World War II left behind the dangerous and seemingly indestructible fantasy that our military intervention will naturally produce (an often underappreciated) good. Each succeeding conflict has led to the reprise and reinvention of the Good War’s mythology to justify or otherwise explain uses of American power.
Elizabeth D. Samet, Looking for the Good War
Eighty years ago, Americans were fighting fascism abroad on the battlefronts of the Second World War. Now the conflict is largely recalled as “the Good War,” a noble fight to rid the world of tyranny, and the last clear American military victory. But the history and evolution of the national memory of the war is much more complex and clouded by sentimentality, nostalgia and exceptionalism.
Acclaimed author and West Point Professor Elizabeth D. Samet wrestles with the mythologizing of the war and the risks that poses for policymakers, military leaders, and citizens alike in her recent widely-acclaimed book on America and the war, Looking for the Good War: American Amnesia and the Violent Pursuit of Happiness (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). She confronts how misconceptions and romanticized versions of the war have shaped American identity and policy and influenced conduct of subsequent fraught wars in Korea, Vietnam, and the “Forever Wars” in Iraq and Afghanistan.
To understand perceptions of the war over the past eight decades, Professor Samet studied a trove of cultural material including movies, novels, comic books, poetry, diaries, letters, newspaper accounts, official documents, and even travel guides produced by the military. She found many standard tropes of triumphalism in popular media that cemented the idea of “the Good War,” but also uncovered sources in films and books and other resources that revealed ambivalence about violence and veterans and even the reasons for fighting.
As she reaffirms the sacrifice of American troops and the necessity for opposing totalitarian regimes during World War II, Professor Samet finds that popular culture, from films to comic books, inculcated audiences with the strong message that problems are best solved with violence. And also, confidence arising from the victory over fascism and new superpower status often led to an American preference for using martial violence in addressing foreign policy issues. Bringing to bear her years of experience as a professor of future Army officers, Professor Samet observes that our often-flawed war making since 1945 reflects the risks to our military and our nation of sentimentalizing and mythologizing the Good War.
Professor Samet teaches English literature at the US Military Academy at West Point. She is a renowned author and critic whose other books include No Man's Land: Preparing for War and Peace in Post-9/11 America; Soldier's Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point (winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Current Interest, and voted one of the 100 Notable Books of 2007 by The New York Times); and Willing Obedience: Citizens, Soldiers, and the Progress of Consent in America, 1776–1898. She also was editor of Leadership: Essential Writings by Our Greatest Thinkers; The Annotated Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant; and World War II Memoirs: Pacific Theater. Her articles have appeared in many publications, including The New York Times Magazine, The New York Times Book Review, and The New Republic. In addition, Professor Samet has been the recipient of a National Endowment for the Humanities Public Scholar Grant; the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. She earned her doctorate in English Language and Literature at Yale.
Professor Samet graciously responded by email to an extensive list of questions on her career and on her widely praised recent book.
Robin Lindley: Thank you Professor Samet for considering questions on your work as a professor and on your groundbreaking book, Looking for the Good War. I also read your moving memoir about teaching at West Point, Soldier’s Heart. Before getting to your new book, what are a few things you’d like readers to know about your experience as a civilian professor of English at the US Military Academy? Does dealing with students in a military environment of strict discipline and regimentation affect your teaching? Do the responsibilities of the cadet-students differ from expectations in a civilian university?
Professor Elizabeth Samet: Thank you very much for the invitation. I look forward to answering your questions. First, I should make clear that my answers do not reflect the opinions of West Point, the DOD, or the US Government.
You could walk into one of my classes at the Military Academy and, were it not for the uniforms, probably think you were in a typical college classroom. Yet if you sat there long enough, there would be some chord struck, some observation made, some connection drawn that would disclose the particular context in which my students and I work and learn. All else may be uncertain, but the cadets in my courses know that on the very day they graduate they will also be commissioned as second lieutenants in the US Army. As a result, they have things on their minds that not all of their civilian peers do: not only the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq or the possible time and place of future conflicts but also ways in which literary and cinematic representations of war and peace can shed light on their chosen profession.
Robin Lindley: How did you come to teach at West Point? Did you have a military background in your family?
