- Visions of New Men: The Heroic Soldier Narrative in American Advertisements During World War II
Even before the return of the soldiers in late 1945 and 1946, popular magazines such as Life and the Saturday Evening Post displayed full page public service advertisements that wove a rich narrative telling readers who the soldier was, what he had endured, and what the veteran came to expect upon his return. These ads depicted a “new” type of male that was much different from his pre‐war Great Depression counterpart.
The narrative closely follows the story of Parsifal and the Myth of the Holy Grail. The young man who fights for the United States begins as an innocent, undergoes the rites of passage into a Christian knighthood and undertakes the quest to save the world from tyranny. He is banished to the wasteland of battle where he becomes a destroyer of old worlds. After years in the wasteland of the European and Asian theaters of war, and through the use of “divine given weapons,” he is able to conquer the foe, free the Fisher King (the wounded world) and gain the grail of freedom. Following this victory, as one advertisement put it, he becomes a king and “enters into a kingdom all his own.” Advertisers not only demonstrated this process, but defined the kingdom itself.
This work has implications for the study of post‐Great Depression masculinity, the place of western mythology in advertising and the social role advertising plays in constructing the narrative from which people order their lives. It also partially explains why the United States military could establish a large standing military in the aftermath of World War II. The soldiering life was no longer for the perceived misfits of the inter-war years, but was an institution that inculcated heroic values and trained their sons to sustain the “Roundtable of Democracy” and the market economy.
In 1996, I published an article in the Journal of Military History that examined Americans’ acceptance of a peacetime draft and a large standing military in the wake of World War II. Although the budding Cold War had a great deal to do with its acceptance, I discussed how the military used advertising, financial incentives, and internal military reforms to make the armed forces seem more “American.” Consequently, citizens began to see soldiers as defenders against all enemies, foreign and domestic, as well as protectors of and participants in the “American Way.” Most interesting was how many people who once scorned the military as an employer of last resort and a place for the dregs of society now saw that a stint in the military could provide boys with a patriotic education, some occupational skills, and a worthwhile career. What I did not discuss in any detail, however, was the role that many in the middle class saw as appealing—their sons could join the military to become “Men.”1
This image of the military making men is not unique to this postwar period. It was an argument that gained great support after the Civil War period, especially during the era of Teddy Roosevelt.2 Nevertheless, in the aftermath of World War II, the image of men stemmed from the war itself. It was not about testing your mettle or undergoing combat per se; it was about a boy’s journey or rite of passage into heroic adulthood, or what I call in this study, participating in the Parsifal Motif. My interest in this subject came from my work with World War II and Vietnam veterans. Often the Vietnam vets were sons of those who had served during the Second World War and did not see themselves as undergoing a rite of passage into heroic manhood similar to their fathers’. My colleague, Frank Fox, who wrote a significant book on the political role of advertisements during World War II, suggested that advertisements may also help me get a sense of why veterans of that war were viewed differently from their sons. I already had studied to some degree the impact of popular culture on society’s belief about itself and the role of mythology in constructing culture. I...