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Total Mobilization: World War II and American Literature

Total Mobilization: World War II and American Literature

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Total Mobilization: World War II and American Literature

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Jul 24, 2019


Since World War II, the story of the trauma hero—the noble white man psychologically wounded by his encounter with violence—has become omnipresent in America’s narratives of war, an imaginary solution to the contradictions of American political hegemony. In Total Mobilization, Roy Scranton cuts through the fog of trauma that obscures World War II, uncovering a lost history and reframing the way we talk about war today.
Considering often overlooked works by James Jones, Wallace Stevens, Martha Gellhorn, and others, alongside cartoons and films, Scranton investigates the role of the hero in industrial wartime, showing how such writers struggled to make sense of problems that continue to plague us today: the limits of American power, the dangers of political polarization, and the conflicts between nationalism and liberalism. By turning our attention to the ways we make war meaningful—and by excavating the politics implicit within the myth of the traumatized hero—Total Mobilization revises the way we understand not only World War II, but all of postwar American culture.
Jul 24, 2019

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Total Mobilization - Roy Scranton

Total Mobilization

Total Mobilization

World War II and American Literature

Roy Scranton

The University of Chicago Press

Chicago and London

The University of Chicago Press, Chicago 60637

The University of Chicago Press, Ltd., London

© 2019 by Roy Scranton

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations in critical articles and reviews. For more information, contact the University of Chicago Press, 1427 East 60th Street, Chicago, IL 60637.

Published 2019

Printed in the United States of America

28 27 26 25 24 23 22 21 20 19    1 2 3 4 5

ISBN-13: 978-0-226-63728-0 (cloth)

ISBN-13: 978-0-226-63731-0 (paper)

ISBN-13: 978-0-226-63745-7 (e-book)


The University of Chicago Press gratefully acknowledges the generous support of the Institute for Scholarship in the Liberal Arts in the College of Arts and Letters at the University of Notre Dame toward the publication of this book.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Names: Scranton, Roy, 1976– author.

Title: Total mobilization : World War II and American literature / Roy Scranton.

Description: Chicago ; London : The University of Chicago Press, 2019. | Includes bibliographical references and index.

Identifiers: LCCN 2018056059 | ISBN 9780226637280 (cloth : alk. paper) | ISBN 9780226637310 (pbk. : alk. paper) | ISBN 9780226637457 (e-book)

Subjects: LCSH: World War, 1939–1945—Literature and the war. | American literature—History and criticism.

Classification: LCC PS169.W27 S37 2019 | DDC 810.9/3584053—dc23

LC record available at

This paper meets the requirements of ANSI/NISO Z39.48–1992 (Permanence of Paper).

for Martin

The image of war as armed combat merges into the more extended image of a gigantic labor process. . . . In order to deploy energies of such proportion, fitting one’s sword-arm no longer suffices; for this is a mobilization that requires extension to the deepest marrow, life’s final nerve. Its realization is the task of total mobilization: an act which, as if through a single grasp of the control panel, conveys the extensively branched and densely veined power supply of modern life towards the great current of martial energy.

Ernst Jünger, Total Mobilization (1930)

Sunday-school texts have ever been considered by sophisticated moralists the essential stimulus to sin—and I see no reason why the same fact should not apply to a Sunday-school simplification in dealing with the problems of war. On the other hand, let war be put forward as a cultural way of life, as one channel of effort in which people can be profoundly human, and you induce in the reader the fullest possible response to war, precisely such a response as might best lead one to appreciate the preferable ways of peace.

Kenneth Burke, War, Response, Contradiction (1941)

The war is the first and only thing in the world today. The arts generally are not, nor is this writing a diversion from that for relief, a turning away. It is the war or part of it, merely a different sector of the field.

