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

Image of Looking for the Good War: American Amnesia and the Violent Pursuit of Happiness
Release Date: 
November 30, 2021
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Reviewed by: 

If you have ever wondered why many veterans of war find it difficult, if not impossible, to talk about their experiences, this book will help you understand. If you ever wondered if there was such a thing in history as a “good war,” this book will provide you with the ability to answer that question. If you wonder what the phrase “greatest generation” means, this book may clarify it for you. And, if you wonder why any of this matters, Looking for the Good War will explain it for you.

Look again at the title of this book and focus on the subtitle, “American Amnesia and the Violent Pursuit of Happiness.” In Looking for the Good War, prize winning author and professor of English at West Point, Elizabeth Samet argues that amnesia is essential to believe in the existence of a “good war.” More serious, those who come to believe in the concept of a “good war” will face tragic consequences flowing from their amnesia.

For Americans who grew up in the wake of World War II and in the shadow of Hiroshima and the Holocaust, a war of violent mass death and destruction, it may seem remarkable that this war has become in American memory, a “good war.” It may also be seen as a bit surprising that those who did the fighting in the war have come to be memorialized as “The Greatest Generation.”

If you wonder why it is important to understand this development, Elizabeth Samet makes it clear that turning a war into a crusade and its combatants into heroic figures is delusional and dangerous. The lessons of war are lost, and any realistic calculus of the infinite damage done to the national psyche is not possible.

According to Samet, the understanding that Americans had of their country and of their role in the world was transformed by World War II. The “depravity” of the enemy, particularly the Nazis, justified the “unprecedentedly intense and indiscriminate violence” used to produce victory. This deadliest of conflicts has been transformed into “something inherently virtuous.” It also led to the view that any American military intervention is a positive good. The fact that Americans were dragged into the war by the attack on Pearl Harbor, not by the evils of Nazism, is generally blotted out of memory, as is the fact that the major motive for US entry into the war was vengeance on Japan.

How all of this transpired is the focal point of Looking for the Good War.  

What Elizabeth Samet has done in this remarkable book is assess the national culture and its beliefs about war in general, and this war in particular, and about itself. She does this by examining American popular and literary culture and the emerging myths about World War II. This version of the war became a part of the national narrative, as opposed to that actual war fought in real time between 1939 and 1945.

This new war found in memory has been created by ignoring many of the realities and history of the war. It is a reconstruction that began during the war, continued to develop in the post-war period, but did not come to full flower until the Fiftieth Anniversary of World War II and with the outpouring of commemorative activities that came with it. Samet cites the historian Stephen Ambrose of Band of Brothers, the journalist Tom Brokaw and the filmmaker Stephen Spielberg as particularly important figures in setting the narrative firmly in American culture.  

Samet examines the films and literature created prior to and during the war and into the immediate postwar years. She has an impressive command of the materials and an intellect capable of some remarkably brilliant analysis. The ambivalence found in much of this material is of particular interest. Also, considerable attention is given to film noir, to war propaganda films and to what are termed “amnesia films.”

There is a remarkable expanse of materials that receive serious attention in this history. Samet at times goes back into the 19th century, into World War I, to the Spanish Civil War, and then moves past World War II giving attention to most of the wars since 1945 which contain nods to World War II. Further afield, analogies are taken from the history and culture of the Greeks.

Nor is it surprising that Samet devotes the bulk of the final chapter to the Civil War and its myriad interpretations that float freely through contemporary American culture. There is one remarkable section where Shakespeare’s Hamlet becomes central to the analysis.

The way in which Americans think about war was profoundly shaped by the way in which they absorbed the history of the Civil War. Samet’s interpretation of Civil War heroism and Lost Cause mythology is brilliant and more than worth the price of the book.

Some will be angered by this book, and some will feel enlightened. The density of the work may seem repetitive to some as works of history often do.

As an interpretation of American myths, stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, it is as good as it gets.