January 16, 2011

WWII remembered, Vietnam and WWI forgotten

This is just an empirical account of which wars our culture remembers right now, although in a future post I'll explain why the current crime level determines what type of wars we remember and are interested in.

When I was a boy my conception of war was Vietnam, although it had been over for at least a decade before my earliest memories of the world at all. The ambush in the jungle, the M16, young guys with bandanas tied across their foreheads, referring to the enemy as "Charlie," and so on. Then once the crime rate started plummeting after 1992, I hardly saw the Vietnam type of war anywhere -- suddenly the prototypical war became WWII, and only American involvement in Europe and perhaps Pearl Harbor, nothing about dropping the atomic bomb, the Rape of Nanking, the Bataan Death March, or the civil wars between fascists and partisans that tore apart many European societies.

Here it is, nearly 20 years later, and it's still as if Vietnam never happened. A point I keep emphasizing in this "safe times vs. dangerous times" stuff is that the period from roughly 1959 to 1991 or '92 is, to a first order approximation, a single unbroken period of history. (There is a second order division that I'll detail and explain later, which sub-divides the dangerous times into the 1959-1974ish period and the 1975ish-1992 period.) So, anything that made a big impact in the earlier part, such as the Vietnam War, will continue to reverberate throughout the culture until the very end of rising-crime times.

Most people who lived through the decade, and certainly those who have no memory of it, have retroactively erased the heavy presence of '60s culture during the 1980s because it doesn't make sense -- and to the modern autistic mind, if it doesn't make sense, it isn't true. And yet it is. (And it does make sense, as long as you bear in mind that the violence level was soaring the whole time.) I'm not talking about bell bottoms or taking over the student union, but the key events of the '60s, the supreme one being the Vietnam War.

So in the interest of historical accuracy, let's remind ourselves how popular the Vietnam War was during the second part of the '70s and the '80s and even early '90s, after the war had ended. Here is a list of films about it. In the table listing them, click the box with triangles next to "Country" and scroll down to those made in America. Notice how they begin right away, and more importantly that they continue unbroken through the early 1990s. If we weight the movies by how many tickets they sold, how memorable they are, how well they capture what happened, etc., we'll find that the best Vietnam movies were made during the 1980s. That's certainly true for TV shows, as there was only one -- Tour of Duty -- which began in the late '80s and lasted for three seasons.

Of course, that list leaves out military movies that show a Vietnam-esque quagmire, such as Predator and Aliens.

The memory of Vietnam was still so alive that the plot of Rambo II was all about the POW/MIA urban legend that had begun to gain popularity by the mid-'80s. By roughly 1990, this idea gained so much steam that several Congressional investigations looked into it. At the man-in-the-street level, even people who weren't Vietnam veterans, who didn't have relatives who fought there, etc., were likely to put one of these decals on the rear window of their car:

I normally didn't care about the decals my dad had on his car windows -- one as a parking permit for work, another for Ohio State, etc. -- but that one was so provocative that after looking it over a couple times, I couldn't help but ask what it meant. He retold the story to me as though he were convinced that it was a plausible legend, not fanatically sure nor wafflingly skeptical. I saw these decals on other people's cars and occasionally flags with the design outside people's houses -- they were about as common, or maybe slightly less, than yellow ribbons.

During the post-'92 period, and again sticking just with those movies that caught on, part of Forrest Gump focused on Vietnam, and We Were Soldiers was the only major movie to focus entirely on it.

Now check out the list of WWII movies. There are a few memorable ones from the 1959-1992 period -- The Dirty Dozen, Patton -- but not many, and especially not during the late '70s through early '90s. That all changes in the post-'92 period, beginning right away with Schindler's List. Suddenly there's a big WWII movie made every year or other.

To get more quantitative on the difference in interest right now, at my local Barnes and Noble there is only one shelf for books on Vietnam in the military history section, as opposed to nine shelves for books on WWII. Furthermore, just about all of the "New Releases" that hog the top shelf are about WWII, and maybe one about Vietnam. At Amazon's military history section (in books), the Vietnam category has 2,700 items, whereas the WWII category has 30,001 items. Among the best-sellers in military history, 11 of the top 20 are about WWII (more if you count alternate versions of the same book), and 0 are about Vietnam. Going to the top 40, there is a single one (at #36) about Vietnam, but that's it. The rest are about the American Civil War, the current war in Iraq, etc.

