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Looking for the Good War: American Amnesia and the Violent Pursuit of Happiness

Elizabeth D. Samet
Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2021

Romanticized reflections inure subsequent generations, author argues

Originally published in The Journal Gazette, December 5, 2021.

Shortly before 8 a.m. on Dec. 7, 1941, about 360 Japanese warplanes and a handful of submarines attacked U.S. troops stationed at Hawaii’s Naval Station Pearl Harbor.

Over the next 75 minutes, the Japanese killed about 2,400 and wounded nearly 1,200. Opening his address to Congress the next day, President Franklin D. Roosevelt referenced the attack on Pearl Harbor as “a date which will live in infamy.”

Eighty years later, how will we remember the events of Dec. 7, 1941?

With great measures of emotional sensitivity and intellectual dexterity, Elizabeth D. Samet wades into how we as Americans ascribe meaning to World War II. Doing so allows Samet to reveal how the war “still serves as a dangerous lodestone in American culture.”

Samet, professor of English at the United States Military Academy, is the award-winning author and editor of numerous books, including “No Man’s Land: Preparing for War and Peace in Post-9/11 America” and “Soldier’s Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point.”

In a manner transcending the all-too-convenient temptations of political polarization, Samet’s interest in the myth surrounding World War II proves far more than just another academic exercise of deconstruction. When asking her students and our brothers and sisters to bear arms, Samet wants our reasoning to be as clear as possible.

Clouding our reasoning, in Samet’s opinion, is our inability to remember World War II well. While extending considerable respect to military personnel and their loved ones who sacrificed so much in locales such as Pearl Harbor, Samet questions the impact of referencing them as “the greatest generation” on perceptions of Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War and the War on Terror.

Samet believes we fall prey to idealizing “the past rather than reflecting some precise historical sense of honor in warfare.”

To make her argument for the need to strive for that precision, Samet offers a wide-ranging analysis proving as thematic as historical.

Her work opens with a rather extensive discussion of World War II in a chapter titled “Age of Gold.” The following chapters are more variations on a common theme than equally divided among the wars following in World War II’s wake. In each chapter, Samet is able to link arguments as large in scope as “If ‘the disease of victory’ in World War II contributed to the colossal failure of Vietnam, it would be left to another war, superintended by World War II veteran George H. W. Bush, to cure what Bush himself liked to call ‘the Vietnam syndrome.’ ”

To make such a large and complex argument, Samet reviews “eyewitness reportage,” “the work of later journalists, historians, and commentators,” as well as “Hollywood films.” For example, in “Age of Gold,” Samet places a considerable amount of her criticism for the creation of that dangerous lodestone in American culture on “the historian Stephen Ambrose (for titles such as ‘Band of Brothers’), the journalist Tom Brokaw (for titles such as ‘The Greatest Generation’), and in certain respects the filmmaker Steven Spielberg (for films such as ‘Saving Private Ryan’).”

Despite the intellectual dexterity her efforts otherwise reflect, Samet chose not to include TV programming for reasons she never makes clear. For example, a show such as “M*A*S*H” is arguably a considerable touchstone in such a discussion. Following the 1970 film of the same name, “M*A*S*H” ran from 1972-83, portraying a mobile army surgical hospital during the Korean War. As with the film, the show first aired during the Vietnam War, leading to speculation concerning the impetus behind much of its content. At 11 seasons, “M*A*S*H” remains one of the longest-running and most critically acclaimed TV shows. One must wonder about the appeal of such a show in the wake of Vietnam and, in turn, its impact on how we individually and collectively remember.

Regardless, Samet’s “Looking for the Good War” is a worthy exploration of not only how we remember events such as the attack on Pearl Harbor but also whether we do so well. The ways we make subsequent decisions, and the lives in the balance, deserve the greatest clarity we can summon.

Todd C. Ream serves on the higher education and honors faculties at Taylor University, as a fellow with the Lumen Research Institute and as the publisher for Christian Scholar’s Review. He is the author, most recently, of “Hesburgh of Notre Dame: The Church’s Public Intellectual.”