Elizabeth Samet Thinks She Already Found the Good War

If you were to read reviews of Elizabeth Samet’s book, Looking for the Good War — such as the one in the New York Times or the other one in the New York Times — a little too quickly, you might find yourself reading her book and hoping for a reasoned argument against the supposed justifiability of the U.S. role in World War II.

If you had just written a book yourself, as I have, making the case that WWII plays a disastrous role in current U.S. military spending, was not fought to save anyone from death camps, did not have to happen and could have been avoided in many ways, involved the German use of the bunk science of eugenics that had principally been developed and promoted in the United States, involved the German use of racist segregation policies studied in the United States, involved genocide and ethnic cleansing and concentration camp practices developed in the United States and other Western nations, saw a Nazi war machine facilitated by U.S. funds and arms, saw the U.S. government prior to and even during the war view the USSR as the top enemy, came about after not only long support for and tolerance of Nazi Germany but also a long arms race and build up to war with Japan, constitutes no proof of the necessity of violence, was the worst thing humanity has done to itself in any short period of time, exists in U.S. culture as a dangerous set of myths, was resisted by many in the United States at the time (and not just Nazi sympathizers), created the taxation of ordinary people, and happened in a dramatically different world from today’s, then you might read Samet’s book hoping for something touching on any of those topics. You’d find precious little.

The books does set out to debunk the following set of myths:

“1. The United States went to war to liberate the world from fascism and tyranny.

“2. All Americans were absolutely united in their commitment to the war effort.

“3. Everyone on the home front made tremendous sacrifices.”

“4. Americans are liberators who fight decently, reluctantly, only when they must.

“5. World War II was a foreign tragedy with a happy American ending.

“6. Everyone has always agreed on points 1-5.”

So much to the good. It does some of this. But it also reinforces some of those very myths, avoids some more significant ones, and spends the bulk of its pages on plot summaries of films and novels with at best a tangential relevance to anything. Samet, who teaches English at West Point, and is therefore employed by the military whose foundational myth she is chipping away at, wants to suggest to us many ways in which WWII was not beautiful or noble or anything like the nonsense often seen in Hollywood movies — and she provides ample evidence. But she also wants us to believe that WWII was necessary and defensive against a threat to the United States (with claims about noble do-gooding for the benefit of Europeans falsifying the true and accurate tale of defensive motivation) — and she provides not a single shred of evidence. I once did a couple of debates with a West Point “ethics” professor, and he made the same claim (that U.S. entry into WWII was necessary) with the same amount of evidence behind it.

My misguided expectations for a book constitute a pretty trivial concern. The larger point here is probably that even someone paid by the U.S. military to educate future killers for the U.S. military, who truly believes (in her words) “that the United States’ involvement in the war was necessary” is unable to stomach the ridiculous tales told about it, and feels obliged to point out evidence to “suggest the degree to which the goodness, idealism, and unanimity we today reflexively associate with World War II were not as readily apparent to Americans at the time.” She even asks, rhetorically: “Has the prevailing memory of the ‘Good War,’ shaped as it has been by nostalgia, sentimentality, and jingoism, done more harm than good to Americans’ sense of themselves and their country’s place in the world?”

If people can grasp the obvious answer to that question, if they can see the harm contributed by romantic WWII BS even just to all the more recent wars that hardly anyone tries to defend, that will be a huge step forward. The only reason I care that anyone believes anything false about WWII is the impact it has on the present and future. Maybe Looking for the Good War will nudge some people in a good direction, and they won’t stop there. Samet does a good job of exposing some of the worst myth builders as concocting fairy tales. She quotes historian Stephen Ambrose shamelessly explaining that he is “a hero worshiper.” She documents the extent to which most members of the U.S. military during WWII did not and could not have professed any of the noble political intentions imposed on them by later propagandists. She similarly shows the lack of “unity” among the U.S. public at the time — the existence of 20% of the country opposed to the war in 1942 (though not one word about the need for the draft or the extent of the resistance to it). And in a very brief passage, she notes the increase of racist violence in the U.S. during the war (with much longer passages about the racism of U.S. society and the segregated military).

Samet also quotes those at the time of WWII who lamented the unwillingness of much of the U.S. public to make any sacrifices or to even act as if they knew there was a war underway, or who were shocked by the fact that public campaigns were needed to implore people to donate blood for the war. All true. All myth-shattering. But still, all only possible in a world where there existed much higher expectations of awareness and sacrifice than would even be comprehensible today. Samet is also good at debunking the troop-focused propaganda of more recent years and wars.

But everything in this book — including hundreds of pages of vaguely relevant reviews of films and novels and comic books — all comes packaged in the unquestionable and unargued claim that there was no choice. No choice about whether to level cities, and no choice about whether to have a war at all. “In truth,” she writes, “there have been contrarian voices from the start, but we have been reluctant to reckon with the stakes of their critiques. I’m talking here not about the cranks and conspiracists, nor about those who imagine we would have been  somehow better off remaining neutral, but rather about those thinkers, writers, and artists who seem able to resist the twin seductions of sentimentality and certitude, who find in coolness and ambivalence a way of understanding their country that shows its true worth to better effect than the ‘garrulous patriotism’ Tocqueville long ago attributed to Americans.”

