war, forgotten | Harvard Review

After the end of the wars, they live in the history, memory, culture and subsequent choices of societies. In an in-depth analysis, Elizabeth D. Samet ’91, professor of English at the United States Military Academy (profiled at harvardmag.com/alumna-west-point-16), examined the literature and art that followed WWII, resulting in In Search of the Good War: American Amnesia and the Violent Pursuit of Happiness (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $ 28). She scours sentimentality about American exceptionalism and its effects on contemporary attitudes toward violence and the military – and the country’s many wars since, including in Afghanistan. “In the midst of a miserable peace,” she writes, “the pains of war are quickly forgotten as her imaginary glories grow. The causes are rearranged, the participants fondly remember heroic acts. And not just recently: Samet implies civil war, “a bad memory for a century and a half”. It begins with an example of resistance and persuasion that belies the vague memories of a people united in the 1940s:

During WWII, American auto owners were required to put gasoline ration stickers on their windshields. Drivers were classified by occupation… each allowed a certain number of gallons per week. The backs of many of these stickers asked a specific question of the man or woman behind the wheel: “Did this trip Truly Necessary? ”Designed to draw the attention of civilians to an unseen war unfolding in the distance, the sticker became both a badge of sacrifice and a practical necessity. It would soon become a valuable commodity on the black market. … the public should need to remember; that there was in fact a robust black market (mainly beef and gasoline), operated, as John Steinbeck noted …, not by “petty crooks, but by the best ”; that the government felt the need to launch an unprecedented propaganda campaign to motivate civilians and soldiers – all of these facts suggest how much goodness, idealism and unanimity we associate with today ‘ hui by reflex to [the war] were not as obvious to Americans at the time.

John H. Abbott was a conscientious objector assigned by authorities to a series of public works details in the United States until he even refused that duty. Sentenced in 1943… he spent two years in federal prison. Years after the war… Abbott remembered a prank he and some of his fellow commanders used to play: “Those ration gasoline stickers you had on your windshield…. war really necessary? One can disagree with Abbott – in other words, one can, like me, believe that the involvement of the United States in the war was necessary – but still question the way in which one memorized the participation the next day. wars considerably less galvanizing and unifying. Has the dominant memory of the “good war”, shaped as it was by nostalgia, sentimentality and chauvinism, done more harm than good to Americans’ sense of themselves? and the place of their country in the world? Has America’s sense of strength been perverted by a shrill, self-righteous insistence that a war extraordinary in some ways was, in fact, unique in all? Has the paradoxical desire to separate this war from history – to interpret victory as proof of America’s exceptionalism – blinded us to our own tragic contingency?

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