Don’t Forget the Epic Story of World War II

A new film celebrates individual heroism, but a larger narrative of unprecedented national struggle is being lost.

www.hacksawridge.movie

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 U.S. 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 US 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-40s 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 Okinawabut 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.

Philip Jenkins is the author of The Many Faces of Christ: The Thousand Year Story of the Survival and Influence of the Lost Gospels. He is 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.

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26 Responses to Don’t Forget the Epic Story of World War II

  1. Uncle Billy says:

    A major part of World War II which is generally overlooked by Americans is the fighting in China between the Chinese and Imperial Japanese Army. The fighting actually started in the 1930’s, and staggering numbers (actually in the millions) of Chinese civilians were killed by the Japanese, often in brutal fashion (Nanking, etc.). A huge number of Japanese troops were involved in the fighting in China, which prevented their use against the United States. We lost a lot of people in the Pacific War, but for the most part, the Chinese did the dying for us.

  2. ElitecommInc. says:

    I appreciated this article. Biting my tongue on my one quibble.

  3. The Wet One says:

    Umm…

    Yeah.

    Most people are ignorant.

    Anyone who’s paying attention knows this.

    If you want a history lesson in a Hollywood film, my guess is that you’re asking far too much of the medium.

    Sorry.

  4. connecticut farmer says:

    The subject of history in this country has been watered down to so much feelgood drivel. Columbus? Bad! Indians (er, that would be “Native Americans”)? Good! It only follows that the history of WW II would fall into the same pattern.

  5. Mr Jenkins, I wholeheartedly agree with the premise of your article. Knowing the theme of the movie “Havksaw Ridge” I did not want to see it but I didn’t know why. This article has helped clear up my thinking, and now I know why I am reluctant to see such movies. While studying and reading stories of triumph for the most marginalized groups of people are vitally important, it should not be the only thing we learn about history.
    I homeschool 3 boys and I am interested in doing a deep study of WWII, can you point me to a publisher, author or blog that teaches true American history and gives the entire picture?

  6. Kurt Gayle says:

    “Not surprisingly, the Japanese neo-militarist hard Right loved Eastwood’s Flags and Letters.”

    Regardless of what the “Japanese neo-militarist hard Right” may have thought Letters was hugely popular among ordinary Japanese film-goers and was #1 at the box office in Japan for 5 consecutive weeks.

  7. Excellent article, and thank you. May I offer one other exception? Unbroken (book and movie) did demonstrate the cruelty of the Japanese, though it personified it and focused that depiction mainly in one person.

  8. DanJ says:

    In most war movies the war is a background for a story about an individual or small group. The director picks heroes that are distinct and can be set apart from the large faceless armies fighting the war. They can be elite paratroopers, minorities, and now also conscientious objectors. It is just the nature of the medium.

    By contrast, for me the great story of WWII is the citizen soldier. The ordinary men setting out to do great feats together. Some enthusiastic, some out of a sense of duty, some reluctant but going anyway. Men with a rather short military training but with a very wide set of skills from their ordinary lives put to good use. Keeping the war effort on the move at all times.

    But that probably doesn’t make for good movies, at least not at the box office.

    Greatly enjoyed the “Band of Brothers” series, and the German “Das Boot” series as well. On big screen movies I remain impressed by “The Thin Red Line” for its dreamlike qualities.

  9. Andy W says:

    Mr. Jenkins,

    Thank you for the article, I enjoyed it very much. Could you give a few book recommendations that tell the story of WWII as you’ve described? Thanks.

  10. Johann says:

    Movies are the worst way to learn history. But even our official history is mostly court historian history. Its hard to get to just the plain truth especially when the other side is genuinely evil. People can’t bring themselves to understand that doesn’t mean all of the people on the evil side were evil. And people can’t bring themselves to accept that on the bad side sometimes there were more effective fighters in this or that battle or conflict.

    I would guess 9999 people out of 10,000 do not know who the highest scoring ace of all time was. It was Erich Hartmann with 352 aerial victories. Just one example.

  11. at the soundcheck says:

    I did feel disappointment when it became clear I wasn’t watching a war movie.

    The actor Andrew Garfield said it was important to him that Hacksaw Ridge “wasn’t a film about Christianity, but a story about faith and spirituality.” It was befitting that he play the priest who, although the main character of Silence, was not the ultimate hero (the one who didn’t apostate and who drowned trying to save the Japanese faithful).

    Watered down in both contexts.

  12. Nancy says:

    Thank you. As a homeschool parent, interested in truly educating my children, including WWII, do you know of and/or recommend any specific resources? I’m afraid I myself am quite ignorant on much of it.

  13. Garry Kelly says:

    I think the best Viet Nam war flick was Hamburger Hill

  14. Nestor says:

    Yes, the “epic” story of World War II — the war in which Americans died to save Soviet Bolshevism. Such a noble struggle.

  15. Chris Mallory says:

    Doss did get the first Medal of Honor, “Congressional” is not part of it’s name, given to a CO. But during Viet Nam, two CO’s received the Medal. Thomas Bennett and Joseph LaPointe were both awarded the Medal posthumously.

