The popular perception of WWII as the "Good War" hides a darker reality, according to this iconoclastic study by West Point English professor Samet (No Man's Land). Challenging rose-colored takes on the war as the triumph of the democratic common man over fascist tyranny, Samet argues that America's war was a morass of indiscriminate carnage fought by draftees with little ideological motivation—and, in the case of Black soldiers facing racial discrimination, deep ambivalence—amid considerable public disaffection on the home front. Worse, she contends, the retrospective veneration of the war as "a testament to the redemptive capacity of American violence" justified misbegotten military adventures in Vietnam, Iraq, and elsewhere. Concentrating more on critical theory than politics or history, Samet probes interpretations of war in literary and cultural works from Shakespeare's Henry V to 20th-century war novels, Saving Private Ryan, and film noir's jaundiced view of an America coarsened and corrupted by the conflict and the troubled veterans returning from it. Samet's analysis is sometimes incisive but more often rambles through age-old indictments of the glorification of war. Ultimately, this intriguing provocation is too broad and unfocused to reveal much about why America keeps going into battle. (Nov.)
In her latest book, Samet (English, West Point; No Man's Land) argues that many of the myths about the Second World War, especially the notion of the "greatest generation," have a negative influence on the American psyche. Indeed, she makes a compelling case that nostalgia for the war serves to promulgate an image of a national golden age to which those experiencing doubt about American exceptionalism "can always retreat." Utilizing a variety of primary sources, Samet effectively demonstrates that this nostalgia has permeated popular culture throughout the 20th century and up to the present day. She makes the intriguing assertion that there is a direct link between World War II propaganda and the U.S. Civil War; for example, she writes that imagery of Abraham Lincoln was more often used in WWII propaganda than images of George Washington—an interesting point for discussion. Her contention about the connection between World War II and the Civil War in the popular consciousness, however, seems informed more by current conversations surrounding collective memory. VERDICT A thought-provoking, thoroughly researched work that asks readers to reconsider World War II mythology. Samet's analysis, solidly based in pop culture, will be welcomed in public library collections and will appeal to readers of military history.—Frederic Krome, Univ. of Cincinnati Clermont Coll.
Samet investigates a vital question: “Has the prevailing memory of the ‘Good War,’ shaped…by nostalgia, sentimentality, and jingoism, done more harm than good?”
The author, a professor of English at West Point, engages in a simultaneously deep and wide exploration of the way the meaning and memory of World War II have shaped American identity, its sense of standing in the world, and narratives of other wars: Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War, “and, retrospectively, the Civil War.” Drawing on a vast number of sources, including histories; firsthand accounts in letters, memoirs, and reportage; fiction; movies (produced during and after the war); comic books; and the Army’s guidebooks for soldiers, Samet smoothly distills the myths Americans have told themselves to justify the epithet of the “Good War” for a noble battle to liberate the world from fascism. That self-righteous myth, Samet asserts, “appeals to our national vanity, confirms the New World’s superiority to the Old, and validates modernity and the machine.” The experience of the war was marked by disillusion and confusion in the battlefield and on the homefront. The author underscores the ambivalence that pervaded the nation. Even as reports circulated about Nazi atrocities, most Americans were indifferent. The Pacific war, writes Samet, was “complicated by bitter racism” against the Japanese, while postwar novels and films “exhibit [the] confusion, discontent, and disaffection” felt by many returning soldiers. Furthermore, violence became not just associated with battle, but “an end in and of itself.” For example, “in the absence of a foreign enemy against whom to deploy their violence, comic books moved in the direction of brutality and horror.” Violence remains a lasting legacy of the war, leading Americans “repeatedly to imagine that the use of force can accomplish miraculous political ends even when we have the examples of Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan to tell us otherwise.” Not just timely, Samet’s work is incisively argued and revelatory in its criticism.
A cogent analysis of the cultural realities of war.
