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Total Mobilization: World War II and American Literature

Total Mobilization: World War II and American Literature

by Roy Scranton

Paperback(First Edition)

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Since World War II, the story of the trauma hero—the noble white man psychologically wounded by his encounter with violence—has become omnipresent in America’s narratives of war, an imaginary solution to the contradictions of American political hegemony. In Total Mobilization, Roy Scranton cuts through the fog of trauma that obscures World War II, uncovering a lost history and reframing the way we talk about war today.
Considering often overlooked works by James Jones, Wallace Stevens, Martha Gellhorn, and others, alongside cartoons and films, Scranton investigates the role of the hero in industrial wartime, showing how such writers struggled to make sense of problems that continue to plague us today: the limits of American power, the dangers of political polarization, and the conflicts between nationalism and liberalism. By turning our attention to the ways we make war meaningful—and by excavating the politics implicit within the myth of the traumatized hero—Total Mobilization revises the way we understand not only World War II, but all of postwar American culture.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226637310
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 07/30/2019
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Roy Scranton is assistant professor of English at the University of Notre Dame and the author of Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of Civilization, We’re Doomed. Now What? Essays on War and Climate Change, and two novels, War Porn and I Heart Oklahoma!

Read an Excerpt


The Bomber

I think it is well also for the man in the street to realise that there is no power on earth that can protect him from being bombed. Whatever people may tell him, the bomber will always get through.

Stanley Baldwin, Speech to Parliament (1932)

The bomb-sight adjusted destruction hangs by a hair over the cities. Bombs away! and the packed word descends — and rightly so. William Carlos Williams, "To All Gentleness," in The Wedge (1944)

"I have seen the world spirit," not on horseback, but on wings and without a head, and that refutes, at the same stroke, Hegel's philosophy of history.

Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia (1951)

The Bomber Lyric

William Wyler's film The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) opens with US Air Force captain Fred Derry, played by Dana Andrews, getting snubbed at a civilian airline counter. "I just got back from overseas," he tells the attendant. "I want to get home." But to the civilian behind the counter, Derry's fancy uniform and silver wings mark him not as the hero he is in his mind but as just another customer, and what matters in the world she lives in — the "home front" of peacetime America — isn't rank, valor, or sacrifice but money, a fact made manifest by the way she lets a businessman cut in front of the war veteran. Derry takes it on the chin like a soldier and smiles when the attendant sends him to the Air Transport Command office, where he manages to catch a military flight in a B-17 bomber with two other veterans, sailor Homer Parrish (Harold Russell) and infantry sergeant Al Stephenson (Frederic March).

After the B-17 takes off, Derry, who'd been a bombardier in Europe, takes the other two men up into his "former office" in the nose of the plane. The farms and orchards of "the good old USA" roll below, uncannily seen through Derry's eyes as if targeted by a bombsight. McKinley Kantor's blank verse novel Glory for Me (1945), from which The Best Years of Our Lives was adapted by Robert Sherrod, lingers in this moment: "Dwelling in space where once the bombsight lay, / He held his nose above the Plexiglas, / And watched the wads of villages and farms / And larger towns." As the film follows the bomber's flight over home territory, dramatizing the unheimlich (uncanny) vision of the returning veteran for whom every landscape is a potential battlefield, it follows the three men to (fictional) Boone City, where they make their difficult readjustments to civilian life.

Together the three men represent the most iconic fighting figures of the war — soldier, sailor, airman — and also the most iconic problems of postwar adjustment. Derry, a version of the trauma hero, is haunted by nightmares of his burning bomber. Homer Parrish lost his hands when his aircraft carrier sank into the Pacific, and he now greets the world with two mechanical pincers. Stephenson faces the more complex problem of inhabiting competing ethical worlds, risking his prewar career at a bank when the values he had lived by as an infantry sergeant — camaraderie, personal judgment, frankness, sacrifice, and courage — run counter to the bank's commercial ethos. In addition to these psychological, physical, and ethical challenges, the men also face identity crises typical to homecoming veterans. The Best Years of Our Lives (which title remains ironic throughout) ends on a note of prudently limited happiness, with Stephenson stable and adjusted to corporate realities, Homer married to his loyal fiancée, and Derry released from his loveless marriage, degrading job as a soda jerk, and traumatic nightmares, having found new love and a new job scrapping old bombers, work that is both appropriately masculine and explicitly therapeutic. All three men are offered domestic contentment, dependent on their acceptance of feminized civilian restraint.