  16. Ivymike says:

    It’s not just WW2, very few Americans know anything at all about history, most in fact are ignorant of the present, too.
    Currahee! by Donald R Burgett. With The Old Breed by E.B.Sledge. Roll Me Over IN The Clover by Paul Fussel.Thunderbolt! by Robert S Johnson. To Hell And Back by Audie Murphy. The Good War by Studs Terkel. Flying Fortress by Edward Jablonski.
    These are stories from the people who were on the ground fighting. Read them before you go into general histories of the war, it’s important to have a grasp of the war’s reality before you take on the various point’s of view presented in general histories.
    Every student of WW2 should start with Audie Murphy’s book To Hell And Back.

  17. Philip S. says:

    You’ve overlooked Band of Brothers, I suspect the most influential representation of the European front in film/tv I can think of, which does a quite good job I think of representing a pretty broad range of fairly ordinary men thrust into war, all albeit in a remarkable regiment. Inevitably a movie produced to be entertainment will try to find a story based on an individual or group who are in some way remarkable and many of the stories you mention are very remarkable and probably hadn’t been told before. It’s not reasonable to expect otherwise from Hollywood. If you can convince someone to make a more broad, historically accurate series about WWII I’d love to see it. Until then refer your students to books, which very competently fulfill this purpose, and get more realistic in your expectations from the commercial movie industry.

  18. Greg Lemon says:

    My thought would be that after 50 or 60 years of straight up war movies, maybe people want to see other sides of the war? I don’t know what kids are (or aren’t) being taught these days, but I do recall WWII was ‘total war.’ Everything was geared towards war and everyone contributed. Not everyone can go and be a hero at guadalcanal, so why not give those other Americans something that resonates with them? Rosie the riveter doesn’t much resonate with me, but it might for other people. Fewer and fewer college kids are going to have grandparents who served in the war, so if you want people to be interested in WWII history, start off with something that’s meaningful for them.

  19. Howard says:

    Every now and then, it’s interesting to hear how things are going in your universe, where it seems World War II is popularly considered “the bad war” and the generation that fought it “the crappiest generation”, where one has to run as fast as possible to stay in one place, and where we are all parts of the dream of the Red King.

  20. Anton Kleinschmidt / South Africa says:

    Before anyone sets out to read about or experience any aspect of WW2 through film, it is necessary to have a broad view of the entire conflict. This creates essential perspective. An excellent single volume history is A World at Arms: A Global History of World War 11 by your very own Gerhard L. Weinberg

  21. BAWWALI says:

    This is a good commentary. The genius of American organization, production, and courage as displayed in WW2 is so often overlooked in the need to use the media of film to instill self-serving and often warped messages into the minds of the unwary (younger generation). Gibson is probably better than most at trying to catch the real moment.

  22. Michael says:

    Professor Jenkins, I taught at Penn State while you were there although in a different college (Health Admin). End of every semester we’d have a reception for graduating seniors with refreshments and chit chat.

    I’d frequently pose the question ‘What will you most remember about Penn State?” One time this young woman went off for about 10-15 minutes on your course on WWII. Excitedly told how she never understood the scale, the complexity, the carnage, then existential nature of the war.

    So thank you for igniting this woman’s intellect.

  23. Friedolin says:

    “…our official history is mostly court historian history. Its hard to get to just the plain truth especially when the other side is genuinely evil.” What’s more evil than the evil truth? Churchill explained what he was after when he said: “You must understand that this war is not against Hitler or National Socialism, but against the strength of the German people, which is to be smashed once and for all, regardless of whether it is in the hands of Hitler or a Jesuit priest.” And for that to get done he bankrupted the British World Empire and watched 80% 0f all German cities get leveled and burnt to the ground.

  24. Myles says:

    I was taken by a student see the movie the day it was released here in China. The barbaric acts of the Japanese are vividly shown, comparable if not more graphic than the “Saving Private Ryan” scenes. It is very inspiring from a Christian point of view when he tried to save some of the enemy. What matters most is the truth of the story.

  25. TR says:

    1. The current generation probably does know about Japanese cruelty because of all the attention over the last twenty years on the Rape of Nanking.

    2. I once met a professor of history who would be 83 if still alive who did not know that the Japanese did not observe the Geneva conventions in respect to prisoners. The reason for the mass ignorance of Japanese behavior, however, is not the result of race-and-minority studies but of Douglas McArthur, who decided to get on with forging Japan into an American ally rather than concentrating on the past. As I recall, there have been several recent histories and maybe one film of how Hirohito himself was whitewashed.

  26. Alexander says:

    As a member of the age group the author claims was taught to see World War II as just another example of white male hegemony, I can dismiss this idea as utter nonsense.

    I was not taught just about the Tuskegee Airmen. My peers were not taught only about the Windtalkers. We were taught about the major battles and causes of the war, with a particular focus on the Western front and the contribution of the United States. You could argue that the teaching was simplistic, but it’s hard to teach any war without simplifications, as wars tend to be too complex to easily summarize. The easiest charge you could make against our teachers was that they tended to spend too little time on the Eastern front and other areas of the war the United States was less involved in. But this would not fit with the author’s pet peeves, would it?

    Essentially, as a member of the often maligned on this website Millennial age group, I would like to point to out that we were taught by actual history teachers, not strawmen.

    And to cut off a criticism I see coming soon–yes, I am relying on my experience and that of my peers for this claim, rather than citing a study that coorborates it. However, I do not see the author citing anything other than his personal experience in making his claim, so I cannot be charged with responding inappropriately.

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