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The “Good War” in American Memory


John Bodnar


Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010

Hardcover. x-299 p. ISBN: 9780801896675. $40.00


Reviewed by Emily S. Rosenberg

University of California, Irvine




John Bodnar’s many books and articles have helped propel an interest in studies of U.S. historical memory, and such studies have slowly helped reorder the landscape of history-writing in a number of ways. First, scholars of popular historical memory necessarily draw upon a wide variety of cultural sources that historians, decades ago, used to largely ignore: pageants, popular fiction, movies, public monuments/museums, and the like. Second, the divisions among “highbrow,” “middlebrow,” and “lowbrow” culture, whatever they once meant, serve no purpose for memory scholarship and are thus rightfully demoted as distinct categories of analysis. Themes within historical memory can surface in elite policy documents as well as cartoons; presidential speeches as well as soldiers’ letters. Indeed it is the connectedness of tropes and themes across a broad spectrum of cultural production that makes them interesting and significant. Third, and perhaps most important, studies of historical memory have rendered it difficult to sustain any historical analysis that addresses “American culture” or “American character” as though it were a singular object of investigation. Scholars of public memory are generally interested not in showing singularity but in examining how cultural contests over meaning can illuminate a particular era.

Wars seem to provide a particularly rich site for memory studies. When people’s lives have been sacrificed for a cause, it is hardly surprising that the meaning and worth of the cause may spark acute disagreements over how it should be remembered. David Blight’s work on Civil War memory, for example, shows how, in a war in which some Americans fought others, the struggles over meaning could never really be put to rest and became embedded in cultural and political contests over a long period of time. World War I, too, produced a divided memory. Some people vilified Wilson for involving the nation in a seemingly useless conflict and became determined to prevent any future president from again entering a European war. Others admired Wilson’s attempt to forge a new internationalism through which nations could avoid war by working together. These two memory communities (in addition to others) shaped the landscape of American politics in the interwar era and beyond. Vietnam’s divided memory continued, in many ways, to segment the country for decades. Americans were sharply split over who and what lost the war and whether “victory” might have been possible. Of course, memory studies that explore how and why different sides in international wars remember and commemorate their struggles also underscore the ways in which “history” can seldom be a unified or unifying thing. Remembering and forgetting both contour the playing field of international politics; who remembers and forgets what will necessarily be shaped by the variety of experiences and cultural traditions that the war itself refracted.

But how about American memory of its own role in World War II? This was neither a civil war nor a very controversial one. One might expect to find a more unified field of memory for this war. And, indeed, it has recently taken the label the “Good War,” an appellation that might connote broad agreement and an absence of controversy over its meaning. But Bodnar argues that “the significance of the struggle was the source of a widespread political and cultural debate” both during the war and afterwards in remembrance [1]. His goal is to revisit, and thus make visible again, some of that complexity of meaning and memory. The “Good War” in American Memory delves, chapter by chapter, into various strands of the “cluttered story” that circulated as Americans, in making meanings of World War II, debated the meanings of America itself. The chapters progress in a roughly chronological schema, but with thematic emphases.

The book first examines how, even during the war, the communities and individuals who fought held very fractured views. Wartime culture, even as controlled and often sentimentalized as it was, exhibited substantial confusion over the social and moral changes that the war introduced: how would the experience of mass killing affect the men who had to ship off and fight away from home? How would women and children cope with lives turned upside down? What might happen to the very definitions of moral behavior? He next focuses, in the postwar period, on the critical writings produced by so many veterans who tried to make sense of seemingly senseless slaughter. Many ex-soldiers recoiled at heroic myths and refused to celebrate anything about the slaughter and indifference to life that they had experienced. On a political level in the postwar period, the war’s meanings, especially the claim that a rebuilt military would be necessary to preserve the peace, interplayed with the decisions and controversies of the early Cold War. Debates over how to deal with Soviet power and over which war heroes—MacArthur or Eisenhower, for example—to follow in the early 1950s came refracted through representations of World War II.

The second half of the book is devoted mostly to analyzing monuments and movies, both of which reworked controversies about the glories and the horrors of the war. Some memorials were erected in the immediate postwar era, but Bodnar points out that veterans often challenged lofty words and symbols. They and their families most often sought privacy to attend to pain rather than the public monuments and acclaim that might make it more acute. Movies did sometimes glorify and sentimentalize the war, but contrary to common generalization, they more often showed a dark side and even an underlying antiwar message. As the reader would expect from the author of Blue-Collar Hollywood: Liberation, Democracy, and Working People in American Film, Bodnar discusses a range of postwar genres and productions to illustrate the multiple conversations that circulated about the meanings of the war. Both monuments and films, especially in later decades, also sparked fresh debates over the role of women and of racial and ethnic minorities. For every group, remembrance of wartime racism and minority military service were invoked to support equal rights, and to demand a proud place in a more inclusive American nation. The book points out that this inclusionary and heroic discourse, which became stronger as years went by, served to “remember” the more positive aspects of the war’s overall meaning, helping to crowd out its earlier complexities.

Bodnar ends with reflections on how the complex debates over meaning flattened out under the pressure of 50th year commemorations. With the World War II generation dying, the “good war” became a romanticized and nationalistic cultural frame that effaced earlier critical perspectives. The “cynicism, confusion, sorrow, sober reflection, and even internationalism that had coursed through the era of World War II simply commanded less public space” [234]. He suggests that many Americans by the year 2000, freshly armed with a memory of a “good war” that built character, morality, and unity, stood ready for war again. The book ends with a postscript on the Iraq War, asking what of this again-cluttered site of memory will in time be remembered—and, more importantly, forgotten.

Like other investigations of public memory, this one underscores that memory is always constructed and contested. As such, remembrance is broadly political, shaping and also shaped by current issues and debates. This engaging and well-written book addresses not just World War II but has implications for war remembrance more generally. Bodnar’s analysis speaks powerfully to how cultures of nationalism and of war can become challenged amidst the heartbreak of massive death—and then to how easily such challenges may be forgotten and displaced by heroic narratives. Although it focuses fairly narrowly on the domestic implications of World War II memory, it also contributes to the larger international literature of the past decade that has been revisiting the war and emphasizing the almost unfathomable scale of destruction and killing.




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