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The Curse of the Greatest Generation

“One feels not the living beauty of our American past, but the mortuary air of archaeology…Who lives in that shrine, I wonder — Lincoln . . . or the generation that took pleasure in the mean triumph of the Spanish American [War], and placed the imperial standard in the Philippines and the Caribbean?” –Lewis Mumford, on the Lincoln Memorial

It’s a cliché to say that there are no real winners in war, but it is one of those annoying clichés that happens to be true.  The territorial or political gains the ‘victor’ of a given conflict achieves almost invariably prove ephemeral, while the real death, destruction and debt suffered can never be undone.  There is one big honking exception to this rule, though: the United States in World War Two.  No nation-state in history has emerged from such a massive military conflagration in such a commanding position.  While Europe and Asia were reduced to rubble, with tens of millions of people killed and billions of dollars worth of infrastructure and arable land annihilated, the United States lost a relative handful of combatants (fewer American soldiers died in the entire war than the Soviets lost at Stalingrad!), no civilians to speak of, and emerged from the wartime economy bristling with industrial capacity and a world market where all potential competitors had been blown to smithereens.  Not only did the war position the U.S. for a generation of unchallenged economic dominance, it also gifted to the American people a heroic narrative of their involvement that has shaped America’s self perception ever since.  In this narrative, a world on the brink of annihilation at the hands of tyrants was saved by the timely and selfless intervention of America’s humble but determined army of citizen-soldiers.  It was a John Wayne movie with the American people collectively playing the Duke.

The United States rose from the ashes of the Second World War as an economic and military powerhouse, a people fully convinced of their civic virtue and the inherent righteousness of their political project.  They had stood up to the greatest evil the world had ever seen and stopped it cold, ending a genocide in the process.  To paraphrase Hunter Thompson, the U.S. was a monster reincarnation of Horatio Alger, a country on the move, and just sick enough to be totally confident.

It was this serene confidence and faith in military might as a force for good that helped lead America into the a series of ghastly brushfire conflicts during the Cold War, most notably in Korea and Vietnam.  By the time the last helicopters had left Saigon in 1975, the United States had lost tens of thousands of lives in conflicts marked by naked imperialism, indiscriminate bombing, chemical warfare,  massacres, torture, and, perhaps most traumatic of all, defeat.  Millions of Americans mobilized in demonstrations to stop a war that most of the world considered criminal.  It certainly wasn’t liberating Dachau or raising the flag on Mount Suribachi.

The decade following the Vietnam defeat saw a crisis in the American character as the nation tried to square its self-image as the personification of virile heroism with the tawdry brutality that marked the decade of blood and frustration in Southeast Asia.  This lead to a temporary skepticism of American exceptionalism, and a more general weariness of military force as an inherent good.  This ambivalence is demonstrated by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial built in Washington D.C. in 1982.  Maya Ying’s design focuses not on the glory and iconography of battle, but on the human cost of war, a cost counted on an individual basis.  Ignoring the Three Soldiers statue, which was added later on to placate traditionalists, the Memorial simply consists of the names of every American solider killed in Vietnam.  Loss, not heroism, stands at the fore.

Of course, America has never fully assimilated the reality of what really happened in Vietnam, and the Memorial reflects that.  After all, a wall of black granite listing the names of every Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laotian civilian killed by American bombs and bullets would encircle the entire Washington mall in a coil of moral indictment.  Instead of acknowledging the Vietnam war as a vast crime committed against the people of Southeast Asia, it is remembered instead as a tragic mistake, with American soldiers as the primary victims.   Vietnam as tragedy squares much more neatly with the intoxicating memory of World War Two heroism.

The temptation to return to that simple and vitalizing national self-concept was just too strong to resist, especially when the crimes committed in Vietnam happened so far away from the eyes of the American public.  The process of forgetting Vietnam while simultaneously remembering World War Two was aided by opportunistic politicians like Ronald Reagan and a foreign policy establishment always looking for the next chance to demonstrate American hegemony.  Quick, relatively painless victories in Grenada, Panama and Kuwait helped banished those pesky Vietnam ghosts.

