Earlier this week, grumpy Florida man Joe Scarborough posted a tweet with a link to an American Conservative article about how smartphones are turning teens into isolated misanthropes.
He followed it up with another tweet comparing today’s Xbox-addicted youth to the Greatest Generation, who came to Europe and Asia’s rescue during World War II.
We were more curious, though, about the broader notion of nostalgic masculinity. Namely, why have we come to view World War II as the golden age of American manhood, and why are the men who served in the conflict the benchmark against which all other males (no matter the generation) are measured — especially for boomers like Scarborough, and especially compared to the veterans of more recent wars such as Vietnam and Iraq?
For answers, I called up Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a professor of history and Italian studies at New York University and an expert on the fascist and authoritarian rulers American soldiers were fighting in Europe and the Pacific.
These are some of her thoughts…
We celebrate WWII masculinity because it was a “morally righteous” war with a well-defined villain.
Adolph Hitler and Benito Mussolini were “undeniably bad,” Ben-Ghiat says. This made it easier to decipher who possessed the moral high ground. “Young men fighting World War II were clearly on the good side of democracy versus totalitarianism,” she explains. “Now things are blurrier because the outcomes of conflicts are as well. The Allies occupied some of Germany and Austria temporarily, but they eventually left.” Obviously, things aren’t as clear-cut now, she adds, especially since the death of Osama bin Laden, the contemporary Hitler equivalent. Scandals involving American contractors only serve to further complicate the moral landscape and contribute to a longing for a “simpler time,” according to Ben-Ghiat.
A never-ending, ever-changing battlefield has made it nearly impossible to celebrate today’s soldier in the same way.
No one likes to mention Vietnam, Ben-Ghiat says, because it didn’t end well. Since the second Gulf War started in 2003, however, America has entered an era of “perma-war” that doesn’t satisfy the need for a great confrontation between right and wrong. “World War II was so clearly good vs. evil, so it’s a very convenient touchstone,” Ben-Ghiat argues. “Nor is there a real battlefield in counter-insurgency warfare — just villages and civilians.”
We now better understand the toll of war on the men and women who fight it.
People do recognize modern-day war heroes, Ben-Ghiat says, pointing to a story she wrote in 2015 about “American Sniper” for CNN. But today’s heroes are less mythical and more human. “Kyle was a traumatized figure who ended up getting killed by another traumatized war veteran, so the happy ending is much more complicated. It’s insulting that Scarborough didn’t single out any of the many heroes we do have from Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Counter-insurgency warfare is, in some ways, much more dangerous. You’re much more exposed, and psychologically, it’s much more difficult because you’re engaging with civilians at close range. Because of long-range optical capacities, soldiers today have the capacity to see the tears on the cheeks of the enemy. You didn’t have to deal with any of that in World War II.”
Much of modern warfare is also seemingly as virtual as the video games Scarborough cites.
The largest increase in the military budget over the next 10 years is for drones. While drone warfare certainly isn’t a video game, Ben-Ghiat notes, it is a virtual war experience. “With drones, you’re sitting in Nebraska in a structure. You’re killing real people, but through a screen. Increasingly, war is going to be at a remove. It’s certainly not going to be an industrial strength army facing another army like in World War II.
“So in the future, all of our notions of heroism and combat on the battlefield are up for grabs.”