William Carlos Williams, introduction to The Wedge (1944)


List of Figures

Introduction: A True War Story

1  The Bomber

The Bomber Lyric

The Bomber as Scapegoat: Randall Jarrell’s Eighth Air Force

Atrocity Aesthetics: James Dickey’s The Firebombing

Agency and Death

2  Repetitions of a Hero

The Hero as Riddle: The Negro Hero and the Nation within a Nation

The Hero as Social Media: The Caine Mutiny

Participating in the Heroic: Wallace Stevens and the Poetry of War

The Reality of the Modern State: The Thin Red Line

3  War as Comedy

Zany Dialectics: Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips

The Education of a War Poet: Kenneth Koch at War

Barbaric Poetry: From Okinawa to the Cold War

Encoding War: Sun Out and The Islands

4  Total War and Historical Time

War as Origin Myth: Joan Didion’s Run River

War as a Promise to the Future: Letter from Paradise, 21° 19′ N., 157° 52′ W.

The Hanged Man and the Military-Industrial Complex: The Young Lions and Gravity’s Rainbow

One World, One War: The Great War and Modern Memory

War as Fantasy: Star Wars

5  The Trauma Hero

Combat Gnosticism and the Old Lie: From Clausewitz to The Yellow Birds

Traumatic Revelation

The Good War and Postmodern Memory

Conclusion: Nothing Is Over



Works Cited



1  Cover of Brian Turner’s Here, Bullet (2005)

2  Still from The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

3  Still from The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

4  Douglas A-20 Light Attack Bombers (1944/1945)

5  B-29 Incendiary Attack, Kobe (1945)

6  Pfc. Kenneth Koch (ca. 1944)

7  US Invasion Fleet, Leyte (1944)

8  381st Infantry Regiment, Catmon Hill (1944)

9  382nd Infantry Regiment, Leyte (1944)

10  Visions from Deadeye Features (1945)

11  Joan Didion, Hawaii: Taps at Pearl Harbor from Saturday Evening Post (1966)

12  Wilfred Owen, Dulce et Decorum Est draft manuscript (1917)


A True War Story

Kindly! Sir, I pray, let me ha’t: I have wounds to show you.

William Shakespeare, Coriolanus, act 2, scene 3

The true story of war is a story of trauma. A young man goes away to war, his head swimming with visions of courage and his heart yearning for sacrifice, but what he finds instead is death. He sees, causes, and suffers horrific violence, violence that wounds his very soul. After the war that same youth, now a veteran, returns to the world of peace haunted by his experience, wracked by what Judith Herman identifies as the central compulsion of trauma and atrocity: the conflict between the need to publicly witness his encounter with violence and the compulsion to repress it.¹ He struggles to turn the inassimilable reality of the traumatic event into narrative but finds himself blocked at every turn: the memories slip from his grasp; no one wants to hear about the horrors he’s seen; and it is impossible for people who were not there to understand. As Herman writes, Soldiers in every war, even those who have been regarded as heroes, complain bitterly that no one wants to know the real truth about war.²

The traumatic violence of war destroys even language itself. Literary theorist James Dawes argues that war impairs the human power to describe, define, or narrate. At the broadest level, war interrupts history. . . . War interrupts intersubjective evaluation and, at the most personal level, interrupts self-narration.³ Adam Piette asserts, War zones destructure any narrative that attempts to describe them with powers of menace capable of warping civilian space-time.⁴ According to Mary Favret, War, even at a distance, works to dismantle the forms that prop up our sense of the world and our place in it.⁵ War’s capacity to impair, destructure, or dismantle language may be an effect of its inherent resistance to conceptualization and representation; as Fredric Jameson argues, war itself is an impossible collective totality, a manifold of consciousnesses as unimaginable as it is real.⁶ Experiencing firsthand how war damages and exasperates our powers of description, sense making, intersubjective evaluation, self-narration, and even space-time itself, the veteran comes to understand that war’s truth is a truth beyond words. Because war is a world-unmaking event, a reality-deconstructing and defamiliarizing activity, writes Margot Norris, the problem the veteran then faces is how to make its inherent epistemological disorientation, its sense of experienced ‘unreality,’ real.

