Looking for the Good War: American Amnesia and the Violent Pursuit of Happiness - book cover
History & Criticism
  • Publisher : Farrar, Straus and Giroux; Annotated edition
  • Published : 30 Nov 2021
  • Pages : 368
  • ISBN-10 : 0374219923
  • ISBN-13 : 9780374219925
  • Language : English

Looking for the Good War: American Amnesia and the Violent Pursuit of Happiness

"A remarkable book, from its title and subtitle to its last words . . . A stirring indictment of American sentimentality about war." ―Robert G. Kaiser, The Washington Post

In Looking for the Good War, Elizabeth D. Samet reexamines the literature, art, and culture that emerged after World War II, bringing her expertise as a professor of English at West Point to bear on the complexity of the postwar period in national life. She exposes the confusion about American identity that was expressed during and immediately after the war, and the deep national ambivalence toward war, violence, and veterans―all of which were suppressed in subsequent decades by a dangerously sentimental attitude toward the United States' "exceptional" history and destiny.

Samet finds the war's ambivalent legacy in some of its most heavily mythologized figures: the war correspondent epitomized by Ernie Pyle, the character of the erstwhile G.I. turned either cop or criminal in the pulp fiction and feature films of the late 1940s, the disaffected Civil War veteran who looms so large on the screen in the Cold War Western, and the resurgent military hero of the post-Vietnam period. Taken together, these figures reveal key elements of postwar attitudes toward violence, liberty, and nation―attitudes that have shaped domestic and foreign policy and that respond in various ways to various assumptions about national identity and purpose established or affirmed by World War II.

As the United States reassesses its roles in Afghanistan and the Middle East, the time has come to rethink our national mythology: the way that World War II shaped our sense of national destiny, our beliefs about the use of American military force throughout the world, and our inability to accept the realities of the twenty-first century's decades of devastating conflict.

Editorial Reviews

"Looking for the Good War is a remarkable book, from its title and subtitle to its last words . . . A stirring indictment of American sentimentality about war . . . Samet is a fine writer with a gift for powerful arguments articulated in elegant prose." ―Robert G. Kaiser, The Washington Post

"Discerning . . . A work of unsparing demystification―and there is something hopeful and even inspiring in this. Like the cadets she teaches at West Point, civilians would do well to see World War II as something other than a buoyant tale of American goodness trouncing Nazi evil." ―Jennifer Szalai, The New York Times

"Magisterial . . . Samet has taught soldiers who served in 21st-century wars, and she forces us to confront the fact that these wars were consumed as myths back home." ―Ben Rhodes, The New York Times Book Review

"Samet offers a cultural and literary counterpoint to the Ambrose-Brokaw-Spielberg industrial complex of Second World War remembrance . . . ‘In a climate in which the pressures to sentimentalize are so strong and victory and defeat are so difficult to measure,' she writes, ‘it seems a moral imperative to discover another way to read and write about a war.' Her retrospective on the Good War is another such way, and a worthwhile one . . . Time enables every new generation to rethink and redefine a conflict with a more dispassionate and informed gaze―as this book itself proves." ―Carlos Lozada, The New Yorker

"Compelling, enlightening and elegantly written . . . This richly rewarding and thought-provoking book splashes World War II history across a broad canvas, with insightful discussions of the works of Homer and Shakespeare and the wisdom of Abraham Lincoln." ―Roger Bishop, BookPage (starred review)

"Samet smoothly distills the myths Americans have told themselves to justify the epithet of the 'Good War' for a noble battle to liberate the world from fascism . . . Not just timely, Samet's work is incisively argued and revelatory in its criticism." Kirkus (starred review)

"Elizabeth Samet's Looking for the Good War is a genealogy of diverse strands of thought about America and war. The cultural currents she traces from World War II continue to shape how we imagine ourselves, how we critique ourselves, and the possibilities that we see in the American experiment. Stunning." Phil Klay, author of Missionaries

"In an era when the moral corruption of our foreign wars has manifestly demeaned and degraded the life of the country, Elizabeth Samet's brilliant Looking for the Good War is essential reading. This eloquent, far-ranging analysis of the national psyche goes as far as any book I've ever read towar...

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