The “Good War” in American Memory
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
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 . 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
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” . 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.
Cercles © 2011