Table of Contents
2 The myth of the “Good War”
3 Screening the “Good War”
5 Works Cited
To most Americans, World War II is the “Good War”. Unlike the nations of Europe and Asia, the United States suffered no invasions of its homeland, no area bombings of its cities, and no mass killing of its civilians. It was a war of high technology – in that way cleaner than the First World War –, fought by an extraordinary generation of heroic and courageous men who, when the task arose, stepped up to defend their country and to bring human rights, freedom and democracy to those in need. The enemy was well-defined and the cause a worthy one. World War II lifted the nation out of the Great Depression and created a new world order that left the United States at the pinnacle of its power. An American society in transition gave rise to the middle class while opening up unprecedented opportunities for minorities and women. To this day, people feel that the prosperity and freedom they enjoy is more or less the result of the sacrifices of the Americans that won the war. In addition, as over the previous decades globalization challenged the United States' economic predominance, political changes its hegemonic status, and as later military campaigns – most notably Vietnam and more recently the war on terror – lacked unequivocal rationales and at times led to disastrous outcomes, the war years have come to represent a golden era in the nation's history, a benchmark of excellency from every point of view.
This common view inevitably leads to the question, how a global struggle involving genocides, millions of casualties (most of whom were innocent civilians) and an unprecedented level of devastation in all seriousness came to be seen as a “Good War”? In what ways respectively under which influences did this notion become part of America's collective memory? How did questionable aspects such as the atom bombings or the gruesome and at times inhumane fighting that took place in the Pacific theater get de-emphasized, while others were highlighted? How accurate is today's “perceived knowledge” about World War II? These questions are of relevance insofar, as history is often regarded as a reference point for the present. If memory respectively the picture of past events becomes too distorted, its didactic value for later decisions is misleading – even dangerous. In order to answer these questions, it is useful and convenient to treat today's remembrance of the war as myth – as an essentialized version of a substantially more complex subject.
Much of what current generations know about World War II derives from means of cultural mass production, such as literature, television, and above all the motion picture industry. Hollywood blockbusters draw huge audiences around the world and provide people (who mostly are distanced from it) with a quasi-realistic war experiences – in ways history lessons in school or academically peer-reviewed books are not able to match. Given the vast amount of war movies Hollywood has released over time and the iconic status actors such as John Wayne have achieved, there is credible evidence that the film industry has decisively contributed in the perpetuation of the myth of the “Good War”. It is worth analyzing, how more recent productions treat this notion, and in what context.
In what follows, I will first briefly deconstruct the myth of the “Good War” with regard to its formation and the accuracy of its crucial points. Focus will be laid on both the predominant narrative of the war per se and the Americans who fought in it respectively remained at home. Subsequently, I will turn to the images of the Second World War, Hollywood – via constant repetition – has in ingrained into the American cultural mind. At this, the genre of the “combat film” deserves special attention. Not only did the combat film convey powerful ideas about war and those who fight in it, but it also served as foundation for later filmmakers interested in the topic. In a final step, I will juxtapose two recent cinematic projects relating to the Second World War by two of Hollywood's greatest current filmmakers – Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan (1998) and Clint Eastwood's companion films Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima (2006) – and, in search for elements of the “Good War” narrative, discuss their respective treatment of the subject.
Within the confines of this work, it is impossible to go into great detail in either one of the themes. Limitations derive from the scope of the subject as such, the amount of war films in the hundreds, and the immense body of research both on World War II and motion pictures dealing with it. Further it has to be emphasized that there always have been critical voices and views alongside the predominant narrative that receive no treatment here. Especially in the field of motion picture, there have been numerous ironic and subversive contributions which were sort of muted, since they often received less attention by mainstream audiences.
Noteworthy recent analyses and works on contemporary remembrance of World War II and the discrepancy between memory and historical accuracy are Jay Winter's Remembering War (notwithstanding its primary concern with World War I), Michael C.C. Adams' The Best War Ever, and John Bodnar's The “Good War” in American Memory. With regard to the relationship between history and its cinematic depiction in general, Why We Fought, edited by Peter C. Rollins and John E. O'Connor deserves special mentioning. Excellent treatments of American war movies are Lawrence Suid's Guts and Glory and Janine Basinger's The World War II Combat Film, which is by many regarded a primer on the topic.
2 The myth of the “Good War”
Coherent remembrances of cataclysmic or “'holocaustal' events” such as World War II are, as Hayden White argues, neither possible nor genuinely trustworthy. They generate traumatic psychological effects among the groups – or here generations – that experience them. Accordingly, “they cannot be simply forgotten and put out of mind, but neither can they be adequately remembered; which is to say, clearly and unambiguously identified as to their meaning”1. Millions of Americans who lived through those times endeavored for the rest of their lives to recall (respectively forget) aspects of the frightening reality of the century's second global struggle. Among them, the memory and meaning of that war was actually a matter of contention.2 To people now living in the United States this might come as a surprise, as widespread celebrations of the nation's victory and the generation that fought the war are today commonplace. As generations far removed from the actual experience of the war, their remembrance is shaped by a powerful narrative of the past that is now an accepted constituent of “national memory” or “collective memory”3.
