The “Good War” in American Memory. By John Bodnar. (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010. 299 pp. ISBN978-0-8018-9667-5.)
The “Good War” was a myth. That is the basic premise of John Bodar’s book on the Second World War. Bodnar digests the war years and the post war years in order to show his reader that no war can be collectively “good.” Using World War II as his subject, he delves beneath the surface to show that even the war that polarized the American nation as none other was actually a source of political and cultural debate rather than the cohesiveness that is often depicted and memorialized.
Bodnar’s book seems to be written almost in reflection of the upswing of interest in the Second World War as those who lived through it began dying en masse due to age. It's as if he wishes to show that the virtuous nature of the depictions are false and misleading. To that end, he begins his book by discussing the soldiers themselves and questions their moral character as he explores their blatant sexual exploits, binge drinking, and lack of self-control. The book seems to flow along this same path throughout with Bodnar additionally revealing the seriousness of racial tensions, the degrading of social mores, and the privilege of the upper echelon in the war.
Bodnar then shows how Hollywood used their relatively new technology of film to produce films both as propaganda and later to show the horrors of war. He also discusses books written after the war by former soldiers, which Bodnar says are more reflective of the true nature of the war than was allowed to be depicted during the conflict itself. He even delves into the mourning process for those that lost loved ones and shows his reader that most of these bereaved were not satisfied with the government’s handling of the death of their loved one and thus began to have anti-war sentiments.
All this is written with a decidedly anti-war overtone that will leave many readers put off. However, inside all this is the realization that no war is “good” even those fought with the best goals in mind. It shows war as a particularly barbaric event that tends to emphasize the worst in human nature, and it is. It also shows that even those wars that nearly all can agree are fought with the best intentions will have their detractors and opposition, and they will. The true gem of this book is that Bodnar uses the same sources that most average citizens will use to learn about the war--fiction, movies, old family letters--and shows all these things in an entirely new light. Bodnar skillfully uses the common person’s source of information and further digests it showing that sometimes we memorialize an ideal rather than a reality.
Bodnar never blatantly disrespects those families of lost loved ones or the soldiers who fought, although he does challenge their collective memories saying their depictions tend to show a one sided cohesiveness that truly did not exist. Importantly, Bodnar gives his reader the benefit of copious notes and a full bibliography, he tends to express personal bias throughout the book without benefit of citation for his conclusions. Thus, the reader is left to assume this truly is Bodnar’s personal bias. It finally becomes clear that Bodnar has a distinctly anti-war stance when he includes a particularly unnecessary chapter on the Iraq war under the guise of consideration for the future, and that creates a blot on the entire book since the book would have been entirely complete, and better served, without it.
This book does challenge the belief that World War Two was a “good” war. It also challenges the belief that everyone was supportive of and had clear understanding of the goals of the war effort. Bodnar is brilliant in using the usual public information about the war to show that same public that there was another side to the story. In this effort Bodnar is not only brave, but accurate. For that reason alone, this book should be on the shelves of anyone interested in the “Good War,” but potential readers should keep in mind that it does have it's faults predominately due to its biased anti-war stance.