Sugaring World War II as ‘good war’ is a terrible mistake

No doubt about it: the Second World War was by far the most important event that shaped the world we live in today. This gigantic conflict led to the demise of European empires, a desire for independence among the colonized peoples of Asia, the Middle East and Africa. It catapulted the United States into a position of global leadership it still holds, albeit tenuously. The Second World War inevitably led to the great battle of the last half of the 20th century, the Cold War, from which the United States and the West emerged victorious.

Among its myriad ramifications, World War II greatly reinforced America’s long-standing view of itself as a chosen nation, a “city on a hill” with a special mission to expand the borders of human freedom, both at home and abroad. A fascinating and subtle book recently published, In Search of the Good War: American Amnesia and the Pursuit of Happiness, by Elizabeth D. Samet, professor of literature at West Point, argues that popular understanding of America’s role in the conflict is deeply embedded in unexamined myths and wishful thinking. In short, this is not real history. The “heroic” interpretation of the war as a “great freedom crusade”, in which a unified and selfless American people rose up to meet the looming challenge of fascism and totalitarianism, and saved the world from moral as well as political abyss, obscures more than it illuminates, and strips the most destructive event in human history of its defining characteristics: the complexity, ambiguity, and abandonment of many limitations that nations have imposed on the conduct of war, with a view to limiting its destructiveness.

Moreover, says Samet, this mythical and self-satisfying reading of the American experience of the conflict has proven dangerous. This had a profound effect on the mindset of the American foreign policy establishment for more than seventy years, too often providing a false justification for military adventurism aimed at changing the social and political landscape of countries like Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq.

The sanitized and sentimental vision of the United States during World War II reached its apotheosis in the 1990s, but remains very much alive today. Leading the charge thirty years ago, renowned historian Stephen Ambrose, accompanied by NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw, and of course, Steven Spielberg, the filmmaker behind Saving Private Ryan and the miniseries Band of brothers. Ambrose, who began his career as a serious academic historian and biographer of Eisenhower, published several best-selling books during the decade, including Band of brothers and D-Day: June 6, 1944, among other books. These tomes present fast-paced, action-oriented narratives focused on celebrating the exploits and virtues of the ordinary American combatant in Western Europe.

Ambrose once said that as a ten-year-old he saw GIs returning from Europe as “giants who saved the world from barbarism”. This view of his subjects evidently prevailed in Ambrose’s imagination well into adulthood, shaping the structure and tone of his narratives far more than his demonstrable skills as a practitioner of serious historical analysis. But the real war, to paraphrase what Walt Whitman once said about the Civil War, is not in his books.

Ambrose’s World War II and Brokaw’s Famous Stories The greatest generation volume, says Professor Samet, share “an adoring tone and largely ignore the contradictions and complexity that mar a sentimental account of American decency and kindness”. The fundamentals of their myth-rich tales are stated with clarity and economy by Samet at the beginning of his book:

1. The United States entered the war to free the world from tyranny.

2. All Americans were absolutely united in their commitment to the war effort.

3. Everyone on the home front made huge sacrifices.

4. Americans are liberators who fight decently, reluctantly, only when they have no choice.

5. World War II was a foreign tragedy with a happy American ending.

6. Everyone agrees on points 1 to 5.

Without denying for a moment the necessity of war or the moral legitimacy of the Allied objective, Samet demolishes the authority of the celebratory tales of Ambrose, Brokaw, Spielberg and their more obscure acolytes by unpacking the experiences and reflections of American veterans. , serious historians and filmmakers who have delved into the most complicated and disturbing aspects of the war. Through his skillful exploration, we come to see, among other things, that the American people were anything but united behind the war until Pearl Harbor, and even then the commitment to fight in Europe was do not universally recognized by any stretch of the imagination. For most GIs, ideology – the commitment to eradicating fascism and militarism – was not a big motivating factor at all. On the home front, large numbers of ordinary Americans made little or no sacrifice, while hundreds of thousands of others profited by operating in the black market. American airborne “liberators” dropped incendiary bombs on German and Japanese cities, with the aim of burning civilians as well as militarily important targets alive. Although Roosevelt and the American high command were well aware that Jews were gassed and cremated in the death camps, liberating these horror chambers was never a priority.

