Looking for the Good War
American Amnesia and the Violent Pursuit of Happiness
Author: Elizabeth D. Samet
A wide-ranging work of cultural history and criticism that reexamines the impact of post–World War II myths of the “good war.”
“Essential reading. This eloquent, far-ranging analysis of the national psyche goes as far as any book I’ve ever read toward explaining the peculiar American yen for war and more war.” —Ben Fountain, author of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk and Beautiful Country Burn Again
In Looking for the Good War, Elizabeth D. Samet examines the literature, art, and culture that emerged after World War II, bringing her expertise as a professor of English at West Point to bear on the complexity of the postwar period in national life. She exposes the confusion about American identity that was expressed during and immediately after the war, and the deep national ambivalence toward war, violence, and veterans—a history that was suppressed in subsequent decades by a dangerously sentimental attitude toward the United States’ supposedly exceptional history and destiny.
Samet discovers the complex legacy of the war in some of its most heavily mythologized figures: the war correspondent epitomized by Ernie Pyle, the character of the erstwhile G.I. turned either cop or criminal in the pulp fiction and feature films of the late 1940s, the disaffected Civil War veteran who looms so large on the screen in the Cold War–era Western, and the resurgent military hero of the post-Vietnam period. Taken together, these figures reveal key elements of postwar attitudes toward violence, liberty, and nation—attitudes that have shaped domestic and foreign policy and that respond in various ways to ideas about national identity and purpose established or affirmed by World War II.
As the United States reassesses its roles in Afghanistan and the Middle East, the time has come to rethink our national mythology: the way that World War II shaped our sense of national destiny, our beliefs about the use of American military force throughout the world, and our inability to accept the realities of the twenty-first century’s decades of devastating conflict.