Why World War II nostalgia has gone too far.
This year's onslaught of D-Day hype—a continuous barrage of World War II nostalgia stretching from Memorial Day weekend through George Bush's trip to Europe these next few days—has already exhausted all but the most diehard buffs. Newsmagazines splash gritty old photos of GIs from the Good War and marked-up invasion maps across their glossy pages. Historians from Martin Gilbert to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar have published books exalting soldierly valor. In various speeches George Bush links the siege of Normandy to the siege of Baghdad in what he portrays as one seamless American mission. Building on the mythmaking efforts of past presidents, and with the ready help of the media, Bush has spun a simple tale of American bravery in defense of democracy—of a golden moment when ordinary Yankee sons began the liberation of foreign peoples solely because they believed in freedom.
Obviously, the invasion of Normandy was a crucial event in American history, worthy of commemoration. But so are many of the events of World War II, and it's worth asking why V-E Day, for example, or V-J Day, or for that matter the death of Franklin Roosevelt doesn't serve as the focus of our national remembrance. Why does D-Day prompt Tom Brokaw to hustle into a helicopter and report to us for three nights from the skies above Omaha Beach?
An answer to these questions begins with the realization that the D-Day enthusiasm, like all rituals of memory, says more about the present than it does about the past. For one thing, unilateralism is ascendant today, and the popular D-Day storyline glorifies the U.S. role above all: tens of thousands of average American boys dramatically storming the beaches of Normandy to open a second front against the German army, their success speeding Hitler's demise.
But this version neglects, among other small details, the importance of the Allies. It especially shortchanges the Soviet Union—no doubt a vestige of Cold War attitudes. For three years, after all, the Germans focused their efforts on their all-important Eastern front, and most military historians agree that the 1942-43 Battle of Stalingrad, not D-Day, was the real pivot point in the decline of Axis fortunes. (Meanwhile, the United States was pouring its energy into fighting Japan; as the critic Benjamin Schwarz has noted, the D-Day-centered narrative of World War II also unfairly slights the Pacific Theater.)
Besides overstating the centrality of the second front and neglecting the Allies' part, the current D-Day obsession also feeds off and perpetuates a romance with war and militarism. The tone of the recent coverage of D-Day (and World War II in general) has been surprisingly monochromatic, especially when compared to that of past eras. In the war's immediate aftermath, as the historian Gunter Bischof has noted, cultural and artistic treatments of the combat weren't all rosy. Novelists Norman Mailer, in The Naked and the Dead, and Joseph Heller, in Catch-22, showed that however noble the war's purpose, absurdities and moral conundrums abounded, and millions died needlessly. (Schwarz links to a 1946 Atlantic Monthly article that voiced similarly ambivalent feelings about the war.)
The Vietnam War, which proved that pure might not only can't always bring peace but often can't even win wars, further muted the urge to sentimentalize combat. As part of the generational revolt against Cold War dogma, the very ideas of battlefield valor and sacrifice were recast as mystifications. A handful of hippies placed flowers in soldiers' gun barrels; many more Americans embraced, to varying degrees, the era's skepticism of military values.
Under Ronald Reagan, however, the mood changed. It was Reagan who kicked off the D-Day mania when, in 1984, equipped with a backdrop chosen by Michael Deaver and a speech penned by Peggy Noonan, he lauded a band of aging U.S. Army Rangers in front of the very 130-foot rock face they had scaled with fire department grappling hooks and ladders 40 years before. Reagan spoke for a constituency that wanted to reclaim America's pride in its military strength. His farewell address in 1988 called for the revival of a feel-good history that would teach schoolchildren "who Jimmy Doolittle was, and what those thirty seconds over Tokyo meant." If this rhetoric sounded fuzzy and nostalgic, it shouldn't have been surprising, since Reagan's vision of war came from Hollywood, where he had discharged his own service obligations as part of the First Motion Picture Unit of the Army Air Corps. (At times Reagan even confused the real war with memories of films he acted in or watched, as when he "remembered" having liberated the Nazi camps.)
In other ways, too, Reagan encouraged today's romantic view of combat. He initiated what the historian John Lukacs has called the "unnecessary and unseemly habit" of saluting military personnel (technically, Lukacs notes, only those in uniform should salute). Bill Clinton and George W. Bush have since emulated the soldierly gesture, just as they too jetted to Normandy for slam-dunk photo-ops. Elsewhere, we see a vaunting of military over civilian values, from the copious references to the president as the "commander in chief" to the demand heard during the Bush-Gore recount that bad ballots cast by soldiers, but not by other Floridians, should count in the final tally.
In recent years, the culture's World War II commemorations have reflected these sympathies. As the gauzy books by Brokaw and historian Stephen Ambrose graced best-seller lists, and Steven Spielberg's maudlin Saving Private Ryan jerked viewers' heartstrings, more subtle understandings of the war fell victim. Most notoriously, the Smithsonian Institution's planned exhibit about the dropping of the atom bomb ran afoul of the American Legion and like-minded groups because it dared consider the dark side of the decision; save for the showcasing of a single airplane, the show was scuttled. It wasn't surprising, then, that when at the height of this frenzy the government chose to commission a World War II memorial, it approved plans for a grandiose arc of stolid pillars that, even after forced downscaling, retains a martial feel.
The romance with World War II grunts and their courage on the beaches of France reflects more than a due regard for the feats of a dying generation. It represents a change of heart among their baby-boom children, who since entering middle age have sought to atone for the stern rejection of militaristic values and the insufficient appreciation of their fathers' heroism that they displayed when coming of age during Vietnam. But at a time when the culture's celebration of the martial has reached levels not seen since after the Civil War, a countervailing gust of Vietnam-era dissent would feel like a fresh summer wind.
David Greenberg, a professor of history and media studies at Rutgers and author of three books of political history, has written the "History Lesson" column since 1998.
"Buy War Bonds" poster by Ferdinand Warren © Swim Ink/Corbis.