The WWII Myth

Why do we Americans continue to subscribe to the World War II myth, the myth that all of our country’s World War II veterans are or should be venerated? Who’s to blame? Hollywood?

Jeremy Warneke, Craft of War Writing Instructor

Jeremy Warneke, Craft of War Writing Instructor

Articles like 7 Lessons in Manliness From the Greatest Generation don’t help. In it, authors Brett and Kate McKay claim that the generation of men born between 1914 and 1929 were “humble.” They “never bragged about what they had done or been through. They were loyal, patriotic, and level-headed.”

Maybe they weren’t braggarts because, as Iraq War veteran Phil Klay noted in The 'Soldier' With the Bazooka…, it was these same men who “regularly killed enemy prisoners of war, mutilated war dead, and perpetrated a shocking number of rapes in both the European and Pacific theaters” of World War II.

Arguably, these transgressions were committed by some Americans. A minority. Not a majority of our troops. As the McKays stated, these men “weren’t perfect by any means, of course, but as a whole they were a cut above the rest…Their extraordinary manliness is not something you can scientifically measure. But you can sure feel it. And you can see it in old pictures. It seems every man back then was dashingly handsome; their manliness practically leaps off the page.”

My dad’s uncle is a World War II veteran. He’s still alive, but I didn’t bother sharing such nonsense with him. I know better. He would recoil—to say the least—at the McKays’ whitewashing.

My grandfather was a WWII vet. I don’t think he was a bad man, but at the same time, I don’t remember venerating him.

Yes, World War II vets had it hard, but they also had it easy compared to most, if not all, generations to come before or after. Sure, their war was long and tough, but their homecoming was, and still is, unmatched. A popular war, or more like a war with a clear purpose and victory, will do that, but in many ways, World War II veterans are the beneficiaries of failure. As the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs states, “much of the urgency [for the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944] stemmed from a desire to avoid the missteps following World War I…The return of millions of Veterans from World War II gave Congress a chance at redemption.”

So, with some exceptions such as black veterans, WWII vets were, and still are, showered with love and respect, but is, or was, it a deserved love and respect? As David Margolick noted in The Not-Always Greatest Generation, American GIs in Naples, for example, “gorged themselves in their mess halls, tossing away mountains of food as starving locals looked on. They pushed old ladies off the sidewalks and bought young girls for packs of chewing gum. Their very posture—the way they loitered and leaned and lolled about—was insolent. That the people whose country they occupied had only recently been their enemies was ‘taken as a license for Americans to defecate all over them.’”