I haven't said much about WWI, but it's basically treated the same as Vietnam, not surprising since they were much more similar to each other than either was to WWII. There was Lawrence of Arabia in 1962, a TV re-make of All Quiet on the Western Front in 1979, Gallipoli in 1983, and Johnny Got His Gun in 1971 and again in 1988 when featured in Metallica's music video for "One". No big ones from the post-'92 period. In Amazon's military history section, there are 6,557 items in the WWI category and no books in the top 40 best-sellers about it. At my local Barnes and Noble, WWI gets just one shelf.

Given how long our involvement was in Vietnam, and how focal the war was during the tumultuous '60s and throughout the '80s, you would never have guessed that there would come a time when it would be more or less forgotten. And yet here we are.


  1. WWII is the most politically convenient war to talk about. The right loves having an enemy to rally against, whether it be the Nazis, Communists or Islamists. Now, the left is ambivalent about Communists and Islamists, partially because they can sympathize with the aims and sensibilities of the Communists, and the Islamists are ever more falling into their identity politics umbrella, where they pity Muslims for being minorities in America and Europe and victims of Israel and poverty. Hence, they have mixed feelings for those enemies. The Nazis, however, were everything the left claims to despise, and in a way, the left has built itself largely to oppose any last trace of Nazism left in the world, or anything resembling it.

    WWII was also one of the most fascinating wars in history. WWI and Vietnam aren't exciting wars to study. They mostly entailed a bunch of young suckers being stuck in a merciless quagmire. In comparison, WWII involved many different types of warfare, across the globe's corners. The parts of WWI and Vietnam (as well as the Cold War) that are most interesting for the casual reader are the hidden politics behind the scenes. WWII had at least as much of that as those two wars did. This can also be seen with the American Civil War, which was a fascinating war to study beyond the way it affected its participants. Although more distant in public memory than WWII, it certainly has been remembered more vividly than WWI. This is because both sides spent hundreds of thousands of lives in massive battles. The parts where the war dragged, such as Georgia before Sherman broke through the trenches and overwhelmed Atlanta, are not as remembered as Antietam or Gettysburg.

    WWI and Vietnam are more interesting in terms of cultural impact, in the way the wars affected the countries participating in those wars. They're not as interesting to read about in terms of isolated military strategy. I don't think the War on Terror will be remembered for that reason. The most interesting parts of the War were the paranoia that any building or institution could be destroyed in the beat of an eye, and the intrigue behind the scenes. The initial campaigns against the Taliban and the Baathists in 2001 and 2003 respectively aren't that aesthetically interesting, in the way that wars can be exciting to read about. They mostly involved rolling over pathetic armies, and then being caught in a horrific but uninteresting quagmire for years afterward. This can be seen in the way that 9/11 is becoming an Islamic Appreciation Day.

    On a side note, the Spanish-American War is also hardly remembered, aside from how William Randolph Hearst whipped up a misplaced frenzy against the Spaniards. This is largely because the Spaniards were hardly a challenge, and the subsequent atrocities the Filipinos endured by frustrated American soldiers in a quagmire is not common knowledge. In short, for a war to be remembered, it should have massive casualties, enemies of comparable strength and determination, and cover a great amount of territory. Those wars are the most costly and horrifying materially, which is why they're still so intriguing to the mind.

  2. Why do you think this is?

    The type and scale of the wars?
    The clear moral message of WW2 versus the muddied ones of Vietnam and World War 1?
    The fact that Hitler is a kick-ass evil-doer who everyone loves to hate and that Stalin was our big enemy for ten years afterwards?

    Something else?

    I'm interested in hearing your thoughts.


  3. Sid, all of those differences between WWII and Vietnam were true once both wars were over (some during Vietnam, too). Yet for most of the rising-crime period, no one was very interested in WWII, and everyone was fascinated by Vietnam. Then after 1992 that pattern flipped.

    So it's not any feature of the wars themselves that determine whether they'll be remembered or not, but how the average person perceives war in the abstract, their hopes and anxieties about war, how risk-averse they are, etc.

    A war will only fall or rise in popular consciousness when there is a larger change in how people's minds work, which happens when the violence level switches from rising to falling or vice versa.

  4. There's also Kirk Douglas'/Stanley Kubrick's "Paths of Glory" (1957) about the Great War (WWI).

  5. It's an exaggeration to say that no one was interested in WWII before 1992. There are a number of classic WWII movies (The Great Escape, The Longest Day, Bridge on the River Kwai, Patton) which were released during the Cold War. I remember Steve Sailer noting that during his childhood, the Pacific Theater was better remembered than it is today (largely, I think, because glorifying a war where whites defeated Asians smells jingoist). And again, after WWII, the entire political left rebuilt itself to stand against everything the Nazis did. Progressives favored eugenics in the early 20th century, but dropped it like a hot potato. Hell, the most popular Indiana Jones movies are the ones where he battles Nazis, and not Hindus or Communists. Nevertheless, it is true that WWII became more prominent in the public memory falling the Cold War, especially the European Theater. And I would say it's because after the Cold War paradigms vanished, the public had 20/20 hindsight.

