In This Review

Looking for the Good War: American Amnesia and the Violent Pursuit of Happiness
Looking for the Good War: American Amnesia and the Violent Pursuit of Happiness
By Elizabeth D. Samet
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021, 368 pp

The United States entered World War II still struggling to climb out of the Great Depression and with its military ranked 19th in the world in terms of manpower, just behind Portugal. It emerged from the war a towering colossus, by far the world’s greatest military and economic power. Unsurprisingly, then, World War II occupies a special place in the national psyche. Samet, an English professor at West Point and an accomplished author, reviews American literature, film, and culture to convincingly argue that something dangerous has occurred through the false remembrance of the war. Increasingly thick layers of “nostalgia, sentimentality, and jingoism” have produced a profoundly distorted collective memory of the war as it was fought abroad and at home. In turn, this has shaped unwarranted beliefs in American exceptionalism. Mythmaking about World War II blossomed around the war’s 50th anniversary and after the end of the Cold War. Samet’s treatment of the works of the historian Stephen Ambrose and the journalist Tom Brokaw and, to a lesser degree, Steven Spielberg’s Hollywood epic Saving Private Ryan is devastating. Looking ahead, she warns against the abiding power of the “seemingly indestructible fantasy” that U.S. military interventions will “naturally produce” good outcomes, a delusion that continues to prompt the unsuccessful quest for another equally transformational conflict.