LosingTheWar.doc

Any of homers heroes would see the peaceful life of

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harvest time. Any of Homer’s heroes would see the peaceful life of the average American as some bizarre aberration, like a garden mysteriously cultivated for decades on the slopes of an avalanche-haunted mountain. In our own culture the people who know what war is like find it almost impossible to communicate with the children of peace. In the last election Bob Dole was defeated in large part because of World War II — what he thought it meant, and what he didn’t see it meant to people of a later generation. To Dole, World War II was a teacher of positive values: courage, self-sacrifice, respect for authority, dedication to a common goal — values he thought were signally absent in the soft and cynical selfishness of Clinton’s generation. But it was just that cynicism that Dole couldn’t crack. Everybody knew that if those values had ever really existed in America, they were only the result of some Norman Rockwell collective delusion. We’re smarter now — smart enough to see through war, anyway. We think it’s a sick joke to suggest that war could ever teach anybody anything good. Out of idle curiosity, I’ve been asking friends, people my age and younger, what they know about war — war stories they’ve heard from their families, facts they’ve learned in school, stray images that might have stuck with them from old TV documentaries. I wasn’t interested in fine points of strategy, but the key events, the biggest moments, the things people at the time had thought would live on as long as there was anybody around to remember the past. To give everybody a big enough target I asked about World War II.
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I figured people had to know the basics — World War II isn’t exactly easy to miss. It was the largest war ever fought, the largest single event in history. Other than the black death of the Middle Ages, it’s the worst thing we know of that has ever happened to the human race. Its aftereffects surround us in countless intertwining ways: all sorts of technological commonplaces, from computers to radar to nuclear power, date back to some secret World War II military project or another; the most efficient military systems became the model for the bureaucratic structures of postwar white-collar corporations; even the current landscape of America owes its existence to the war, since the fantastic profusion of suburban development that began in the late 1940s was essentially underwritten by the federal government as one vast World War II veterans’ benefit. (Before the war there were 3 suburban shopping centers in the U.S.; ten years after it ended there were 3,000.) Then too, World War II has been a dominant force in the American popular imagination. In the mid-1960s, when my own consumption of pop culture was at its peak, the war was the only thing my friends and I thought about. We devoured World War II comic books like Sgt. Fury and Sgt. Rock; we watched World War II TV shows like Hogan’s Heroes and The Rat Patrol; our rooms overflowed with World War II hobby kits, with half- assembled, glue-encrusted panzers and Spitfires and Zeroes. I think I had the world’s
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