Viewing Brad Pitt’s latest movie “Fury” is a devastating experience. My sixteen-year-old son said “I feel like I have PTSD after watching this.” I left the theater in a similar state of mind.
Written and directed by David Ayers, the film focuses on the final month of World War Two and a battle-hardened army sergeant named “Wardaddy” played by Brad Pitt. He commands a Sherman tank and crew on a deadly mission through Luxemburg and Germany in 1945–well after most of the Allied forces were fighting their way east towards Berlin. Outnumbered and outgunned, “Wardaddy” and his men face overwhelming odds in their heroic attempts to hold a vital crossroads needed to supply the Allied armies converging on the Nazi capital.
The rawness of this film is shockingly realistic. Film critic Peter Sobczynski cautioned: “those with weaker constitutions may want to give it a second thought considering all the blood and guts on display.” The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw claimed: “This second world war drama is a rousing, old-fashioned film, even if it doesn’t live up to the hype.”[i]
Mediocre ratings by film critics aside, Fury joins a growing list of World War Two movies that challenge the “Good War” narrative of World War Two–Saving Private Ryan (1996), The Big Red One (1980), and the Cross of Iron (1977). [ii] As such, it may help to reignite a debate that has been largely forgotten over the last 70 years.
Seen as the “good war” by most Americans, World War Two is the embodiment of the good vs. evil, us/them approach to understanding history and America’s role in the world. It has become part of a triumphalist view, the exclamation point on the story of America’s “manifest destiny,” fought by the “greatest generation.” In The “Good War” in American Memory historian John Bodnar traces the evolution of this view of the war. According to Bodnar, “the American memory of the war was indeed contested, but like the recollections of other wars the nation had fought, the sweet sounds of valor ultimately eclipsed the painful cries of loss.” Americans debated the meaning of the war during and immediately following it. Many “highly critical writings of the war [were] presented by veterans [such as Norman Mailer and Kurt Vonnegut] who questioned the brutality of the fighting and expressed resentment over the loss of their individual rights.” However, over time such critical views gave way to more patriotic accounts of World War Two, as the weight of Hollywood films, politics, nostalgia and the passing of the World War Two generation took its toll:
Over the course of the twentieth century—a century of incredibly destructive wars—the United States expanded its capabilities to deliver massive forms of destruction and instigate violence. Culture, identity, and commemoration became more militarized and centered on thousands of tales about extraordinary patriots who protected their nation out of an inherent sense of love and duty. The land of the free became known as the home of the brave; acts of killing and dying were transformed into heroic deeds and cherished memories. National identity and the remembrance of war were never issues that were completely settled, and the trope of brave men could be inserted into tragic narratives of loss and remorse as well. Yet, over time, the defense of the nation became as important as the old dream of uplift and equality. Americans talked not only about the pursuit of happiness but about the road to victory. In the “American Century” towns and communities were considerably more likely to build memorials to veterans who defended the nation than to commemorate the Declaration of Independence or [FDR’s] Four Freedoms. Film studios made thousands of movies of gunfighters and soldiers that suggested that our problems could be solved more effectively through “human heroism” and military force than through political movements. Certainly there were warriors who were courageous and battles that had to be fought. Virtue and violence did not have to be mutually exclusive. But to a significant extent, that is how they were cast in the great debate over the remembering of World War II that consumed the American people.[iii]
Bodnar’s findings were similar to Stud Terkel’s in his Pulitzer Prize winning work The Good War. Terkel’s oral history of the war gave voice to all walks of life–from former infantryman to generals to journalists to workers in wartime industry. Terkel interviewed Retired Admiral Gene LaRocque, who started his naval career in the Pacific. At Pearl Harbor when Japan attacked on December 7th, 1941 LaRocque told Terkel that “the twisted memory of [World War II] encourages the men of my generation to be willing, almost eager, to use military force anywhere in the world.”[iv]
Dempsey Travis’s recollections contradict the “good war” image as well: The army was an experience unlike anything I’ve had in my life. I think of two armies, one black, one white. I saw German prisoners free to move around the camp, unlike black soldiers, who were restricted. The Germans walked right into the doggone places like any white American. We were wearin’ the same uniform, but we were excluded. This was Camp Shenango, Pennsylvania. . .. When I arrived, I stepped into mud up to my knees. The troop train was Jim Crow. They had a car for black soldiers and a car for whites.”
Contrary voices like LaRocque’s and Travis’s have been largely forgotten. Instead, memories of World War II have been distilled in the decades since 1945. In place of the complexities of the war, a popularized view has come to symbolize “good” versus “evil”—a simplistic view from beginning to end (from the origins of the war, the meaning and conduct of the war, and the way it ended).
