“In Search of the Good War” says our nostalgia for WWII has done real damage


Towards the end of “Looking for the Good War,” Elizabeth D. Samet’s insightful new book on the vaporous mythology that enveloped the historical reality of WWII, she reminds us of President Trump’s 2019 speech. delivered in Normandy on the 75th anniversary of D-Day. Some listeners were so surprised by the solemnity of Trump’s words that they enthusiastically greeted him as proof that he was wearing the mantle of a man of ‘Worthy State. But Samet, an English teacher at West Point who has written on teaching war literature in the past, refuses to grade on a curve.

She vividly lists the jumble of speech platitudes – “‘Great Crusade’ (Eisenhower), ‘Freedom’s Altar’ (a Civil War song), ‘devoted to history’ (Lincoln bastard), ‘new frontiers’ (Kennedy hijacked), ‘heat of battle,’ the fires of hell ‘,’ Nazi fury ‘,’ awesome power ‘,’ breathtaking scale ‘,’ cherished alliance ‘,’ eternal gratitude ‘(clichés) and’ the tough ‘(ad-lib). What Samet calls our “era of tin-eared tweets” may make it harder to distinguish between soaring eloquence and fragile grandiloquence, but “the Most sentences will not bear the weight of careful reading, ”she writes.

And “close reading,” as Samet provocatively (and persuasively) argues, can in fact be a matter of life and death. The casual treatment of WWII did real damage, she says, distorting our understanding of the past and therefore shaping how we approach the future. As the “last American military action on which there is anything like a positive consensus”, World War II is “the good war that served as a prologue to three quarters of a century of unhappy people.”

His book is therefore a merciless work of demystification – and there is something hopeful and even inspiring about it. Like the cadets she teaches at West Point, civilians would do well to see WWII as something other than a rousing story of American goodness defeating Nazi evil. Yes, she said at the outset, American involvement in the war was necessary. But she maintains that it has been a national fantasy to assume that “necessary” must mean the same as “good”.

Among the more gullible offenders, she says, are figures such as Stephen Ambrose and Steven Spielberg, who came together for Ambrose’s “Band of Brothers” HBO miniseries – an ode to American power and with immaculate intentions. Ambrose may have been an academically trained historian, but he seemed to pride himself on being a hagiographer. “I was 10 when the war ended,” he recalls one day. “I thought the returning veterans were giants who saved the world from barbarism. I still think so. I remain a hero worshiper.

Credit…Hédy Samet

Not that Ambrose’s heroes necessarily recognized themselves in his beatific portraits. Samet quotes a memoir by Shakespeare scholar Alvin Kernan, who joined the Navy in 1941 in order to escape dire economic conditions in rural Wyoming. “We were still children,” he writes, “and, like all children, fascinated by murder. Such children may have fought valiantly, writes Samet, “but their motivations were hardly high, their experience less than ennobling.”

The extreme depravity of the Nazis would in retrospect sanctify the “inglorious work” of the Allied effort, but Samet points out that even after the United States entered the war, the liberation of the Jews was never a priority. “Why We Fight”, a series of propaganda films Frank Capra made between 1942 and 1945, makes no mention of the Nazis’ systematic attempt to exterminate the Jews, even though the US government has learned of the final solution. ” from the summer of 1942.

The United States did not enter the war until after the attack on Pearl Harbor – and even then, says Samet, contemporary observers noted “a general indifference among Americans that the world was on fire.” The war in the Pacific was “started with revenge and complicated by bitter racism,” she writes. She cites the memoir of a Marine recounting how Americans’ antipathy towards the Nazis could not be compared to their “burning hatred” for the Japanese. “The Japanese were seen as something sub-human and repulsive,” wrote journalist Ernie Pyle, “what some people think of cockroaches or mice.” Going through the archives of the time, Samet contrasts this dehumanization with the representation of European fascists, who were more generally described as “gangsters”.

Despite the rapid rise of “good war” mythology, there was a time after World War II when a more complicated picture persisted – and traces of it remain to this day, even though a “mode of memory open, ambivalent and reflective ”has been largely obscured, writes Samet. She seems to have seen every film noir featuring a disillusioned veteran struggling to adjust to the post-war American regime. But it also shows how Hollywood quickly overwhelmed culture with its “usual optimism.” The 1947 film “The Hucksters”, for example, begins with a veteran returning to the advertising industry only to feel disgusted by it; the forever happy ending comes not from rejecting the industry, but from his resolve to “sell good things, things people should have, and sell them with dignity and taste.”

The fall of Saigon in 1975 may have temporarily hampered America’s momentum for exception and invincibility, but the end of the Cold War and the start of Operation Desert Storm helped restore some American confidence. Yet as good as such trust can be, it can also be deadly, writes Samet, fueling a “pernicious American sentimentality” that “bypasses reason.”

It ends with a chapter on the ancient mythology of the lost cause of the Civil War, which we have turned into “a kind of theme park”, steeped in symbolism and nostalgia, ignoring the expansionist wars that this mythology has enabled. later. The imperialist ambitions of the country in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were promoted as a nationalist project that would finally unite North and South against a foreign enemy.

But Samet perhaps insists too much that the truth about the Civil War has been irrevocably lost in favor of a fanciful illusion. The myth, she says, is “so resistant to all subsequent attempts to undo it, despite the removal of a few statues and the renaming of a few buildings.” Seems like a simple way to play down what has happened over the past few years. Dismantling a few statues may not amount to a complete overhaul of historical memory, but to regard it as a superfluous detail is to submit to another abstraction, one where the edges of Samet’s nuanced argument are sharper than they shouldn’t be. As she says herself, “wars are bubbling struggles, not object lessons.”


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