Thus the soldier’s most heroic battle occurs not on the field of combat but after he has come home, when he strives to bear testimony to his experience. He has gone to war, confronted death, and returned with that most priceless of treasures, self-knowledge, for in passing through the fires of combat, the soldier has learned momentous truths about human existence that rend the illusory veils of modern civilization.⁸ As Chris Hedges asserts in his best-selling, award-winning book War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, War exposes a side of human nature that is usually masked by the unacknowledged coercion and social constraints that glue us together.⁹ Integrating this revealed knowledge into his life, turning it into narrative, and testifying to it before his community is precisely how the veteran heals his psychic wounds. The testimony is . . . the process by which the narrator (the survivor) reclaims his position as a witness, observes Dori Laub.¹⁰ Every war story, every true war story, is a story of trauma and recovery, a narrative that struggles to speak the unspeakable truth of war, a story that speaks war’s unspeakability.

Yet as Kalí Tal reminds us, the task of the traumatized author is an impossible one.¹¹ While a few survivors may be able to turn their suffering into literature, many veterans, unable to cope with the impossible task of narrativizing war’s inherent epistemological disorientation, remain stuck in their trauma for decades, compulsively reliving their pain, always returning to war’s unimaginable unmaking. What one returns to, in the flashback, is not the incomprehensibility of one’s near death, explains Cathy Caruth, but the very incomprehensibility of one’s own survival.¹²

In either case, the veteran, now a survivor and a witness, is known, like the Greek archer Philoctetes, by his wound. His testimony defines him, his work, and his speech. The writings of trauma survivors comprise a distinct ‘literature of trauma,’ asserts Tal. Literature of trauma is defined by the identity of its author.¹³ To understand this literature, she explains, we must embrace critical strategies that acknowledge the peculiar position of the survivor-author . . . and move into the realms of psychology and sociology, acknowledging the specific effects of trauma on the process of narration.¹⁴ Every true war story is a story of trauma because the experience of war is essentially traumatic, because war itself is trauma, and we can only ever understand literature of and about war in these terms.

So speaks the myth of the trauma hero. This myth is perhaps the single most important cultural frame for understanding the experience of war in the United States today. It informs our politics, colors our news reports, and underwrites our history.¹⁵ It dominates critical and scholarly interpretation of war literature, war movies, and the visual culture of war. It shapes how children imagine war and how veterans remember it. It even affects projects and viewpoints that might be otherwise critical of hero worship and skeptical of trauma theory. And it has sunk so deeply into our culture and become so naturalized that we have difficulty thinking of war in any other way.

The myth of the trauma hero is compelling: it claims to speak to deep psychological truths, makes a kind of intuitive sense, and, perhaps most important, makes the American veteran a sympathetic victim, rather than a perpetrator, of violence. It is a myth that harmonizes with a Romantic valorization of embodied, subjective truth, since it frames war as a personal aesthetic experience rather than as a sociopolitical event, and portrays the experience of war as an experience of transcendental revelation achieved through physical proximity to death.

The trauma hero’s revelation is predicated on the idea that the subjective feeling of having undergone an experience offers a more robust claim to truth and a greater moral authority than do history, eyewitnessing, or other kinds of accounts that rely on observable evidence or reasoned argument. Indeed, the trauma hero’s truth claim is a claim to a truth which exists beyond language: it is impossible, it is unspeakable, it is incommunicable. Nevertheless, and not without irony, the trauma hero’s claim is a claim necessarily made in language. The trauma hero’s transcendental revelation, that is to say, is a rhetorical and literary convention. The truth of war has a history, as does the trauma hero’s revelation. As does the trauma hero.

Myths such as this sustain our sense of reality as coherent and meaningful. They are not, properly speaking, falsehoods, though their basis in empirical reality is often tenuous at best. Such myths are social facts, collectively held beliefs, which serve to codify social norms, represent collective identity, and make concrete the metaphoric relations structuring thought. Myths bring ideas to life in stories. We can never live wholly free of myths, for without them human existence would literally make no sense. Yet the need to live together within stories that tell us who we are does not mean that we must do so blindly, unconsciously, and without reflection. Bringing myth to light as history will not ever wholly dissolve the symbolic bonds that hold us together, if that were even desirable, but it might loosen them, allowing us a little more freedom of thought within their constraints, a little more self-conscious deliberation.

