The Image as History

By Morris, David J. | The Virginia Quarterly Review, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

The Image as History

Morris, David J., The Virginia Quarterly Review

Clint Eastwood's Unmaking of an American Myth

History is always the interpretation of the present.

-George Herbert Mead

In a speech delivered on August 30, 2005,the eve of the sixtieth anniversary of the American victory over Japan, President Bush declared, "In World War II, wherever our troops raised the flag of victory, they would also sow the seeds of liberty, and as a result, the world is better off." The speech, delivered at the North Island naval air base near San Diego, was a typical rhetorical performance from the president in that it was long on grandeur and patriotic fervor and gestured heavily toward the eternal themes of duty and honor and sacrifice, themes the president is mysteriously presumed to know a lot about. While he never came out and said it, never came out and placed the torch into the waiting hands of the troops, Bush took pains to compare our current lot with that of the World War II generation, in one breath talking about "bringing terrorists to justice in Iraq," in the next rhapsodizing about "the power of freedom to transform the bitterest of enemies into the closest of friends." Jerry Coleman, the official announcer for the San Diego Padres and a World War II fighter pilot who proceeded the president to the rostrum put it even more bluntly: "The greatest generation is right now. They're out there looking at me."

Like so much official oratory nowadays about Iraq and the misnamed war on terror, the V-J Day observance at North Island was an attempt by the administration to poach some of the moral purpose of the Good War for their own political purposes, namely to link the Iraq War dead with the one conflict in our recent national history that is ethically rock solid. Rarely a month goes by without either the president or the vice president appearing at a VFW hall in a red state and trying their damnedest to justify American casualties, sermonizing about the sacrifices of the Greatest Generation within the context of the ongoing debate about American policy in Iraq. This is more than just garden-variety political stagecraft. Bringing up World War II, and the indelible images associated with it, is a sort of rhetorical atom bomb for our times. Doing so is a lot like comparing a foe of whatever sort to Adolf Hitler: it's a terrific way to end debate, because who would dare to question the sacrifices of our forefathers who fought at Midway or Normandy or Iwo Jima? Who would dare to impugn the justice of their cause? Even Democrats, who have only recently proven themselves to be something other than born losers, aren't that stupid.

As our post-g/n world grows ever murkier and more troubling, we grasp for that precious set of symbols and images which helps steady us as a nation and evokes the time when everyone seemed to be pulling together, the time where the issues and our enemies were clear. The darker the news from Iraq gets, the more we need our sanitized view of World War II to make us feel better about ourselves. Not even our national creation myth, the Revolutionary War, with its undercurrent of an interfamily squabble with the Brits, can compare to World War II in its palliative effects. And it is exactly this mythic, sentimental view of World War II as the Good War that makes it so useful to politicians. Wielding the war and its lexicon of finest hours and arsenals of democracy in speeches and campaign oratory allows politicians to sanctify the fallen and quell dissent over the current war, the cudgel going something like: The Greatest Generation didn't whine, they came together, put their heads down, and beat back a common enemy that attacked the homeland. If only we could be as good as our grandfathers! And as American casualties have continued to mount and the war has grown increasingly unpopular, the president and his lieutenants have grown correspondingly reliant upon the images of World War II to bolster support for the Iraq misadventure.

Americans are perhaps the most individualistic people in the world, and there is little else that really gets us going like a good war, and politicians have known this for a long time. …

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