Despite the perhaps sustainable charge issued by critic Manny Farber that the film was a "a horse-drawn truckload of liberal schmaltz," The Best Years of Our Lives was deeply resonant with popular audiences (it was the highest-grossing film since Gone with the Wind), enjoyed massive critical success (it won seven Oscars), and offers real moments of insight and emotion to the attentive viewer even today, especially in its portrayal of Fred Derry's changing relationship to his former role as a bombardier. Indeed, Derry's story is the heart of the film, and in important ways he represents not only the air force but the American experience of World War II. Most readers today would probably think of John Wayne's hard-bitten Sergeant Stryker from The Sands of Iwo Jima (1949) as representing the face of the archetypical World War II soldier, at least until he was displaced by Tom Hanks's tough-but-tender schoolteacher Captain Miller in Saving Private Ryan (1998), but in 1946, that face would have belonged to Dana Andrews, who had starred in several World War II films (including one in which he played the ghost of a sailor killed at Pearl Harbor), most recently Sergeant Bill Tyne in director Lewis Milestone's A Walk in the Sun (1946), a harrowing, poetic film which, as Jeanine Basinger points out, marked the beginning of a new "demythologizing mythology": "Instead of seeing the events [of the war] as glamorous, we ... learn about the 'real' war, one of waiting and no real information for the fighting man."

In A Walk in the Sun, the viewer is brought "inside" Dana Andrews playing Sergeant Bill Tyne as he tries to make sense of the chaos of combat. In The Best Years of Our Lives, we enter Andrews's mind again, but now as a Captain Fred Derry, the veteran come home, reckoning with the war's meaning for American society as a whole. Captain Derry, through his identification with his old "office" in the bomber's nose, embodies the problem that the professional practitioner of industrialized warfare faces on returning to peace: a useless machine must be remade or get junked.

After Derry loses his job, finds out his wife is cheating on him, and is warned away from Sergeant Stephenson's daughter, he returns to the airport seeking a military flight somewhere — anywhere — else. While waiting for the next plane out, he wanders into a bone-yard, where dozens of stripped bomber fuselages sit partially disassembled, immobilized, evacuated of their power, line after line of gray skeletons stretching to the horizon (fig. 2). Derry is identified with the bombers and at the same time alienated from them, as what had once been the source of his identity and power is now gutted, impotent junk. As one man in one bomber in one field that indexes, in its mass-produced repetition, the totality of the industrial war machine, he suddenly understands his heroic role as that of a replaceable part in a global system. He had thought he was a demigod, but in fact that identity was nothing but a moment in a network of wartime production. At the same time, the machines themselves suggest the eerily insectoid grace of technological power in one of its most titanic manifestations and, as if they were gravestones, evoke the millions of all-too-human corpses the war produced.

In this scene, a single life comes to speak in its isolated self-reflection for an entire cultural moment, and Wyler fixes this self-reflection in the unforgettable image of Dana Andrews huddling disconsolately in the nose of a scrapped bomber, while the soundtrack roars with the haunting thunder of the bomber's ghostly engines (fig. 3). The irony in the film's title comes back to us with bitter wonder: the "best years" of Fred Derry's life were spent trapped in a mass-produced war machine raining death on anonymous enemies, many of them civilians, doubtlessly including women and children just like those who inhabit Boone City. This image of self-reflection in which the individual merges with the collective, the man with the machine, and the destroyer with the victim is a perfect emblem of World War II's most important and representative literary figure, the bomber.

