02_Soldiers Write the War: World War II, Vietnam and the War on Terror

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2019-01-14 (Creation date: 2018-07-23)
Main contributors
Institute for Digital Arts and Humanities; John Bodnar
This paper will explore the way American soldiers from three different wars wrote about their experiences.  It will attempt to unravel the fragile relationship between patriotic accounts of war that tended to uphold noble ideals validating the nation's war effort and thepossibility that war could actually produce laudable traits andmore tragic stories that refused to efface the confusion and pain military conflict imposed upon individuals. As such, it will explore the problem of memory and trauma and the significant tension  soldiers faced when they attempted to recreate their experience for a public audience that could not know what it had been like.   

The part of the paper devoted to World War II will focus on the fiction of Norman Maile and the autobiography of William Manchester--both combat vets.   Mailer's renowned novel, The Naked and the Dead, recast the "Good War" in a highly critical light that exposed the deep strain of violence that he felt marked American society and explained why it spared no expense in bringing ruin to the Japanese.  Manchester acknowledged the violence and carnage but sought to extract from it tales of heroic men and who cared deeply for each other.  Such narratives contrast sharply with those coming from the experience of Vietnam.  Vets like Ron Kovic, Tim O'Brien and others mounted withering attacks on any notion that patriotic service could result in anything positive or nurture admirable character traits. In some ways the World War II stories were actually more conflicted than those formed in Southeast Asia in the 1960s.  

The final part of this brief paper will explore the outpouring of literature produced by men who served in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Again, significant differences are evident among the fighters themselves.  A greater effort is made in this most recent contest to restore some faith in traditional patriotic ideals.  This effort has had some success but has been hotly contested by tales that absolutely reject any attempt to use patriotic honor to wipe out the memory of pain and loss. 
Vietnam War / American War Stories: A Symposium on Conflict and Civic Engagement
Institute for Digital Arts and Humanities
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