The other day, I walked across much of Manhattan Island on the street where I grew up. Once upon a time, in a space of just four blocks along that very street there were four movie theaters (no small wonder in the 1950s). Only The Paris Theater, somewhat the worse for wear, still stands. Tao, a pan-Asian restaurant, has replaced one of them; the other two were obliterated, their buildings razed and built anew in a city that regularly eats itself for breakfast.
At one of those two, the RKO 58th Street, I spent a significant part of my childhood watching John Wayne, Audie Murphy, and other monumental war heroes of the big screen (and, in Murphy's case, an actual war hero as well) go to hell and back defeating America's enemies. It was, I have to say, thrilling. Sometimes I would be sitting there right next to my dad and who could have asked for better than that? After all, in World War II he had been operations officer for the First Air Commandos in Burma, so who knew better than he what war was all about? He took me to such films, watched them with me, and never, not once, told me that anything I had seen onscreen wasn't the god's honest truth about how it all went down.
Strangely (at least to the young Tom Engelhardt), he rarely talked, no less bragged or told stories of any sort, about "his" war, the one I knew so well onscreen. In this, as Susan Faludi wrote years ago, he was undoubtedly typical of what we've come to call "the greatest generation" -- they thought otherwise -- but who might better have been labeled, at least by their sons, the silent generation. It was true that, on occasion, my father would suddenly burst into unpredictable rage over the owners of a local store who, he believed, had been "war profiteers," or over the thought of going to a Japanese restaurant or owning a German Volkswagen. A few times in my childhood, he even pulled a scuffed green duffle bag filled with war memorabilia out of the back of his closet and let me watch as he silently sorted through it all, including his mess kit, wartime photos, two-sided silk maps of Burma, and his old service revolver. I would be suitably awed. Even then, though, he said next to nothing about his war.
All this came to mind as I read today's post by TomDispatch regular Michael Klare on our new president and the war that ended at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the most glorious of global triumphs and the most terrifying of apocalyptic conclusions. It was, of course, the war I, like every other American boy of that moment including Donald Trump, had watched reverentially in movie theaters and on TV as the Marines eternally advanced to victory, or Merrill's Marauders won the day, or the Nazis were mowed down. Meanwhile, at school we all "ducked and covered" under our desks, as sirens wailed outside and CONELRAD broadcast its warnings from a radio on our teacher's desk, all the while imagining that war's "victory weapon" annihilating us all.
And yet who could doubt that we Americans were the ultimate victors, that the U.S. military was glorious beyond compare, that the war my father wouldn't talk about we had won, won, won, won, or that, in its onscreen form, as absorbed by the young Donald J. Trump, it became, as Klare argues convincingly, the bedrock foundation for his present military policies, the ones that he swears will finally leave America "winning" again for the first time in years. What would Audie Murphy or my father think now? Tom
Trump's Military Nostalgia (or Victory at Sea All Over Again)
Rebuilding a Last-Century Military to Fight Last-Century Wars
By Michael T. Klare- Advertisement -
If you are an American male of a certain age -- Donald Trump's age, to be exact -- you are likely to have vivid memories of Victory at Sea, the Emmy award-winning NBC documentary series about the U.S. Navy in World War II that aired from October 1952 to May 1953. One of the first extended documentaries of its type, Victory at Sea traced the Navy's triumphal journey from the humiliation of Pearl Harbor to the great victories at Midway and Leyte Gulf in the Pacific and finally to Japan's surrender aboard the USS Missouri. Drawing on archival footage (all in black and white, of course) and featuring a majestic sound track composed by Richard Rodgers of Broadway musical fame, the series enjoyed immense popularity. For many young people of that time, it was the most compelling, graphic imagery available about the epic war our fathers, uncles, and classmates' dads had fought in.
Why do I mention this? Because I'm convinced that President Trump's talk of rebuilding the U.S. military and "winning wars again" has been deeply influenced by the kind of iconography that was commonplace in Victory at Sea and the war movies of his youth. Consider his comments on February 27th, when announcing that he would request an extra $54 billion annually in additional military spending. "We have to start winning wars again," he declared. "I have to say, when I was young, in high school and college, everybody used to say we never lost a war. We never lost a war, remember?"
Now, recall that when Trump was growing up, the United States was not winning wars -- except on the TV screen and in Hollywood. In the early 1950s, when Victory at Sea was aired, America was being fought to a standstill in Korea and just beginning the long, slow descent into the Vietnam quagmire. But if, like Trump, you ignored what was happening in those places and managed to evade service in Vietnam, your image of war was largely shaped by the screen, where it was essentially true that "we never lost a war, remember?"
Trump similarly echoed themes from Victory at Sea on March 2nd in a speech aboard the USS Gerald R. Ford, America's newest aircraft carrier. There, clearly relishing the opportunity to don a Navy bomber jacket -- "They said, here, Mr. President, please take this home, he quipped happily. "I said, let me wear it" -- he extolled the carrier fleet. "We are standing today," he commented stirringly, "on 4.5 acres of combat power and sovereign U.S. territory, the likes of which there is nothing to compete." Then, as part of a proposed massive build-up of the Navy, he called on the country to fund an enormously expensive 12th carrier on a planet on which no other country has more than two in service (and that country, Italy, is an ally).
The new president went on to discuss the role of U.S. aircraft carriers in World War II -- yes, World War II! -- a key turning point in the naval war against Japan. "You've all known about the Battle of Midway, where the sailors of the U.S. Navy fought with the bravery that will be remembered throughout the ages," he noted. "Many brave Americans died that day, and, through their sacrifice, they turned the tide of the Pacific War. It was a tough tide, it was a big tide, it was a vicious tide, and they turned it."
Again, Donald Trump (not exactly a well-read military historian) undoubtedly was recalling parts of Victory at Sea, or perhaps Hollywood's 1976 version of the same, Midway (with its all-star cast of Charlton Heston, Henry Fonda, James Coburn, Glenn Ford, Robert Mitchum, and Cliff Robertson, among others). Both portrayed the famous battle in exactly this fashion: as the "turning of the tide" in the war against Japan. Yes, a speechwriter probably penned Trump's lines, but they were spoken with such gusto that you could feel how heartfelt they were, how much they reflected his imagined "experience" of that war.- Advertisement -
Trump's attachment to these "memories" of America's glory days at war helps explain his approach to military policy and defense funding. Typically, when proposing major increase in military spending, American presidents and their secretaries of defense have articulated grand strategic reasons for doing so -- to contain Soviet expansionism, say, or accelerate the global war on terror. Trump's White House doesn't bother with such rationales.
Other than speeding up the war against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, a war launched two and a half years ago by President Obama and now apparently nearing its official completion date, President Trump's only justification for throwing tens of billions of dollars more at the Pentagon is to overcome a supposed deterioration of U.S. military capabilities and to enable the Armed Forces to start "winning wars again." Otherwise, the rationale seems to boil down to something like the following: let's rebuild the Navy that defeated Japan in World War II so that we can win battles like Midway all over again.
Trump's Naval Fixation