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[BONUS] America's Obsession with World War II (And Why I Decided to Write a Book About It).
Bringing some much-needed nuance to a topic that lacks it.
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If you’re an American, chances are you can tell me a lot about World War II. You probably know which nations formed the Allied coalition, the name of the infamous beach town where the Americans invaded Nazi-controlled Europe, and the years the war started and ended. If you’re a male (or just someone drawn towards action-packed entertainment), you can probably recite even more specific facts, like the type of rifle carried by American GIs or the name of the ship exploding at Pearl Harbor in the picture below.
Now ask yourself, do you have that same level of knowledge about the Vietnam War? What about the Korean War? Did you know that the U.S. has invaded Mexico on three separate occasions? Which side did Japan fight for in World War I?
Excluding history dorks such as myself, the average American is highly unlikely to know the answers to any of these questions. Yet they can confidently state that the Americans invaded Nazi Europe at Normandy, our entry into the Second World War began with the December, 7th, 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor, and that the Axis Powers were Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan.
The average American doesn’t know more about WWII than other wars because they paid more attention that day in history class, or because it’s a frequent topic in Trivial Pursuit. Americans know more about WWII than other American wars because it is the story we choose to tell ourselves through our entertainment and media.
To this day, World War II is a favorite setting for movies, television, books, video games, and pretty much every other form of entertainment. From the first-person shooters of Battlefield to the highly-popular “girl waits for her soldier boy to come home” genre of romance novels, WWII has been ingrained in the American psyche not through our formal education, but with the soft indoctrination of entertainment.
I should know, I wrote a book about it.
For both the purposes of understanding the messages we consume, and to explain why I, someone who is very critical of American militarism, would contribute to the perpetual 1945 celebration, I wanted to explore the reasons why Americans LOVE books, movies, and games depicting one of the most atrocious periods of modern history.
Why World War II?
The modern prevalence of WWII stories can be attributed to 3 reasons:
It’s action-packed. Unlike the War of 1812 when it took fifteen minutes to reload a musket, or the dreary depictions of stagnant trench warfare from 1917, the Second World War had just enough advanced technology to make movies and video games exciting. Soldiers carried flamethrowers and machine guns onto Pacific beaches while calling in airstrikes and artillery support from battleships just offshore. This works well for entertainment, as the machinery and weaponry are fierce while still requiring characters to put themselves in danger by getting in range of the enemy.
It’s easy to know who the good guys are. Despite the many valid critiques of the Allies’ domestic policies (segregation in the U.S., Stalin’s purges in the U.S.S.R., Britain colonized 25% of the globe, etc.), there’s no question that the Allies were The Good Guys and the Axis were The Bad Guys. Germany and Japan were conducting genocide on an unfathomable scale, and the Allies were trying to stop them. In an entertainment sense, it’s much easier to root for the characters when there are no moral questions about why they are shooting people.
We won. No ifs, ands, or buts, about it — the Allies won a clear-cut victory. There was no negotiated surrender like in WWI, and America didn’t get sent home with our tails between our legs like in Vietnam. The Soviets took Berlin and the Japanese Emperor issued an unconditional surrender. And though over 400,000 Americans gave their lives, the U.S. escaped the national, generational trauma and destruction that the war brought to other belligerents. (14 million Russians died along with 20 million Chinese, in addition to the devastation of their country’s infrastructure). A comparatively low casualty count and cities that hadn’t been bombed to bits made it much easier for contemporary and future generations to look back on the War fondly.
Altogether, the story of WWII is clean, easy to tell, and captivating, making it the perfect premise for American entertainment, and unfortunately, propaganda.
How WWII Is Propagandized
The term “propaganda” carries a lot of weight, instantly invoking thoughts of authoritarian, state-run media. And because American propaganda is much more advanced and subtle than other nations’, Americans have fallen into the trap of believing we are free from its clutches.
Much of this belief stems from a misunderstanding of what propaganda is. Propaganda is not lying, but rather a selective telling of facts that give a distorted view of history. For example, the plethora of American entertainment set in WWII features the true stories of brave Americans who fought against Fascism and Imperialism, with some facts conveniently omitted. Stories set in the European Theatre seldom show the conclusion of the war, as it was the Soviets, not the Americans, who took Berlin. Those that take place on the Pacific front usually conclude with the dropping of the atomic bomb but never include the discussion that the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki constituted war crimes. Below is a quote from then-U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara on the illegality of the bombings.
(Airforce General Curtis LeMay said:) "If we'd lost the war, we'd all have been prosecuted as war criminals." And I think he's right. He, and I'd say I, were behaving as war criminals. LeMay recognized that what he was doing would be thought immoral if his side had lost. But what makes it immoral if you lose and not immoral if you win? - Robert McNamara, on his involvement in dropping the atomic bombs.
Many other uncomfortable truths of the U.S. war effort go omitted from the tales we tell ourselves, such as the segregation of our armed forces, the internment of Japanese Americans, and the post-war recruitment of Japanese and German war criminals. Not only does the propaganda of WWII make for a good story, but it supports America’s contemporary military adventures. By constantly re-telling the story of how the American military is The Good Guys, it is easy to carry the thoughts of 1941 into the 21st century to justify any war, intervention, or CIA-backed coup under the notion that “we are the good guys.”
This was the primary reason I wanted my first foray into fiction writing to be set in World War II. In my novel, Imperial Sundown, I wanted to shed some more light on both the good and bad sides of the United States, circa 1945, as well as write a kick-ass story that kept readers turning the page. Choosing a Black man as the main character shows the War through the lens of someone not too fond of American society, bringing a perspective about the U.S.’s role in the changing world. Additionally, adding supporting Korean, Philippine, and even Japanese characters gave the story a wide and expansive view of the global war, escaping the tunnel vision of American greatness that plagues so much of our entertainment. Oh, and there’s a maniacal Japanese officer hunting these characters with a razor-sharp katana and a pack of bloodthirsty war hounds. It’s pretty exciting.
Enjoy! - Joe