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.

Consider how different America is today from the nation that defeated fascism (and thereby secured its own supremacy in the world). Perhaps nothing reflects this contrast more dramatically than the way we wage war. In an age when “military strikes” are not only televised but conducted by remote control, with minimal casualties and even less public debate, there’s a growing sense that the important questions about courage and personal responsibility are quite beside the point. So one reason for the current appeal of the Good War has to be its tangibility. There is something almost enviable about the experience of hand-to-hand combat for a generation whose closest equivalent is the floor of the Stock Exchange.

Then there’s the rather recent arrival of peace. If you concur with a number of historians, World War II actually ended in 1989 with the fall of the Soviet Union. Certainly, true peace has been an anomaly in this century, and the anxieties produced by the sudden absence of an enemy are evident in the intensity of the culture war, which has elevated issues of sexuality and social status to the high plain once occupied by enslavement and genocide. It is easier to imagine a world where the danger is real and the enemy irredeemable than one in which questions of good and evil hinge on “what is is,” in Bill Clinton’s immortal words. It’s possible that the most comprehensible way to portray the present is as a sci-fi movie, since only the unreal seems real to us today.

Seen in this light, the archaic mores of the Good War have a hidden authority; like old soldiers, they never die, they just wait to be revived. This power— and not devotion to his dad— is clearly the real reason Spielberg has set out to own the Second World War (he’s about to make another combat film for HBO). It’s certainly why Saving Private Ryan could come across as both a patriotic exercise and an antiwar movie. By tapping into the verities of combat films— right down to the fighting unit, with its harmonious order of ethnic types under a beloved WASP commander— this master showman could introduce the most brutal battle sequences in cinematic history without undercutting a devotional tone. Spielberg is our Rodgers and Hammerstein, infusing the clichés of show biz with a naturalism so unassailable that the most traditional ideas seem fresh and new. But if the mood of a postwar musical is bursting with optimism, Spielberg’s affect is deeply melancholy. His view of tradition is one that leaves the present infinitely wanting.

Consider the crucial scene where General George Marshall decides to save Private Ryan because his brothers have all been killed. Hovering under the action is the idealized image of a well-ordered society, with all the hierarchies of age and gender intact. A young woman notices the name Ryan recurring in her death tallies, and she brings this information to an older woman, who walks it in to a young man, who takes it to an older man, who delivers it to the patrician Marshall, who invokes the ultimate American patriarch— Abraham Lincoln— in his letter to the bereaved mother Ryan. Here is a model of the military utterly at odds with the world we know. Today’s war hero may not be a man, and he or she is probably not white.

The army is the most thoroughly integrated enterprise in America, certainly more so than the management of most companies (and definitely more than any media outfit). Yet books and movies that evoke the heroic tropes of World War II also thrust us back to a nation where people of color were virtually missing from public life. The excuse for this absence, offered by Spielberg among others, is that it’s historically accurate: blacks didn’t fight in most of the great battles. Their presence, except as stewards and support troops, would have been disruptive to the Greatest Generation. A truly realistic war movie might include a scene like the one Jesse Jackson painted at the Democratic Convention of 1996, when he told a rapt audience how his father had returned from the war a victor, only to find, when he boarded the train for Washington, D.C., that the seats had been reserved for white soldiers and German prisoners. But thrusting that sort of image into World War II chic would defeat its purpose, which is to represent a world where all the tensions of the present are subsumed by the mission and the men.

It’s worth noting that, in the current Good War revival, WACs are missing in action. Women are virtually absent from Private Ryan, and in The Thin Red Line, they appear only in a soft-
focus montage of breasts and lapping waves. War movies give filmmakers an excuse to do what, in any other format, would be considered suspicious these days: valorize a world of men. It’s a place where danger lurks at every turn, and where the only defense is the cohesion of the male unit. In these new films, Hitler is all but irrelevent, and so are the Allied generals— the pompous uebermensch George C. Scott perfected in Patton (Richard Nixon’s favorite film), or the demon control freak Bogart immortalized in The Caine Mutiny. Nick Nolte offers a semblance of this misplaced authority in The Thin Red Line, but as in Private Ryan, the real story is the relationship between the unit commander and his boys. Fathers and sons: this is the heart of the modern combat film, and the real issue it addresses.

