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

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

by Elizabeth D. Samet

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On the nature and meaning of war, on its impact on individuals and the nation, Elizabeth D. Samet’s voice is clear, poetic, insightful and necessary. What makes a “noble” war? Or the “greatest” generation? Does it matter? Looking for the Good War makes an eloquent case that it very much does, that it is time we understand the myths we tell ourselves to justify sending soldiers into battle. That Samet teaches literature to cadets at West Point lends a personal, urgent intimacy to her words.

“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.



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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374219925
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 11/30/2021
Pages: 368
Sales rank: 738
Product dimensions: 8.50(w) x 5.60(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Elizabeth D. Samet is the author of No Man’s Land: Preparing for War and Peace in Post-9/11 America; Soldier’s Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point, which won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Current Interest and was named one of the 100 Notable Books of 2007 by The New York Times; and Willing Obedience: Citizens, Soldiers, and the Progress of Consent in America, 1776–1898. Samet is the editor of Leadership: Essential Writings by Our Greatest Thinkers, The Annotated Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, and, most recently, World War II Memoirs: The Pacific Theater. She is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Humanities Public Scholar Grant and the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, and she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship to support the research and writing of Looking for the Good War. She is a professor of English at West Point.

Table of Contents

Prologue: Is This Trip Really Necessary? 3

Introduction: One War at a Time 7

1 Age of Gold 25

2 Dead-Shot American Cowboys 93

3 Thieves Like Us 145

4 War, What Is It Good For? 205

5 Giddy Minds and Foreign Quarrels 279

Epilogue: Age of Iron 333

Recommended Books and Films 345

Acknowledgments 353

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