Perhaps the most inconvenient truth for those who prefer to see the United States as the savior of the world in 1945 is this sobering fact: the American-British-led World War II Western Front of June 6 1944 until the end of the conflict the following May was a resolutely secondary front. “The main effort,” to use the military planners’ term, was in the East, where the Soviets and their allies waged a titanic struggle against the Nazis. The Soviet Union lost over 30 million people as a result of the conflict, including 10 million Red Army soldiers. The United States lost 405,000. Stalin was a master liar, but he told the hard truth when he said after the war that “England supplied the time, the Americans supplied the money and the Russians provided the blood”.

America’s celebratory tale of World War II, Samet says, appeals to our national vanity and “remains a bulwark against doubt and disillusionment, a golden age to which we can always retreat.” Yet this retreat, as Samet and many other serious students of recent American military history know, has some harmful implications. “Every American exercise of military force since World War II, in the eyes of its architects, has inherited the moral justification of that war and has been understood as its offspring: motivated by its memory, pursued in its shadow, inevitably measured against she.”

“It seems a safe bet that more Americans were killed as a result of incidents of incompetence and friendly fire during World War II than in Afghanistan and Iraq combined.”

Among the many books Samet recommends as an anecdote to the sentimentality and self-satisfied stories of Ambrose and Brokaw is Studs Terkel The good war an oral history of the conflict. The book stands out for offering a much more nuanced and realistic portrait of what the “Big One” was. In The good war, retired Rear Admiral Gene La Roque, who served as a junior officer in World War II and as a senior officer in Vietnam, reports that the “twisted memory” of World War II “encouraged men of my generation to be willing, almost eager, to use military force in the world. Unfortunately, “twisted memory” continued to fuel reckless military adventures long after the World War II generation was gone.

Of course, dozens of books have been published that present a more complicated and realistic view of the horrific violence and savagery that characterized the war. We could well start with the masterful stories of Rick Atkinson’s “Liberation Trilogy” on the European theater, or those of Ronald Spector eagle against the sun, a superb one-volume history of the Pacific War. For a harrowing and harrowing human account of an enlisted Marine’s experience fighting in the Pacific Islands, see E. B. Sledge’s With the old race on Peleliu and Okinawa. The great British military historian John Keegan called Sledge’s book “the best memoir of the Pacific War”.

Samet’s beautiful book, despite all its merits, is not the first to skilfully explore this vast theme. More than thirty years ago, literary historian Paul Fussell explored equally troubling themes in Wartime: understanding and behavior during the Second World War. Fussell’s ironic and sardonic account exposes the monstrosity that is mass production, industrial warfare as he saw it up close and personal as an infantry lieutenant commanding a US Army platoon in Europe. western. Much of the wanton destruction and needless violent death during US operations, Fussell says, can be attributed to the amateurishness of the US conscript army, as well as the incompetence and venality of officers in search of glory. Sheer bad luck seemed to hamper the commanders’ strategies and plans at every turn. Based on Fussell’s grim accounts of American operations in Europe and the Pacific, it seems a safe bet that more Americans were killed as a result of incidents of incompetence and friendly fire during World War II. than in Afghanistan and Iraq combined.

Fussell has no patience for the narratives of adventure stories of glory and bravery offered by popular historians of war. Like Samet and La Roque, Fussell sees America’s traditional World War II celebratory narrative not just as bad history, but as dangerous. Books like Robert Leckie’s Delivered from Evil: The World War II Saga— a 1987 book that anticipates the ‘greatest generation’ craze of World War II in the 1990s, led by Ambrose — “likes to assign a clear, and usually noble, cause and purpose to accidental events or degrading. Such stories thus convey to optimists and credulous a satisfying, orderly and even optimistic and sane view of catastrophic events – a fine way to encourage moralistic, nationalistic and bellicose politics.

Ultimately, Samet joins Fussell in urging Americans to experience the unease that comes from watching America’s actual experience in history’s most destructive war, warts and all, for one simple reason. . It’s true.

Photo illustration by The Daily Beast

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