World War II Chic

As the Senate gears up for a ritual caning of the president, it's telling that the most acclaimed film is Saving Private Ryan; the best-selling nonfiction book is The Greatest Generation, Tom Brokaw's paean to the fighting men of World War II; and the hottest new dance is swing. Even in an era when nostalgia is the stuff of postmodern mix-and-match, there's a special reverence for the look and feel of wartime. What other event could inspire a wholesale revival of the combat film, not to mention nightly reruns of vintage footage (tired of the impeachathon? Flip to the Hitler Network), and even a new market niche in deep-red lipsticks with names like Bombshell and Showgirl.

What's remarkable about this latest incarnation of retro is how it crosses generational lines. As Boomers bumrush the bookstores for the latest coffee-table collection of combat photography, their children are buying manuals that teach them how to lead and follow on the dance floor. Lounge may never replace hiphop, but in the tonier Gen-X precincts, the new 'tude is all about wartime swagger and swing.

When the RCN data-processing cartel wanted to project an image of integrity, it chose to associate its logo with grainy images of General Eisenhower and the Allies entering Paris. Call it Craving Private Ryan. In an age when culture and politics reek of either decadence or fanaticism, something in the mall-weary American soul yearns for the consolation of a seemingly pure time, when we shared a common enemy and a set of beliefs that united us, for better or worse. As the nation recoils from the orgy that calls itself a crisis, the Good War, as Studs Terkel dubbed it, seems like the Golden Age.

Never mind that the price of this purity was a society that blithely relegated whole groups of Americans to abjection and chronic poverty. Never mind that, as even Brokaw admits, this greatest generation "allowed McCarthyism and racism to go unchallenged for too long," or that they perpetrated a system that rewarded women in direct proportion to their embodiment of the word broad. These were people of their time, after all, and their time was anything but good. Raised in the wake of capitalism's greatest failure, they reached maturity during history's greatest bloodbath. You don't have to buy into the World War II mystique to acknowledge their ordeal, or to honor them for preserving democracy. The problem comes when a generation shaped by scarcity is held up to its far more fortunate heirs as the model of what valor and virtue ought to be.

Though Brokaw insists his book has no agenda, there's nothing neutral about touting your subject as "the greatest generation any society has ever produced." So much for Periclean Athens, the Renaissance, or for that matter, our own Civil War (which claimed many more American lives than did World War II). Among the qualities Brokaw admires in this singular generation: "They did not protest," and after the war, "they stayed true to their values of personal responsibility, duty, honor, and faith." These buzz words stand in sharp rebuke to the generation that followed, with its famously relative morality, its taste for the sensual and self-promoting, its obliviousness to fidelity and faith— all hallmarks of the dread Boomers and their draft-dodging icon, Bill Clinton. Indeed, it's arguable that the real subject of Brokaw's book is the present.

This Friday, NBC will piggyback on the success of The Greatest Generation with a prime-time special intended to bring this heroic cohort home to its children and grandchildren. Moving as this homage may be, it also has the studied air of a Richard Nixon bring-us-together speech. Consider Brokaw's assessment of the wartime generation's greatest accomplishment: they created "a common set of values." So much for the estrangements of identity politics. "Their primary characteristic might be described in one word— sacrifice." This is the very act Clinton is supposed to be incapable of— or else, the pundits tell us, he would have resigned by now.

Meanwhile at the Cineplex, where the real decisions about American politics are made, the Good War definitely has legs. As Saving Private Ryan surges past the $200 million mark (with a video slated for release by Oscar time), Terrence Malick's elegiac The Thin Red Line is giving even Patch Adams a run for the money in New York and L.A. But despite an all-star cast, this film may not play in Brokawland, given its director's mission to strip the Good War of mystique. The result is less like a combat movie than a nature show in which rival factions of ants battle amid towering leaves of grass. In the film's climactic scene, its protagonist declaims, "They want you either dead or in their lie." This is not the sort of sentiment that appeals to an audience hungry for ancestor worship, even when it's uttered by the Bogart of his generation, Sean Penn. America's choice is Tom Hanks's leave-'em-weeping line about "angels on our shoulders." When it comes to the warm glow of nostalgia that sells so many movies and books, Saving Private Ryan is the perfect companion to The Greatest Generation. Both works extend the image of the Good War into the present where, God knows, it has its uses.

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