Destructive Myths

Destructive Myths

Romanticized stories about the Second World War are at the heart of American exceptionalism.

Actor Tom Hanks and President George W. Bush stand on stage at the dedication of the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. on May 29, 2004. (Ron Sachs-Pool/ Getty Images)

Looking for the Good War: American Amnesia and the Violent Pursuit of Happiness
by Elizabeth D. Samet
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021, 368 pp.

Nations, like the individuals who make them up, define themselves largely through their memories. And, as countless psychological studies have shown, our memories are malleable, as often as not shaped to fit the identities we have already chosen.

Elizabeth Samet’s Looking for the Good War is the latest in a trickle of literature exploring how our collective historical memory of the Second World War has been falsified to enshrine the destructive myth of America’s heroic exceptionalism.

The United States is not the only nation whose identity is stuck in its governing class’s self-serving historical fiction. While American leaders struggle to maintain their global hegemony, their counterparts in Russia and China itch to restore their own lost mythologized empires. Samet—who teaches English at West Point—argues, however, that “there’s a particular irony in dwelling so stubbornly in the past” in the United States, “once billed as the great nation of futurity.”

And there is no episode more central to American myth-making than the Second World War. Germany and Japan declared war on the United States, and there is not much doubt that ridding the globe of those monstrous regimes was the right thing to do. What’s more, in retrospect, the war solidified the New Deal, legitimized labor unions, and led to the 1948 desegregation of the armed forces—one of the biggest steps forward for civil rights since the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870.

But the actual war was quickly forgotten, replaced by a romanticized misremembrance that dangerously inflated Americans’ view of their own power and virtue. “Every American exercise of military force since World War II, at least in the eyes of its architects,” Samet writes, “has inherited that war’s moral justification and been understood as its offspring: motivated by its memory, prosecuted in its shadow, inevitably measured against it.”

This misremembrance has blinded the citizenry to the realities of U.S imperialism, which include at least 750 military bases around the world, some 200 foreign military interventions since the end of the Cold War, and an expensive, wasteful, and corrupt military-industrial complex. U.S. war planes and ships patrol the world up to, and sometimes over, the lines of other nations—provocations that we would not tolerate anywhere near our own borders.

“The great thing about the American empire,” observes historian Niall Ferguson—a fan of that empire—“is tha...