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With The "Good War" in American Memory, John Bodnar continues his exploration of the ways political ideology, war, class, and patriotism have coursed through twentieth-century American culture and memory. This work traces how Americans confronted and remembered World War II, from the war years themselves up to the twenty-first century-and thus tells a broader story than the title suggests. Bodnar offers some new perspectives, while also synthesizing the growing scholarly literature that has taken the sheen off World War II. He argues that the war generated conflict and tension both during the fighting and in the extensive postwar conversation over what it had meant.
Bodnar's chapters take readers from the 1940s to the nostalgia boom of the 1990s, covering popular films, media coverage, soldier [End Page 500] memoirs, fiction, war memorials, and all manner of local events and commemorations. Across those sources, Bodnar traces three competing ways of understanding World War II: a "humanitarian" strain, a "critical" strain, and a "traditional" strain. The first saw the war as a realization of liberal dreams to better humanity and avoid future conflict, and considered the United States as simply one actor in a universal quest for such ends. The second viewed the war skeptically, highlighting the brutality of combat, the bitterness of veterans, and the hollowness of patriotic platitudes. The critical perspective took aim especially at the third and ultimately dominant one, the traditionalist narrative. Shared in many cases by liberals and conservatives, this viewpoint held up World War II as the pinnacle of American virtue and strength. For Bodnar, the traditionalist perspective has gradually edged out the other two in American public discourse, particularly as politicians and pundits have invoked it in defense of newer foreign-policy adventures and American exceptionalism more generally.
In making his arguments, Bodnar includes many of the usual suspects in World War II studies-Ernie Pyle, Bill Mauldin, Norman Mailer, James Jones, Paul Fussell, Joseph Heller, the Tuskegee Airmen, Sands of Iwo Jima (1949), The Longest Day (1962), Saving Private Ryan (1998), the Enola Gay, Japanese internment and reparations, and so on. To buttress his claims of tension in the World War II experience, he writes of racism in the military, postwar trauma among vets, and the wide range of archetypal soldiers presented in Hollywood films.
But his three thematic strands of memory vied in other ways as well. Tensions between the critical and traditional narratives played out in public reaction to the firing of General Douglas MacArthur during the Korean War. Some observers thought World War II had not solved anything, and were glad to say goodbye to a belligerent creature of that war, while others were furious at President Harry Truman for depriving the forces in Korea of just that fighting spirit. Similar conflicts marked many local World War II commemorations. Citizens often fixated on the tragic elements of the war even as memorials and parades emphasized triumphalism. In a particularly [End Page 501] striking case of these tensions, Bodnar recounts how African Americans in Alexandria, Louisiana, tended to remember the war years not for the great American victory but for a terrible riot that occurred in 1942. To this day, separate memorials to the black victims of the riot and to the broader American war effort compete for space in the arena of local public memory. The humanitarian narrative surfaced periodically as well, but it always bothered traditionalists (because it undermined claims of American distinctiveness) and critics (because it found redemptive qualities in a war they saw as mainly disastrous).
The "Good War" in American Memory is a welcome addition to the literature on war and memory. It synthesizes the work of many other scholars but also draws upon John Bodnar's particular sensitivity to the workings of American culture. It deserves a wide readership.
Andrew J. Huebner teaches history at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. He is author of The Warrior Image: Soldiers in American Culture from the Second World War to the Vietnam...