The iconic images that accompany the conventional narrative of World War II depict American military service as a force for good—like soldiers handing out candy bars to children. But to interpret World War II this way, writes Elizabeth D. Samet, a professor of English at the United States Military Academy at West Point, requires “a selective memory.” Terms such as “the good war” and “the greatest generation” were shaped by “nostalgia, sentimentality, and jingoism” after the fact, causing “the deadliest conflict in human history [to become] something inherently virtuous.”
In her compelling, enlightening and elegantly written Looking for the Good War: American Amnesia and the Violent Pursuit of Happiness, Samet compares popular myths about World War II to the facts. She draws on a broad range of cultural expressions that came about during the war and the years that followed. Especially noteworthy are writings by veterans and other firsthand observers of war, which Samet uses to contrast their ambivalence at the time with how later generations understood the conflict. Legendary war correspondent Ernie Pyle, for example, found little romance in war. As he traveled with the troops in 1944, he wrote, “I am sure that in the past two years I have heard soldiers say a thousand times, ‘If only we could have created all this energy for something good.’”
There was an increase in racial violence during those years, as well. In 1942, there were more than 240 riots and other racial incidents across the United States, and segregation was still the official policy of the armed services and in many other places. “One of the chief ironies inherent in the project of bringing democracy to the rest of the world remained the signal failure to practice it at home,” Samet writes.
After the war, violent crime films were the most commercially successful stories featuring veterans. The veteran with amnesia was a staple of postwar noir, even though it didn’t reflect the reality for most veterans who were trying to readjust to civilian life. A 1947 survey of ex-service members found that more than 50% of them said the war “had left them worse off than before.”
This richly rewarding and thought-provoking book splashes World War II history across a broad canvas, with insightful discussions of the works of Homer and Shakespeare and the wisdom of Abraham Lincoln. Along the way, Samet convincingly argues that we should reflect on our current relationship to war in the light of wars past. “The way we think and talk about force will influence not only the use of American military might abroad,” she writes, “but also our response to the violence that has increasingly been used as a tool of insurrection at home.”