A new film celebrates individual heroism, but a larger narrative of unprecedented national struggle is being lost.
By PHILIP JENKINS • February 3, 2017
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 Okinawa—but 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.