I began to delve into the history of the trauma hero in 2007 because I was curious about the ways in which the United States’ wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were then being represented. Specifically, I was puzzled by the prevailing emphasis on soldiers’ trauma and the heartfelt admiration expressed across the political spectrum for veterans, two things that seemed to be connected. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were corrupt, possibly illegal, and immensely destructive, of dubious merit even from a cynical perspective, yet our most resonant cultural narratives about the wars focused not on the systemic political failures the wars represented or the thousands upon thousands of Iraqi and Afghan lives that were being callously destroyed, but rather on the psychological suffering of individual American soldiers.

One telling instance of the phenomenon can be seen in the story behind the cover of American veteran Brian Turner’s award-winning poetry collection, Here, Bullet (2005).¹⁶ The cover of his lauded, well-known, and much-taught book offers an iconic image: a slouching soldier in battle gear staring at the viewer, standing alone against a harsh desert landscape (fig. 1). The image calls to mind countless similar images of battle-weary soldiers while also evoking the tradition of the American Western through its figure of the solitary cowboy poised against the horizon. The figure is Turner himself; his gaze challenges the reader with his archetypical thousand-yard stare, at once wounded and aggressive, guarded and yet hinting at hard-won wisdom.

Figure 1. Cover of Brian Turner’s Here, Bullet (2005).

This image came from a photo Turner had provided his publisher. Naturally, the photo had needed to be edited. The most important thing that had needed to be done was that the zip-tied, hooded Iraqi prisoners whom Turner and his men had captured needed to be erased. In an interview in the Virginia Quarterly Review, Turner describes the decision-making process at length, offering valuable insight into the process by which artists and editors collaborate in the production of war’s truth:

The editor at Alice James Books asked me to send along a number of photos so that, while she was editing, she could get a feel for the people that show up in the poems. She wanted a visual feel for the landscape, and I think she was trying to get closer to the material too. She came across one photo and said this has got to be the cover, but it was very contentious for me for several reasons. . . . The contentious part of the photo—and I struggled with this—on the cover just above my name in the lower half of the photo, between the photographer and me were three Iraqi prisoners. They were on their knees, their hands were flexcuffed behind their backs, and they had sandbags over their heads. Jackowski, he was my M203 gunner, he took the photo. The prisoner on Jackowski’s right had a leather jacket on and we’d written RPG across his back because he’d fired a Rocket Propelled Grenade. In fact, Jackowski was in the center of a circle of prisoners—about ten or thirteen of them—and the stance that I have in that photo looks sort of like John Wayne. That photo looks like I came over here to chew bubblegum and kick ass, and I’m all out of bubblegum, as they say in the movies. It just wasn’t right for a cover photo, especially with the sandbags over the heads because that’s now synonymous with torture.

If I were someone walking into a bookstore—as we were talking about this during the editing process—I felt like some people would be repelled by that image. They would just think torture right off the bat, and this book isn’t about torture. There are books that need to be written about torture, and some of those are starting to come out, but my book isn’t about that. I wanted to invite people into the book rather than push them away.¹⁷

According to Turner’s own account, Turner and his editor worked together to shape an image of the Iraq War that focused on the American soldier, invoked the cowboy-hero tradition of John Wayne, and literally erased Iraqi bodies, for the cover of a book of lyric poetry published by a respected nonprofit poetry press founded with a feminist and socially progressive mission. The reality of the war—specifically, the fact of Iraqi bodies—was deemed too repellent, so a new truth had to be constructed, one that elided the history of torture and the Abu Ghraib scandal, eliminated the troublesome Iraqis, and made the war more inviting to American readers. Most poetry readers today would probably not think of words or phrases such as state ideology, propaganda, nationalism, or lies when they think of Alice James Books or Brian Turner’s poetry, yet an image invoking nationalist war ideology that was constructed through erasure and deceit is precisely the face Alice James Books put on Turner’s poems.

