Is all sentimentality crass? Can nostalgia distort our collective memory into jingoism? Have Americans so celebrated victory in World War II to have willfully misremembered the past, setting a path for seventy-five years of misbegotten military adventurism? To Elizabeth Samet, an English professor at West Point, the answer to these questions is a resounding yes.
In her iconoclastic new book, Looking for the Good War: American Amnesia and the Violent Pursuit of Happiness (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 368 pp., $28, hardcover; $20, paper; $14.95, Kindle) Samet undertakes an examination of American cultural identity and history, which evolved from confusion and cynicism in the immediate postwar years to American triumphalism and exceptionalism in the subsequent decades.
That sea change, Samet argues, was based on a false sentimentality, a nostalgia promoted by three familiar names: the historian Steven Ambrose, TV anchor Tom Brokaw, and filmmaker Steven Spielberg.
Because Samet believes America’s entry into the Second World War was necessary and just, it’s instructive to undertake an etymological examination of the word “good,” as in “the good war.” In that instance, “good” is the depiction of the heroism abounding in Ambrose’s famed 1992 book, Band of Brothers and Spielberg’s acclaimed 1998 film, “Saving Private Ryan,” and the hagiography to Brokaw’s assessment of the World War II generation as America’s “greatest.”
As George Orwell did before her, Samet deconstructs the tropes that have pervaded this mythology:
- that the United States went to war in 1941 to free the world of tyranny
- that all Americans were united and made sacrifices to advance that effort
- that the Americas fought only reluctantly and always decently
- that it was America that ultimately saved the world.
Samet investigates American culture in that context primarily through examining works of film and fiction, as well as through memoirs, correspondence, and government-issued travel guides.
The American War in Vietnam, she rightly notes, is widely seen as a dent in the armor of the country’s invincibility, one repaired by the rhetoric of Ronald Reagan and the actions of George H.W. Bush during the first Gulf War. Regrettably, the tragic Robert McNamara—an easy target—receives as much attention from Samet as the works of the Neil Sheehan, Tim O’Brien, Philip Caputo, and Tobias Wolff.
In her final chapter, Samet makes a provocative, but ultimately tenuous, argument in which she likens the Civil War’s Lost Cause Theory to the so-called Greatest Generation. The Civil War, Samet believes, has been turned into a “theme park,” with the Lost Cause myth serving as Teflon—despite the removal of a “few statues”—to all attempts to foster a better understanding of the war. That “few” statues, though, is now approaching one hundred, and Samet’s perspective on this reckoning calls into question her perspective on the current culture.
A book of estimable erudition, Samet’s writing is proficient and accessible, though the sheer number of movie and novel summaries tends to distract. The book righteously calls for a more complete and nuanced understanding of World War II, but suffers from its own form of absolutism that diminishes its thesis.
Though Samet’s book is skillfully argued, her thesis is not wholly original. Nostalgia has long been the ideal strawman for progressive intellectuals—the historian Richard Hofstadter in the 1940s and 1950s being the exemplar—and pundits have criticized Ambrose, Brokaw, Spielberg, and their ilk for more than thirty years.
“We search for a redemptive ending for every tragedy,” Samet writes. But notwithstanding the Rambo movies, the cultural response to the Vietnam War and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has generally lacked redemption, as well as sentimentality.
There is a fine line between understanding history and celebrating patriotism, between appreciating and honoring those who sacrificed and served and idolizing and mythologizing them to the point that they are dehumanized abstractions. Samet’s strength is showing the pervasive power of World War II on American identity and leadership. But is all sentimentality bad? Of course not.
Nonetheless, Samet’s Looking for the Good War is a valuable and provocative take on the dangers of nostalgia and the need for vigilance.
–Daniel R. Hart