In the aimless foreign policy world of the Clinton era, Americans increasingly cast their eyes backward to the time before the Fall for their fix of national aggrandizement.  Even the Korean war, a conflict marked by dissent, catastrophe and failed objectives that nearly led to Harry Truman ridden out of Washington on a rail, got a sepia-toned makeover.  On June, 14, 1995, a new addition was unveiled on the national mall. The Korean War Veterans Memorial echoes in some details Maya Ling’s Vietnam design, notably a black granite wall.  Instead of names, however, it’s surface is etched with the figures of soldiers, reflecting the centerpiece of the Memorial:  a company of soldier statues ascending an incline.  The pictures and statues emphasize sacrifice and hardship, but also courage and marital prowess.  It’s a monument built by a country rediscovering the greatness of its military tradition.

The Project for the New American Century position paper Rebuilding  America’s Defenses, written in 2000, pined for a “new Pearl Harbor” to prove a catalyst for infusing American foreign policy with force and purpose.  Pearl Harbor is the primal scene of modern American exceptionalism.  A sneak attack conducted by a malevolent enemy that draws the nation into a stark, black-and-white battle between the forces of democracy and justice on one hand and fascism and genocide on the other.  Fortunately for neocons and oil industry vampires, the September 11th attacks gave Americans who came of age remembering the purity and determination of Greatest Generation as nothing more than a distant myth a chance to live out their own cosmic battle of absolute good and evil.  The horrors of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks justified any conceivable military response, and the Bush administration took advantage of the mood to pursue their own base objectives, with the U.S. military as their blunt instrument of realpolitik.  In those first few years of idealism, rage, fear and triumph, many Americans could feel themselves reenacting the holy warfare of that fabled World War Two generation.  Just as the bloom of victory was beginning to tarnish in Iraq, a new, gargantuan monument to that conflict was unveiled in Washington, directly across the reflecting pond from the Lincoln Memorial.  The National World War II Memorial  does away with the mournful simplicity of the Vietnam memorial or even the poignancy of the Korean memorial statuary in favor of a collection of massive pillars and triumphal arches fit for Albert Speer.  The personal and the experiential are obliterated by an abstract paean to national greatness and untrammeled power.  There are sculptures of actual soldiers and sailors stuck in various nooks and crannies, but they are dwarfed on all sides by unforgiving stone geometry.  It’s a monument built by a nation longing to forget 50 years of what John Kennedy called the “long twilight struggle” of the Cold War and the purposeless drift of the post-Cold War era.  At the World War Two memorial, combat is not a destroyer of youth and innocence or a heavy but necessary burden, but the ultimate expression of a nation’s spirit.  A nation filled with scared and confused citizens looked to the “Global War on Terror”  as the new Big One, a global confrontation with the forces of darkness that would reaffirm the essential goodness of the American character.  In case you haven’t been reading the papers for the past five years, it didn’t quite turn out that way.  Instead of revealing virtue, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq have revealed the same merciless drive to conquer that turned Vietnam into a howling wilderness.  The impact of this decade of terrorism, occupation, torture and wiretapping on the american psyche can’t yet be calibrated, but it does make one wonder just what that inevitable Iraq/Afghanistan War Memorial will look like.  If the Chinese feel like lending us the money to build it, of course.

  1. John Perez
    January 10, 2011 at 11:30 pm

    I just have to say this is an amazing article you’ve written. It’s view is not pro America or anti America, simply cold fact. As Americans we love our country and like a best friend who started a fight, for no reason, with 3 guys in a bar, we are pissed but we fight alongside him no matter what. I am surprised there are not other comments on this post, I want to only assume that either it shocked people to their core and they could not respond or that it’s hard to stumble upon. I am not sure who the author of this article is, but kudos to you my friend. You have so vividly and bluntly brought to light the stark macho persona our country has been trying to redefine since WWII. We all, as Americans, attempt to fill that roll, it is all we know. Yet still it is no excuse for the actions of our government and military and that is something we must quickly fix or the world will turn on us as it did the great ancient civilizations. Again I thank you and would welcome correspondence.

    • mattchristman
      February 8, 2011 at 4:03 am

      Thank you very much for the comment. I just noticed it today. Sometimes it feels like I’m just howling into the cyber-void and it’s great to know when something connects.

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