As I struggled to understand the motivation behind this process of ideological erasure and reframing that I was witnessing in American culture, I began to see that it had something to do with the genealogy of trauma itself and how trauma had come to be synonymous with war. Trauma as a psychological concept has a long history going back more than a century, which has been discussed in detail by authors such as Ian Hacking, Ruth Leys, Didier Fassin, Richard Rechtman, and Allan Young,¹⁸ but trauma really only came into mainstream American culture in the 1970s. As I traced the history of trauma and its connections to American narratives about war, I began to see that the trauma hero myth had, at some point in American history, taken on a political function: in a way homologous to the way in which Brian Turner’s image was constructed on the cover of Here, Bullet, the trauma hero myth focuses all of our attention on the solitary soldier while erasing the bodies of the enemies and innocents that our traumatized hero killed. I also began to understand that whereas the myth’s political function seemed at first to be about American efforts to make sense of the war in Vietnam, it actually had much more to do with a revision within American cultural memory of the meaning of World War II, specifically related to that war’s total mobilization of American culture to military ends, a mobilization that did not end in 1945 but which persisted throughout the Cold War and into the twenty-first century, and which remains with us today.

The historical, political, and cultural importance of World War II to American life in the twentieth century scarcely needs to be argued. Yet for just that reason, it’s easy to forget how pervasive, radical, and upsetting the war’s effects were. As Richard Slotkin reminds us, the Second World War plunged American culture into a crisis of unprecedented scope and intensity.¹⁹ Some thirty million Americans were uprooted from their homes, and sixteen million of those stripped of their civilian identities, shuttled through a vast national bureaucracy, and sent across the country or across the world in what became the greatest experiment in cosmopolitan mixing and mass indoctrination in American history.²⁰ More than 400,000 of these people died; another 670,000 of them were wounded. Women entered the workforce en masse, suddenly experiencing wholly novel forms of financial and sexual independence: The percentage of women in the workforce increased by some 50 percent in the five years after 1940.²¹ African Americans served in (segregated) military combat and support units and migrated north and west to work in an expanding defense industry: Los Angeles, Detroit, Cleveland, and Philadelphia all saw African American populations nearly double between 1940 and 1950.²² The material culture of American life was transformed beyond imagining: food production and consumption, housewares, automobile production, home building, highways, television, film, clothing, airplane travel, and music all underwent incredible metamorphoses between the 1930s and the 1950s, spurred by wartime consumption, government investment, and a metastasizing military-industrial complex. Millions of Americans experienced firsthand the terror and excitement of mortal violence, and millions more were imaginatively and emotionally invested in what was perceived as an existential struggle for the future of the planet. Last but not least, the scale of America’s self-image was wrenched into a new frame as the United States took on leadership of the West, facing Soviet Russia in what would become a winner-take-all Cold War for global dominance, meanwhile unleashing the godlike destructive power of the atomic bomb.

If we can say that World War II is a single event, it surely strains the imagination to conceive of it as such. Even from a strictly American perspective, what World War II is and means have been contentious and difficult issues from the beginning, not merely because of political investments and predispositions but also because the sheer scope of the war and its aftershocks remains difficult to assimilate or even to clearly perceive. As Norman Mailer wrote in 1957, The Second World War presented a mirror to the human condition which blinded anyone who looked into it.²³

