January 24, 1995
There’s a familiar 19th-century saying: “Let me write a nation’s songs, and I care not who makes its laws.” The entertainment industry has come a long way since then: movies, TV, comics, and toys all now carry at least as much ideological freight as songs. The political significance of popular culture has become an immense subject in the last couple of decades. Tom Engelhardt, formerly an editor at Pantheon Books, has staked out a large but well-defined chunk of this subject in The End of Victory Culture: the national “war story” from the Pilgrims onward, and especially its metamorphoses since World War II.
We’ve all read scores of times that the myth of American innocence and invincibility died in Vietnam. What was that myth? It began with the vastness, fertility, and (imagined) emptiness of the continent -- surely, it seemed to the European settlers, the signs of a favoring Providence. Since the land was not really empty, the settlers eventually encountered resistance; and because this resistance came from racial and cultural strangers, they allowed themselves to slough off customary moral restraints. (Not that much restraint was in evidence during the Thirty Years War or other intra-European conflicts of the early modern period.) Surveying histories, textbooks, sermons, captivity narratives, and other documents from the two-and-a-half-century long Indian Wars, Engelhardt shows Americans convincing themselves of both their destiny and their righteousness, even while waging a war of conquest and extermination.
Through this potent combination of energy, resourcefulness, self-confidence, hypocrisy, and greed, the American West was won (along with the East, North, and South). True, the story of Providential triumph over a savage, wily Other does not quite fit slavery or the Civil War (about whose complicated relations to American mythology Engelhardt has some shrewd things to say). But it did seem almost made to order for America’s three 20th- century Asian wars, where it has nevertheless unraveled.
The surprise attack on Pearl Harbor furnished Americans with plenty of righteous indignation, and the Japanese military were seen as cruel and cunning, like the Indians of frontier legend. But the Bomb, though in one sense the apotheosis of victory culture, was also the beginning of its decline. The “war story” had justified, even celebrated, the slaughter of Indians; but that was, at least, on a human scale. Hiroshima was something else.
The Korean War also involved slaughter on a colossal scale. But the enemy was, psychologically as well as militarily elusive; and for the first time in American history, slaughter was followed not by victory but by stalemate. Then in Vietnam, in an even more ambiguous cause, slaughter was followed by defeat. American might and right were both called profoundly into question; the war story was subjected to drastic revision. The unimaginable horror of nuclear war, on the one hand, and the ubiquitous images from
Vietnam, on the other, produced a condition of narrative confusion, of “storylessness,” that Engelhardt calls “triumphalist despair”:
“There was no American narrative form that could ... contain the story of a slow-motion defeat inflicted by a nonwhite people in a frontier war in which the statistics of American victory seemed everywhere evident. Instead, the forms that might once have contained such a war dematerialized.”
The End of Victory Culture sets out to trace the vicissitudes of America’s self-image since World War II as they showed up in popular culture: war toys, war comics, war reporting, and war films. It succeeds brilliantly. Engelhardt’s long sections on the history of Hasbro’s “G.I. Joe” toy, the impact of Morley Safer’s CBS report on the burning of Cam Ne, the psychology and iconology of the World War II/Korean War movie, DC’s “Sergeant Rock” comics, and George Lucas’s Star Wars and many other ingeniously chosen topics, are fascinating.
Perhaps the most compelling thing in the book is “Producing War,” a ten-page account of why “those who claimed that the media lost the Gulf War -- that censorship, press pools, and military handlers galore represented an epic government triumph over reportorial independence -- had not seen the screen for the pixels.” The ritually deplored Pentagon restrictions on the media actually suited financially strapped network news executives perfectly, satisfying their need for “round-the-clock, on-location support systems a pre-edited flow of visuals ... control over access to the productions’s set, thus limiting inter-network competition and consequently network costs ... and finally, the sort of precise scheduling and closure that television needs.” Those of us who chafed at the government’s media manipulations didn’t know the half of it.
The End of Victory Culture may be a trifle too ambitious -- it occasionally feels sprawling. And there is the infrequent lapse into the jargon of sociology or literary theory, or into overeasy sarcasm. For the most part, though, Engelhardt’s prose is smart and smooth, and his book is social and cultural history of a high order.