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INTRODUCTION q Q Billy Pilgrim, Kurt Vonnegut’s fictional character in Slaughterhouse-Five, never could recall exactly what happened in World War II. Pilgrim, like the man who created him, was an American veteran of the conflict who witnessed the firebombing of Dresden as a prisoner of war. Yet his firsthand experience in Europe had not given him total recall. On the contrary, Pilgrim struggled throughout his fictional life to remember exactly what he had been through. He did bring home “a ceremonial Luftwa=e saber,” but even souvenirs could not help him remember clearly. Over time he recalled the war in fragments and in the form of troubling nightmares. When it came to the memory of World War II, Pilgrim could say only that “all this happened more or less.” The point of Vonnegut’s fiction—that coherent remembrances of the war were not possible and not trustworthy—was ironically no fiction at all. Millions of people endeavored for the rest of their lives to recall, or even to forget, aspects of the frightening reality of the global struggle that was World War II. It might come as a surprise to people now living in the United States to learn that the memory and the meaning of that war was actually a matter of contention among Americans who lived through those times. Widespread celebrations of the generation that fought the war and of the nation’s victory are now commonplace. Mythical images of a powerful nation and righteous citizen-soldiers command reverence. The di;culties of remembering that plagued Pilgrim and Vonnegut, his creator, are scarcely acknowledged at all.1 This book takes Pilgrim’s problem seriously as I seek to explain how Americans struggled to craft both an understanding of World War II while it was being fought and a remembrance of the war after it ended. It is a history that argues unequivocally that the significance of the struggle was the source of a widespread political and cultural debate. Even as citizens came together to battle Germany 2 t h e “g o o d w a r” i n a m e r i c a n m e m o r y and Japan in 1941, they expressed disagreements over why they had to fight. This is not to say that millions of Americans did not see danger and evil in the rising power of totalitarian regimes or feel that it was necessary to take up the burden of stopping Fascist aggression. They did. The point here is that such outlooks were only part of a vast public argument over how to understand what was going on and how to frame the unprecedented turbulence in the world that the war brought. The controversy was lengthy and extensive—carried out in literary circles, movie theaters, museums, public parks, veteran organizations, and the inner recesses of private minds—because ultimately it was not so much about the war as about national identity. The cataclysm of war—like other historic events—forced Americans to consider both the virtuous and the violent sides of their nature. Various spokesmen have described Americans as morally superior, heroic, united, innately peaceful, and committed to defending human rights around the world. Others have noted racist or darker impulses that lusted for dominance over others both within and outside the nation and justified acts of excessive cruelty. At stake in the debate was, in fact, the myth of American exceptionalism with its attendant faith in the promise of individualism. In this creed it was an aggressive sense of personal freedom for all and a hatred for all forms of tyranny that made America a special place and o=ered its citizens and the rest of the world the best chance to create a future better than the past. In such a culture strength was favored over weakness, self-reliance over cooperation. Since liberal nations like the United States were presumed to be exemplary in their commitment to individual rights and to a just world, they faced a particular problem in conducting wars and displaying identities. Episodes of state-sponsored violence undermined their reputation for goodness by causing them to commit brutal acts and by asking some citizens to relinquish the rights they had. In wartime, the liberal hope Americans placed in human nature and the nation itself was both a;rmed and shaken as democratic citizens revealed a capacity to fight for freedom but also to kill enemy combatants and civilians...


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