Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

The Good War's "Raw Chunks": Norman Mailer's the Naked and the Dead and James Gould Cozzens's Guard of Honor

Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

The Good War's "Raw Chunks": Norman Mailer's the Naked and the Dead and James Gould Cozzens's Guard of Honor

Article excerpt

WRITING IN 1975, the aging soldier-author James Jones, veteran of both Pearl Harbor and the assault on Guadalcanal, offered a telling analysis of how the bloodiest conflict in world history became known, in Studs Terkel's famous phrase, as the "Good War":

   The truth is, thirty-five years has glossed it all over and given
   World War II a polish and a glow that it did not have at the time.
   The process of history always makes me think of the way the Navahos
   polish their turquoise. They put the raw chunks in at barrel half
   filled with birdshot, and then turn the barrel and keep turning it
   until the rough edges are all taken off and the nuggets come out
   smooth and shining. Time, I think, does the same thing with history,
   and especially with wars. (Jones, 11)

As Jones recognized so clearly, the "World War II" remembered by most Americans bears little resemblance to the cataclysmic series of events he'd experienced firsthand. At best, what we now call the "Good War" is a well-maintained fiction, a constellation of images, narratives, memories, and sound bites invoked to lend authority to everything from the War on Drugs to the current American-led occupation of Iraq. Born in the propaganda factories of wartime Hollywood and the United States' Office of War Information (O.W.I.), the "Good War" is less a deliberate falsehood than a gross simplification, an effort to deny World War II its ironies and ethical complexity. In countless Hollywood features, government-sanctioned newsreels, and animated shorts, the war was transformed into a global morality play, a clash of civilizations on a near apocalyptic scale. On the one side lay the peace-loving Allies and the forces of democracy; on the other, the godless Axis Powers, whose expansion across Europe and Asia had to be curtailed at all costs.

Inevitably "glossed over" in this dichotomy were the war's "raw chunks" and "rough edges." Racial strife within the Allied forces, America's rampant anti-Semitism, and class antagonisms between officers and enlisted men, for instance, had no place in the "Good War." The segregation of the armed forces and the "evacuation" of Japanese-Americans from the West Coast, while never a military secret, were also absent in the "World War II" Americans encountered in presidential speeches and propaganda campaigns. Perhaps even more disturbing was what critic Paul Fussell has called the "ideological vacuum" at the heart of the U.S. war effort--the fact that few Americans knew what they were fighting for (199-43). In their attempts to fill this void, O.W.I. productions such as Frank Capra's Prelude to War (1949) worked to shape the contours of World War II in the public imagination. Indeed, long before it was over, America's culture industries were already giving the war its first "polish," scraping away its inconsistencies and contradictions, until all that emerged was a shining endorsement of American ideology, and military strength.

And yet, not all Americans were ready to accept a burnished vision of World War II, especially once the glow of victory began to fade. Both shocked and overwhelmed by the war's sudden end, Americans found themselves struggling to come to terms with the "meaning" of World War II and its legacies for the future. Foremost in their minds were concerns about security, both personal and national. Unlike Eric Johnston and others within the Roosevelt-Truman administrations (America Unlimited, 53, 115), few Americans shared the government's optimism that World War II had permanently revitalized the nation's slumping economy. Labor leaders in particular worried that gains made during the Depression and the war itself would be rolled back because of postwar militarism (Fousek, 61). Having largely muted their critiques of America's moral hypocrisy during the war years, African-Americans returned home to a new wave of reactionary violence against people of color. For Henry A. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.