The other day, I walked across much of Manhattan Island on the street where I grew up. Once upon a time, in a space of just four blocks along that very street there were four movie theaters (no small wonder in the 1950s). Only The Paris Theater, somewhat the worse for wear, still stands. Tao, a pan-Asian restaurant, has replaced one of them; the other two were obliterated, their buildings razed and built anew in a city that regularly eats itself for breakfast.
At one of those two, the RKO 58th Street, I spent a significant part of my childhood watching John Wayne, Audie Murphy, and other monumental war heroes of the big screen (and, in Murphy’s case, an actual war hero as well) go to hell and back defeating America’s enemies. It was, I have to say, thrilling. Sometimes I would be sitting there right next to my dad and who could have asked for better than that? After all, in World War II he had been operations officer for the First Air Commandos in Burma, so who knew better than he what war was all about? He took me to such films, watched them with me, and never, not once, told me that anything I had seen onscreen wasn’t the god’s honest truth about how it all went down.
Strangely (at least to the young Tom Engelhardt), he rarely talked, no less bragged or told stories of any sort, about “his” war, the one I knew so well onscreen. In this, as Susan Faludi wrote years ago, he was undoubtedly typical of what we’ve come to call “the greatest generation” ― they thought otherwise ― but who might better have been labeled, at least by their sons, the silent generation. It was true that, on occasion, my father would suddenly burst into unpredictable rage over the owners of a local store who, he believed, had been “war profiteers,” or over the thought of going to a Japanese restaurant or owning a German Volkswagen. A few times in my childhood, he even pulled a scuffed green duffle bag filled with war memorabilia out of the back of his closet and let me watch as he silently sorted through it all, including his mess kit, wartime photos, two-sided silk maps of Burma, and his old service revolver. I would be suitably awed. Even then, though, he said next to nothing about his war.
All this came to mind as I read today’s post by TomDispatch regular Michael Klare on our new president and the war that ended at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the most glorious of global triumphs and the most terrifying of apocalyptic conclusions. It was, of course, the war I, like every other American boy of that moment including Donald Trump, had watched reverentially in movie theaters and on TV as the Marines eternally advanced to victory, or Merrill’s Marauders won the day, or the Nazis were mowed down. Meanwhile, at school we all “ducked and covered” under our desks, as sirens wailed outside and CONELRAD broadcast its warnings from a radio on our teacher’s desk, all the while imagining that war’s “victory weapon” annihilating us all.
And yet who could doubt that we Americans were the ultimate victors, that the U.S. military was glorious beyond compare, that the war my father wouldn’t talk about we had won, won, won, won, or that, in its onscreen form, as absorbed by the young Donald J. Trump, it became, as Klare argues convincingly in “Trump’s Military Nostalgia,” the bedrock foundation for his present military policies, the ones that he swears will finally leave America “winning” again for the first time in years. What would Audie Murphy or my father think now?