As historian John Dower put it:
All narratives have their icons, and the heroic narrative of World War II has several. One stands at the beginning of the war and another at the end. The first symbolizes treacherous victimization and humiliation, the second triumph. The U.S. battleship Arizona, sunk with over two thousand American sailors on board in the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, is the first of these icons, and the Enola Gay the second. Although the Enola Gay is clearly the more ambiguous, the veneration of both symbols in patriotic circles amounts to a civil religion.[v]
Dower’s point about the dropping of the atomic bomb is a reference to the controversy over the Smithsonian’s Enola Gay exhibit during the 1990s, an exhibit originally designed to show multiple viewpoints regarding the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August of 1945. The exhibit met with a storm of protest, particularly from World War II veterans, the Air Force Association, House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former head of the National Endowment for the Humanities Lynne Cheney, and radio personality Rush Limbaugh. Within a year, the exhibit was cancelled. A new exhibit showing only the technical details of the Enola Gay, the B-29 aircraft that carried the first bomb over the skies of Hiroshima, opened in 2003 (without mentioning the civilian casualties involved nor the controversy over the decision to use the bomb—did it save a million American lives, as President Harry Truman claimed when explaining his decision to use the bomb on Japan? Was Japan ready to surrender prior to the bomb’s use?). Such questions were ignored in order to avoid political outcry. No wonder there has been little interest in re-examining the events leading up to Pearl Harbor.
Like the history of the United States’ decision to drop the atomic bomb, the origins of the War in the Pacific have suffered from limited renditions of history, often tied up in patriotic lure rather than historical scholarship. Explanations regarding the origins of the War in the Pacific have become mythic tales, some of the most one-sided beliefs in American culture. In the midst of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, President Bush confided in his diary “we were living through a 21st-century Pearl Harbor.” Time magazine called the 9/11 attacks “a day that will live in infamy,” evoking FDR’s famous speech in response to the Japanese attack. In short, Pearl Harbor has entered into American popular culture and myth. What does it stand for? The answer runs something like this: Japan attacked the United States for no reason. An “evil empire,” to borrow Ronald Reagan’s description of the Soviet Union, was bent on world domination and only the well-intentioned United States stood in the way. An innocent United States was dragged into the “good war” and became a superpower as a result.
Missing from the usual story of Pearl Harbor is the role the U.S. played in the lead up to the War in the Pacific, a role that stretches back to Commodore Matthew Perry’s famous “opening of Japan” in 1854, where the U.S. forced Japan to trade at gunpoint, or when a joint flotilla of British, Dutch, French and American warships bombarded Japanese coastal fortifications in 1864 over tariff disputes between Japan and the Western powers. Missing too is the decades-long contest over the resources and markets of China at the turn of the 20th century, a contest that set the U.S. and Japan on a collision course. What might be called a prelude to the Second World War in the Pacific—events prior to the 1930s–led Japan to take a “if you can’t beat them, join them” view of international relations. Japan industrialized during the 1860s and 70s and then joined the Western game of empire as a defensive act. They hoped to prevent any future “Commodore Perrys” from violating Japanese sovereignty. Japanese expansion ran counter to American interests in the Pacific, however, particularly America’s “open door” policy regarding China. These conflicting aims in the Pacific were settled by one of the most brutal wars on record. However, such nuisance is absent from the orthodox American view of the War in the Pacific in favor of a more black-and-white version of events. Where did the simplistic story line come from?[vi]
The first iteration of the standard us/them story of Pearl Harbor—one where an innocent United States reacted to Japanese aggression from 1931 to 1941—was made popular by the Frank Capra series, a film series commission by the War Department entitled “Why We Fight.” Meant to rally the nation during the war, it showed a very black and white view of World War II (where the “free world” was locked in battle with the “slave world”). According to the War Department film, World War II began on September 18th, 1931 with Japan’s attack on the Chinese province of Manchuria. The world should have stood up to the aggressive Japanese then and there. Instead, a weak League of Nations issued its censure resolution, but did nothing militarily to stop the Japanese march across Asia. The emboldened Japanese then launched a campaign to swallow all of China and eventually, despite economic sanction by the U.S. in 1940, the entire Asian Pacific region. They took on the U.S. –striking a preemptive blow at Pearl Harbor–as part of this plan of conquest.
