they saw a major resurgence, often continuing some of the same noir themes. The cowboys, rustlers, gamblers and prostitutes of the movies do double duty. Post-war veterans, instead of inhabiting the closed, dark spaces of noir, are thrust into the into wide open spaces of the West, the war being the Civil War instead of World War II. The notion of Americans as solitary, risk-taking, code-creating individualists, braving the unknown and fighting brutish savages with honor and integrity grew.
As in all story telling, the past serves as a focusable lens on the present. The Indians are ready at hand as savage (German) enemies; disgruntled veterans, as in noir, turn to crime (cattle rustling), shady deals, brawling, joining gangs, and to the pull between domesticity with a pretty woman and the lure of adventure and striking it rich. The brotherhood of (Indian) war brings former Northern and Southern soldiers together, continuing the transformation begun during Reconstruction and embellished at the turn of the century that a war fought for human liberty and national integrity was actually one of a bucolic agrarian Eden, wrongly understood and cruelly trampled.
John Ford’s trilogy of westerns, “Fort Apache” (1948), “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” (1949) and “Rio Grande” (1950) were only a few of the films in which a romanticized and ill-treated South made an appearance.
This change of narrative about the Civil War, which Samet calls “deeply and dangerously sentimental” got a large boost in Shelby Foote’s trilogy, The Civil War: A Narrative, 1958, 1963 and 1974. Not only was it an enormously popular narrative history of the war, but one written by a prominent “Lost Causer” who remained steadfast in his belief that the Civil War was not fought over slavery, that the Confederate Battle Flag “represents many noble things.”
This shifting view of the Civil War, she shows, was a forerunner and a template for a similar shift in views of World War II. What had been seen during the fighting and the decade following as complex, ambiguous, contradictory, even in the same person, began to lose the nuance. The inflationary sheen of World War II begins in the 1990s, in response it seems to two decades of unsentimental, and often caustic, writing about the debacle in Vietnam.
The writer most responsible for burnishing the Good War, was Stephen Ambrose beginning with his iconic Band of Brothers (1992), published on the fiftieth anniversary of America’s joining the war. Although purportedly a historian – one interested in all the details of an era– Ambrose wants, in his own words, “to tell the things that are right about America.”
“Ambrose … promulgated a fantasy that American soldiers somehow preserved a boyish innocence amid the slaughter required to save ‘the world from barbarism.’
From his books came the the HBO mini-series, “Band of Brothers,” and the wildly popular film, Saving Private Ryan, by Steven Spielberg. As Samet shows, the movie, while realistic in some ways, was wholly sentimental in its driving motif: that an army engaged in major mechanized warfare keeps the faith that “no man will be left behind.” While this might have been true in the days of knighthood, and later when casualties became low enough to count, it was not, and could not have been true in World War I or II. Nor, as she quotes others, is the calculation whether to risk the lives of dozens to recover the body of one an easy one.
As with most stories, war stories above all, a relatable character must be conjured, one we pull for and, in popular movies like this one, we expect the story to share our sentiments. The effect of this, Samet says, “effectively reduces World War II to a contest of individuals.”
The capstone burnishing this brutal, if necessary, war was Tom Brokaw’s book The Greatest Generation – in which he does not, of course, spend a lot of time on what else the generation brought us – from atomic weaponry, to a crushing military-industrial complex, to years of McCarthyite inquisitions, to… As Samet points out, the mythologizing believed by too many
“leads us repeatedly to imagine that the use of force can accomplish miraculous political ends even when we have the examples of Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan to tell us otherwise.”
Tucked among the many and novel revelations is one more unexpected than others: the knowledge and use of Shakespeare’s works by such as Ulysses S Grant, William T. Sherman, Abraham Lincoln and, most revealingly, by Frederic Douglas. Her dissection of the use made of Henry V’s famous speech at Agincourt to inspire sacrifice to the death by everyone from Lawrence Olivier in his famous 1944 morale boosting film, to General George Patton to American football coaches, while ignoring Shakespeare’s tapestry of ambiguity, dissent and that Henry was in France to “busy(ing) giddy minds / With foreign quarrels” is a gem of textual analysis.
With the unfortunate major flaw of not providing an index, despite a nice “Recommended Books and Texts,” Looking for the Good War: American Amnesia and the Violent Pursuit of Happiness, passes the test of being an important, readable, revelatory book about matters which concern us today.
“…sentimentality does more than shape the way we commemorate wars. It informs all those cultural and sociological attitudes in the shadow of which wartime and postwar policies are crafted, and it prevents a more productive and enduring sympathy that, in cooperation with reason, might guide our actions and help us become more careful readers of war’s many ambiguities and false seductions.
¹ Other recent books, reviewed here, excavating lost and buried American history are:
The Half Has Never Been Told of the importance of slavery for Southern immigrants to Texas in the decades before the Civil War
Forget The Alamo. The settler invasion of Mexico in pursuit of slave dependent cotton agriculture and, in more myth building, the defeat at the Alamo by the Mexican Army being turned into a battle cry of pride.
Down Along With That Devil’s Bones – Tracking down the stories of certain slave-owning Southerners elevated to icons of nobility and exemplars of the Lost Cause.
Unworthy Republic: The Dispossession of Native Americans and the Road to Indian Territory by Claudio Saunt. Though the “Trail of Tears” is used as shorthand for the treatment of Native Americans by settler whites, the complicity of virtually the entire white establishment, North and South, in turning settled and civilized people into refugees is not well enough known. This book will help.
Exterminate All the Brutes, Sven Lindqvst. Looking at colonial policies and practices around the world, Lindqvst makes the case that Hitler’s genocide had ample forerunners, some of which, in America, he even cited as he drew up his plans.
² Samet does not even touch on the the forgotten, or never written, history of battle atrocities in “The Good War.” Though Japanese atrocities were known, and over-believed during the war, little was reported about American’s similar behavior. For a stomach churning review see John W. Dower’s War without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War especially chapter three, titled “War Hates and War Crimes.” Japanese war crimes there were, in their thousands and ghastliness, but he also writes of the far less known Allied incidents in which prisoners were shot, in the hundreds, survivors at sea machine gunned, faces sliced open looking for gold capped teeth. Not apocryphal but in books by soldier witnesses, some trying to process their memories, published after the war, including William Manchester’s Goodby Darkness, E. B. Sledge, With The Old Breed, Guadalcanal Diary by Richard Tregaskis