America’s wars are nothing more than ‘ordering a wilderness of human horrors into a celebratory tale and culture’

America’s wars are nothing more than ‘ordering a wilderness of human horrors into a celebratory tale and culture’


I was born on July 20, 1944, amid a vast global conflict already known as World War II.  Though it ended with the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 before I could say much more than “Mama” or “Dada,” in some strange fashion, I grew up at war.

Living in New York City, I was near no conflict in those years or in any since. My dad, however, had volunteered for the Army Air Corps at age 35 on December 8, 1941, the day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He fought in Burma, was painfully silent about his wartime experiences, and died on Pearl Harbor Day in 1983. He was the operations officer for the 1st Air Commandos and his war, in some strange sense, came home with him.

Like so many vets, then and now, he was never willing to talk to his son about what he had experienced, though in my early years he still liked his friends to call him “Major,” his rank on leaving the military.  When his war did come up in our house, it was usually in the form of anger – because my mother had shopped at a nearby grocery store whose owners, he claimed, had been “war profiteers” while he was overseas, or because my first car, shared with a friend, was a used Volkswagen (German!), or my mom was curious to go – God save us! – to a Japanese restaurant!

The strange thing, though, was that, in those same years, for reasons we never discussed, he allowed me briefly to have a Japanese pen pal and, though my dad and I never talked about the letters that boy and I exchanged, we did soak the stamps off the envelopes he sent and paste them into our latest Scott stamp album.

As for evidence of my father’s wartime experience, I had two sources.  In the guest room closet in our apartment, he had an old green duffle bag, which he’d go through now and then. It was filled to the brim with everything from Army Air Corps documents to his portable mess kit and even – though I didn’t know it then – his pistol and bullets from the war. (I would turn them over to the police upon his death a quarter-century later.)

Although he wouldn’t talk with me about his wartime experience, I lived it in a very specific way (or at least so it felt to me then). After all, he regularly took me to the movies where I saw seemingly endless versions of war, American-style, from the Indian wars through World War II.  And when we watched movies of his own conflict (or, in my early years, replays of Victory at Sea on our TV at home) and he said nothing, that only seemed to confirm that I was seeing his experience in all its glory, as the Marines inevitably advanced at film’s end and the “Japs” died in a spectacle of slaughter without a comment from him.

From those Indian wars on, as I wrote long ago in my book The End of Victory Culture, war was always a tale of their savagery and our goodness, one in which, in the end, there would be an expectable “spectacle of slaughter” as we advanced and “they” went down.  From the placement of the camera flowed the pleasure of watching the killing of tens or hundreds of nonwhites in a scene that normally preceded the positive resolution of relationships among the whites. 

It was a way of ordering a wilderness of human horrors into a celebratory tale of progress through devastation, a victory culture that, sooner or later, became more complicated to portray because World War II ended with the atomic devastation of those two Japanese cities and, in the 1950s and 1960s, the growing possibility of a future global Armageddon.

If war was hell, in my childhood at the movies, killing them wasn’t, whether it was the Indians of the American West or the Japanese in World War II.

So, yes, I grew up in a culture of victory, one I played out again and again on the floor of my room. In the 1950s, boys (and some girls) spent hours acting out tales of American battle triumph with generic fighting figures: a crew of cowboys to defeat the Indians and win the West, a bag or two of olive-green Marines to storm the beaches of Iwo Jima.

If ours was a sanguinary tale of warfare against savages in which pleasure came out of the barrel of a gun, on floors nationwide we kids were left alone, without apparent instruction, to reinvent American history. Who was good and who bad, who could be killed and under what conditions were an accepted part of a collective culture of childhood that drew strength from post-World War II Hollywood.

Today, 60-odd years later, having never been to war but having focused on it and written about it for so long, here’s what I find eerily strange: since 1945, the country with the greatest military on the planet that, in budgetary terms, now leaves the next nine countries combined in the dust, has never – and let me repeat that: never! – won a war that mattered (despite engaging in all too many spectacles of slaughter).

Stranger yet, in terms of lessons learned in the world of adult culture, every lost war has, in the end, only led this country to invest more taxpayer dollars in building up that very military. If you needed a long-term formula for disaster in a country threatening to come apart at the seams, it would be hard to imagine a more striking one. So long after his death, I must admit that sometimes I wonder what my dad would think of it all.

Here’s the thing: the American experience of war since 1945 should have offered an all-too-obvious lesson for us, as well as for the planet’s other great powers, when it comes to the value of giant military establishments and the conflicts that go with them.

Just think about it a moment, historically speaking. That global victory of 1945, ending all too ominously with the dropping of those two atomic bombs and the slaughter of possibly 200,000 people, would be followed in 1950 by the start of the Korean War. The statistics of death and destruction in that conflict were, to say the least, staggering.

It was a spectacle of slaughter, involving the armies of North Korea and its ally the newly communist China versus South Korea and its ally, the United States. Now, consider the figures: out of a Korean population of 30 million, as many as three million may have died, along with an estimated 180,000 Chinese and about 36,000 Americans.

  • A TomDispatch report / Tom Engelhardt
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