Hmm. What, other than certitude, can describe the notion that the only options were war and neutrality and that the latter required a feat of imagination that lumped one with cranks and conspiracists? What, other than garrulousness can describe labeling as cranks and conspiracists those holding a view so unacceptable that it lies outside the realm of contrarian voices? And what, other than crankishness and conspiracy, can describe the claim that what contrarian thinkers, writers, and artists all do is work to show the true worth of a nation? Of some 200 nations on Earth, one wonders how many of them Samet believes the world’s contrarian thinkers and artists devote themselves to showing the true worth of.

Samet frames in a disparaging context remarks that FDR worked to get the United States into the war, but never — of course — straightforwardly claims to have disproved something so readily shown by the president’s own speeches.

Samet describes a certain Bernard Knox as “too astute a reader to confuse the necessity of violence with glory.” It seems that “glory” is being used here to mean something other than public praise, since necessary violence — or, anyway, violence widely imagined to be necessary — can sometimes win one boatloads of public praise. The following passages suggest that perhaps “glory” is meant to mean violence without anything horrible or nasty about it (sanitized, Hollywood violence). “Knox’s affinity for Virgil and Homer had to do largely with their refusal to gloss over the harsh realities of the work of killing.”

This leads Samet straight into a lengthy riff on the tendency of U.S. soldiers to collect souvenirs. War correspondent Edgar L. Jones wrote in the February 1946 Atlantic Monthly, “What kind of war do civilians suppose we fought anyway? We shot prisoners in cold blood, wiped out hospitals, strafed lifeboats, killed or mistreated enemy civilians, finished off the enemy wounded, tossed the dying into a hole with the dead, and in the Pacific boiled flesh off enemy skulls to make table ornaments for sweethearts, or carved their bones into letter openers.” War souvenirs have included all variety of enemy body parts, frequently ears, fingers, bones, and skulls. Samet mostly glosses over this reality, even if Virgil and Homer would not have.

She also describes U.S. troops being too pushy with European women, and notes that she’s read a certain book but never tells her readers that the book reports on widespread rape by those troops. She presents U.S. fascists as trying to make a foreign Nazi idea seem more American, without ever commenting on which country the Nordic race nonsense originated in. Isn’t this all a bit of glossing? Samet writes that freeing people from concentration camps was never a priority. It was never anything. She quotes various theorists on why and how democracies win wars, without ever mentioning that the vast bulk of the winning of WWII was done by the Soviet Union (or that the Soviet Union had anything to do with it at all). What nonsense myth about WWII would it have been more timely and useful to debunk than the one about the U.S. winning it with only a bit of help from the Ruskies?

Should someone employed by the same U.S. military that discards veterans — often seriously injured and traumatized young men and women– like they were no more than sacks of garbage be the one to devote huge chunks of a book supposedly critiquing WWII myths to opposing prejudices against veterans, even while writing as if wars leave their participants in fine shape? Samet reports on the studies showing how few U.S. troops in WWII shot at the enemy. But she says nothing of the training and conditioning that has since overcome the tendency not to murder. She tells us veterans are not more likely to commit crimes, or at least that the military has no responsibility for those crimes, but adds not one word about U.S. mass shooters being very disproportionately veterans. Samet writes about a 1947 study showing that a majority of U.S. veterans said the war “had left them worse off than before.” By the very next word, Samet has changed the subject to the harm done to veterans by veterans’ organizations, as if she had just written, not about the war, but about the post-war.

By the time you arrive at Chapter 4, titled “War, What Is It Good For?” you know not to expect much from the title. In fact, the chapter quickly takes on the topic of films about juvenile delinquents, followed by comic books, etc., but to get to those topics it opens by pushing one of the myths that the book was supposed to debunk:

“The conceit of youth, of the new and unfettered, has animated the American imagination since the founding. Yet after World War II, it grew increasingly difficult to sustain the illusion, hypocritical to think or to speak of the country as young when it had inherited the unlooked-for responsibilities of maturity.”

Yet it was no later than 1940, as documented in Stephen Wertheim’s Tomorrow the World, that the U.S. government determined to wage war for the express purpose of ruling the world. And what ever happened to debunking this: “4. Americans are liberators who fight decently, reluctantly, only when they must.”?

To call Looking For the Good War a critique of the idea of the good war requires defining “good,” not as necessary or justified (which ought to be all one could hope — though one would be wrong — for mass murder), but as beautiful and wonderful and marvelous and superhuman. Such a critique is fine and helpful, except to the extent that it reinforces the most damaging bit, the claim that a war can be justified.

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