Review of Tom Englehardt’s The End of Victory Culture Essay

Like many young men of his generation Tom Englehardt is the son of a World War II veteran and was raised in the shadow of Allied victory over Japan and Germany. It was an era of clearly evil enemies and clearly honorable victors. America was a “winner”, but according to Englehardt “between 1945 and 1975 victory culture ended in America” and he “traces its decomposition through those years of generational loss and societal disillusionment to Vietnam, which was its graveyard for all to see” (10).

According to Englehardt’s cover-jacket promotion, “this remarkable and unexpected history of our time…reconstructs a half-century of the crumbling borderlands of American consciousness…a nation living an afterlife amid the ruins of its national narrative” (cover-jacket). Further, he presents the question of whether there is “an imaginable America without enemies and without the story of their slaughter and our triumph? ” (Cover-jacket).

Perhaps since its publication in 1995 Englehardt has had a chance to reflect on his version of American history and consider how it is that America has lived through its “afterlife” and despite incredible adversity continues to not just survive, but thrive.

Englehardt begins his version of post-war American history with what can only be described as the academically-required survey of All That Was Wrong With America. There is a great value in discovering and analyzing policies and actions in a postmortem sense, for the obvious reason of improving what worked and reworking what failed.

There is a great disservice in reviewing history within the context and framework of contemporary thought and morality. The reader gets Englehardt’s version of the European White Man’s conquest of indigenous Americans, the depredations of slavery and lynching, and the unworldly horror of American atomic destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There is little, if any doubt in any rational person’s mind these were not exactly shining examples of Americana. But his recounting of these events raises questions he is unable to answer.

First, and truly not callously, how long should America apologize, if that is what Englehardt demands? Second, with American “manifest destiny” and the bombing of Japan, just exactly what were the alternatives at the time? Finally, with slavery and the civil rights movement, where is the relevance to Englehardt’s central thesis? At some point realizations are made that we cannot undo historical fact, no matter how unsavory the events were, and ultimately, as a person and as a nation we must move on. Throughout his book Englehardt exhibits a not-so-subtle bias, evident from the onset and which must be taken into account.

One need look no closer than the jacket promotion: Englehardt is careful to use the word “slaughter” in reference to America’s enemies, not “defeat”. Englehardt traces the “victory culture” through the media, beginning with the World War II era “Why We Fight” documentaries and Hollywood’s active war-time production of “hero” movies (51). In the post-war era “pride in on-screen westerns and war culture was any boy’s inheritance” (52). Englehardt believes the culture was based “on an ambush that could touch all but the imagination in only the most limited ways.

Now for the first time since the earliest days of the European invasion of North America, the ambush (by nuclear weapons) threatened actual extermination” (52). Again, Englehardt is careful to use the word “invasion” instead of “migration” or colonization” preferring to impart a negative connotation whenever possible. For him “the military-industrial complex grew to monstrous proportions” leading to the first real nuclear standoff in the Cuban Missile Crisis (52-3). Englehardt does not supply any reference to support his claim that “nothing could rally Americans for such a war” (53).

Englehardt writes in a very disjointed manner, alternately discussing the bombing of Japan, the Korean War, communism and McCarthyism, and his father (73). He devotes chapters to children’s toys and his own collection of war figurines (85). He discusses the impact of television, and declares that by the end of the sixties “war as myth and play seemed to have been swept clean out of American culture” (89). In the span of less than thirty pages Englehardt manages to discuss, and apparently relate, Malcolm X, George Kennan, the Cold War, vampires, Broken Arrow, UFO’s and The Incredible Shrinking Man (90-112).

Apparently these all relate to the pronouncements of Malcolm X and Kennan, respectively: “the whole world knows that the white man cannot survive another war” and Kennan “marking the spot where his own society threatened to leap of some cliff” (111-112). Englehardt continues his review of the media culture of the late fifties and sixties, once again in a very haphazard and distracting style. It seems he is bent on throwing in every facet of American culture as if to miss any one item would spoil his entire recipe.

