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chapter seven THE VICTORS q Q Traditional themes of American decency and heroic individualism dominated the enormous public commemoration of the war that erupted near the end of the twentieth century. Critical and humanitarian frames on the contest were still evident, but they commanded only limited attention in the many fiftieth anniversary celebrations, books, films, and museum exhibitions that now marked the nation’s victory. There were clear reasons for this. The jumbled outlooks of the wartime generation had now been simplified by the passage of time and by the deaths of millions of those who lived through the war years. As reports appeared almost daily about the passing of the war’s veterans, younger generations looked back at honored ancestors with a sentimental gaze. Citizens who had no direct knowledge of the war or the concerns of the 1940s acted as if they did in mounting countless commemorations. And the American public in general was more than ready to entertain highly laudable stories of national honor and bravery as it began to erase the more troubling legacy of Vietnam and bask in the afterglow of a Cold War victory.1 MODEL CITIZENS The quintessential expression of the American myth of World War II in this period was Tom Brokaw’s book, The Greatest Generation. It may have been pure coincidence that the book was listed just behind a volume entitled Chicken Soup for the Soul on a list of best sellers for the 1990s, but it would not be too much to say that its collection of personal stories from the wartime generation brought much good feeling to the millions of readers of all ages. War did not lead to death and destruction in Brokaw’s book but mostly to the reinforcement of values such as individualism, discipline, and self-sacrifice that created a great nation. He looked at the war more like Henry Luce than like Norman Mailer. Derived in part by his own recollections of himself as a boy living on an army base in South Dakota t h e v i c t o r s 201 during the war, Brokaw’s memory—like that of many Americans who celebrated it in the 1990s—was deeply personal and nostalgic. It was grounded not only in private experience but in a longing for a time that was filled with heroic ancestors . He and his peers felt that the prosperity and freedom they enjoyed was the result of the sacrifices of the Americans that had won the war. The victory of these forebears was even imagined to be grounded more in their personal characteristics than in the mass mobilizations and productivity of American war e=ort. His heroes were extraordinary souls who ably managed the delicate task of defending traditional values and inflicting massive levels of violence without lapsing into moral transgressions themselves.2 While Brokaw sang the praises of people from many walks of life who served the nation in the 1940s, historian Stephen Ambrose focused his celebration on the men who fought in Europe. His immensely popular book Band of Brothers followed the exploits of the 101st Airborne from basic training through their battles against the enemy from the Normandy landings to the final destruction of Hitler’s Germany. Certainly, the defeat of the Nazi regime was a story of good defeating evil. Yet this story was also personal, for the author drew on his own memories of seeing some of the men coming home from the service when he was a young boy in Wisconsin. Indeed, his history was grounded in stories told to him by hundreds of veterans, stories that he collected and transformed into a number of best-selling books. Ambrose was unabashed in his praise for these men. He referred to the soldiers in the 101st Airborne, for instance, as “idealists eager to merge themselves into a group fighting for a cause” and “actively seeking an outfit with which they could identify.” As for Brokaw, war is uplifting for him, and his GIs benefit immensely from enduring hardships in life, whether surviving the Great Depression or fighting the Germans. Such experiences taught men the value of self-reliance, hard work, and the ability to take orders. They were able to blend an American sense of individualism with a cooperative spirit. Loyal to their country and to each other, to this author they were America’s “finest youth.”3 Mourning the dead—a key response to seeing...


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