And perhaps it still does, though not for lack of looking. Cultural and aesthetic representations of World War II have struggled to come to terms with its staggering historical, ethical, political, and psychological complexity in a variety of ways; in poetry, novels, musicals, history, television miniseries, comic books, video games, and films. From Pearl S. Buck’s novel China Sky (1941), depicting American doctors caught in the Japanese invasion of China, to the first-person shooters set in World War II that appeared in the 1990s and the first decade of the twenty-first century, starting with the now-classic Wolfenstein 3D (1992) and continuing with the blockbuster franchises Medal of Honor (1999) and Call of Duty (2003); from Ezra Pound’s Pisan Cantos (1948) to George Lucas’s Star Wars (1977); from Chester Himes’s novel of racial tensions in wartime Los Angeles, If He Hollers, Let Him Go (1945), to Don DeLillo’s White Noise (1985), the protagonist of which is a professor of Hitler Studies, the variety of American cultural production from the 1940s onward that works explicitly, allegorically, and sometimes unconsciously with and through World War II is at once a testament to the war’s importance and a forbidding challenge to our efforts to understand it.²⁴

Given the tremendous richness and diversity of representations of World War II produced since the 1940s, it seems remarkable that a single narrative strain—trauma—has come to dominate the war’s literary canon. The short list of canonical American literary works about the war comprises the novels The Naked and the Dead (1948), Catch-22 (1961), Slaughterhouse-Five (1968), Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), and perhaps Ceremony (1977), along with a wider array of poems best represented by Randall Jarrell’s Death of the Ball Turret Gunner, Louis Simpson’s Carentan O Carentan, some of Robert Lowell’s antiwar poetry, several poems by Gwendolyn Brooks, Marianne Moore’s In Distrust of Merits, and W. H. Auden’s September 1, 1939.²⁵ These are the works that occupy the center of both academic and popular discussion of World War II literature, focus attention in canon-setting works such as The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of World War II, and serve as the ready-to-hand examples of World War II literature for teachers and scholars of twentieth-century American literature. These works are stylistically and topically diverse, yet except for Moore’s complex meditation and Auden’s rueful lyric, they are alike in that they all rely on the concept of trauma and the trope of traumatic revelation.

When other works are discussed, they are typically dismissed as aesthetic failures, as in Walter Hölbling’s discussion of American World War II literature in The Cambridge Companion to War Writing, where he lumps together all the fiction not identified as postmodern under the flattening category of the mimetic mode, tendentiously describing a great variety (and, indeed, the majority) of World War II novels as traditional, conventional, and simplistically comforting: The focus is on telling a ‘story’ whose chronology more or less corresponds to the historical sequence of events. Characters conform to the tradition of psychological realism that encourages readers to identify with protagonists, and the connection of events by means of chronological narrative and plot structure suggests that the sense-making of the fictional ‘story’ is more or less identical with what took place. At the end, readers have a sense of closure and the feeling that the things that happen in this fictional world can be explained and understood.²⁶ Even ignoring Hölbling’s contempt for story and characters, we’re left to puzzle out how this helps us make sense of works such as Harry Brown’s existentialist fable A Walk in the Sun (1944), Gertrude Stein’s gnomic Wars I Have Seen (1945), and John Horne Burns’s cynical portrait of occupied Naples, The Gallery (1947), or how it helps us understand the contradictions and dilemmas being worked out even in such conventional works as William Wister Haines’s Command Decision (1947) or William Gardner Smith’s Last of the Conquerors (1948). James Dawes likewise consigns everything but Mailer, Heller, Vonnegut, and Pynchon to the slag heap of mediocrity (though he does reserve a few nice words for Martha Gellhorn): A great deal of readable, competent work was produced and lavishly celebrated . . . but few of these novels marked new directions for literature and fewer still are given extended attention by literary critics today. It is a much smaller subset of works that is now widely taken as the most important art coming out of the conflict.²⁷ Dawes’s vague gesturing toward new directions for literature and the most important art reveal his argument as the evasion it is. In fact, neither Mailer’s book nor Heller’s offers much in the way of technical innovation, and both books can seem at times repetitive exercises in illustrating the point that war is bad, while merely readable, competent novels such as From Here to Eternity and Tales of the South Pacific, which actually approach the war in fresh and innovative ways, have had deep and long-lasting impacts on American culture. More to the point, bandying about such opinions says nothing about why any of these books are important to scholars and readers either today or when they were published, or why, in the words of Kenneth Rose, it is one of the conventions of literary criticism that World War I produced great writers but World War II did not.²⁸