The bomber presents a simple image: a black cross in the air, a silhouette "screaming across the sky," "on wings and without a head," a semidivine, gleaming metal death-phallus (fig. 4). At the same time, the bomber is composite and fluid, sometimes singular, sometimes multiple, organic, technological, historically specific in each of its swarming variations, a squadron of ponderous Zeppelins, a single biplane, a Heinkel, a Lancaster, a V-1 Buzzbomb or silent V-2, a kamikaze Zero, waves upon waves of B-17s, B-25s, B-29s, a man, a crew, a machine, a multitude. "The unit was the crew," recalled poet and bomber crewman John Ciardi. "You belonged to eleven men. You're trained together, you're bound together."

The material technology manifesting this image was developed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Made possible by the invention of the airplane and the production of increasingly stable and compact explosive devices, aerial bombing was introduced to the world — and to an unlucky group of Turkish soldiers in Libya — by Italian Lieutenant Giulio Gavotti on November 1, 1911. Dropping hand grenades from his Taube biplane on a Turkish encampment at Ain Zara, Gavotti inaugurated a practice of mass killing at a distance that over the course of the century would destroy millions of human lives, transform the nature of warfare, and provide our age with some of its most indelible images of state power, technological sublimity, and human vulnerability. Recall the photograph of Phan Th? Kim Phúc burned by napalm and running naked down a highway near Tr?ng Bàng. Think of the mushroom cloud over Nagasaki and the scarred bodies of the hibakusha. Google "Shock and Awe."

The bomber has always been more than just a weapon. After small bombers and zeppelins appeared in the First World War, inspiring nightmare scenarios of aerial Armageddon, General Giulio Douhet prophesied the importance of strategic bombing in his 1921 book The Command of the Air, and increasingly sophisticated aircraft were used for colonial control throughout the 1920s and 1930s, most notably by the British in Iraq. With World War II the bomber achieved its apotheosis as a technocultural assemblage reshaping the flows of human existence. The movement of state power into the air and the translation of atmospheres into sites of conflict and control entailed modifications in our species-life beyond mere war fighting, as the immanent logic of airborne explosives unfolded from hand-launched grenades to napalm and atomic bombs, from bursts of shrapnel as microlocal phenomena to vast weather systems of fire engulfing entire cities. The most astonishing recent symbols of the power of human air power — the use of passenger jets as suicide bombs in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the use of unmanned drones to murder alleged terrorists — only deepen the mythic resonance inhering in the dialectical image of the winged destroyer. Rainer Maria Rilke's aesthetic-spiritual apothegm, "Every angel is terrifying," is the inevitable epitaph to the century of the bomber, which also happens to be the American century.

Indeed, within a specifically American historical context, the bomber takes on an even more substantial role than the symbolic manifestation of Hegel's world spirit (as in the epigraph to this chapter from Adorno's Minima Moralia). "The way trench warfare dominates the imagery of World War I," writes Harvey Shapiro, "the fleets of bombers and the smoking cities dominate the imagery of World War II." Daniel Swift makes a similar point: "Bombing was to the Second World War what the trenches were to the First: a shocking and new form of warfare, wretched and unexpected, and carried out at a terrible scale of loss." The mythic role of the bomber took form during the war, in advertisements, newsreels, and films such as the Office for Emergency Management's propaganda short Bomber (1941, with commentary by Carl Sandburg, where he calls the bomber "An angel of death — / Death to those who mock at free peoples."), Howard Hawks's Air Force (1943), William Wyler's wartime documentary Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress (1944), and Mervyn LeRoy's Thirty Seconds over Tokyo (1944), and then was confirmed after the war in films such as The Best Years of Our Lives,Command Decision (1948), and the much-lauded command drama Twelve O'Clock High (1949).

From the desperate heroism of the Doolittle Raid and the apocalyptic horror unleashed by the Enola Gay to Jonathan Safran Foer's 2005 novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, which connects the Allied firebombing of Dresden with al Qaeda's attacks on the World Trade Center, the bomber exudes troubling power well beyond the 1940s. Consider, for example, the bomber's unexpected but wholly apposite appearance in John Ashbery's 1975 volume Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror:

A pleasant smell of frying sausages Attacks the sense, along with an old, mostly invisible Photograph of what seems to be girls lounging around An old fighter bomber, circa 1942 vintage. How to explain to these girls, if indeed that's what they are, These Ruths, Lindas, Pats and Sheilas About the vast change that's taken place In the fabric of our society, altering the texture Of all things in it?

