Since 1997, Elizabeth Samet has been teaching literature to cadets at the U.S. Military Academy. To judge by her most recent book, she must be an engaging, inspiring, and utterly subversive classroom presence.
Looking for the Good War suggests that she is fearless as well. Sprawling and discursive—as a writer, Samet adheres to the no-notecard-left-behind school of literary studies—her book takes up the delicate subject of World War II revisionism. Samet aligns herself with the controversial view that the “Good War” may have been less than altogether good.
Reexamining and revising the past is a continuous and necessary exercise. At West Point, it’s a safe bet that Lee Gate, Lee Barracks, Lee Hall, Lee Road, and the Robert E. Lee Mathematics Prize, all honoring a certain Confederate general once deemed a role model for graduating cadets, will soon bear different names.
When it comes to World War II, however, revisionism tends to be an especially touchy subject. Early practitioners charged an ostensibly duplicitous President Franklin D. Roosevelt with conspiring to maneuver the United States into an avoidable war. Some subsequent revisionists trafficked in Holocaust denial. More recently, with the achievements of the “Greatest Generation” celebrated in bestselling books and blockbuster movies, merely to suggest that considerations other than God, mother, and apple pie influenced the war’s conduct seems very unpatriotic, if not altogether indecent.
Samet dismisses as fraudulent the feel-good interpretation of the war to which most present-day Americans subscribe. “The so-called greatness of the Greatest Generation is a fiction,” she writes, “a sentimental fiction, suffused with nostalgia and with the need to return to some finest hour.” Her self-assigned task is to poke holes in the “selective memory”—more precisely, the invented memory—that props up the mythic narrative of the “Good War.” She is hardly the first to do so, of course. Indeed, her account cites writers ranging from war correspondent Ernie Pyle and novelist Joseph Heller to scholars such as Paul Fussell, all of whom have previously exposed aspects of the war’s underbelly, albeit with only limited effect.
Emphasizing popular fiction and film noir (while leavening the text with a healthy dose of Shakespeare), her own contribution to this ongoing enterprise highlights “the dangerous and seemingly indestructible fantasy” that the next American war, wherever and whenever it occurs, will replicate the “good” one of 1941–1945 and produce suitably redemptive results. Yet in reality, she notes, that war served as a “prologue to three-quarters of a century of misbegotten ones,” including those that her former students have fought in Afghanistan and Iraq. These conflicts she characterizes as “interminable and inconvenient,” not to mention “embarrassing”—about as different from the remembered version of World War II as they can be.