The embattled Americans: A cultural history of soldiers and veterans, 1941–1982
This dissertation charts the evolution of visual and textual images of the American fighting man over the period between 1941 and 1982. The project combines material from the archives of the Museum of Modern Art, various government agencies, and a collection of Vietnam War-related cultural artifacts with analysis of accounts in popular magazines, newspapers, films, novels, and television shows. Common early in World War II were portraits of the soldier or veteran as a specimen of American manhood, a good citizen in the postwar economy, a selfless team player, and a beneficiary of his time in the military. Late in the war and during the 1950s, cracks appeared in this sentimental image. By the 1960s and early 1970s, the Vietnam-era soldier appeared to be a victim—of his military superiors, the horrors of war, government neglect, an ungrateful public, his tortured memories of combat, and his own officially encouraged brutality.
Such a blend of cultural history with the “new” military history (which in recent years has stressed the experiences of the individual soldier and veteran), tells us much about the decades following the Second World War. This dissertation locates the origins of postwar cynicism about institutions late in World War II, long before American involvement in Vietnam would amplify doubts about federal and military authority. At the same time, depictions of GIs show that what defined a masculine hero was changing. If image-makers of the Second World War had emphasized loyalty and toughness in the American soldier, later ones valorized his stoicism, sensitivity, and suffering. Above all, images of soldiers and veterans reveal an ongoing tension between notions of citizenship and entitlement. Accounts in the media and popular culture increasingly characterized military service less as a duty (a prerequisite for citizenship) and more as an act of sacrifice (deserving of special entitlements). More and more in those years, enduring combat—no matter what its justification—simply seemed too much to ask of young people.
0323: American studies