Scholarly discussion of World War II poetry is typically more nuanced than that of the novels, though Hölbling, like other critics such as Margot Norris and Diederik Oostdijk, tends to privilege the same handful of poets (Auden, Jarrell, Lowell, Moore, Simpson), ignoring the challenges posed by the war poetry of writers such as H.D., Diane DiPrima, Kenneth Koch, Frank O’Hara, George Oppen, Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, and Louis Zukofsky.²⁹

How are we to understand the fact that when it comes to a war in which the United States arose to victory as a global superpower, the canonical literary representations valorized as aesthetically worthwhile all tell stories of individual soldiers—Slothrop, Billy Pilgrim, Yossarian—psychologically traumatized by their proximity to violence? How did it happen that in the face of the overwhelming amount, variety, and complexity of representations of the experience of World War II, the narrow interpretive frame of trauma has come to dominate canonical literature about the war? Reading across the war’s literary archive from Lincoln Kirstein’s ribald poems to Martha Gellhorn’s melancholy novel Point of No Return (1948), from John Hersey’s documentary novels and novelistic reportage to Wallace Stevens’s complex considerations of the imagination of the hero in time of war, one can see that the majority of literary work explicitly concerned with World War II is in fact actively misrepresented by this canon.³⁰ Just as Brian Turner and his editor went about constructing a simplified image of the Iraq War for the cover of Here, Bullet, a collaborative process of aesthetic reframing and erasure has washed out the complexity of World War II literature and replaced it with a story of trauma. How and why did this happen? Even more important, what is this misrepresentative canon leaving out, marginalizing, and obscuring?

As my research progressed, I began to understand that one of the key things that the trauma hero myth has obscured is the way that writers dealing with World War II in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s struggled to make sense of the notion of heroism itself in a moment when the United States was transforming into a global military superpower. Who a hero was, what a hero did, how the hero was represented, and how the hero embodied American culture’s self-understanding were contentious, open, and vital questions. The problem of the hero had been a pervasive Western concern since the late eighteenth century and can be seen emerging in Goethe’s revolutionary novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, Wordsworth’s war poems, and Hegel’s vision of the world spirit as Napoleon on horseback, but total war revealed the problem to be a crisis at the heart of industrialized democratic society. Sidney Hook, Eric Bentley, Kenneth Burke, and other thinkers in the 1940s worried that the relationship between liberal democracy and heroism was at best beset by a troubled tension, at worst an irreconcilable antagonism. What was at stake was a conflict between different kinds of stories society told itself about its values, which is to say, how Americans told themselves the story of who they were: on the one hand, narratives in which every individual was an equal and independent member of a commercial democracy where everything was for sale, and on the other hand, narratives in which every individual was subordinated to the collective and the most important thing anyone could do was to sacrifice their life for the nation. The total mobilization of American society to fight World War II demanded, in Kenneth Burke’s words, a change from a commercial-liberal-monetary nexus of motives to a collective-sacrificial-military nexus of motives.³¹

In effect, World War II opened wide a conflict that had been building within the Western world since the Napoleonic Wars: the conflict between nationalism and capitalism, specifically the conflict between the metaphoric logic of nationalism and the metaphoric logic of capitalism around the issue of bodily sacrifice. To understand this conflict, we need to recognize nationalism and capitalism as competing belief systems with competing myths and rituals. In nationalism, collective identity is formed through the sacrifice and sacralization of a human body. The hero gives his body to and for the people, thus giving substance to the collective’s notion of itself, here the nation. Capitalism, in contrast, resists such sacrifice, since the human body must be converted, like everything else, into an exchangeable commodity—in this case, wage labor. What we sacrifice to collective identity in capitalism is not the body as such but nature, which we feed to the machine in exchange for material plenty.³²

