Has the American myth of the Good War helped ensnare us in bad ones?
Carlos Lozada, in a book review in the November 22, 2021 issue of The New Yorker, discusses Elizabeth D. Samet’s Looking for the Good War: American Amnesia and the Violent Pursuit of Happiness” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux).
Elizabeth D. Samet is a professor of English at West Point and the author of works on literature, leadership, and the military.
The terrorist strikes of September 11, 2001, supposedly launched a new kind of American war, with unfamiliar foes, unlikely alliances, and unthinkable tactics. But the language deployed to interpret this conflict was decidedly old-school, the comfort food of martial rhetoric. With the Axis of Evil, the menace of Fascism (remixed as “Islamofascism”), and the Pearl Harbor references, the Second World War hovered over what would become known as the global war on terror, infusing it with righteousness. This latest war, President George W. Bush said, would have a scope and a stature evoking the American response to that other attack on the U.S. “one Sunday in 1941.” It wouldn’t be like Desert Storm, a conflict tightly bounded in time and space; instead, it was a call to global engagement and even to national greatness. “This generation will lift the dark threat of violence from our people and our future,” Bush avowed.
“Every American exercise of military force since World War II, at least in the eyes of its architects, has inherited that war’s moral justification and been understood as its offspring: motivated by its memory, prosecuted in its shadow, inevitably measured against it,” she writes in “Looking for the Good War: American Amnesia and the Violent Pursuit of Happiness” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). A professor of English at West Point and the author of works on literature, leadership, and the military, Samet offers a cultural and literary counterpoint to the Ambrose-Brokaw-Spielberg industrial complex of Second World War remembrance, and something of a meditation on memory itself. It’s not simply that subsequent fights didn’t resemble the Second World War, she contends; it’s that the war itself does not resemble our manufactured memories of it, particularly the gushing accounts that enveloped its fiftieth anniversary. “The so-called greatness of the Greatest Generation is a fiction,” she argues, “suffused with nostalgia and with a need to return to some finest hour.”
President George H. W. Bush, in expelling Saddam Hussein from Kuwait in 1991, believed that he had also exorcised the demons of that bad war (the Vietnam war). “By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all,” he exulted in a White House speech. This past summer, amid worries that Kabul 2021 would resemble Saigon 1975, President Biden declared, “There’s going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of an embassy of the United States.”
Should we see the current conflict between Russia and Ukraine in the light of the Second World War; is Putin Hitler, Russia Nazi Germany and Ukraine Poland? Samet writes: “In a climate in which the pressures to sentimentalize are so strong and victory and defeat are so difficult to measure,” she writes, “it seems a moral imperative to discover another way to read and write about a war.”