American Literary History 13.3 (2001) 469-498
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Ethnic Platoons and the Myths of American Nationality
We are watching a movie about American soldiers at war. A small unit is about to engage the enemy. They form ranks and the sergeant calls the roll, reeling off a list of names (the camera shows their faces one by one) that is obviously intended to represent the mixture of ethnic, regional, and (usually) racial groups that compose our heterogeneous population. The movie might be Bataan (1943), A Walk in the Sun (1946), Fixed Bayonets (1951), All the Young Men (1960), The Dirty Dozen (1965), Platoon (1986), or Saving Private Ryan (1998). The "melting pot" roll call has become a basic trope of the war movie, a cinematic cliché. But it also expresses a myth of American nationality that remains vital in our political and cultural life: the idealized self-image of a multiethnic, multiracial democracy, hospitable to difference but united by a common sense of national belonging. Here, for example, is the response of a reporter to the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle in 1985: "The shuttle crew, spectacularly democratic (male, female, black, white, Japanese-American, Catholic, Jewish, Protestant), was the best of us, Americans thought, doing the best of things Americans do. The mission seemed symbolically immaculate, the farthest reach of a perfectly American ambition to cross frontiers. And it simply vanished in the air" (Morrow 23). 1 Virtually all of the ethnic and racial types in the Challenger roll call appear in the roll call of Bataan, the prototype of the combat-film genre. To its roster gender has been added, a reflection of the new status of women as a group seeking admission to first-class citizenship, and an anticipation of the gender integration of the army that would fight in the Persian Gulf War of 1991.
Like all myths, this vision of America as "many in one" appears always to have been with us. But it is in fact a relatively recent innovation in American mythology. Bataan was the first [End Page 469] fully articulated statement of what was, in 1943, a new fable of American nationality, as well as a new genre of American movies. However clichéd it may now seem, the emergence of the World War II combat film as a genre marks the shift from the myth of America as essentially a white man's country, to that of a multiethnic, multiracial democracy. In this essay, I would like to look at the origins of this myth and analyze its internal dynamics, using the movie Bataan as a case in point. I'll conclude by looking at the way that this myth has evolved from Bataan to the post-Vietnam period and consider the ways in which the myth works and fails to work as a device for resolving the problematic relation of race and ethnicity to American nationality.
The relationship between ethnicity and nationality has been the subject of searching theoretical discussion in recent years. Anthony D. Smith, Benedict Anderson, Immanuel Wallerstein, and Etienne Balibar (among others) have proposed that the nation-state is a type of community and culture distinct from earlier forms of social organization like the clan, the tribe, or the premodern commune. Where earlier forms of community are based on long-standing kinship, customary, and face-to-face relations (which might be characterized as "organic") a nation is (in Anderson's words) an "imagined community" or in Balibar's formulation a "fictive ethnicity" (Balibar and Wallerstein 49). 2
No modern state has been constituted by a single, coherent cultural group; all have incorporated disparate and even hostile ethnicities, each with its special history, some with their own language. According to Wallerstein, "A systematic look at the history of the modern world will show . . . that in almost every case statehood preceded nationhood, and not the other way around, despite a widespread myth to the contrary" (Balibar and Wallerstein 81). States become nations when (as Balibar says) groups of diverse origin and culture "are...