World War II, Remembered Rightly

By |2020-06-04T15:39:56-05:00April 18th, 2017|Categories: Film, History, Military, War, World War II|

Today, the degree of popular ignorance of World War II is astounding, especially among college-age Americans, who study it, if at all, as a lesson in victimhood and injustice. In truth, however, World War II was our “Aeneid,” an epic struggle against authentic evil, which at once created the nation and framed its destiny.

The World War II film Hacksaw Ridge is in contention for multiple Oscars, and I hope it wins a gaggle of them. It is a fine, well-made film, and a rare attempt in mainstream cinema to portray the heroism of a faithful Christian believer. Having said that, I have to lodge an objection. Without the slightest ill intent, the film contributes to a pervasive lack of understanding or appreciation of the United States’ role in that vastly significant conflict, the popular memory of which is utterly dominated by radical and leftist perspectives. For most people under forty, the war is recounted in terms of the country’s allegedly pervasive racism, bigotry, and sexism, in which the only heroes are those resisters who defied that hegemony. It has become Exhibit A in the contemporary retrojection of modern-day culture wars into the transmission of American history.

Hacksaw Ridge tells the story of Desmond Doss, a devout Seventh Day Adventist, whose religious views forbade him accepting military service. As a conscientious objector, he served as a medic and found himself on the extraordinarily bloody battlefields of Okinawa. His feats of courage and self-sacrifice earned him the only Congressional Medal of Honor ever awarded to a conscientious objector. No one would have dared invent such a story, which clamored to be told. But here is the problem: If such a treatment were part of a broad range of accounts of the war, then it would be a wonderful contribution, but it does not form part of any such continuum. While the main narrative of the war has faded into oblivion, major events like Okinawa are recalled only as they can be told from a perspective that appeals to liberal opinion, and even to pacifists.

For many years, I taught a class on the Second World War at Penn State University, and I have an excellent sense of the materials that are available in terms of films, textbooks, and documentaries. Overwhelmingly, when they approach the American role in the war, they do so by emphasizing marginal perspectives and racial politics, to the near exclusion of virtually every other event or controversy.

At that point, you might legitimately ask whether minority contributions don’t deserve proper emphasis, as of course they do. Waco, Texas, for instance, was the home of the magnificent Dorie Miller, an African-American cook on the USS West Virginia, who responded to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor by blasting at enemy aircraft with a machine gun. Miller was a superb American hero, as also was (for instance) Daniel Inouye, of the Japanese-American 442nd Regimental Combat Team, who suffered terrible wounds and was later awarded a Congressional Medal of Honor. The legendary Tuskegee Airmen produced a legion of distinguished (black) fliers, but we might particularly cite Roscoe Brown, the first U.S. pilot to shoot down one of the Luftwaffe’s terrifying new jet fighters. All these individuals, and many like them, have been lauded repeatedly in recent books and documentaries on the war, for instance in Ken Burns’s 2007 PBS series The War. They absolutely deserve to be remembered and honored.

But they should not be the whole story, and in modern cultural memory, they virtually are. If you look for educational materials or museum presentations about America in World War II, I can guarantee you will find certain themes or events constantly placed front and center. By far, the most significant thing to be highlighted in the great majority of films, texts, and exhibitions are the Japanese-American internments. Depending on their approach, other productions will assuredly discuss women’s role on the home front, and “Rosie the Riveter.” Any actual tales of combat will concern the Tuskegee airmen, or the Navajo code-talkers. Our students enter classes believing that the Tuskegee fliers were basically the whole of the Allied air offensive against Germany.

A like emphasis dominates feature films of the past couple of decades such as Red Tails (2012, on Tuskegee) and Windtalkers (2002, the code-talkers). Especially when dealing with the Pacific War, such combat-oriented accounts strive very hard to tell their tales with a presumed objectivity, to avoid any suggestion that the Japanese were any more motivated by pathological violence and racial hatred than the Americans. That approach was amply illustrated by Clint Eastwood’s sprawling duo of Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima (2006). Western productions virtually never address the mass murders and widespread enslavement undertaken by the Japanese regime. Not surprisingly, the Japanese neo-militarist hard Right loved Eastwood’s Flags and Letters. (Fortunately, you are still allowed to hate Nazis, or we wouldn’t have the magnificent Saving Private Ryan.)

The consequences of all this are apparent. For many college-age Americans today, America’s war was largely a venture in hypocrisy, as a nation founded on segregation and illegal internments vaunted its bogus moral superiority. If awareness of Nazi deeds prevents staking a claim of total moral equivalence, then America’s record is viewed with a very jaundiced eye.

Even setting aside the moral issues, the degree of popular ignorance of the war is astounding. I have complained that the materials available for teaching military history are narrowly-focused and tendentious, but the opportunities even to take such courses have all but collapsed in recent years. Most major universities today will not hire specifically in military history, and do not replace retirements. Courses that are offered tend to be general social histories of the home front, which can be excellent in themselves, but they offer nothing of the larger context.

In terms of actual military enterprises, under-forties might at best know such names as Pearl Harbor, Omaha Beach (exclusively from Saving Private Ryan) and maybe Iwo Jima (from Flags / Letters). Maybe now, after Hacksaw Ridge, they will know something about Okinawa—but only as seen through the eyes of one pacifist. (So what were U.S. forces actually doing in Okinawa? Why did the battle happen? How did it end?)