Looking for the Good War is a remarkable book, from its title and subtitle to its last words . . . A stirring indictment of American sentimentality about war . . . Samet is a fine writer with a gift for powerful arguments articulated in elegant prose.” —Robert G. Kaiser, The Washington Post
“Discerning . . . A work of unsparing demystification—and there is something hopeful and even inspiring in this. Like the cadets [Samet] teaches at West Point, civilians would do well to see World War II as something other than a buoyant tale of American goodness trouncing Nazi evil.” —Jennifer Szalai, The New York Times
“Magisterial . . . Samet has taught soldiers who served in 21st-century wars, and she forces us to confront the fact that these wars were consumed as myths back home.” —Ben Rhodes, The New York Times Book Review
“Samet offers a cultural and literary counterpoint to the Ambrose-Brokaw-Spielberg industrial complex of Second World War remembrance . . . ‘In a climate in which the pressures to sentimentalize are so strong and victory and defeat are so difficult to measure,’ she writes, ‘it seems a moral imperative to discover another way to read and write about a war.’ Her retrospective on the Good War is another such way, and a worthwhile one . . . Time enables every new generation to rethink and redefine a conflict with a more dispassionate and informed gaze—as this book itself proves.” —Carlos Lozada, The New Yorker
“[Samet] must be an engaging, inspiring, and utterly subversive classroom presence. Looking for the Good War suggests that she is fearless as well . . . Fascinating.” —Andrew J. Bacevich, Commonweal
“Compelling, enlightening and elegantly written . . . 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." —Roger Bishop, BookPage (starred review)
"Samet smoothly distills the myths Americans have told themselves to justify the epithet of the 'Good War' for a noble battle to liberate the world from fascism . . . Not just timely, Samet’s work is incisively argued and revelatory in its criticism." —Kirkus (starred review)
"Elizabeth Samet’s Looking for the Good War is a genealogy of diverse strands of thought about America and war. The cultural currents she traces from World War II continue to shape how we imagine ourselves, how we critique ourselves, and the possibilities that we see in the American experiment. Stunning." —Phil Klay, author of Missionaries
"In an era when the moral corruption of our foreign wars has manifestly demeaned and degraded the life of the country, Elizabeth Samet's brilliant Looking for the Good War is essential reading. This eloquent, far-ranging analysis of the national psyche goes as far as any book I've ever read toward explaining the peculiar American yen for war and more war. As Samet shows, there's no such thing as a 'good' war, and all propositions to the contrary are lies." —Ben Fountain, author of Beautiful Country Burn Again
"In this powerful and pathbreaking book, Elizabeth Samet shows us how the myth of World War II as 'the good war' was created and how this damaging fiction has distorted our politics and blinded us to the real choices we make as a nation when we decide to use military force. Samet challenges us to look at World War II anew and in this exemplary study gives us the means to do so." —Drew Gilpin Faust, author of Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War
"'It is impossible to fight one war at a time,' Elizabeth Samet proposes in this superb review of how World War II has been remembered as a dry run for every new American war since. But historical parallels can less inform than lead astray. Those who hope to end our country’s ongoing global misadventures owe Samet greatly, for the delicacy and elegance of her book paradoxically make it an even more devastating indictment." —Samuel Moyn, author of Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War
“Looking for the Good War is a passionately indignant account of how ‘the pains of war’—in particular, those of the Second World War—'are quickly forgotten while its imagined glories grow.’ Drawing on a wide array of memoirs, journalism, movies, novels, and oral histories, Elizabeth Samet—a distinguished professor of literature at the U.S. Military Academy—shows that when sentimentality becomes ‘the natural ally of jingoism,’ war breeds more war. She does not argue that World War II should not have been fought, but she demands that it be truthfully remembered. This is an urgent and disturbing book by one of our most morally serious and challenging cultural historians.” —Andrew Delbanco, author of The War Before the War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America’s Soul from the Revolution to the Civil War
"A brilliant, illuminating, and vivid examination of the idea of World War II in American culture that explores how perceptions of the 'good war' have shaped our collective identity and sense of national destiny. Elizabeth Samet provides an absorbing assessment of the ways in which American attitudes toward World War II—in literature, film, and other outlets—have evolved over the past eighty years. Samet makes a forceful case for thinking deeply and critically about the role of national memory in shaping U.S. domestic and foreign policies, and she reveals in the process 'the degree to which the past is but a tissue of fragile fictions, the future just as unstable.'” —General David Petraeus, US Army (Ret.), former Commander of the Surge in Iraq, US Central Command, and the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, and former Director of the CIA