Professor Elizabeth Samet: The short answer to that question is my father and Ulysses S. Grant. To amplify: My father served in World War II, about which I acquired great curiosity even as a child. His army bears little resemblance to the army of today, but our many conversations about his war certainly primed me to take seriously the possibility of teaching those who might fight future wars in our name.
Many people assume it must have been West Point that introduced me to Grant, but it was Grant, whose Personal Memoirs I first encountered in graduate school and later edited, who introduced me to the Military Academy. Like many cadets, he had a deeply ambivalent experience. An army life takes some getting used to, and Grant never took to military discipline or the study of tactics, but he enjoyed reading, drawing, and riding horses, and he also excelled at mathematics.
Grant devotes only a few pages to his West Point experience, but the book as a whole was such a revelation to me and so important to my developing understanding of the American military that I became curious about the institution that helped to shape him. That made me pay attention I otherwise would probably not have done to the announcement of an assistant professor position at West Point toward the end of my graduate work at Yale.
Robin Lindley: In both Soldier’s Heart and Looking for the Good War, you describe books you use for your courses with cadets. Many readers may be surprised that you include great works that present sardonic views of the military and war and books that many consider as antiwar. As I recall, you include writers such as Ambrose Bierce, Mark Twain, Joseph Heller, E. B. Sledge, Tim O’Brien, and more. How do your students who have agreed to serve in the Army respond?
Professor Elizabeth Samet: Perhaps such surprise is natural, but when people consider deeply who my students are and the often-brutal work for which they are preparing, they usually come to understand the necessity of teaching the full range of war writing available to us.
In important ways, my students are idealists, admirably committed to ideas of duty and service, but as officers they will also be confronted with the grim realities of warfare itself. Sorrow, loss, and confusion—often disillusionment—are inextricable from that experience and form the subject of some of the world’s richest literature and art. To encounter the representation of war in such works is to recognize that others have endured or sympathetically imagined war’s attendant suffering and created something valuable from its destruction.
I often think of our charge as enabling future officers not only to go war but also to come home. Neither journey is easy, and in addition to good training and good fortune, my students will need all the help that literature might provide along the way.
Robin Lindley: Your book offers a sobering look at war, and the Second World War in particular. You address how “The Good War” has been romanticized and sentimentalized. You contrast the nostalgia by giving a human face to the reality of war. What prompted you to write Looking for the Good War now? Was there an incident or a person who sparked your new study?
Professor Elizabeth Samet: Here, again, the answer is, in part, my father. As I write in the book’s acknowledgments, I first knew the Second World War as his war. I grew up asking him to tell me stories about it, and I prize the anecdotes he shared with me. I also grew up with the impression that his war was somehow different from all the wars that followed—the cause more clearly justified, the outcome more definitive, than those of its successors—as indeed it was. But I also began to understand that World War II was of course just as brutal and grim and full of misery as every other war. The epithet “good war” came to seem misleading at best.
When the country found itself at war several years after I arrived at West Point, I began to see the kinds of damage our collective memory of that earlier war had done to the United States even as remembrance provided a powerful, fortifying national touchstone.
At this point in the discussion, I usually find it helpful to clarify that my book is not a history of World War II; it is not an argument that our participation in that war was unnecessary or unjustified; and it is not an attempt to diminish either the cruelty and crimes of the regimes ultimately defeated by the Allies or the significance of their victory and of the postwar liberal international order. Rather, it is an investigation into the ways in which our complicated participation in the war—a participation that was belated, ambivalent, reactive rather than proactive—has been distorted and distilled into the stuff of myth.
Robin Lindley: How do expressions such as “The Greatest Generation” and “The Good War” distort the history, the reality of the United States role in the Second World War?
Professor Elizabeth Samet: World War II was an aberration in so many ways: the existential threat posed by fascism, the unequivocal necessity of our participation, the decisiveness of Allied victory—these are only the most obvious.
In the book I explore the process by which the consequences of Allied victory—the liberation of Europe from Nazi tyranny most prominent among them—subsequently came to be conceived of as the animating causes of our participation. It explores the way in which our celebration of ourselves as righteous liberators came to obscure the truth that so many Americans, wedded to isolationism after the First World War, largely ignored the rise of fascism in the 1930s (some prominent figures even celebrated it). “Good War,” “Greatest Generation,” and other self-congratulatory phrases obscure certain compromising details: our initial reluctance to enter the war on behalf of liberating anyone; our callousness toward the fate of European Jewry even after the war, in our administration of the Displaced Persons camps; and our exportation of Jim Crow segregation to postwar Europe.
