Toward the end of “Looking for the Good War,” Elizabeth D. Samet’s discerning new book about the gauzy mythology that has shrouded the historical reality of World War II, she reminds us of the 2019 speech that then-President Trump gave at Normandy, on the 75th anniversary of D-Day. Some listeners were so surprised by the solemnity of Trump’s words that they eagerly welcomed it as evidence that he was donning the mantle of dignified statesman. But Samet, a professor of English at West Point who has previously written about teaching the literature of warfare, refuses to grade on a curve.
She briskly enumerates the speech’s jumble of platitudes — “‘Great Crusade’ (Eisenhower), ‘Freedom’s Altar’ (a Civil War song), ‘consecrated to history’ (bastardized Lincoln), ‘new frontiers’ (misappropriated Kennedy), ‘heat of battle,’ ‘fires of hell,’ ‘Nazi fury,’ ‘awesome power,’ ‘breathtaking scale,’ ‘cherished alliance,’ ‘undying gratitude’ (clichés) and ‘tough guy’ (ad-lib).” What Samet calls our “tin-eared age of tweets” can make it harder to distinguish soaring oratory from flimsy bombast, but “most of the sentences won’t bear the weight of careful reading,” she writes.
And “careful reading,” as Samet provocatively (and persuasively) argues, can in fact be a matter of life or death. Glib treatments of World War II have done real harm, she says, distorting our understanding of the past and consequently shaping how we approach the future. As “the last American military action about which there is anything like a positive consensus,” World War II is “the good war that served as prologue to three-quarters of a century of misbegotten ones.”
Her book is therefore a work of unsparing demystification — and there is something hopeful and even inspiring in this. Like the cadets she teaches at West Point, civilians would do well to see World War II as something other than a buoyant tale of American goodness trouncing Nazi evil. Yes, she says up front, American involvement in the war was necessary. But she maintains that it’s been a national fantasy to presume that “necessary” has to mean the same thing as “good.”
Among the most credulous offenders, she says, have been figures like Stephen Ambrose and Steven Spielberg, who came together for the HBO mini-series of Ambrose’s “Band of Brothers” — an ode to American might and pristine intentions. Ambrose may have been an academically trained historian, but he seemed to pride himself on being a hagiographer. “I was 10 years old when the war ended,” he once recalled. “I thought the returning veterans were giants who had saved the world from barbarism. I still think so. I remain a hero worshiper.”
Not that Ambrose’s heroes would have necessarily recognized themselves in his beatific portraits. Samet quotes a memoir by the Shakespeare scholar Alvin Kernan, who joined the Navy in 1941 in order to escape a dire economic situation in rural Wyoming. “We were children still,” he wrote, “and, like all children, fascinated with killing.” Such children may have fought valiantly, Samet writes, “but their motivations were hardly lofty, their experience less than ennobling.”
The extreme depravity of the Nazis would retrospectively sanctify the “inglorious work” of the Allied effort, but Samet points out that even after American entrance into the war, liberating the Jews was never a priority. “Why We Fight,” a series of propaganda films that Frank Capra made between 1942 and 1945, made no mention of the Nazis’ systematic attempt to exterminate the Jews, even though the American government learned of the Final Solution” as early as the summer of 1942.
The United States only entered the war after the attack on Pearl Harbor — and even then, Samet says, contemporary observers remarked on “a general American indifference to the fact that the world was on fire.” The war in the Pacific was “begun in revenge and complicated by bitter racism,” she writes. She quotes a Marine’s memoir recounting how Americans’ antipathy toward the Nazis couldn’t compare to their “burning hatred” for the Japanese. “Japanese were looked upon as something subhuman and repulsive,” the journalist Ernie Pyle wrote, “the way some people feel about cockroaches or mice.” Surveying the records of the era, Samet contrasts this dehumanization with the portrayal of European fascists, who were more typically described as “gangsters.”
Despite the swift ascent of the “good war” mythology, there was a moment after World War II when a more complicated picture persisted — and traces of it continue to this day, even if an “open, ambivalent, reflective mode of remembrance” has been largely obscured, Samet writes. She seems to have seen every noir film featuring a disillusioned veteran who struggles to adjust to the postwar American dispensation. But she also shows how Hollywood was quick to overwhelm the culture with its “habitual optimism.” The 1947 movie “The Hucksters,” for instance, begins with a veteran returning to the advertising business only to find himself feeling disgusted by it; the happily-ever-after ending comes not with him rejecting the industry but with his resolve to “sell good things, things that people should have, and sell them with dignity and taste.”
The fall of Saigon in 1975 may have temporarily hobbled the American strut of exceptionalism and invincibility, but the end of the Cold War and the beginning of Operation Desert Storm worked to restore some American confidence. Yet as good as such confidence can feel, it can also be deadly, Samet writes, feeding a “pernicious American sentimentality” that “short-circuits reason.”
She ends with a chapter on the old Lost Cause mythology of the Civil War, which we have turned into “a kind of theme park,” suffused with symbolism and nostalgia, ignoring the expansionist wars this mythology later enabled. The country’s imperialist ambitions in the late-19th and early-20th centuries were promoted as a nationalist project that would finally unite the North and South against a foreign enemy.
But Samet is maybe too insistent that the truth of the Civil War has been irrevocably lost to fanciful delusion. The myth, she says, is “so resistant to all subsequent attempts to undo it, the removal of a few statues and the renaming of a few buildings notwithstanding.” This seems to me a pat way of playing down what’s been happening over the last several years. Dismantling a few statues may not amount to a wholesale revision of historical memory, but to write it off as extraneous detail is to submit to another abstraction, one where the edges of Samet’s nuanced argument are tidier than they need to be. As she herself puts it, “Wars are seething struggles, not object lessons.”