The reader is left to his discussions of anti-communism and Cuba, juvenile delinquency, civil rights, Dobie Gillis, Mad Magazine, Bill Haley and the Comets, television advertising, Rebel Without a Cause and Happy Days. His chapters read more like the answers to a huge game of Trivia Pursuit than any historical reflection of substance. All he is missing is the game cards: question: who played Josh Randall in Wanted: Dead or Alive? answer: Steve McQueen (152). Somehow, according to Englehardt, it is all related to the demise of victory culture.

When after approximately two hundred pages Englehardt finally decides to discuss Vietnam he does so with an expected emphasis on horrors and atrocities. But first he must take the reader through GI Joe (Englehardt takes pains to describe Hasbro’s late entry with “Negro Joe” and “She-Joe”), Sergeant Roc, Kennedy assassination conspiracy theory, and Fail Safe (175-187). Any review of substance of the war in Vietnam will by necessity be a huge undertaking, and Englehardt is not to be criticized for discussing what amounts to a “worst of” list of horrors that faced the Vietnamese, the American soldiers, and the American public.

Unfortunately for Englehardt “the mineshaft has been thoroughly mined” and he brings no new information or analysis to the table. Vietnam was a tremendous “media war” in terms of coverage and indelible images. A few images, such as the young naked napalmed girl running in fright or the point-blank assassination of a captured Viet Cong soldier, seem to crystallize all of the horror and insanity of that war. Englehardt decides to provide the literary simile, with quotations from veterans describing the horrors and atrocities of My Lai and other villages.

It is in a sense gratuitous and repetitious, and serves little purpose other than to reinforce the general negativity of the entire book. Before Englehardt turns his attention to the Desert Storm/Desert Shield operations he first makes the point that previous military operations in Panama and Grenada were unnecessary exhibits of force and quickly dismisses them as “exaggerated, over referential event(s)” (281).

He prefaces his discussion of the Gulf War as “(in) the new version of victory culture, the military spent no less time planning to control the screen than the battlefield, and the neutralization of a potentially oppositional media became a war goal” (290). It is always remarkable that reporters and journalists who steadfastly claim they have either been manipulated or denied access manage to produce analytical and critical volumes assessing what they allegedly were not allowed to witness.

Englehardt reaches the conclusion that in a sense “the Gulf War was a response to the Japanese and European economic challenges in that it emphasized the leading-edge aspects of the country’s two foremost exports: arms and entertainment” (295). Englehardt finishes his book by revisiting his friend GI Joe, who has “been running hard to survive in a confused world” (302). In closing he states “what path out of the ruins may be neither Joe nor we understand” (303). It is doubtful Englehardt is on anyone’s “short list” of consultants to contact regarding the contemporary framework of war.

His work is well-researched and thoroughly documented with page upon page of footnotes and references. However what is telling is what is absent from his index. It reads like an encapsulation of American pop culture, as would be expected, with countless references to movies, television, and American icons. It reflects an insulated viewpoint of American “culture of victory” as seen only through American media. There is a much greater awareness of the geopolitical effects of any conflict, and it is difficult if not impossible to simply pigeon-hole war in outdated terms of American cultural “heroes” or “victory”.

Ultimately he can take credit with the foresight to see the end of a culture of victory, but events since publication have drastically changed the meaning of “victory” in war, and unfortunately decrease the relevance of his work. Today’s battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan reflect America’s greater engagement in a global War on Terror. There is little, if any similarity in the dangers faced today compared to previous military engagements or World Wars.

Global terrorism brings a previously unknown dimension to military theorists and analysts. Certainly there is a popular swell of support for the defeat, if not “slaughter” of Osama bin Laden and the terrorists responsible for the death of civilian non-combatants. But there is less a sense of a desire for a “victory culture” as there is for a “survival culture”. Without saying as much Englehardt could stand for the premise, as any wise man would, that pacifism is preferred to war, and in war the victors are often vanquished as well.

That takes a world far different from the one that exists today. There is no doubt America is the superpower but it does not operate in a vacuum; today there is a broader and stronger global mandate for peace than any American desire for victory in war. At the time of publication The End of Victory Culture may have reflected “a confused world” with “paths not understood”. Since September 11, 2001 events have given clarity to any confusion, and the path to safety and survival must be followed.

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