The idea of the “good war” likewise emphasizes home-front solidarity while ignoring the reluctance that survived even Pearl Harbor in some quarters as well as the diversity of motives, including cynical opportunism, at work among supporters of the war. Only months after Pearl Harbor, the government was worried that the public had already lost a sense of urgency about the war effort. Moreover, the myth exaggerates the economic sacrifices of a country that the war actually brought back to work for the first time after the Depression. Many Americans suddenly had more money than ever.
This extraordinary instance of American military might leading to the liberation of so many gave rise to a faith that whenever we employ violence abroad it will be met with the world’s gratitude and will yield a similar result—and that if it doesn’t, it is somehow not our fault. The myth of the “good war” turns American violence into a special case, its brutality almost miraculously mitigated by national temperament. The myth insists that war, at least when we prosecute it, is not a tragedy but a comedy, in the rich literary sense of comedy as a plot that ultimately restores order to chaos, sorts out winners and losers, enlarges the circle of justice, and thereby declares victory. This is a symptom of what Reinhold Niebuhr recognized in the 1950s as an American tendency to regard tragedy, like feudalism and fascism, as European—attributes of the Old World that we have somehow transcended. It also obscures one of the most crucial senses in which World War II was unique: its scope and modes of destruction.
Robin Lindley: As you write, it seems that there was a shift in our memory of the war around the time of the 50th anniversary of the war—in the early nineties. It was almost as though as switch was flipped. You cite Tom Brokaw and Stephen Ambrose and others as popularizing “The Greatest Generation” and “The Good War.” What happened to cause this sentimentalizing of the most brutal war in human history?
Professor Elizabeth Samet: The fiftieth-anniversary commemorations of the war crystallized ingredients that had been circulating for years into a coherent mythology, which held that the United States went to war in order to liberate the world from fascism and tyranny; that all Americans were absolutely united in their commitment to the war effort; that everyone on the home front made tremendous sacrifices; that Americans are liberators who fight decently, reluctantly, and only when they must; that World War II was a foreign tragedy with a happy American ending; and, finally, that everyone has always agreed on these points.
The anniversary coincided with our stunning demonstration of military superiority in the first Gulf War, which President George H. W. Bush celebrated in March 1991 as having “kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all.” Bush saw in the war over which he presided a way to erase the shame of Vietnam from the national record. And his status as a World War II veteran seemed to accord him special clout and credibility.
Our most recent engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq, lacking as they did focused popular support, conventional or definitive measures of victory, and clear ends, have now left us with another “syndrome” that some future administration might seek to “kick.”
Robin Lindley: You mention Studs Terkel’s book The Good War that offered dozens of interviews that captured the complexity of the war—and rather than waxing nostalgic, it seems Terkel used the expression “Good War” in an ironic sense.
Professor Elizabeth Samet: Terkel was a magnificent storyteller—no one like him—because he refused to make things neat, to iron out the contradictions. There’s a note at the beginning of the book in which he explains his use of the term, which he places in quotes: “Quotation marks have been added, not as a matter of caprice or editorial comment, but simply because the adjective ‘good’ mated to the noun ‘war’ is so incongruous.” One of the things that emerges clearly from his book is the way the Vietnam experience encouraged American nostalgia for World War II and energized the mythmakers.
Robin Lindley: For me, your book evoked the work of Paul Fussell, a combat veteran of the Second World War, who also wrote brilliantly and bitterly of his combat experience as well as how the world wars of the twentieth century influenced literature and art. You mention his work also. How do you see Fussell’s work? Did his writing influence your study?
Professor Elizabeth Samet: Fussell’s work is polemical, deeply angry, and deliberately provocative. He was willing to say what others are not, and even when his readings are incomplete or overdetermined they force a reader to grapple with the horror that is elemental to any war no matter its causes or moral justifications.
