It was an uncanny moment. I had just begun reading Elizabeth Samet’s Looking for the Good War: American Amnesia and the Violent Pursuit of Happiness (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2021). In it, Samet argues that Americans’ experience with war in the late modern period—Korea an undeclared war; Vietnam, lost; Iraq an embarrassment; and Afghanistan a shame—left them longing for something more definitive in purpose and outcome, something substantive like trenches marking battle lines, rag-wrapped babushkas trudging to safety, and military hardware promising redemptive violence to Hitlerian evil. A war like World War II.
Uncannily, that “good war” appeared on my television screen on February 24. As narrated by U.S. news organizations, all the American stereotypes of “real” war came into view: trenches (if of WWI vintage); tanks (authentically WWII); and mothers crowding onto trains with children in tow. A February 27 news telecast showed a crush of people trying to board trains out of Ukraine as the voiceover intoned, “. . . a scene we’re seen before, another war.”
A March 24 New York Times story on Ukrainian refugees arriving in Przemysl, Poland reported “foreign troops stomping down its charming, windy, cobbled streets.” And just in case readers saw—or did not see? —jack-booted German Nazis in those words, the reporters added: “But this time they are American, part of the NATO force based in Poland” (emphasis added).
Simplified as a war of good against evil—as Americans need to understand their “good wars” to be, according to Samet—newscasters recreated the period-protagonists of the Mad Man (Hitler) and the Great Man (Churchill), embodying them as Russia’s Putin and Ukraine’s Zelensky, a Churchill in camo tee.
Samet’s book was published in 2021, months before the conflict in Ukraine began. The resemblance of the “good war” she describes to the one being fought today is, therefore, coincidental. Or is it? The importance of her book is that Americans’ memory of WWII as “good” are largely mythical and that in longing for a war like it—the remembered war—they overlook the downsides of the real war, leaving themselves open to dangerous miscalculations going forward.
Samet’s first order of business is to qualify the goodness of World War II and show how the myth was created in the first place. The United States did not enter the war for the loftiness of liberating Europe from fascism or Asia from Japanese imperialism. She reminds us that widespread reluctance to enter the war led to later charges that U.S. “appeasement” of totalitarianism in the 1930s bore responsibility for catastrophe that followed. The few Americans who did rise to occasion such as the volunteers for the Abraham Lincoln Brigade that fought in Spain against the fascist Francisco Franco in 1937 were later reviled for their communist associations—and largely written out of mainstream historical accounts. Unlike the Lincoln Brigadiers who were moved to the European front by their political values and commitments, the rest of America was forced into the war by the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.
The veneration of WWII veterans as The Greatest Generation is “the most potent and highly polished version of the World War II myth,” writes Samet. It was books by journalist Tom Brokaw (The Greatest Generation) and historian Stephen Ambrose (The Good Fight: How World War II Was Won) that baked goodness into the American memory of the war. But she finds a different picture of GIs painted by Alvin Kernan in his memoir, Crossing the Line: A Bluejacket’s Odyssey in World War II. We were, wrote Kernan, “jobless workers at the end of their rope, or incorrigible fuck-ups . . .. from small towns, often from broken families, notable for bad teeth, and worse complexions, the marginal American products of more than ten years of the hardest times.”
The inglorious and seamy sides of American men in uniform have also been “eclipsed by sentimental remembrance,” according to Samet. Approximately 60% of WWII servicemen were draftees and only 10% of them saw combat; 25% of The Greatest Generation never left stateside. Soldiers concentrated in port cities like Boston and San Francisco awaiting orders, boozed, brawled, and preyed on young single women having been drawn from outlying regions for work in defense industries—an untold story documented by Aaron Hiltner in Taking Leave, Taking Liberties: American Troops on the World War II Home Front, cited by Samet.
The Second World War’s makeover into the “good war” began with travel guides to Europe for veterans who wanted to see a Europe with the war in their rearview mirror. The first drafts came out of the Army Information Branch in 1944 but Pfc. Arthur Frommer’s G.I.’s Guide to Traveling in Europe (1955) became the classic of the genre.
Film noir, a largely post-war creation according to Samet, portrayed veterans with adjustment problems as metaphors for the America that needed to move on from the war. Borrowing the imagery of shell-shocked WWI veterans, Hollywood created amnesiac veterans whose memories can be reconstructed (but not recovered), freeing them to remake themselves and make from scratch, in a sense, memories of a “good war.” Films like the 1945 They Were Expendable that imaged the realism of individual servility to state power and war machines were surpassed by a new generation of Old West movies in which strong and resourceful self-making frontiersmen are creating a back-to-the-future new America. Like Glyn McLyntock in Bend in the River (1952), many of the characters are Civil War veterans, stand-ins by Samet’s read, for WWII veterans reclaiming for America the values of traditional life.
Since February 24, more than one news analysist has remarked on the opportunities missed to avoid the war that erupted on that day. The failure to dismantle NATO when the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991 is always at the top of the list. More troubling are the things that the U.S. did, through NATO, to aggravate the regional tensions there: roping the newly independent Soviet republics into NATO; stoking those new states with weapons; introducing neoliberal austerity policies to Ukraine; and beckoning Ukraine itself to seek membership in NATO—actions that raise the question: Is this a war the U.S. wanted? Is this an avatar of the “good war” imagined by Elizabeth Samet’s book?
The proffered questions are hardly empirical matters, but they do invite the still more-intriguing thought that the war in Ukraine is a wish fulfillment, an event that’s come to pass because subconscious desires manifested in a series of choices—policy decisions—that brought history to this juncture. It’s a theory articulated by the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard in a 2002 Harpers article. Writing about the attacks of 9-11 on the World Trade center he asserted “that the world without exception had dreamed of the event, that nobody could help but dream of the destruction of so powerful a hegemon.”
Averring the West’s complicity in the attacks, he asserted that the terror of globalization reflected “a terrorist imagination that (without our knowing) dwells within us all.” “In the end,” he said, “it was they who did it but we who wished it. If we don’t take this fact into account, the event loses all symbolic [meaning].”
“The World War II myth,” says Samet, “is a dangerous lodestone in American culture.” If that myth has now materialized in Ukraine, is her warning a Baudrillardian anticipation?