WWII Vets: Public Perceptions and Popular Portrayals

By Van Ells, Mark D. | VFW Magazine, November 2002 | Go to article overview

WWII Vets: Public Perceptions and Popular Portrayals


Van Ells, Mark D., VFW Magazine


WWII veterans have been the rage in certain circles for five years now. But has popular culture really captured their correct collective image?

Since the 50th anniversary of World War II in the 1990s, Americans have grown increasingly fascinated with that epic conflict. In the past dozen years, Hollywood has released several big-budget motion pictures about the war, most notably Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan (1998).

Historian Stephen E. Ambrose has published numerous books on World War II since 1990, and journalist Tom Brokaw's 1998 bestseller The Greatest Generation provided a catchy moniker for those who waged the war. WWII, it seems, has never been more popular. What factors have made it such a powerful popular culture phenomenon?

'Sense of Unsolved Mystery'

Popular interest in WWII is nothing new. Hundreds of films have been made about the war. For example, John Wayne starred in more than a dozen WWII movies, most of which have been criticized for their unrealistic portrayals of war but which extolled virtues such as courage, determination and patriotism.

Hollywood has produced numerous battle features, such as The Longest Day (1962), Tora, Tora, Tora (1970) and A Bridge Too Far (1977). Before 1990, four WWII films received the Academy Award for best picture: The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), From Here to Eternity (1953), The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and Patton (1970).

One reason for the upsurge of interest in the war is the fact that its veterans are passing on. WWII cut more deeply into American society than any other war in the 20th century. Sixteen million Americans served during the conflict.

Today, millions of families have members who served in the war, and its veterans live in virtually every locality in the country. Within the intimate setting of family and community, the entire nation is witness to the passing of these veterans.

Many Americans simply want to learn more about their relatives, friends and neighbors before they are gone.

Because many veterans are reluctant to talk about the war, films and books serve to "fill the gap" for the inquisitive and admiring public. John Bradley, one of the men who raised the flag atop Mt. Suribachi on Iwo Jima, steadfastly refused to discuss his war experiences, creating a sense of curiosity about the war among his children.

According to his son James, the veteran's silence gave WWII "a sense of unsolved mystery." After his father's death in 1994, Bradley pieced together the wartime stories of his father and the other flag raisers. The resulting book, Flags of our Fathers (2000), became a nationwide bestseller.

Baby Boomer Guilt

Popular interest in WWII also stems from the social turbulence of the 1960s and 1970s. During those decades, many young people of the "baby boom" generation-those born in the 15 years or so following the war-challenged the values of their parents.

At Thanksgiving dinner in 1975, James Bradley explained to his father what he believed to be the cause of WWII in the Pacific: American imperialism. His father's reaction, as he remembered, was to "nod [silently] and hand me another slice of turkey."

Years later, the younger Bradley came to appreciate the nature of Japanese aggression and his father's contribution to ending it. Feeling a little guilty about the 1975 incident, he marveled at how his father, secure in his beliefs, did not take him to task for "the slice of baloney I ... handed him."

To some degree, the celebration of WWII has become a controversial and politically charged issue among baby boomers. For example, conservatives have castigated liberals like Steven Spielberg for honoring WWII veterans while having no military record of his own during the Vietnam War.

However, many conservative commentators-equally fervent in their praise for the WWII generation-also failed to serve in Vietnam.

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