Robin Lindley: In popular culture, the US war in Europe is much better known to most Americans than combat in the Pacific, the “War Without Mercy”—as John Dower called it. My dad was engaged in horrific campaigns for weeks and months at a time in New Guinea. His war was not the island hopping of US Marines. You also mention the unique brutality of the Pacific Theater. A big question, but what did you learn about the experience of war in the Pacific when contrasted with Europe? Did the different experiences affect memory of the war as reflected in popular culture?
Professor Elizabeth Samet: Conceived and marketed on our side as a war of vengeance for Pearl Harbor, animated by racial animosity on both sides, exceptionally brutal, the war in the Pacific never fit as well with the myth. Despite the attention historians such as Dower have devoted to it, I think it is fair to say that the Pacific Theater is less familiar to most Americans. The experience of the American combatant in it is expressed nowhere more forcefully than in the Marine E. B. Sledge’s observations to Terkel: “It was so savage. We were savage.” Of the fighting on Peleliu Sledge recalled, “It was raining like hell. We were knee-deep in mud. And I thought, What in the hell are we doin’ on this nasty, stinkin’ muddy ridge? What is this all about? You know what I mean? Wasted lives on a muddy slope… What in the hell was glorious about it?”
Robin Lindley: I could spend hours with you—but I’d like to give readers a sense of a few movies and books you describe and how they portray war. You write about how the war has been depicted in movies. For example, you contrast the seemingly realistic Saving Private Ryan (1997) and the postwar classic about American bomber missions over Germany, Twelve O’Clock High (1949). How do you see the portrayals of the Second World War in these two films? How do they fit in your assessment of the war and memory now?
Professor Elizabeth Samet: Saving Private Ryan is a fascinating case. The men ordered to retrieve Ryan are deeply resentful of their mission: they wonder why their lives are worth less than his, why their mothers deserve less consideration than does Mrs. Ryan. But all of their questions, and all of the doubts expressed by their commander—Tom Hanks’s schoolteacher-turned-infantryman Captain Miller—are erased by the film’s frame story, in which Ryan, now an old man, returns to the American Cemetery at Normandy, surrounded by his family, to pay his respects. He asks his wife whether he is a good man—whether his life was worth all this sacrifice—and, assisted by the film’s score and by the image of the waving flag, we are meant to stop calculating and reasoning and simply to accept that the answer is “yes.”
The fundamental, unexplored irony is that wars of mass mobilization not only don’t encourage but effectively prevent the celebration of the individual life. It is the unit, the group, that matters, and the individual is subsumed within it and often sacrificed to keep it whole. That’s the message of Twelve O’Clock High, which reveals the almost-inhuman discipline required to preserve the corporate identity of a bomber group in which only cooperation can ensure maximum effectiveness. Breaking formation to save a plane in trouble endangers the entire group. And the pilot’s “obligation to the group,” the commander, General Frank Savage (Gregory Peck) tells a pilot who pulled out of formation to go to the aid of his roommate, is “the one thing that is never expendable … That has to be your loyalty—your only reason for being.” There is a bitter episode late in the film that serves to validate Savage’s unromantic approach. Over the objections of his now thoroughly disciplined executive officer, Savage turns back after a bombing run into heavy flak to protect some damaged planes. The executive officer and his crew are killed as a result, and this plunges Savage into a catatonic crisis.
Robin Lindley: You take a deep dive into postwar movies and how they reflected the war experience. The Best Years of Our Lives was an award-winning Hollywood film from 1946 that dealt with the trials and tribulations of returning veterans. How do you see that film and similar works on the experience of vets right after the war?
Professor Elizabeth Samet: Best Years delves deeply into veteran suffering, yet, as Pauline Kael pointed out (also in conversation with Terkel), even this “sensitive … by no means cheerful” film has the “patriotic and shiny-faced … look of a Life magazine cover.” For me, it’s the ending rather than the production values that is most telling: the final scene presents us with one marriage and the promise of another. It has, in other words, the ending we expect from a comedy rather than a tragedy. Patience, fidelity, and love win out over confusion, disillusion, and disgust. There’s a lot of wish-fulfillment at work in that conclusion.
Robin Lindley: In the 1947 novel The Gallery, as you discuss, the war veteran and author John Horne Burns writes about American soldiers in Naples. This novel isn’t well known, but you note that it provides a sense of the complicated reality of the war. For me, it deals with some of the same issues that Joseph Heller’s book Catch-22 explores. What would you like readers to know about Burns and The Gallery?
