The Boomers’ Bogus View of World War II

Looking for the Good War: American Amnesia and the Violent Pursuit of Happiness
by Elizabeth Samet
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
368 pp., $28.00

Few stories have as much power as those about war. No one can resist a good war story with a proper mix of heroic tragedy and moral uplift. Ironically, such stories are most often told by those farthest in time and space from the battlefield and most enjoyed by those who have never actually engaged in the fighting. Despite the cliches that have animated many a film plot, actual veterans can be surprisingly tight-lipped about their war experiences, even (or perhaps especially) in the presence of audiences that want to hear all the grisly details. But such reticence from those with the most experience can never dim the enthusiasm the rest of us have to hear about, talk about, and argue about war.

In her new book, Elizabeth Samet offers a meditation on the power of war narratives in shaping both the American self-image and our analysis of subsequent conflicts. Samet is especially interested in World War II as “the Good War,” against which all subsequent conflicts have been measured, and the alleged virtues of “The Greatest Generation” that fought it. Using history, memoir, and popular culture as sources, Samet highlights the contrast between the concrete realities of the war and its subsequent transfiguration in American memory since the 1990s. In revealing how Americans have chosen to remember WWII, she also reaches further back to that other iconic war in American memory, the Civil War, which, she writes, “continues to bleed freely across the national imaginary.”

The late novelist and essayist Joan Didion was famous for her aphorisms, and one of the most popular is the simple line, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” This is true of individuals and is no less true of communities. Communities construct narratives—historical, social, political—to comfort their members in the present and perhaps to guide them into the future.

“The so-called greatness of the greatest generation is … a sentimental fiction, suffused with nostalgia and with a need to return to some finest hour.”

Construction is the operative word here. Stories do not tell themselves; they are the product of human choices. Just as there is no single thing called “History” but rather a tangled mass of histories resulting from many historians wrestling with the raw material of the past, community stories do not simply spring fully formed from the head of Zeus. Precisely because the simple truth may be too painful to remember, societies build narratives through a process of selective commemoration and careful forgetting. They sand off rough edges and cover painful realities with gauzy comfort until the story reaches a shape and size that can be remembered and shared. Such narratives tell us about ourselves even as we tell them.

Throughout her book, Samet offers a clear-eyed analysis of how Americans have chosen to remember war; even more, she forces us to confront the reality that such memories are indeed chosen and constructed. As she concludes,

The so-called greatness of the greatest generation is … a sentimental fiction, suffused with nostalgia and with a need to return to some finest hour. In a nation once billed as the great nation of futurity, there’s a particular irony in dwelling so stubbornly in the past.

That Americans seek comfort in a particular vision of the past reflects a discomfort with the present, which has only grown over the past three decades as subsequent conflicts—from the mountains of Korea and jungles of Vietnam to the deserts of Iraq and mountains of Afghanistan—failed to produce the kind of clear and satisfying victories we think we remember. “In the midst of a miserable peace,” Samet writes, “the pains of war are quickly forgotten while its imagined glories grow.”

There are any number of factors that contributed to the elevation of World War II in American public consciousness. Calling it “the Good War” has a story all its own. The phrase may have been known for years, but it entered into the public consciousness most clearly when famous Chicago journalist and radio host Studs Terkel made it the title of his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, published in 1984. Terkel, a man of the left who cultivated an image as a populist intellectual, framed the story of the war as a struggle of the American people that linked to contemporary issues of social justice and political emancipation.

The obvious contrast Terkel had in mind, of course, was to the war in Vietnam, which no one considered a “good war,” and to the looming prospect of nuclear war, which was very much on the minds of his readers during the Reagan administration.

If Terkel provided the “good war” framework, the Baby Boomer trinity of Tom Brokaw, Stephen Ambrose, and Steven Spielberg painted the picture and made it an industry. As World War II veterans began dying out in the 1990s, their children—facing their own mortality and perhaps regretting youthful denunciations of their “fascist” parents—decided to go all in on celebrating “The Greatest Generation.”

Motivated by a mixture of filial guilt and delayed piety, this narrative fed a renewed enthusiasm for stories of World War II, resulting in the massive success of films such as Saving Private Ryan and television series like Band of Brothers, based on Ambrose’s book. Victory over actual fascists allowed the Baby Boomer generation to bask in the glow of parental accomplishment and begin a wave of “Good War” stories that has only now begun to ebb.

There is still much to be said and written about the role that generational relations have played in the continued mythology of World War II, but Samet’s book will have to be a part of that conversation. With a combination of broad learning and admirable prose, Samet reflects on how war shaped popular culture (her analysis on the role of wartime experience in the development of film noir is especially acute) and also how popular understanding of WWII continues to shape reactions to the wars that have followed.

She reminds her readers that retrospective enthusiasm for wartime experiences does not always match with the historic reality, wherein frustration and suspicion shaped American reactions to military life. Today’s Americans—most of whom have neither served in the military nor know anyone who has—celebrate a fictionalized version of heroism, “[but] when America did know its military, it liked it much less.”

Samet’s book is much more than a simple debunking of pious fictions, though she offers many useful and artful corrections. She not only points out the tensions between what we remember and what we can know about the past; she offers wise reflections on the implications of those tensions for the future of American society. Most of all, she highlights how false memories create real tragedies. “Victory in the twentieth century’s second global conflict,” she writes, “transformed the world and at the same time condemned the United States to a futile quest for another just as good, just as definitive, just as transformational.”

The stories we have told ourselves about the good war continue to drive us to seek new wars, even as greatness continues to recede before us. Whether we will ever learn to do better will depend on our willingness to tell better stories. And to listen to them.

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