The Cost of Sentimentalizing War

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.

Lozada begins:

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.

Samet writes:

“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.” 

Lozada continues:

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.”

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7 Responses to The Cost of Sentimentalizing War

  1. josephurban says:

    War is the wrong term. It hides the reality. Civilians killed. Metal puncturing flesh. Building falling on children. That is war. It seems pretty obvious that there are many people in the world with fascist tendencies. Look at the Trump crowd, for example. Putin is one of those people. He murders his political rivals. He has raided the wealth of the Russian people and given it to his autocratic allies. Fascists cannot be appeased.

    Putin seeks to expand his influence into Ukraine. By military force.

    The question is not whether or not war is good. It is never good. The question is whether or not war is necessary. Putin certainly knows that any aggression on a NATO nation would result in severe military consequences for him. The US has legal treaty obligations to repel, with military force, any invasion of a NATO nation. So, he has avoided NATO nations and at all costs will make sure Ukraine does not enter NATO.

    Biden has made it clear. Putin and his cronies will pay a price. Not with military retaliation, but in other ways. The coming invasion of Ukraine is simply a land grab. Compare to Hitler? yes. Compare to Stalin after WW2? Yes. Compare to China and Tibet? Yes.

    The USA cannot do nothing while authoritarians are in power. That does not mean we should welcome or glorify war, but see it as a pragmatic necessity in some cases.


  2. Arthur Ahrens says:

    The United States has been at war in one form or another for the vast majority of its existence. 99% of Americans are completely unaware of this fact. War (or whatever you would like to call it) is embedded in out DNA. Just like slavery. The indoctrination in schools whitewashes these facts, contributes mightily to myth and repackages both as not so bad. Americans are woefully ignorant of history, which is why we continue to make terrible decisions.

    As to today…I’m trying to imagine FDR responding to German and Japanese aggression by saying we will revoke your VISA, Mastercard and all future banking privileges. I wonder how THAT would have gone over.

    Remember when Republicans considered godless Communists to be the execrable enemy? Now the talking heads on FOX (and their cults) advise appeasement that makes Chamberlain’s ceding of Austria look tame!

    Strange world, today.


  3. Gary Perry says:

    The US (under the Biden Administration), Britan, France, Germany and the rest of NATO could easily avoid this war had they really wanted to.
    The the “big Four” taking leadership and taking the stance of not bring Ukraine into NATO with all of its weapons commitments would have most likely never given Mother Russia a completely legitimate reason to be where they at today.

    Also, had the “big Four” announced to Putin, the Russian people and the rest of the world what these promised “crippling” sanction are going to be we also might not be in the same place that we are today.
    As President Joe says “trust me”, “you know the thing” the military supplying ndustrial complex needs to have ongoing and future weapons purchased, used and even blow-up to keep American workers employed, the stock market rolling and political campaign coffers full.
    How many politician’s “war chests” are in actuality industrial military funded war chests !

    There is no good reason to have this war.
    Perhaps Joe Biden, Hunter Biden and crew need this war to make it more difficult for the corrupt Ukrainian government”s and the highly experienced, talented, and “one hell of a model American” Hunter Biden’s “deals” to be investigated .
    If the American main street media would spend 10% of their energy investigating this Biden family debacle instead of salivating and pushing for Rusdia to invade Ukraine many innocent lives could be saved and many taxpayer’s money saved for otjerhu.ane purposes.


  4. Arthur Ahrens says:

    Often in the course of a month I attend civic meetings. At the beginning of each meeting, I say, “I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

    It has become the rare day that I don’t see a cohort of my fellow citizens disagreeing with their OTHER fellow citizens as to the meaning of liberty. And sadly, I too often see different standards of justice applied to the rich and to the poor, and to the white and to the non-white.

    Every time I say the pledge, I wonder if anyone feels the same as I—that our nation is no longer one nation, and certainly no longer indivisible. We’ve become weakened over the many decades of my life. And we have done it to ourselves, almost eagerly.

    It should come as no surprise to anyone that Russia and China exploit that weakness. We have interesting times ahead!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. josephurban says:

    Gary. Not sure why you would think that. The Ukraine is not part of NATO, therefore the US has no treaty obligations that we are aware of. As you know, it requires unanimous support for any new NATO members, and France and Germany have not supported Ukraine membership at this time. However, Ukraine has taken the first steps toward eventual membership, although in the recent past some Ukrainian leaders have not wanted to join. It is a complex issue. Not sure why “the big four” is to blame .
    Regarding sanctions. Biden has told Putin what those will be.Not only economic sanctions on Mother Russia, severely limiting access to western banks, trade, etc. But also PERSONAL sanctions on Putin and other oligarchs, preventing them from accessing their wealth outside of Russia. Biden and the German chancellor Scholz have also said that the Nordstrom 2 gas pipeline will not be put into operation if Putin invades. Since Russia gets more than 50% of its foreign dollars from oil and gas, this would be a major economic hit. The US has already increased its natural gas exports to Europe and those will be increasing., which will end the reliance on Russian gas.
    I agree that there is no reason for this war. Except that Putin is not reasonable. He is an authoritarian. And he fears (rightly) an American POTUS who does not kiss his ass like the last guy did. He knows the days of the US ignoring his activities is over.
    Of course, the silly “investigate Biden” bull shit is the frosting on the cake. Trump had Barr and the entire DOJ investigating Biden and Clinton for 4 years. And they found NOTHING. Zero. Zilch. If Barr had even a whiff of illegal activity by Biden it would have been front page news. That is some pretty old Kool-Aid you are drinking, my friend.
    If and when the Russian army moves into Ukraine there is only ONE person to blame. Trump’s hero: Vlad Putin. He and he alone is making the decision. A land grab, plain and simple. There will be no US soldiers involved UNLESS the UN gets involved, and Russia has veto power there so that won’t happen.


  6. josephurban says:

    Arthur. The US never was “one nation”. It has always been divided over race, region and economics. But in the past what held us together was the idea that elections decided leaders. No longer the case.Trump has ended that part of the social contract.


  7. whungerford says:

    Thank you all for your comments. At the time of the Civil War and after, the concept of Union was very important for those in favor and those opposed. At that time the Republican Party claimed its purpose was to “perpetuate the Union.” I see this as an example of sentimentalizing war–kidding ourselves about its purpose and aftermath.

    “States rights” is another example–the thirteen colonies sought to preserve existing rights. Most states today didn’t exist at that time and had no preexisting rights.


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