Ashbery's knack for Wordsworthian commonplaces, the plodding pondering of social transformation in "language really used by men," such as the clichéd "vast change that's taken place / In the fabric of our society," that quality Geoff Ward called Ashbery's "unerring banality," stabilizes the tenuous historicity of the photographic image amid several free-floating frames. Fixing on the "fighter bomber" connects the narrator to a specific historical moment ("circa 1942 vintage") and poses the question of how he might speak to the women in the picture from thirty-five years later. Between the narrator and "These Ruths, Lindas, Pats and Sheilas" lie the end of World War II, the atomic bomb, Korea, the Cold War, the civil rights movement, the assassinations of JFK, RFK, MLK, and Malcolm X, the Vietnam War, the 1960s, the moon landing, second-wave feminism, Stonewall, and much else besides, including shifting mores with regard to gender roles, sexuality, and American geopolitical power. The seemingly simple world of the photograph, featuring girls "draped" on a symbol of American military masculinity as innocent as its Donald Duck insignia "fading ... to the extreme point of legibility," is now "old, mostly invisible" and yet conjured and sustained for these "creatures (that's the word) / of [his] imagination" through the figure of the bomber. Even as the speaker tries to forget them, the women remain attached to the bomber as not just a moment but an axis of history, which in this poem reveals its immanent development as air power and environmental control "in the not too distant future / When we meet possibly in the lounge of a modern airport."

Through such complex gestures of fascination and disavowal, American writers during and after the war fixed on the figure of the bomber as a powerfully overdetermined embodiment of the problem of the hero in an age of total mobilization. Consider Joseph Heller's 1961 novel Catch-22, widely seen as the most important American work of literature about the war and one of the great novels of the twentieth century. Catch-22 tells the story of Army Air Corps Captain John Yossarian, a B-25 bombardier, during his tour of duty in Italy. Yossarian's story is told through a complex interweaving of flashbacks, repetitions, digressions, repressions, and displacements that circle elliptically and erratically around his memory of a fellow crewmember's death. As sophisticated as the story is, the essential narrative is simple and familiar: Yossarian experiences a traumatizing revelation of human mortality, then spends most of the novel striving to escape this knowledge. The novel's eponymous "catch" is specifically invoked with regard to whether or not Yossarian has to fly more missions, though it generalizes to the human condition. Yossarian, fearing for his life, tries to fake insanity, because an insane pilot will be relieved of duty. Trying to avoid death, though, is in the novel's logic the very sine qua non of sanity. The more Yossarian tries to prove he's mad, the more he proves his fitness as a war fighter: "There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one's own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind."


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Table of Contents

List of FiguresIntroduction: A True War Story

Chapter 1: The Bomber
The Bomber Lyric
The Bomber as Scapegoat: Randall Jarrell’s “Eighth Air Force”
Atrocity Aesthetics: James Dickey’s “The Firebombing”
Agency and Death
Chapter 2: Repetitions of a Hero
The Negro Hero and the Nation within a Nation
The Hero as Social Media: The Caine Mutiny
Participating in the Heroic: Wallace Stevens and the Poetry of War
The Reality of the Modern State: The Thin Red Line
Chapter 3: War as Comedy
Zany Dialectics: “Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips”
The Education of a War Poet: Kenneth Koch at War
Barbaric Poetry: From Okinawa to the Cold War
Encoding War: “Sun Out” and “The Islands”
Chapter 4: Total War and Historical Time
War as Origin Myth: Joan Didion’s Run River
War as a Promise to the Future: “Letter from Paradise, 21° 19′ N., 157° 52′ W.”
The Hanged Man and the Military-Industrial Complex: The Young Lions and Gravity’s Rainbow
One World, One War: The Great War and Modern Memory
War as Fantasy: Star Wars
Chapter 5: The Trauma Hero
Combat Gnosticism from Clausewitz to The Yellow Birds
Traumatic Revelation
“The Good War” and Postmodern Memory
Conclusion: Nothing Is Over
Works Cited

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