Author Tom Englehardt asks the core question of this study thusly: “Is there an imaginable ‘America’ without enemies and without the story of their slaughter and our triumph?” (p. 15) His answer to this simple question is complex but certainly worthy of serious consideration. He locates American exceptionalism, especially in the context of the Cold War experience, in a centuries-long, racist mythology of American virtue defeats any evil foe who seeks American destruction. “Righteous” retaliation by the U.S. to “evil” incursions may be found in captive narratives of women by Native populations, in military struggles against all enemies, and even such disastrous military adventurism as Custer’s final 1876 campaign.
This “victory culture” reached full measure in the American experience in World War II, as the United States responded to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and fought to unconditional surrender the Axis powers. Using the Atomic bomb, and its strategic power, after 1945 the U.S. sought to achieve a Pax Americana in the decades that followed. The Cold War fed into these ideas, as a closed, non-democratic, non-capitalistic Soviet Union offered an ideal replacement for the evil Axis powers of World War II. The strategies of containment used to oppose the Soviet Union, however, challenged the myth of the “victory culture” during the Vietnam debacle of the 1960s, many in the U.S. began to question the exceptionalism of America. The familiar patterns of national identity reified through the “victory culture” created a crisis of confidence in society with setbacks in a range of international and national settings.
One might have thought that the “victory culture” would collapse, but it came back strong, especially after 9/11. Tom Engelhardt explicitly draws parallels between popular culture—especially toys and movies—and the events on the broader world. He finds that children’s toys, especially military-oriented ones, led to play that reinforced the “victory culture.” The packs of cowboys and Indians, and a host of other martial toys, taught a generation how to triumph over opponents. This was especially true of G.I. Joe, which has been transformed over time to allow children the flexibility to defeat a wide range of foes.
Englehardt also uses movies in this same way. He draws on western and war movies, the science fiction of Star Wars, and a host of other films to show how the ideas inculcated into the culture through these movies informed real-life experiences.
Through all of this, Englehardt focuses a lot of attention on the American myth of the innocent nation. Completely without justification, the United States has come to believe that whatever it does is just and righteous, and that it is locked in a desperate struggle with evil. This may be seen in virtually all periods of American history but it is especially present in the great struggles of the twentieth century. World Wars I and II especially led Americans to believe they were fighting for the survival of all that was good against forces of evil. But it also may be seen in the cold war against the Soviet Union, and in the aftermath of 9/11 in the global war on terrorism. This is an unfortunate development, according to the author. I especially enjoyed his take on the post-9/11 era in which explicit relations between movies and reality were made by the nation’s leaders. A sense of victimization is present in this rhetoric, but a belief in triumph through virtue and perseverance also rings out whether or not it should. The “victory culture,” as Englehardt concludes, is still very much with us.