World War II cast an enormous cultural shadow over American life.  It provided a backdrop for novels, television shows, and—especially—movies.  Like many boys who grew up in the decades after the war, I read about the conflict, traced my fingers across maps illustrating the U.S. island-hopping campaign in the Pacific, watched and rewatched war movies, and constructed models of P-51 Mustangs and B-17 bombers.

The Warrior Image examines how American culture viewed fighting men in the shadow of World War II, starting in the 1940’s when the war was in progress and running through 1978, when the Vietnam War films Coming Home and The Deer Hunter were released.  Andrew Huebner relied on press accounts, works of fiction, movies, and other media in writing his book.  He proposes that, while the perception of the soldier evolved over 30 years in the United States, the warrior image created during the “good war” had much in common with that of the war in Vietnam, even though public perception of the two wars was (and remains) entirely different.  He credits the Korean War with having played an important role in the evolution of that image.

The film industry, which began making movies about the U.S. role in World War II shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, was hugely influential in shaping the image of the war and its combatants.  Huebner focuses on movies that show the struggles of the common soldier, such as The Story of G.I. Joe, based on the columns of Ernie Pyle.  He claims that Pyle “had become cynical about the war yet [he] steadfastly sympathized with the GI, writing dispatches that portrayed the impact of battle without sentimentality.”  The Story of G.I. Joe is true to Pyle’s vision, depicting combat troops in Italy living in squalor and grimly struggling to survive.  Instead of “heroic platitudes and lofty purposes,” there were “mud, blood, and the sheer monotony of the infantryman’s life.”

Huebner calls John Wayne’s The Sands of Iwo Jima “arguably the most popular World War II film of all time.”  Viewed superficially, the film is a patriotic celebration of the Marine Corps in one of the war’s great battles; but Huebner presents an alternative interpretation.  He notes the intense conflict and ill feelings between Wayne’s character, Sergeant Stryker, and the men he commands.  “The marines under Stryker’s command fight amongst themselves and with Stryker almost as much as they fight against the Japanese.”  Although it is common to depict conflict in the ranks in military and war films, Huebner has a point to make about the disharmony depicted in the picture.  Wayne’s character broke a fellow Marine’s jaw with a rifle during bayonet training and drew a bead on another to keep him from exposing their position at Tarawa.  It is easy to miss this angle, Huebner suggests, because “by the end of the film it had all but evaporated in a haze of victory, patriotism, and sacrifice atop Mount Suribachi.”

The warrior image continued to evolve in the 1950’s, aided in part by the U.S. experience in Korea.  Huebner credits glossy magazines—Time, Newsweek, Life, and The Saturday Evening Post—with having played a dominant role in shaping public perception of the Korean War.  Unlike in World War II, the military did not censor the press during the early months of the conflict, and news accounts were often critical of military leadership and skeptical of the progress it claimed to be making.  Additionally, editors ran stories—sometimes accompanied by pictures of tired and tearful soldiers—on the fatigue and lack of preparedness of U.S. troops in Korea.

The Korean conflict provided new material for war movies that, reflecting the unsatisfying conclusion of the war, were often bleak.  Men in War is a grim—almost noir—Korean War film from 1957, and Huebner discusses it at some length.  Anthony Mann’s film depicts a small band of soldiers cut off from allied forces and plagued with fear, and includes one character who is in a near-catatonic state from battle fatigue.  “The UN forces in Men in War live by a chaotic, confused code of discipline—more than a decade before that disturbing image ignited widespread public concern during the Vietnam War.”  The Army denied assistance for the film because it depicted insubordination and a lack of discipline among the soldiers.

During the Vietnam War the government and the military endured a crisis of legitimacy as protesters took to the streets to denounce the war, while TV networks showed uncensored footage on the evening news.  Among the disturbing images that crept into American living rooms was that of American soldiers burning a thatched-hut village during a search-and-destroy mission in 1965.  Morley Safer of CBS News recorded the event and opined that, “to a Vietnamese peasant whose home means a lifetime of backbreaking labor, it will take more than presidential promises to convince him that we are on his side.”   President Johnson pungently asked CBS president Frank Stanton, “Are you trying to f-k me?”

An infamous episode occurred in March 1968 but was not revealed until a year later: the massacre at My Lai led by Lt. William Calley, Jr.  Public reaction to the event revealed a high level of sympathy for U.S. troops, even after the war had become unpopular.

Lieutenant Calley, writes Huebner, was an “ineffectual leader and a menace to the Vietnamese.”  Calley and his troops killed hundreds of noncombatants in a massacre described by a participant as “just like a Nazi-type thing.”  A scandal erupted on the home front after Seymour Hersh broke the story, but Calley and his men were perceived by the public mainly as victims of military brainwashing and harsh wartime conditions.  Indeed, Calley and his men were lionized as folk heroes.  A song called “The Battle Hymn of Lt. Calley” sold hundreds of thousands of copies in 1971.

Huebner closes his narrative with the releases of The Deer Hunter and Coming Home.  These two films, which competed for Oscars in 1978, help to round out the evolution of the warrior image.  Huebner notes that, “though they are portrayed sympathetically, the vets in The Deer Hunter [and] Coming Home . . . seem damaged by their experiences.”

Indeed, the films focus on the physical and emotional damage combat has on soldiers.  Coming Home particularly depicts the pain and humiliating loss of control involved with becoming a paraplegic.  Huebner notes that the movie

continued to rewrite the rules of masculinity. . . . Movie audiences gradually saw men in uniform crying, comforting other men, refusing to fight, and speaking more freely about their feelings. . . . Coming Home far surpassed anything that had come before it in recasting the masculine hero.

The evolution of the warrior image that Huebner depicts tracks roughly with changes in the conception of American manhood in the same period.  As early as the 1940’s and 50’s, popular culture occasionally depicted soldiers as cynical toward the military brass and their war aims, but it only haltingly portrayed soldiers as victims.

Over the years that hesitation evaporated, until Coming Home could depict Luke Martin throwing a tantrum over the difficulties he faced as a paraplegic in a veteran’s hospital.  But this phenomenon did not occur on the screen only.  Huebner cites historian Peter Novick’s lament that, in American society, “stoicism is replaced as a prime value by sensitivity” and suggests that the rise of “sensitive soldiers in American culture may have helped inspire a widening range of acceptable male . . . behavior.”  Perhaps that is not an entirely negative development.  Yet, once the range of “acceptable male behavior” started to widen, it quickly developed into a chasm.


[The Warrior Image: Soldiers in American Culture From the Second World War to the Vietnam Era, by Andrew J. Huebner (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press) 371 pp., $24.95]