Has the Myth of the "Good War" Done America Harm?Historians in the News
tags: Cold War, military history, patriotism, militarism, World War 2, American century
LOOKING FOR THE GOOD WAR
American Amnesia and the Violent Pursuit of Happiness
By Elizabeth D. Samet
Watching the tragic end of our withdrawal from Afghanistan, Americans could easily have forgotten that the war began in a spasm of triumphalism. Days after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, President George W. Bush pledged that Al Qaeda and its allies would “follow in the path of fascism, Nazism and totalitarianism” to “history’s unmarked grave of discarded lies.” Fast-forward 20 years. Abroad, the United States has been chastened in its post-9/11 wars. At home, American democracy is riven by division and endangered by creeping authoritarianism.
How did this happen? In her magisterial new book, “Looking for the Good War,” Elizabeth Samet, a professor of English at West Point, finds answers in the same historical wellspring that Bush tapped into: our mythologizing of war, particularly our triumph over fascism, Nazism and totalitarianism in the 20th century. Samet leaves little doubt about where she stands in the wording of the question that frames her book. “Has the prevailing memory of the ‘Good War,’ shaped as it has been by nostalgia, sentimentality and jingoism, done more harm than good to Americans’ sense of themselves and their country’s place in the world?”
We all know the prevailing memory of the “Good War.” Abroad, Americans from all walks of life came together to defeat tyranny and free the oppressed. At home, Americans were united in fidelity to the cause. And there is a cinematic quality to the images that Samet revisits, projected into our collective memory like a black-and-white newsreel: our troops distributing chocolate to children, receiving kisses from Frenchwomen and liberating concentration camps while the arsenal of democracy hummed back home. To Samet, this mythmaking reached its apotheosis around the turn of the century, with the publication of books by Stephen Ambrose and Tom Brokaw. It is hard not to blush a little when Samet quotes Brokaw’s declaration: “This is the greatest generation any society has ever produced.”
Of course, there is nobility in celebrating the U.S. victory in a just war and honoring those who served. Samet reaffirms that truth while forcing our attention on a more complicated reality. A sizable “America First” movement sympathized with aspects of Hitler’s ideology, which borrowed from our history of white supremacy. Americans were reluctantly drawn into war only after Pearl Harbor, and liberating the Jews was never a priority. Racism permeated our military forces — most obviously in mandated segregation, and in the restoration of Confederate war heroes in the naming of military facilities and the narrative of national greatness. In the firebombing of German and Japanese cities, the United States was indiscriminate in its use of violence. For U.S. troops who fought, the war was often something to be endured and not celebrated.
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