by Tom Engelhardt / University of Massachusetts Press – 2005-05-06 08:57:46
The End of Victory Culture:
Cold War America and the Disillusioning of a Generation
(Culture, Politics, and the Cold War)
by Tom Engelhardt
(University of Massachusetts Press; 2nd edition (March 1, 1998), 351 pages. $21.95. ISBN: 1558491333)
Freelance writer Engelhardt here traces the roots of American “triumphalism” back to early New England, where the massacre of Indians set the pattern for the self-justified slaughter of external enemies, a ritual that would be replayed endlessly not only in life but also in fiction, movies, toys and comics.
In his sprawling meditation, he considers the effect of our “loss of enemy” when the Japanese surrendered in 1945. In his tedious recap of the Vietnam tragedy Engelhardt suggests that the American public’s inability to view the Viet Cong as a savage, lesser adversary contributed to our becoming “the world’s most extraordinary [because least expected] losers.”
The desire to create a Third World battlefield with maximum US weaponry and minimum US casualties was briefly satisfied, he contends, by the Gulf War with its seemingly bloodless, machine-versus-machine destructiveness. America, according to Engelhardt, is still yearning for a revival of our national identity via the victory culture, “the story of their slaughter and our triumph.”
Copyright 1995 Reed Business Information, Inc.
Gary D. Barber / SUNY
Engelhardt, an editor and freelance writer, traces the growth and decline of “victory culture” in American history. A triumphalist myth, unquestioned for years, promoted the belief that America would always overcome its enemies.
Engelhardt shows how major events since 1945 have thoroughly eroded this belief, resulting in disillusionment for those over 40 and bewilderment for the post-Vietnam War generation. He focuses on a variety of related themes: Indian captivity narratives; Hollywood’s depiction of our “enemies,” usually dehumanized Native Americans and Asians; the phenomenon of “GI Joe,” the most popular war toy ever created; and the advent of rock’n’roll and the teen subculture that grew up around it.
Engelhardt’s study is a solid contribution to Cold War literature, especially where it touches upon questions of national purpose and identity. Although scholarly in tone, his book will appeal to anyone interested in American popular culture. Recommended for most libraries.
Copyright 1995 Reed Business Information, Inc.–This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
A Story of “We” against “They”
Daniel J. Hamlow
FARMINGTON, NM (January 3, 2003) — Tom Engelhardt’s The End Of Victory Culture is a thought-provoking, historical look at how the concept of defeating a less-than-human enemy was part of American culture. Ingrained in that was the mission to defeat that enemy. The trouble was, the enemy was human, be they the Native Americans the colonists and later the American government displaced. We also had this mindset that we were always on the right and they were always wrong, therefore, they had to be defeated.
One element was to exaggerate the atrocities committed, meaning that yeah, some of it happened, but not in the large scale depicted by the white leaders to drive home the point that we had to kill these unholy, ungodly, [insert enemy race here]. Colonist Mary Rowlandson’s accounts on her captivity and the massacre she survived was the archetypal demonizing of the “enemy.”
Victory culture nestled itself cozily in new visual media–the movies and television. Basically, the enemy performed some horrible atrocity on innocent whites, and it was up to the heroes to punish the enemy. The enemy would be defeated, more often than not killed, and everybody would live happily ever after. Straight and simple. It was in straight black-and-white (the issues as well as the early programs before colour TV and film came into being).
Engelhardt argues that between 1945 and 1975, the ends of WW2 and Vietnam respectively, that victory culture ended
Pearl Harbor gave plenty of opportunity to dehumanize the Japanese as an enemy, along with Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini.
The Cold War was where it all went into overdrive. The Communists were now the enemy, and that paranoid ideological struggle into the unknown carried through not only into Korea and Vietnam, but into movies, TV shows (Twilight Zone), comic books (Tales From The Crypt, MAD), and even toys (GI Joe).
A new dynamic also came, of the enemy hiding behind some citadel or bunker, such as the Forbidden City or Kremlin, with only large posters of the leader representing the human face of the enemy. Thus the enemy couldn’t be destroyed.
Vietnam demonstrated once and for all that we were fallible, and for a while, we were in a funk. And with My Lai, WE became the massacring enemy, the Vietnamese the colonists. The concept of victory culture was turned on its head with that event. And think about it: we lost Vietnam for the same reasons the British lost the American War for Independence. History has come full circle to America.
This book came out in 1995, and early on in the book, Engelhardt makes a well-worn but important point: “with the end of the Cold War and the loss of the enemy, American culture has entered a period of crisis that raises profound questions about national purpose and identity.” Ponder that passage, and what’s going on today in the world.
The main thing to ask today is, do we really need to have an enemy and a war to unite the people together? Peace and harmony can do the same thing. We do not need victory-for-one-side culture anymore. What we need is victory-for-all culture.
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• Fear as a Way of Life by Linda Green
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• The Culture of the Cold War (American Moment) by Stephen J. Whitfield
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