This explains why the new generation of war movies leaves so little room for romance. The real passion is the bond between men, and the closest thing to a fervent embrace occurs when the living nurse the dying. No wonder World War II chic leaves many women cold. For them, the state of patriarchal bonding is a bore at best. But for guys, honoring the father also means reclaiming a world where (white) men were men and everyone else stayed out of sight. This yearning for a dangerous yet admirable past has a special weight for Boomer men, who have had to temper their birthright of power over women. They may be willing, even eager, to shed this burdensome supremacy, but a residue of rue remains. For this “liberated” generation, worshiping at the shrine of World War II is an acceptable way to revisit Dad’s world, the one left ambivalently behind.

It is often said that Boomers exist in a state of eternal youthfulness (a corollary to their legendary narcissism). But to the extent that this is true, it can only be because they were protected by their parents and provided for to an almost unprecedented degree. This was certainly not the case for the generation that grew up in the Great Depression, nor is it true for the children of today’s de facto families, whose sense of stability has been severely tested. But for most Boomers, Dad and Mom were a (sometimes oppressive) given. Now that they are disappearing, their children feel an aching need to atone for the patricidal leanings of their youth. This is why Boomers like Spielberg and Brokaw are the architects of World War II chic. It also accounts for the curious character of the translator assigned to help find Private Ryan. This overly scrupulous intellectual, whose manhood fails him at a crucial moment, is a stand-in for the Boomer’s self-contempt. He’s today’s virtual man.

As the right understands, the ’60s genera-

tion is particularly vulnerable to accusations that the world they wrought is a miasmic ruin of the noble kingdom their parents left to them. Boomer guilt is a major reason why the conservative critique has gotten so far. Instead of seeing the social advances of the past 30 years as something to be proud of— and an important part of the democratic project that was preserved in World War II— Boomers are prone to buy the idea that America is floundering in some radical disjunction with its heroic past. The Good War, as reconstructed by Spielberg and Brokaw, is a powerful expression of the feeling that, when all is said and done, we fucked up.

But the most striking thing about this revival is its appeal to young people. For the generation now entering adulthood, the wartime era and its aftermath are a retro Arcadia. As two-step dance clubs, neo-jitterbug bands like the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, and the whole lounge megillah attests, the culture of swagger and swing has real magic for those who never even stood in the shadow of the real thing.

For a generation that grew up deconstructed, especially in matters of gender, the roles men and women are required to play when they dance the lead-and-follow way are charged with a fetishistic energy. No wonder swing seems so compelling to the urban, affluent young; it’s in these circles that feminism has had its deepest impact. Here, the nostalgia is less for combat against an implacably evil foe than for the world that was won. Nineteen-forty-five is the dreamtime, and Sinatra is the conquering hero, the young lion with a wounded, weary soul. The struggle for love (which, in Sinatra’s case, ultimately became a quest for control) is commingled with the most important problem facing this emergent generation: to renegotiate the terms of heterosexuality. Swing provides a playing field on which to try out roles that may not extend beyond the dance. It is tempting to mistake this experiment— laced with irony and a generational gift for synthesis— as blind devotion to the way we were.

The rise of a backlash culture cloaked in the heroic tropes of World War II lends itself to the fondest conservative fantasies, from a restoration of traditional sex roles to the breeding of a generation that dresses up and looks down on “rudeness, drunkenness, and vulgarity,” as the ever hopeful Weekly Standard imagines. “If swing takes over popular culture,” this conservative weekly notes, “it could do more to repair the damage of the last 30 years than the war on drugs, the Republican Congress, and the Christian Coalition combined.”

But anyone who thinks the new swing is about sobriety and sexual reticence hasn’t seen it in action (except perhaps in that famous Gap ad). Lounge life, to its credit, is hardly an invitation to clean living, and two-stepping, when it’s not done with gymnastic distance, can be a funky softcore performance. Playing the “frail” may be hot, but anyone who thinks women who bob their hair and jive will embrace marriage and motherhood the way all those riveting Rosies did 50 years ago is in for a shock. As one denizen of the new swing scene— a staunch feminist— replied when I asked how she put up with following signals from a man, “You have to give up some things for the sake of the dance.”

It may be only this generation that is finally free enough to play with the terrible centrality of the Second World War. “Everything is of it, before or after it,” Norman Mailer noted recently. This suggests why the Good War still resonates in so many ways. For conservatives, it’s the old order writ large; for liberals, it’s an antidote to postmodern ambiguity; for Boomers, it’s a tribute to dear old (dying) dad; and for the emergent young, it’s an erotic masquerade: the first time as tragedy, the second time as fetish. One thing is clear: the greatest generation exists only in our minds. We are all subject to sacrifice and glory, if circumstances demand it. Let’s hope they don’t, except for the sake of the dance.

Research: André Bishay