Debunking America's 'Good War' myth

by Hiroaki Sato

The movie “Pearl Harbor” may be copying what happened after Japan’s actual assault: a spectacular initial success followed by a string of disappointments. But since I’m invoking history, I must hasten to add that there won’t be anything remotely resembling an unconditional surrender in store for the Hollywood venture.

Does the pattern seemingly shaping up for “Pearl Harbor” derive from the possibility that the movie is the reductio ad absurdum of the current boom in all things World War II, as Frank Rich, of the New York Times, put it? I cannot tell, because I haven’t seen the film. But the easy patriotism that appears to form the core of the movie, as well as the boom, has spurred me to read a couple of articles.

In the June issue of The Atlantic Monthly, Benjamin Schwartz takes on the popular historian Stephen Ambrose and finds him “littered with lofty cant.” Ambrose, who has been providing narrative backing to the so-called Good War for some years now, and who may well be the source of the current fad, has added a new title to his oeuvre: “The Good Fight” (Simon & Schuster), a 96-page account of World War II “for young readers.”

Schwartz sees at least two things “egregiously skewed” in Ambrose. One is the historian’s flat assertion that American soldiers were “engaged in a sanctified crusade.” They “didn’t want to live in a world in which wrong prevailed,” Ambrose says. “So they fought . . . and stopped Hitler and Tojo.”

A world in which wrong prevailed? Racial discrimination was still the norm in the U.S. at the time. As some noted, U.S. officers often treated German POWs better than blacks. There were riots.

The other is Ambrose’s suggestion that World War II was an American war for decency and democracy and that the U.S. is entitled to all the credit for defeating Germany and Japan. That’s an odd view of the war, but just taking the German defeat, an honest history must give most of the credit to the Soviet Union, Schwartz says.

This self-righteous, “solipsistic” approach is troublesome. Ambrose is an influential historian who, among others, inspired the NBC anchor Tom Brokaw to write “The Greatest Generation” and its sequels, “The Greatest Generation Speaks: Letters and Reflections” and “An Album of Memories: Personal Histories from the Greatest Generation.”

Schwartz ends his review by referring to Robert Penn Warren. Meditating on the Civil War’s psychological bequest, Warren spoke of a “treasury of virtue” that the North has displayed to the South. Ambrose’s kind of narrative does something similar, making the U.S. “insufferable to other nations.” History, Schwartz concludes, must be treated as “tragic, ironic, paradoxical, and ambiguous.”

At the Atlantic Web-site, the Schwartz review is linked to the article that Edgar L. Jones wrote for the magazine back in 1946, from which Schwartz quotes. Jones’s argument is as good as Schwartz’s.

The preface to the article, “One War is Enough,” notes that in May 1945 (yes, before the war was over!), “Captain McGeorge Bundy registered his vehement belief in peacetime military training in his Open Letter to those college presidents who were opposing adoption of the measure in wartime.” Early in the following year, as the debate came “to a head in Washington,” the magazine asked two of “those who feel that conscription in any guise is a war measure out of keeping with the peacetime policy of this republic” to submit their opinions. One of them was Jones; the other, the historian Henry Steele Commager.

Jones, who in the article says of himself, “In the course of forty months of war duty and five major battles I was only an ambulance driver, a merchant seaman, an Army historian, and a war correspondent, never a downright GI,” debunks the image of American soldiers that Ambrose wants to project for future American generations: good-natured young men handing out candy to bedraggled but smiling children, avatars of decency and democracy who had no notion of “rape, pillage, looting, wanton destruction, senseless killing,” of which, according to Ambrose, Soviet, German, and Japanese soldiers were the very vehicles.

“What kind of war do (American) civilians suppose we fought, anyway?” Jones asks.

“We shot prisoners in cold blood, wiped out hospitals, strafed lifeboats, killed or mistreated enemy civilians, finished off the enemy wounded, tossed the dying into a hole with the dead, and in the Pacific boiled the flesh off enemy skulls to make table ornaments for sweethearts, or carved their bones into letter openers. We topped off our saturation bombing and burning of enemy civilians by dropping atomic bombs on two nearly defenseless cities, thereby setting an all-time record for instantaneous mass slaughter.”

This description comes with a judgment reminiscent of John Quincy Adams’s warning more than 100 years earlier: “We Americans have the dangerous tendency in our international thinking to take a holier-than-thou attitude toward other nations. We consider ourselves to be more noble and decent than other peoples, and consequently in a better position to decide what is right and wrong in the world.”

Jones goes on to describe, among other things, how “the Army and Navy had every opportunity to strike a clean blow for democracy by setting an example in non-discrimination against Negroes, but instead, both services insisted upon racial segregation wherever and whenever possible.”

“One War is Enough” is linked to Paul Fussell’s 1989 article, “The Real War: 1939-1945,” apparently a summation of his book, “Wartime,” which appeared in the same year. “Wartime” was panned so thoroughly for describing the bunglings and misconduct of the U.S. military during the Good War that the New York Times even did an article on it.

Other than The Atlantic Web-site, I must mention John Gregory Dunne’s article in The New Yorker, “The American Raj: Pearl Harbor as Metaphor.” In the article, published May 7 in anticipation of the movie, Dunne, who, with his wife, Joan Didion, often takes part in Hollywood movie-making, describes U.S. Navy life before the attack, pointing out, for example, how Saturday excursions of sailors “often ended up in the whorehouses on Honolulu’s Hotel Street, where working girls might turn a hundred tricks through the day and night.” No innocent paradise there.