- The Warrior Image: Soldiers in American Culture from the Second World War to the Vietnam Era
This is a well-meaning, useful effort that nonetheless qualifies as a missed opportunity. The Warrior Image goes on too long yet ends prematurely; it is excessively inclusive but leaves out too much. Pulverizing a straw man with single-minded intensity, Andrew Huebner succeeds in driving home his self-consciously revisionist thesis. Yet, in doing so, he supplants one oversimplified narrative with another.
The Warrior Image occupies the seam between cultural and military history. Its title accurately captures its purpose: Huebner, an assistant professor at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, aims to trace the changing image of the American soldier from the 1940s through the 1970s. “Soldier” in this context means combat infantryman. Apart from an incongruous nod to the wacky army surgeons of M*A*S*H, the book ignores sailors, airmen, tankers, field artillerymen, and all those serving back at headquarters or behind the lines.
The implications of this narrow focus are not trivial. One could easily make the case that when it comes to shaping the persona of the modern American warrior, the combat aviator has been at least as important as the combat infantryman. By concentrating on grunts and staying out of the cockpit, Huebner necessarily skews his results. His approach is akin to writing a history of American football that concentrates exclusively on linemen while ignoring those who play in the backfield.
Regardless, the story that Huebner tells is essentially this: The contrast between the good (that is, virtuous) soldier of the good war and the bad (or at least damaged) soldier of the bad war has been overdrawn. Although it is true that propagandists, journalists, moviemakers, and advertisers portrayed the World War II G.I. as a disciplined, patriotic, and brave team-player, darker images, reflecting a heightened sensitivity to the horrors of war, had begun to emerge even before the war ended. These images became even more prominent in the war’s aftermath. In subsequent conflicts, this pattern—whereby a “roseate” view (as Huebner repeatedly calls it) gives way to depictions of soldiers as “frustrated, disillusioned, isolated, and embittered” (p. 11)—recurred, with positive imagery proving even less durable than during World War II. Korea and Vietnam each began as a “good war” fought by righteous warriors, but in both cases events soon tarnished and then demolished that perception. [End Page 150]
According to Huebner, the inverse of the roseate view depicts the soldier (and veteran) as a victim—of government abuse and manipulation, of military callousness and cruelty, and of war itself. In substantiating this thesis, he wields it as a club, bludgeoning the reader into submission. By my count, the text refers to the combat soldier using some variant of the word victim (e.g., “victimized,” “victimhood”) at least 64 times.
Huebner’s obsession with imagery of the soldier-as-victim suggests that he finds it more accurate and truthful than the roseate view of soldier-as-hero. Yet there is a false empathy at work here. The theme of victimization renders his subjects passive. For Huebner, soldiers do not act; they are acted upon—an interpretation that can be sustained only by ignoring the literature that credits men and women in uniform with exercising considerable autonomy and even sees them as agents of subversion. Again, Huebner’s selection of evidence becomes problematic. The book cites any number of poems by soldier-victims, none of which made a notable dent in our culture. Yet Huebner makes no mention of cultural phenomena like “Sad Sack” or “Beetle Bailey” and includes only a single passing reference to television’s Sgt. Bilko.
Huebner attributes a larger political significance to the imagery that sees the soldier as a victim. He claims that this imagery signifies a growing awareness on the part of Americans generally that war is a bad thing. “From the late 1940s onward,” he concludes, “the portrayal of cynical, skeptical...