- The Warrior Image: Soldiers in American Culture from the Second World War to the Vietnam Era
In The Warrior Image: Soldiers in American Culture from the Second World War to the Vietnam Era, Andrew J. Huebner argues that World War II created a "mass [United States] audience" for "martial imagery" (7). The most salient cultural image—central to Huebner's study—is that of the individual American GI. Correcting oversimplifications that draw a sharp contrast between the Second World War as a "good war" and the United States' military involvement in Vietnam as a national tragedy, The Warrior Image explores the "dynamic and complex" nature of this period's "combat portraiture" (9). In charting this evolution, Huebner finds a remarkable continuity among media images of soldiers and warfare from the Second World War through the Korean and Vietnam Wars. Indeed, "representations of the Vietnam War also reinforced and amplified many ideas since the late 1940s, suggesting that perhaps the difference between Vietnamera imagery and what came before was a matter of degree more than essence" (243, emphasis in the original). Here Vietnam-era cynicism finds antecedent in Bill Mauldin's World War II cartoon grunts, Willie and Joe.
War is "a cultural event" whose effects continue long after the fighting's done. By examining how "journalists, filmmakers, novelists, poets, and other American observers of war" during this period interpreted the experience of individual combatants to a (largely non-combatant) mass audience, Huebner achieves a notable integration of "military history and cultural history" (1). Best of all, by its close reading of various depictions of war's corrosive effects upon its participants—and the evolving image of the suffering hero cum victim—the book is an instructive antidote to the "military romanticism" Paul Fussell finds pervasive in much war-related popular culture (331). Such myth-busting makes The Warrior Image a useful compliment to Michael C.C. Adams' The Best War Ever: America and World War II and Tom Engelhardt's The End of Victory Culture: Cold War America and the Disillusioning of a Generation.
With its clear, jargon-free prose, The Warrior Image is at its best when examining specific images, whether they're the 1960's television show Combat!; or "the small body of Korean War literature and film" that "conveyed the grimness of that conflict" (134); or in reading through the "sentimental militarism" of the 1955 Audie Murphy film-vehicle To Hell and Back to find "a few telling moments" where combat's terrifying and alienating effects compete with earlier representations of "war's beneficial effects" (141, emphasis in original). Huebner's recounting of the 1968 My Lai massacre—and how the trope of Lieutenant William Calley as "victim" was simultaneously embraced by critics and supporters of the war alike—is especially powerful. The now-ascendant idea of soldier as victim—whether of war itself, of military or political senior leaders, or of public indifference or hostility—when attached to Calley allowed him to serve as both villain and folk-hero.
Still, a book with "image" in its title would benefit from more visual images, although the ones included were well-chosen. Likewise, Huebner perhaps gives too little attention to those (more traditional if not pervasive?) celebratory and valorizing images of war, especially those produced by the Office of War Information and Hollywood during the Second World War. The book, too, suffers from the occasional factual error. The Tuskegee Airmen served in units other than the Ninety-Ninth Fighter Squadron; the real story of the military's censorship of John Huston's documentary of Second World War neuropsychiatric causalities, Let There be Light, is more complicated—and [End Page 295] interesting—than recounted in the book; and the Marine Corps training center depicted in The Boys in Company C would not have been the Army's Fort Bragg, North Carolina as Huebner repeatedly described.
Nevertheless, none of these points detract from the book's strengths and value. The Warrior Image raises—and addresses—important...