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The good war

From: American Quarterly
Volume 49, Number 3, September 1997
pp. 657-664 | 10.1353/aq.1997.0040

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American Quarterly 49.3 (1997) 657-664

Reporting World War II, Part One: American Journalism 1938-1944. New York: The Library of America, 1995. 912 pages. $35.00.
Reporting World War II, Part Two: American Journalism 1944-1946. New York: The Library of America, 1995. 970 pages. $35.00.

It is June 1944. Martha Gellhorn, correspondent for Colliers, makes her way among the wounded on the hospital ship off the Normandy beachhead. A gentle-faced, blue-eyed lieutenant with a bad chest wound, who had lain bleeding in a field for two days before crawling back to our lines, suddenly realizes that the nineteen-year-old boy, also wounded in the chest and lying in the bunk behind him, is a German. Barely able to speak, he utters, "I'd kill him if I could."

The "German" boy, really an Austrian, who has fought a year in Russia and half a year in France, asks Gellhorn whether wounded prisoners are exchanged. He wants to go home. "So many men, all wounded, want to get home. Why have we ever fought one another?" (2:155)

This is still a good question. Both boys' fathers may have fought one another twenty-five years earlier; but too few survivors remembered the experience well enough to stop it from happening again. And now both boys -- and Martha Gellhorn, who is still with us -- risk being forgotten.

America's greatest talk-show host Studs Terkel, says in the introduction to his 1984 book, The Good War, that "the disremembrance of World War II is as disturbingly profound as the forgettery of the Great Depression. World War II, an event that changed the psyche as well as the face of the United States and the world." That we would forget -- or, rather, misremember -- any period of history is disturbing for many reasons, but most of all because memory -- whether the second-hand, mediated memory of scholarship or the immediate memories of personal recollections -- is the foundation of our moral imagination.

We act, choose, because of who we are; we are, collectively, a nation which has fought seven wars in my own lifetime -- World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Grenada, Panama, and the Persian Gulf War. How we remember having fought and justified these wars will determine whether and how we will fight the next.

No, of course I did not live through World War I; but I remember it. My father, an army sergeant war hero from Trenton, N.J., who led an attack against a German machine gun nest and, though armed only with an empty pistol, brought home a prisoner under fire, described trench warfare to me -- with its waves and waves of men mowed down before a final assault would break through -- for bedtime stories. And my memories of those stories, of my father's admiration for Woodrow Wilson, and of my father's attempt to reenlist in World War II, helped direct my moral compass through my own military service in Germany in the 1950s, on up through half of Vietnan.

Then, after teaching All Quiet on the Western Front to high school students and studying traditional Catholic just war theory in my Jesuit seminary, I realized how memory can, in part, mislead us. I saw that there was no just proportion between the havoc our bombs and firepower were wreaking on that poor country and whatever good we could accomplish by keeping that corner of southeast Asia within our orbit of power.

Twenty years later, last summer, I went to Vietnam, walked the bustling streets of Hanoi, Hue, Danang, and Saigon, and asked how a nation as "good" as America could so devastate this beautiful land, killing one million of its people. While they killed 58,000 of ours.

Part of the answer, Studs Terkel would say, is in the way we have remembered the "good war." We carried its Manichean worldview over into the Cold War. Winston Churchill called Adolph Hitler a "bloodthirsty guttersnipe" and we cheered; and we were right. Recently I listened to archival tapes of World War II news broadcasts and heard first-hand accounts of the two attempts to kill Hitler -- bombs placed a...


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