In World War II, national demands for the total mobilization of economic and spiritual resources conflicted powerfully with capitalism’s totalizing logic of commodity exchange. One belief system demanded the sacrifice of individual lives to a notion of collective identity grounded in genetic or legal consanguinity and geographic cohabitation, while the other demanded the sacrifice of all that is deemed essential and natural, including national identity, to a logic of metaphoric substitution in which any given thing, including the human body, can be transformed into any other thing. These belief systems had been in conflict since their emergence, but it was only with World War II that the conflict between these competing belief systems emerged into global ideological crisis. To put it another way, while we tend to think of the major ideological conflict motivating World War II—the gigantomachia peri tēs ousias, the battle of giants concerning being—as being between democracy and totalitarianism, that ideological conflict is better understood as being between two totalizing forms of social organization competing to control the world: nationalism versus capitalism.

Seen in this way, the United States’ victory in World War II represented not so much the victory of capitalism over nationalism but rather a kind of sublation, an aufhebung, that triple action of preserving, negating, and raising up, in which the two contraries are dissolved into each other through a new synthesis: in this case, American military-commercial hegemony. The trauma hero, I came to understand, was taken up as an imaginary solution to the real conflict between capitalism and nationalism still at work within postwar American culture, offering a satisfying narrative of sacrifice that fosters a sense of communal belonging yet still preserves the body for labor, in ideological form at least, since the sacrifice the trauma hero undergoes is no longer physical but psychological. In this way, wartime sacrifice is enlisted to serve two masters, now locked in uneasy alliance. The trauma hero does not die for the nation but suffers spiritually for all nations; the trauma hero does not bleed for the nation but weeps while spilling blood for international human rights; the trauma hero does not embody a particular national ideal but rather performs a universal ideal by turning the brute fact of death into narrative, translating the Real into the Symbolic: blood and bodies become signs, artworks, stories; nature becomes culture. Once war is redefined as an irreducible trauma, a natural force with the same ontological power as racial or religious identity, then it can be assimilated within capitalist exchange by being converted into a tradable commodity, like any other natural resource. In the wake of World War II, as the war machine and the capitalist machine joined in what General Dwight D. Eisenhower called in his monitory final address as president the military-industrial complex, the totalizing logic of the market absorbed even the act of total sacrifice. Total mobilization in a time of permanent crisis demands that we continue to give our laboring, consuming bodies to the global marketplace, while sacrificing our souls to the truth of the nation. Keep shopping, only support the troops!

This book is organized around the problem of the hero in an era of total mobilization, focused on American literature produced between 1941 and 1975 having to do with World War II. While I draw from cartoons, films, journalism, and other media, I am primarily concerned with novels and poetry. My main interest, however, is not in the technical developments and stylistic genealogies of these specific forms but rather in how these forms serve as fields in which competing cultural forces come into conflict and resolution. Form is the necessary expression of content, content the necessary meaning of form; to argue for a particular aesthetic development taking place over time without accounting for the historical forces that give it life is to do no more than project onto the past a just-so story which only confirms our own aesthetic taste, which is to say, our ideology.

Total Mobilization is intended to offer a revision of the now canonical postmodern, posttraumatic revision of World War II that happened in the 1960s and 1970s. My core argument is threefold: first, that readers and literary scholars have mistaken the relationship between World War II and American literature by focusing on a handful of misrepresentative texts, and that in order to understand the impact of that war on American culture and literature, we must return to the archive with fresh eyes; second, that when we do so, we will see that for American writers trying to make sense of World War II, one of the central problems (if not the central problem) was the role of the hero in totalized industrial war; and third, that trauma as an interpretive frame for the experience of war emerged as an ideological solution to the problem of the hero and successfully took hold in the American political imaginary as a self-serving way of reinterpreting the history of American violence.

It is my hope that Total Mobilization can substantially refresh and revise the way we read World War II in American literature, and American war literature in general, while also reframing our understanding of postwar American culture. Only by so doing will we be able to understand the full import of World War II for American literature and see that the definitive fact of late twentieth-century American culture is neither postmodernism nor the Cold War but rather World War II and its repercussions. The stakes

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