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The memory of the men who fought in World War II has haunted American political and social life for decades. We are told they fought and died to make the world free and that victory cemented America’s self-perception as the shining city on a hill. The American historian Stephen Ambrose lauded them as “citizen soldiers”—but he treated them, as did journalist Tom Brokaw in his book The Greatest Generation, as exemplars of American virtue.
In Steven Spielberg’s 1998 film Saving Private Ryan, the lives of a platoon are put at risk in order to remove one man from the war, the sole surviving son in a family that has already made the ultimate sacrifice. What better proof could there be of our concern not only for the great issues of freedom and slavery but of the importance of the individual? That none of this could have or did occur in this way is of no importance: the “greatest generation” stands above historical reality.
In the face of the dominant viewpoint, it is refreshing to encounter a book that takes another, more critical look at this quintessentially American myth. In her remarkable recent book Looking for the Good War: American Amnesia and the Violent Pursuit of Happiness (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), Elizabeth D. Samet, a professor of English at the United States Military Academy at West Point, ranges widely over the nature of war, demonstrating that the scare quotes around the words “good war” in Studs Terkel’s oral history of World War II were well placed. The adjective “good” before the noun “war” can only ever be oxymoronic.
Though she discusses war in Shakespeare, Virgil, Homer, film noir, and detective fiction, Samet’s treatment of “the greatest generation” is the most thought-provoking section of her book.
Calmly but firmly, she disposes of the golden legend of a unified nation and a generation prepared to sacrifice all for the cause of freedom. America, in Samet’s telling, was little of this.
Isolationism was such a powerful force that it kept the United States out of the war during its first two years. Even on December 7, 1941, the very day that Pearl Harbor was attacked, an America First rally was held in Pittsburgh. When informed at the rally of the attack, North Dakota senator Gerald Nye, assuming it was a Roosevelt ploy to bring America into the war, said, “I can’t quite believe this.”
Isolationist sentiment was far from fringe. “America First,” as the movement called itself, was opposed above all to the eastern establishment, the federal government, and the big businessmen on Wall Street. But on the East Coast itself, pro-Nazi and isolationist sentiment was not insignificant.
Once the country was at war, the nature of sacrifice varied greatly. My father, who was 11 when the war broke out, once explained to me that his suffering was limited to the poor quality of the baseball he got to see, which included a one-armed outfielder for the St. Louis Browns.
Contemporary accounts of the GIs fighting the war, including those of the popular Ernie Pyle, did not insist on the glowing character of our GIs or of the reasons they fought. Gore Vidal once said that in his years serving in the navy, he never heard anyone talk about fighting for democracy.
As Samet demonstrates, we did not enter the war in defense of democracy; had that been our concern, we’d have entered it in September 1939. Vengeance, Samet insists, was our motive.
Patriotism played a huge part, to be sure, but that is not at all the same thing as fighting for democracy: that was an incidental matter. When the journalist John Hersey asked a group of marines serving in Bataan in 1942 what they were fighting for, they had no answer. When one of them spoke of how much he longed for a slice of blueberry pie, Hersey saw this as a stand-in for their true and simplest wish: “This means they are fighting . . . ‘to get the goddam thing over and get home.’”
Samet correctly warns against confusing results and causes. Citing an example from our own time, she speaks of the liberation of Afghan women—so often boasted of as our accomplishment, but not what motivated the decades of war there: that war was fought to avenge September 11. The freedom granted to women was both limited and an incidental consequence.
Samet does think some of our soldiers fought for ideological reasons: for example, the premature anti-fascists who supported the Spanish Republic during the Spanish Civil War. For these men on the left, the war was truly a fight against fascism, not just one entered into because we had been victims of an attack by a foreign nation.
Tom Brokaw and Stephen Ambrose were the principal writers who, in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, developed the myth of the greatest generation, a generation Brokaw said was “birthmarked for greatness.” As Samet says, in the view of the mythologizers, the greatest generation possessed “a distinct set of virtues, among them personal responsibility, a predisposition for Good Samaritanism, honesty, hard work, a capacity for sacrifice, and a sense of honor.” With no sense of the ridiculousness of his assessment, Brokaw proclaimed them “the greatest generation that any society has produced.”
The inflated vision of the GIs and their war had a disastrous impact. As Samet says, “[E]very American exercise of American 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.” It has been the alibi for wars big and small ever since, enabling the view that the U.S. Army still bears the purest of arms.
But the shadow of eternal American goodness cast by the “last good war” has not only had noxious military effects, justifying our actions around the world in the 75 years since World War II. The cult of the greatest generation and its heroic fight has obscured important tranches of American history, and in no small measure contributed to the current sorry state of American politics.
After all, did most of these citizen soldiers, when they returned from the war, strive to make America a better, more democratic nation? The answer is obvious.
This was a generation that accepted the Cold War and McCarthyism, that elected Eisenhower. Having been part of a segregated army, few among the returning white soldiers rose up against the Jim Crow world of the American South and the de facto segregation of the North. It’s true that some returning Black soldiers, having been told they were fighting for democracy, took part in the Civil Rights movement. But it’s worth remembering that George Wallace, before he became America’s most outspoken white supremacist, also fought in the “good war.”
With the greatest generation serving as their antithesis, it has become de rigueur to mock and attack the baby boomers: spoiled children of fathers infinitely better than they. But whatever the errors and failings of the post-war generation, it rose up against war and racism and stifling rules, all of which were staunchly defended by their greatest generation elders.
And this is the most insidious aspect of the myth of the “greatest generation”: making America great again assumes it once was great and is no longer so. For Trump and his followers, many of them yearning to be “citizen soldiers” once more, the men who fought and defeated Germany and Japan implicitly serve as the bar against which America is judged. But only the heights of that generation are on the yardstick.
In fact, the segregated, anti-democratic nation the United States was in 1945 is precisely the nation the MAGA militants and their militia supporters are seeking to restore.
Mitchell Abidor is a Brooklyn-based writer and translator.