Buttressed by firsthand accounts in the memoirs of Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson and Secretary of State Cordell Hull, along with the writings of historians during the 1940s and 50s, such as Herbert Feis, William Langer, and S. Everett Gleason, the War Department’s version of events made its way into history textbooks as well as American memory, where it remains firmly entrenched. The widely used textbook, Thomas A. Bailey and David M. Kennedy’s The American Pageant refers to Pearl Harbor as “Japan’s hara-kiri gamble in Hawaii.” The sanctions imposed on Japan by the United States in 1940 were part of a “devil’s dilemma,” as the Roosevelt administration “wished to halt Japan’s conquest in the Far East—conquest that menaced not only American trade and security but international peace as well.” Tracing the roots of the conflict only as far back as the Manchurian incident of 1931, readers are left with the image of a “rampaging Japan” stealing “the Far East spotlight.” Gerald A Danzer’s The Americans begins in 1931 with Manchuria as well, and immediately links Japan with Hitler and Nazism, ignoring the fact that Japan did not join the Axis alliance until September 1940. Students are told that “halfway around the world from Germany, nationalistic military leaders in Japan were trying to take control of their government. These leaders shared Hitler’s belief in the need for more “living space” for a growing population.”
A visitor to the National Park Service’s U.S.S. Arizona Memorial would get the same picture. A guide to the site begins with Manchuria and follows the usual pattern: “The attack on Pearl Harbor was the culmination of a decade of deteriorating relations between Japan and the United States over the status of China and the security of Southeast Asia. The breakdown began in 1931 when Japanese army extremists, in defiance of government policy, invaded and overran the northern-most Chinese province of Manchuria. Japan ignored American protests, and in the summer of 1937 launched a full-scale attack on the rest of China.” It then links Japan to Nazi Germany: “Over the next three years, war broke out in Europe and Japan joined Nazi Germany in the Axis Alliance.” The guide mentions negotiations: “The United States applied both diplomatic and economic pressures to try to resolve the Sino-Japanese conflict. The Japanese government viewed these measures, especially an embargo on oil, as threats to their nation’s security. By the summer of 1941, both countries had taken positions from which they could not retreat without a serious loss of national prestige.” But then it dismisses the seriousness of diplomatic negotiations: “Although both governments continued to negotiate their differences, Japan had already decided on war…. the attack on Pearl Harbor was part of a grand strategy of conquest in the Western Pacific.” This, in effect, presents the story as “inevitable” war between the forces of “good” and “evil”.
Such views resonate in American popular culture. The good vs. evil version of Pearl Harbor had been a favorite of Hollywood long before Jerry Bruckheimer and Michael Bay’s portrayal in Pearl Harbor (2000) starring Ben Affleck. Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1945) and The Sands of Iwo Jima (1949), both box-office successes, have aired on television countless times since their releases. There is even a Pearl Harbor T-shirt company which features the “Remember Dec 7th”” T-shirt. “This double-sided tee-shirt shows a war-torn American Flag at half mast and reminds us of the Americans that lost their lives on this fateful day in 1941. The back contains statistics about Pearl Harbor.” These shirts can be ordered on-line at http://www.soldiercity.com, along with the “Infamy T-shirt” and the “Doolittle’s Raid On Japan T-shirt. “Johnny Lightning toy replica cars include the “Pearl Harbor: Day of Infamy” set, complete with the “Schofield Barracks ambulance” used at Pearl Harbor to care for the dead and wounded after the attack.
Seen in this context—as a corrective to the “Good War” approach to World War Two–the disturbing nature of the film “Fury” while not pleasant, may help force a re-examination of World War Two and America’s role in the world. It may spark a debate that extends beyond the “ivory tower,” to American society in general, challenging Americans to look anew at the “lessons” of the Second World (where avoiding “another Munich” in nearly every major conflict since 1945 has been evoked—Korea, Vietnam, Bosnia, Iraq). Ultimately, it may help cast doubt on romantic views of war Americans have subscribed to in the decades since the most catastrophic war in human history and America’s deep faith in “redemptive violence”.
[i] Peter Bradshaw, “Fury review – Brad Pitt answers the call of duty … in a tank,” The Guardian, Thursday, October 23, 2014.
[ii] Jeanine Basinger, “Translating War: The Combat Film Genre and Saving Private Ryan,” Perspectives on History, October 1998.
[iii] John Bodnar, The “Good War” in American Memory (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press; 1 edition, August 17, 2010), p. 8
[iv] Studs Terkel, The Good War: An Oral History of World War Two (New York: Pantheon; 1st edition (September 12, 1984), p. 13.
[v] Quoted in John Murnane, “Japan’s Monroe Doctrine? Re-Framing the Story of Pearl Harbor,” The History Teacher (August, 2007). Here I explored the myths of World War Two in greater detail, particularly the War in the Pacific. Much of the information that follows can be found in my 2007 article (click here). Or here for full article: https://murnane.wordpress.com/other/
[vi] Charles Krauthammer called the September 11th terrorist attacks of 2001 our generation’s Pearl Harbor, for example. See Charles Krauthammer, “Voices of Moral Obtuseness,” The Washington Post, September 21, 2001. Reprinted in The Iraq War Reader: History, Documents, Opinions eds. Micah Sifry and Christopher Cerf (New York, 2003), p. 217–219.