2.1 A usable history
Over the course of the last seventy years, in the United States, World War II has been deliberately transformed into the “Good War”4, the best war the country ever had; fought out by the “greatest generation any society has ever produced”5. In other words, as Michael C.C. Adams emphasizes, a “complex, problematic event, full of nuance and debatable meaning” was converted into a simplified, shining myth – the war years into a “golden age, an idyllic period when everything was simpler and a can-do generation of Americans solved the world’s problems.
In this mythic time [...], everyone was united: there were no racial or gender tensions, no class conflicts”6. Myth, according to Roland Barthes, is constituted by the loss of the historical quality of things: in it, things lose […] memory. […] Myth does not deny things, on the contrary […] it purifies them, it makes them innocent, it gives them a natural and eternal justification, it gives them a clarity which is not that of an explanation but that of a statement of fact. […] Myth acts economically: it abolishes the complexity of acts.7
Put differently, myth transforms historically situated and contested knowledge into concepts, which are beyond reproach.
Thus purified, the notion of the “Good War” moreover involves the idea that the United States – far from being openly belligerent – only responded when attacked and that it did so with pure motives: to preserve freedom, democracy, and even humanity itself in the face of the rising power of totalitarian regimes and Fascist aggression in Asia and Europe. The American public unanimously understood the rationale for going to war and supported the effort. In simplified terms, the United States then fought around the globe, contributed significantly to the Allied victory over all enemy nations, and – rather then being depleted by this enormous effort – emerged at war's end as the leader of the free world and the richest nation in history. Among the principal combatants, the United States was unique in the regard that it was never directly invaded nor bombed (with the exception of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor) – most civilians never experienced combat firsthand. While most of Europe and parts of Asia lay in ruins and the economies of the other major belligerents were crippled, for America, the end of the war ushered in an unprecedented era of prosperity and power. Subsequently, the United States shared its wealth with friend and former enemy alike and thus contributed to their recovery.8
Overall, this interpretation of the “Good War” is a congenial narrative towards which Americans willingly have turned to time and again – in particular as the United States' economic predominance and hegemonic status have been increasingly challenged over the last decades, as domestic problems have become less tractable, and as later military campaigns – most notably Vietnam and the recent invasion of Iraq in 2003 – lacked unequivocal rationales and at times led to disastrous outcomes.
Today's image of the “Good War” is an amalgamation of both the somewhat idiosyncratic process of history formation per se in the regard that, with growing distance to an event, certain aspects of the huge clutter of a nation's past inevitably stand out and overcome while others “naturally” wane – out of practical reasons (and human inclination), positive aspects of history are more desired and retained in popular memory, since they highlight national unity, collective strength, desirable traits or idealism9 – and a deliberate fashioning through propaganda, a purposeful selection process, and constant repetition and re-performing via public commemorations and various forms of media.
Thus, although the myth rests on a relatively solid core of credible argument, the current view of the Second World War with regard both to the home front and the reality of combat is to a considerable degree distorted – distorted not so much in the aspects that are emphasized but in what is omitted. For a global struggle with millions of casualties and an unprecedented level of devastation to become the best war ever, obviously, questionable aspects such as the killing of innocents in massive numbers, the atom bombings, or the ferocious fighting that took place – especially in the Pacific theater – have to be neglected, while good things as patriotic unity, individual heroism, and virtue have to be exaggerated. As a result, a more nuanced view back reveals that – quite contrary to the predominant narrative – the war in fact precipitated social tensions and turmoil on the home front and that actual combat was rarely heroic.
2.2 Upheaval on the home front
Before and during the early stages of World War II, the American public was less than enthusiastic for the prospect of getting involved in another foreign war – the adverse memory of the previous one still resonating. In the majority's opinion, the United States' decision to enter World War I had been a ghastly mistake not to be repeated. In addition, at the time, the scope of the threat posed by Hitler was not fully understood yet – what perhaps would have diminished the prevalent isolationist mood.10 So in 1941, when the United States entered the struggle, most Americans still spoke out against going to war – and among those who went, their motives were, as Bodnar contends, often based more on hatred towards the Japanese and revenge for Pearl Harbor11 than on president Franklin Roosevelt's high-minded, liberal idealistic rationale of ensuring human rights (what he called the “four essential human freedoms”) throughout the world.12
Far from being homogeneously behind an idealistic cause – except for an initial post-Pearl Harbor burst of unity and willing sacrifice – Americans at home were to a certain degree soon preoccupied with massive changes to society respectively the rupture in the nation's social fabric brought about by the war. Nothing transformed the social topography more than vast internal migration. World War II brought new opportunities for work and income that had been scarce during the Depression decade before. Americans in the millions left their homes (oftentimes poorer rural areas) and swarmed to fast-growing urban centers of war production, mostly located in the Pacific coast states. This “sudden infusion of people from various parts of the country seeking jobs and living space”13, eventually led to considerable social stress and turmoil. While lifestyles on the one hand became increasingly freewheeling, traditional frames of social organization and values were gradually eroded.