    If I remember correctly, the 1900's and 1910's had fairly low crime rates, which then skyrocketed in the 1920's. So I don't think WWI was remembered because Americans could better empathize with victims of high crime rates. (If I'm not remembering the statistics properly, I concede the point.) If WWI was better remembered in the 1960's-1980's, I think it's in part because people could better relate to a vain, meaningless struggle.

    But the point can be pressed further. Really, no one really understands what life was like in the 1780's and 1860's, unless they're history buffs who obsessively study those eras. But which war is better remembered, the American Revolution or the Civil War? The American Revolution is very much a well-remembered era, but how easy is it to recall the war for it battles and campaigns? I took a class about the war as a college sophomore and the details are admittedly hazy. When I talk with historical aficionados, they also remember little about the actual military aspects of the war. What everyone remembers are the social aspects of the war. On the contrary, it is not rare at all to find American history buffs who take Civil War battlefield trips because they find the actual military campaigns to be so fascinating. The American Revolution was a guerrilla war, whereas the Civil War was an epic struggle that took place over vast amounts of territory, devoured huge sums of souls, and had two opposing powers that could lock horns in fair fights (even if they had different strengths and weaknesses). Those are the wars people tend to remember for the wars themselves, and not merely for the social repercussions. Even though I took a class on the Civil War in middle school, the details are still much more distinct in my mind.

  6. I think you all are missing the key to what gets made in Hollywood these days: Vietnam/Gulf movies are generally about dragging down Americans during republican presidents. Once they have a Dem in office such as Clinton they switch full bore to war movies about WW2 which are about Americans being awesome.

    I think if you check most of the really Vietnam movies were done under Nixon/Regan and we had a whole slue of Gulf war/Somalia movies under Bush. As soon as Clinton got into office it was all awesome WW2 films. Never underestimate movie people trying to to shape our views.

  7. Anybody ever watch Born on the 4th of July? I loved it and hated it at the same time. So intense, but you can't look away.

  8. What's your take on the trend in the early 70s trend of satirical war films like Catch-22 and MASH? Are they merely a case of elites using earlier wars as a canvas to impose their cynicism about Vietnam?

    It seems to me that many actual veterans of WWII displayed a bit of gallows humor about their experiences. Whenever I've had vets tell me stories from the war, most of the time I would get some funny story involving incompetent commanders and the confusion of wartime, even from ones who had seen combat.

    It's interesting that the most memorable movies about the war from the pre-Vietnam era were about POW camps, specifically Stalag-17 and The Great Escape. Both of these films were pretty funny at points, and felt closer to an authentic experience of the war. Maybe they were a way of getting the black humor undercurrent into film by displacing onto the Germans. Showing American leadership as incompetent would probably have been unthinkable in this era.

    Anyway, maybe it was this attitude that came out into the open in the satirical films.

    Also, it's interesting to compare the reception of Saving Private Ryan against The Thin Red Line, both of which came out the same year. The latter had an atmosphere closer to the 80s Vietnam films mixed with Malick's obsession with the noble savage myth. Not surprisingly it was unsuccessful at the box office and struck out at the Oscars.

  9. What Jack Black said, though it may not negate Agnostic's point.

    I do believe crime control is vastly in the control of politicians and something the man on the street has little control over except to protect him and his and perhaps put a dent in the perception that his neighborhood is an easy mark. Reduce crime? Lock them up. Regardless of the morality and ability, the harsher the sentences, the lower the crime rates within a specific population.

    My husband has pointed out that it is widely accepted that zombie movies get made when Republicans are presidents and vampire movies when Democrats are in power. I don't know what the veracity of this claim is.

    I've always had the instinctual feeling that much of the cinema output is in response to current events and try to shape peoples' opinions about them, typically with the use of allegory.
    We are a nation of warring peoples, with propaganda as the weapon of choice.

    So, my long-winded point is that crime rates are a byproduct of the people in charge and media producers respond to who is in charge and try to shape opinions about them. People's feelings about crime and how safe they feel definitely contributes, but I think the former is more influential.

  10. You forgot a TV show, China Beach, about nurses in 'Nam, late 80's to I think 1991 or 1992...


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