I was born on July 20, 1944, amid a vast global conflict already known as World War II. Though it ended with the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 before I could say much more than “Mama” or “Dada,” in some strange fashion, I grew up at war.
Living in New York City, I was near no conflict in those years or in any since. My dad, however, had volunteered for the Army Air Corps at age 35 on December 8, 1941, the day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He fought in Burma, was painfully silent about his wartime experiences, and died on Pearl Harbor Day in 1983. He was the operations officer for the 1st Air Commandos and his war, in some strange sense, came home with him.
Like so many vets, then and now, he was never willing to talk to his son about what he had experienced, though in my early years he still liked his friends to call him “Major,” his rank on leaving the military. When his war did come up in our house, it was usually in the form of anger — because my mother had shopped at a nearby grocery store whose owners, he claimed, had been “war profiteers” while he was overseas, or because my first car, shared with a friend, was a used Volkswagen (German!), or my mom was curious to go — god save us! — to a Japanese restaurant!
Though he wouldn’t talk with me about his wartime experience, I lived it in a very specific way (or at least so it felt to me then). After all, he regularly took me to the movies where I saw seemingly endless versions of war, American-style, from the Indian wars through World War II. And when we watched movies of his own conflict (or, in my early years, replays of Victory at Sea on our TV at home) and he said nothing, that only seemed to confirm that I was seeing his experience in all its glory, as the Marines inevitably advanced at film’s end and the “Japs” died in a spectacle of slaughter without a comment from him.
From those Indian wars on, as I wrote long ago in my book The End of Victory Culture, war was always a tale of their savagery and our goodness, one in which, in the end, there would be an expectable “spectacle of slaughter” as we advanced and “they” went down. From the placement of the camera flowed the pleasure of watching the killing of tens or hundreds of nonwhites in a scene that normally preceded the positive resolution of relationships among the whites. It was a way of ordering a wilderness of human horrors into a celebratory tale of progress through devastation, a victory culture that, sooner or later, became more complicated to portray because World War II ended with the atomic devastation of those two Japanese cities and, in the 1950s and 1960s, the growing possibility of a future global Armageddon.
If war was hell, in my childhood at the movies, killing them wasn’t, whether it was the Indians of the American West or the Japanese in World War II.
So, yes, I grew up in a culture of victory, one I played out again and again on the floor of my room. In the 1950s, boys (and some girls) spent hours acting out tales of American battle triumph with generic fighting figures: a crew of cowboys to defeat the Indians and win the West, a bag or two of olive-green Marines to storm the beaches of Iwo Jima.
f ours was a sanguinary tale of warfare against savages in which pleasure came out of the barrel of a gun, on floors nationwide we kids were left alone, without apparent instruction, to reinvent American history. Who was good and who bad, who could be killed and under what conditions were an accepted part of a collective culture of childhood that drew strength from post-World War II Hollywood.