Many grew concerned over the perceived sudden disintegration of community life, disruptions in moral behavior (along with the economic growth came a booming nightlife in above mentioned locations), and altered gender and race relations that went along with the all-encompassing wartime mobilization. Long periods of separation considerably strained family life – reflected in high rates of divorce, family violence, and juvenile delinquency. Women working outside the domestic sphere were perceived a threat to the fate of the traditional American family. With both mothers and fathers being asked to leave home, the level of care children would get was questionable. Moreover, the call to women to enter wartime jobs was never meant to signal a permanent change in traditional gender roles. Rather, their employment was seen solely as a “temporary response” to an emergency. Race relations and ongoing discrimination based on difference proved equally problematic. The close proximity, into which various ethnic, cultural, and socio-economic groups were thrown – in ways that before the war would have been unimaginable – resulted in resentment, unrest, and at times violent riots. Most doors of opportunity for African Americans and other minorities remained closed.14
On the whole, at home, millions of Americans were more preoccupied with societal changes “on their doorstep” and the accompanying turmoil than with high-minded liberal visions and a relatively distant war.15
2.3 The reality of combat experience
For soldiers serving in the military the war years were equally disturbing and abstruse, their experience most times unlike depicted today. According to the “Good War” narrative, veterans belonging to the “Greatest Generation” – unlike soldiers in later conflicts, in particular Vietnam, who were bewildered, anguished, and prone to post- traumatic stress disorder – are seen as heroic, stoic under fire, and always true to their country and the cause of freedom. It is furthermore believed that they adjusted quickly and easily to extreme situations and the weighty task imposed on them.16 At war's end, historian Stephen Ambrose emphatically implies, these “citizen soldiers” returned seemingly untouched by what they had seen and done in combat and – without much agitation or complaint – went about the business of building a new America:
They had seen enough destruction; they wanted to construct. They built the Interstate Highway system, the St. Lawrence Seaway[…], and more. They had seen enough killing; they wanted to save lives. […] They had learned in the army the virtues of a solid organization and teamwork, and the value of individual initiative, inventiveness, and responsibility. They developed the modern corporation while inaugurating revolutionary advances in technology, education, and public policy.17
Same rhetoric and appraisal can be found with Brokaw. His “Greatest Generation” “helped convert a wartime economy into the most powerful peacetime economy in history. They made breakthroughs in medicine and other sciences. They gave the world new art and literature. They came to understand the need for federal civil rights legislation”18. Mourning the dead – arguably a key response to seeing war as tragic – commands almost no attention to either Ambrose or Brokaw, and the transition from war to civilian life is inevitably painless. On top of that, they emphasize, values these veterans learned in the Army and at the front (for instance self-confidence and endurance) made them model citizens and incredibly successful in their subsequent civilian lives.
1 Hayden White. “The Modernist Event”. In Vivian Sobchack (ed.) The Persistence of History: Cinema, Television, and the Modern Event. New York: Routledge, 1996, p. 20.
2 See John Bodnar. The “Good War” in American Memory. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010. This is also true for other nations that had fought in the war and their contested public histories. This discussion, however, merely focuses on the American perspective.
3 Jay Winter has noted that these terms have to be used with caution, since memory is not additive. He contends that “[d]ifferent cohorts cannot simply and easily be conflated into something called collective memory, especially if it is packaged in national terms”. In a recent “memory boom”, however, both are used frequently, if not to say inflationary. See Jay Winter. Remembering War: The Great War between History and Memory in the Twentieth Century. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006, p. 183-184.
4 The phrase itself, although admittedly in circulation beforehand, is often associated with Studs Terkel's book by the same name. See Studs Terkel. The Good War: An Oral History of World War II. New York: Pantheon Books, 1984.
5 Tom Brokaw. The Greatest Generation. New York: Random House, 1998, p. xxx.
6 Michael C.C. Adams. The Best War Ever: America in World War II. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994, p. 2, xiii.
7 Roland Barthes. Mythologies. Translated by Annette Lavers. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1972, p. 143.
8 See Adams, p. xiii.
9 See Adams, p. 1-2.
10 See Adams, p. 6.
11 Accordingly, for many Americans the Pacific theater was of much more relevance than the occurrences in Europe and campaigns on that front of the war were fought with extraordinary mutual violence and ferocity – culminating in Japanese kamikaze attacks and Allied area and atomic bombings of Japan's major cities.
12 See Bodnar, p. 10-11. Roosevelt's humanitarian ideal was the universal realization of freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want – that is, stable levels of economic security –, and freedom from fear – or military aggression by one nation toward another.
13 Bodnar, p. 20.
14 For a more detailed discussion of the impact of the Second World War on the home front, see Adams, p. 8-9, and Bodnar, p. 19-24.
15 For those, who had relatives on the front, of course, that “distant war” was a much more meaningful and personal issue.
16 On the perceived image of veterans of the Second World War, see Adams, p. xiv, 3.
17 Stephen Ambrose. Citizen Soldiers: The U.S. Army From the Normandy Beaches to the Bulge to the Surrender of Germany. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997, p. 472.
18 Brokaw, p. xx.