Elizabeth D. Samet will make plenty of people angry with “Looking for the Good War.” In her searching analysis of changing American attitudes toward World War II over the course of 75 years, she characterizes its current glorification as “shaped … by nostalgia, sentimentality, and jingoism.” She has nothing good to say about Tom Brokaw’s worshipful account of “The Greatest Generation,” and she is withering about the work of historian Stephen E. Ambrose from which Brokaw drew his inspiration. Ambrose “promulgated a fantasy that American soldiers somehow preserved a boyish innocence amid the slaughter,” she writes, going on to describe one of his paeans to “citizen-soldiers” as “less historical analysis than comic-book thought bubble.” Samet’s real target, it becomes apparent, is the “garrulous patriotism” that Alexis de Tocqueville identified nearly 200 years ago: the insistence that the United States is a uniquely blessed nation, always a force for good, and any discussion of its flaws is unpatriotic. This blinkered view is enabled, she argues, by a collective amnesia that erases the complexities and contradictions that abound in all human experiences.
To remedy that amnesia, Samet enlists a wide variety of sources that paint a more realistic and complicated picture of World War II as it was lived on the home front and in the military. These include contemporary reporting and fiction by veterans, Hollywood war movies and postwar film noir, commentators ranging from Reinhold Niebuhr to James Baldwin, and multiple historians with harder-edged appraisals than Ambrose’s. Shakespeare, the Iliad, and the Odyssey get thrown in for good measure in a text that sometimes meanders but is unified by the author’s ethical fervor. Samet, who has written eloquently about her experiences teaching literature at West Point in “Soldier’s Heart” and “No Man’s Land,” clearly feels a particular responsibility to urge Americans to face facts about the nature of war — any war. Her students leave West Point and go into combat; “Looking for the Good War” seethes with her personal outrage over attempts to sanitize the brutality and suffering they will inevitably encounter.
She begins by darkening the rosy Greatest Generation image — a nation united at home by support for its soldiers’ battle abroad to liberate the world from fascism — with some less rosy facts. The US went to war because it was attacked at Pearl Harbor; studies of GIs showed that most were simply eager to get through it and go home. 1942 opinion polls revealed that 20 percent of Americans still wanted peace, and 53 percent “did not have a clear idea of what the war was about.” Veterans like Joseph Heller and John Horne Burns wrote novels based on their overseas tours that bluntly depicted American soldiers exploiting desperate local civilians and making money on the black market; while “Catch-22,” was somewhat controversial in 1961, “The Gallery” was a bestseller in 1947. Samet’s fascinating chapter about the immediate postwar years discerns an undercurrent of disenchantment, anxiety, and rage exemplified in the dark vision of film noir. These movies, populated by hardened men and dangerous women, offered a cynical view of a corrupt society ruled by greed. The fact that their protagonists were often veterans covertly expressed civilians’ fear that these men had come home permanently changed by the violence they had seen and inflicted, that they would be unable to assimilate into a world of “insistent normalcy.”
The first three chapters depict in rich detail an ambivalent, conflicted nation still grappling with the war’s impact and meaning in the late 1940s. Samet moves on to examine the growth of an idealized World War II mythology and its interaction with Americans’ perceptions of the subsequent Korean, Vietnam, and Gulf wars, as well as our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. “These conflicts, about which Americans tend to feel far more ambivalence, lie as close as World War II does to the heart of national identity, even if we prefer to think otherwise,” she comments. Her narrative thread gets somewhat tenuous in these chapters, which ramble among topics as far flung as racism toward Black soldiers in World War II and superhero movies as emblems of “contemporary American concepts of heroes and heroism.” But each seeming digression circles around her main point: unrealistic myths about the past have consequences. Her primary example, in the final chapter, is the Civil War, turned into “a theme park” of honor on the battlefield and fraternal (white) reconciliation. The fact that this skewed history has been vigorously contested in recent years does not, in Samet’s view, negate the damage it did: more than 80 years of unchecked, legal white supremacy in the South while white Northerners agreed to the fiction that the Civil War was simply a war to preserve the Union rather than, at least in part, a war over the South’s right to enslave people. The ongoing furor about taking down statues of Confederate soldiers, men who engaged in an armed rebellion against the United States, underscores her message.
Is the romanticization of World War II as pernicious? Samet thinks so. Ignoring Americans’ divisions and conflicts during the war, she argues, fosters nostalgia for an unreal utopia, resentment of any acknowledgment that there were some things wrong with America then, and resistance to any suggestion that past wrongs need to be remedied today. “The superstitious veneration of iron men and the backward-looking search to recover their illusory greatness can never sustain a republic,” she writes. In our present political climate, that comment can only be seen as foreboding.
LOOKING FOR THE GOOD WAR: American Amnesia and the Violent Pursuit of Happiness
By Elizabeth D. Samet
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 336 pp., $28
Wendy Smith is a contributing editor at The American Scholar and the author of “Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940.”