Professor Elizabeth Samet: This is a fascinating, experimental novel that reveals that profound suffering and confusion of wartime Naples. It was published in 1947, became a bestseller, and was soon forgotten perhaps because it doesn’t tell the story of the “good war.” We tend to think of the American experience in Europe as a monolith, but the GI’s experience in Italy was very different from that of France, France from Germany, and so forth. Burns depicts war as a vast network of corruption, from the GIs who live “off one another like lice” on a troop ship to the exploitation of the Neapolitans by the Americans, who manage to destroy whatever the Germans left. And the Neapolitans resort to selling themselves to survive. The novel is full of liars, grifters, schemers, and thieves. On the home front, meanwhile, one young lieutenant notes that the country has grown “sharp and young” since the war brought it out of the Depression: “Washington was a garden party.” No one escapes unscathed. In the final episode, arguably the most decent character in the entire book, Lieutenant Moses Shulman, is killed—cruelly, with his guard down, surprised in a farmhouse by his enemy.
Robin Lindley: And post WWII movies about the West also tapped into the war experience. What do you see in some of those movies that reflect memories of World War II—and even the Civil War?
Professor Elizabeth Samet: Of course, the resurgence of this genre in the late 1950s owed much to the new widescreen technologies so well suited to the wide-open vistas of the American West. These films are often read as Cold War allegories, but I find in them a commentary on the war recently ended. Often, they use the Civil War as a way of obliquely examining World War II.
Disaffected veterans roam the frontier in these films, just as their World War II counterparts wander the city in the contemporaneous film noir tradition. Often but not always Southerners, these soldiers come home to find that their prewar lives have been stolen from them and that they are unwelcome presences in a postwar world that does not want to be reminded of the catastrophe from which it has just emerged. There is a similar dynamic at work in film noir, where veterans tend to be regarded with great suspicion, wrongly accused of crimes, mistrusted as men who have grown used to solving problems through violent means. Their war records are brought in as proof simultaneously of their heroism and of their status as a threat to peacetime society.
The other issue that the Western forces us to reckon with is the misremembrance of the Civil War and the domination of the Lost Cause narrative, which used the weapons of nostalgia and sentimentality to turn slavery into something benign, to displace the story of African American emancipation, and to propagate a tale of industrial Yankee tyranny imposed on a bucolic South. The legacy of Civil War mythology includes the surface phenomena of statues and monuments but also a deep-rooted racial injustice cloaked for years in euphemism and hypocrisy.
World War II is only half as old as the Civil War, and although we have gone quite far down the road of sentimental remembrance, I hope there is still time to recover that less-distant past in all its complexity, ambiguity, and difficulty as opposed to looking to it as some kind of finest hour dominated by a greatness and goodness we look to recover. There’s a cruel irony that a country founded on the promise of the future now seems to dwell so stubbornly in the past.
Robin Lindley: You necessarily deal with a lot of sorrow and dark history in your teaching and you also have had students who have died in service and in combat. How do you deal with loss? And now our democracy faces serious threats. Where do you find hope and how do you convey that to your students who pledge their lives to defend our country—our democracy?
Professor Elizabeth Samet: Despair is the common legacy of all wars, and I suppose the chief way I combat it is by writing and teaching. To engage in such creative, generative activities—the latter in the fine and rewarding company of deeply thoughtful young people who will, if necessary, fight our wars in the future—is an act of hope.
Robin Lindley: Many thanks Professor Samet for your patience, consideration and thoughtful comments. And congratulations on Looking for the Good War and the overwhelmingly positive response to your book. It’s sure to prompt discussion and I hope you have many engaged readers. And best wishes to you and your students at West Point. They’re fortunate to have you as a professor.
Robin Lindley is a Seattle-based attorney, writer and features editor for the History News Network (historynewsnetwork.org). His work also has appeared in Writer’s Chronicle, Bill Moyers.com, Re-Markings, Salon.com, Crosscut, Documentary, ABA Journal, Huffington Post, and more. Most of his legal work has been in public service. He served as a staff attorney with the US House of Representatives Select Committee on Assassinations and investigated the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His writing often focuses on the history of human rights, social justice, conflict, medicine, art, and culture. Robin’s email: firstname.lastname@example.org.