Military buffs apart, younger Americans know nothing about the Battle of the Bulge, which claimed nineteen thousand American lives. They have never heard of Guadalcanal, or Midway, or the Battle of the Coral Sea, or a series of battles that prevented the Pacific becoming a Japanese lake, and the main trade route of its slave empire. They know nothing about the land and sea battles that liberated the Philippines, although that could be politically sensitive, as it would demand coverage of the mass killings of tens of thousands of Filipino civilians by Japanese occupiers. That might even raise questions about the whole moral equivalence thing.

Younger Americans know nothing of the battle of Saipan, one of the truly amazing moments in U.S. military history. Within just days of the American involvement in the D-Day campaign in France, other U.S, forces on the other side of the planet launched a near-comparably sized invasion of a crucial Japanese-held island, in what has been described as D-Day in the Pacific. In just a couple of days of air battles related to this campaign, U.S. forces in the Marianas destroyed six hundred Japanese aircraft, an astounding total. Japan never recovered.

Quite apart from any specific incident, most Americans have virtually no sense of the course of the war, or American goals, or the political context. Nor will they appreciate the stupendous feats of industrial organization that allowed U.S. forces to operate so successfully on a global scale, and which laid the foundations for all the nation’s post-war triumphs. There was so much more to the story than Rosie the Riveter.

Nor do they appreciate the critical role of the war in creating American identity and nationhood, in forging previously disparate immigrant communities into a new national whole. So the Civil War was the American Iliad? Then World War II was our Aeneid, an epic struggle against authentic evil, which at once created the nation and framed its destiny. It should not be commemorated as a study in victimhood and injustice.

Republished with gracious permission from The American Conservative (February 2017).

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About the Author:

Philip Jenkins
Philip Jenkins is the author of The Many Faces of Christ: The Thousand-Year Story of the Survival and Influence of the Lost Gospels. Dr. Jenkins is a distinguished professor of history at Baylor University and serves as co-director for the Program on Historical Studies of Religion in the Institute for Studies of Religion.


  1. Avatar
    Thomas Apr 19, 2017 at 4:59 am - Reply

    Mr. Jenkins,

    Given what you have said, could you recommend some resources for self education on this subject?

  2. Avatar
    Eric Apr 19, 2017 at 6:38 am - Reply

    ” It should not be commemorated as a study in victimhood and injustice.”

    Bingo! That really says it all.

  3. Avatar
    john trainor Apr 19, 2017 at 11:04 am - Reply

    A fine commentary Mr. Jenkins on a titanic effort against truly evil forces combined to wage war against civilized states, minus of course Joe Stalin’s Russia.

  4. Avatar
    Peter S Rieth Apr 21, 2017 at 2:25 pm - Reply

    Joe Stalin’s Russia won the war at the battle of Kursk.

    • Avatar
      Yuriy Yakymets Jun 7, 2017 at 2:45 pm - Reply

      There are some that would consider Stalingrad as the turning point. Also, USSR is the name of the country that was fighting during the WW2, just a small detail but an important one. In addition, the contribution of the USA to the war efforts on the Eastern front was very significant. The material help that USSR received was essential as it allowed to mobilize the scarce resources towards the counteroffensive.
      There are more ways that USSR was aided in their effort but these few should help to put its achievements in proper perspective.

  5. Avatar
    John Fearnley Apr 29, 2017 at 11:00 pm - Reply

    The United States saved this country in WWII and for that we Australians are eternally grateful. Anzac Day is our national day of remembrance of those who fought and died for this country and is celebrated with a great deal of enthusiasm by all generations. The sacrifices of the United States hold a special place in these celebrations.

  6. Avatar
    Scott Soileau May 25, 2017 at 2:25 pm - Reply

    Great commentary. I would add the Angelina Jolie film “Unbroken” to those portraying Japanese savagery.

  7. Avatar
    Terence Maness Aug 15, 2020 at 10:56 pm - Reply

    Honestly, I don’t see any way out of this.

    I had older parents who lived through it. Dad was 32 when he joined the Navy in ’42. I was born in ’57. An interesting phenomenon was how many late starts families of that generation had— a trait carried through in my own life. 63 with kids in college…

    The knowledge isn’t just being lost academically, but generationally. Any war is understood as relatively recent history when related from parent to son, but not so when related by a grandparent, and certainly not a great-grandparent.

    For instance, there was absolutely no debate about the rightness or wrongness of dropping 2 atomic bombs on Japan by most Americans who actually lived during that time. But, the need to make sense of the carnage of war requires academics to find a rationale which THEY can understand, regardless of how it squares with the truth of lived experience. Academia NEEDS to believe that only a human failing such as racism could culminate in such devastation—particularly academics whose understanding of human capacities don’t include the experience of watching a comrade being skinned alive or used for bayonet practice.

    Of course, it was only a matter of time. Schools, rather than taking a deep dive into the macro and micro-environments of war, chose the likes of Howard Zinn instead of a Primo Levi or, even, Life’s Picture History Of
    World War II.

    We can tell the stories through so many generations before they become wives’ tales. If History is written by the victors, it’s fair to say the victors, long term, are the ones writing the accounts in which America slips into
    its broader imperialist, privileged background.

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