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Challenging a romanticized view of the WWII era: 'The myth always seems to win out'


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: A question: How do we remember our heroes and our nation's greatest victories?

A provocative recent book examines the story of what's become known as the Greatest Generation and its impact on America's wars ever since.

Jeffrey Brown has the story for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: Americans have their greatest generations, right?

Elizabeth Samet, Author, "Looking for the Good War": Absolutely.

Jeffrey Brown: But, Elizabeth Samet argues, our mythologizing of the World War II Greatest Generation may, in the end, have harmed us.

Elizabeth Samet: I still see the backward glance at World War II preventing us from having a clear sense of what we can accomplish today, in, let's face it, in many ways, a very different world from the world of 1945.

Jeffrey Brown: Samet's book is title "Looking for the Good War: American Amnesia and the Violent Pursuit of Happiness."

Narrator: Somewhere in the Pacific, an unnamed United States aircraft carrier prepares for action.

Jeffrey Brown: This is not, she makes clear, an argument against America's involvement in World War II or the just cause in fighting it.

Rather, she challenges a romanticized partial view of that era that has influenced our actions since.

Elizabeth Samet: The myth always seems to win out in popular imagination, and it bleeds from popular culture into political rhetoric as well, and into the vocabulary with which we describe all the wars that have followed.

Jeffrey Brown: And that's why it matters.

Elizabeth Samet: That why it matters, yes. It matters because every time we go to war, we somehow seem to expect a similar result.

And we seem to have an endless capacity for surprise when it doesn't work out that way.

I think Stephens (ph) is really getting at similar themes.

Jeffrey Brown: Samet explores all this from an unusual perch. She's a professor of English at the United States Military Academy at West Point. For the record, her views here are her own.

Cadet: The wine glass is spilled. The bottle is empty.

Jeffrey Brown: For a 2007 "NewsHour" profile, I watched her teach a class there on the literature of war to cadets preparing to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan.

She's also the daughter of a World War II veteran, who died in 2020. He'd served as a staff sergeant in what was then called the Army Air Corps. He didn't speak much of it in later years, Samet says, but he did enjoy watching war movies with her.

Elizabeth Samet: I think he liked watching them with me because that was how we spent some time together.

He was reluctant to talk about his own war experiences. He would always say to me, when I asked him for a story: "Who the hell remembers? It was 100 years ago."

And that was our...

Jeffrey Brown: All in the past.

Elizabeth Samet: All in the past. And that was our ritual.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes.

She shows how movies in the immediate postwar period, film noir such as "The Strange Love of Martha Ivers"...

Actor: You're so sick that you don't even know the difference between right and wrong anymore.

Actress: You have killed. It says so in your records.

Actor: I have never murdered.

Jeffrey Brown: ... often portrayed disaffected, traumatized veterans. And she cites research and books like Students Terkel's 1984 oral history that offer a nuanced view of soldiers' motives for fighting and sometimes conflicted, even oppositional attitudes on the home front.

By contrast, our prevailing view of the war has been largely shaped by movies like "Saving Private Ryan" and bestselling books by journalist Tom Brokaw and historian Stephen Ambrose, all from the late '90s and, in Samet's view, with an oversimplified take on personal and national purpose.

Do you not buy the Greatest Generation idea or even the whole concept of the good war?

Elizabeth Samet: Well, as my own father was a member of this generation, of course, I would -- the loving daughter in me would like to believe that his was the Greatest Generation.

But I just don't think that's a provable claim. And I'm not sure what it might mean. People joined that war for a variety of reasons, the way they join any war. And despite the fact that they made great sacrifices, and heroic sacrifices, many of them, the sense in which they all joined because they were righteous liberators motivated by ideology is a false one, according to many studies.

George W. Bush, Former President of the United States: States like these and their terrorist allies constitute an axis of evil.

Jeffrey Brown: Why does this matter? Because, she says, political leaders and public sentiment have continued to apply this framing in very different conflicts, as in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Barack Obama, Former President of the United States: These were generations of men and women who proved once again that the United States of America is and will remain the greatest force for freedom the world has ever known.

Elizabeth Samet: I think it deeply, deeply burned into the national psyche, and it tapped into longer-standing myths of American exceptionalism, so that the figure of the G.I. as a righteous liberator, which is, of course, extremely flattering, why would we not want to believe that, became something that we would just assume would happen.

And the rhetoric that we inherited from that war has shaped all other wars we have fought ever since. And, of course, those have not yielded victories, and those were not ultimately causes of liberation.

Jeffrey Brown: A deeper understanding of the past, she says, is also important because of the strong influence of popular culture and political discourse on those she teaches at West Point.

Do you find yourself personally in sort of a contradictory place sometimes? You are surrounded by a kind of ethos of nobility of warfare and purpose. And yet here you are writing about a kind of purpose gone awry or a lack of understanding of what war is.

Elizabeth Samet: Absolutely.

But I think it is necessary work. I think that anything that distorts our sense of what wars can accomplish needs to be recognized for what it is, because I think too highly of the people I know who have signed up to do this kind of work to be casual and careless about how we send them into harm's way.

Jeffrey Brown: So, this began for you personally with your father, but it ultimately comes -- it's still personal because of the work you do.

Elizabeth Samet: I think it is, yes, very much so.

Jeffrey Brown: Elizabeth Samet, thank you very much.

Elizabeth Samet: Thank you.

Judy Woodruff: Provocative. We thank you for that conversation.

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