The greatest myth
American myths about the second world war fuel rhetoric over Iraq.
Real survivors of the "greatest generation" merit better history
William I Hitchcock
On a windy Saturday in late October 2002, politicians, Hollywood moguls,
television personalities and American second world war veterans gathered in
front of the National D-Day Museum in New Orleans to pay tribute to historian
Stephen Ambrose, who had died of lung cancer a week earlier. Tom Hanks, Steven
Spielberg, and NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw all joined the proceedings. Former
President George H W Bush was also there and declared that "Stephen Ambrose was
one of the greatest historians of his time or any time." Though Ambrose himself
never served in the military, the memorial service befitted that of a war hero.
Ambrose was the author of some 36 books, the best known of which
chronicled the experiences of soldiers in the US army during the second world
war. His 1992 book about a company of soldiers fighting in Europe, Band of
Brothers, was made into a television series. His 1994 book, D-Day, inspired
Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan. And Citizen Soldiers, about Americans fighting
in Europe from June 1944 to Germany's surrender, was a bestseller. Former US
Senator George McGovern, a veteran himself, noted at the memorial service that
Ambrose "probably reached more American readers than any historian in this
country's 200 years."
What explains this outpouring of praise? Surely not the quality of
Ambrose's writing, nor the novelty of his insights, nor even his scholarship,
which came under fire for plagiarism. No, Ambrose's achievement was to have
almost single-handedly created a myth about how and why Americans fought and
won the second world war.
The basic components of Ambrose's mythology are easily identified. First,
America won the war with little help from its allies. The D-Day invasion of
Normandy therefore takes pride of place in all his histories. Britain and
Russia rarely feature in his accounts of the war. One searches his books in
vain for accounts of the battle of Britain or Stalingrad. Second, the war was
won not by generals but by courageous young American men who "didn't want to
live in a world in which wrong prevailed." Third, the war was a contest between
democracy and fascism, and America's victory revealed which system was
superior. As Ambrose put it, the story of the war was that "the Boy Scouts from
America beat the Nazi youth."
To be sure, the US made an enormous economic contribution to the overall
Allied war effort. But Americans did far less actual fighting in Europe than
the Russians. America lost 295,000 soldiers in combat (in both major theatres)
and suffered very few civilian casualties, while Russia paid the almost
unfathomable price of 25m lives. All the other major combatants suffered more
overall casualties in the war than the US, from Germany's 7m, to Poland's 6.8m,
Yugoslavia's 1.7m, France's 600,000, Britain's 380,000, and half a million each
for Austria, Greece, and Italy. As for why they fought, American veterans tend
to point out that they fought because, under conscription, they had little
choice and because they wanted to show loyalty to their fellow soldiers.
Still, Ambrose's portraits of young American heroes have proven
irresistible to the American public, and other authors have joined in this
frenzy of glorification. Television journalist Tom Brokaw cashed in with his
1998 book The Greatest Generation: "They answered the call to save the world
from the two most powerful and ruthless military machines ever assembled,
instruments of conquest in the hands of fascist maniacs... They succeeded on
every front. They won the war; they saved the world." According to Brokaw,
these young Americans were not just great, but constitute "the greatest
generation any society has ever produced."
These popular histories leave out awkward facts about the American
experience in the second world war, such as the unwillingness of the US to
accept Jews seeking refuge from Nazi Germany, the internment of Japanese
Americans, or the American firebombing of Japanese and German cities. More
importantly, these fuzzy historical accounts provide a false sense of
historical consciousness that can be manipulated in times of crisis.
In rallying his country to wage war on Iraq, Bush has frequently dipped
into the grab-bag of popular nostrums provided by Ambrose and others. What is
America doing in Iraq? Not just disarming a tyrant or containing a dictator.
Not for us the small-bore work of arms inspections. Rather, in George Bush's
mind, every day is 7th December 1941. We have been attacked; we will respond;
and we shall go further, and liberate the oppressed from tyranny, for that is
On the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Bush declared that "this nation
has defeated tyrants and liberated death camps, and raised the lamp of liberty
to every captive land. We have no intention of ignoring or appeasing history's
latest gang of fanatics trying to murder their way to power." A few months
later, in his January 2003 State of the Union speech, Bush again drew a link
between Nazism and Saddam, claiming that "the ideology of power and domination
has appeared again, and seeks to gain the ultimate weapons of terror." And on
27th February 2003, he declared that America's cause "is right and just: the
liberty for an oppressed people." Just as America sought no empire in 1945, so
it does not seek one today. In postwar Germany and Japan, said the president,
"we did not leave behind occupying armies, we left constitutions and
parliaments." That news will surprise the Germans and Japanese, not to mention
the South Koreans, who since 1945 have been sharing their countries with large
numbers of US soldiers.
In deploying these bland half-truths, Bush wants to place on the
defensive the Europeans who oppose war: to block America's righteous purpose is
akin to appeasing Hitler. But Bush's eagerness to embrace the legacy of the
second world war also betrays his discomfort in referring to other conflicts in
which the US has fought since 1945, few of which offer such unambiguous
lessons. In Korea, Americans fought a war for which they were woefully
unprepared, almost lost, then offered a truce. Today, the stalemate continues.
Were the 50,000 Americans killed in Korea less courageous than the "greatest
generation"? What of the Vietnam war, when American leaders also hearkened back
to Hitler and appeasement to justify the defence of freedom and the liberation
of Asia from communist tyranny? Some 58,000 Americans died there, but they have
no place in the pantheon of American military glory.
Certainly, the millions of young Americans who fought in the second world
war deserve to be honoured by posterity. But those soldiers earned their glory
only after great hardship, and it is that genuine sacrifice Bush often fails to
recall. Yet sacrifice - the deprivation of comforts and safety, the surrender
of self in a larger purpose - was central to the second world war experience.
More than 16m Americans served in the military during that war, which was then
more than 12 per cent of the population. Everyone knew somebody in the service,
and on the home front, rationing and privation were constant reminders of the
reality of war. This sense of national sacrifice was notably absent from later
wars. In the Korean and Vietnam wars, only about 4 per cent of the US
population did time in the military, and during the Gulf war, the figure
dropped to 1 per cent. As for casualties, in the second world war, 1.8 per cent
of all those Americans enrolled in the services were killed in action. In
Vietnam, that figure dropped to 0.6 per cent and in Korea 0.5 per cent. In the
Gulf war, 148 soldiers were killed in combat, a mere 0.005 per cent of those on
Thus, as American leaders invoke the glories of past wars, the actual
number of Americans who have served in any branch of the military, or seen
combat, or known anyone who was killed in combat, has dropped off sharply. And
because so few Americans now have personal knowledge of war, we are that much
more vulnerable to the temptations offered by an inflated rhetoric of heroism,
guts and glory. It is telling that those Americans who do remember the second
world war tend to oppose war with Iraq: a Los Angeles Times poll taken in
January showed that, while 58 per cent of Americans supported sending troops to
Iraq, only 35 per cent of those over 77 did so. Here is an awkward paradox:
despite the president's call to arms, the members of the "greatest generation"
are those least willing to fall in line.