Posted in censorship, film, Korean War, masculinity, material culture, military, photographs, propaganda, Vietnam War, WWII

Warrior Image: Soldiers in American Culture from the Second World War to the Vietnam Era

Huebner, Andrew J. Warrior Image: Soldiers in American Culture from the Second World War to the Vietnam Era. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008.

In Warrior Image, Andrew J. Huebner challenges a common perception that American soldiers were depicted differently in World War II than they were during the Vietnam War. He argues that the contrast between the virtuous soldier of the “good war” and the “degraded and damaged” soldier of the Vietnam War is not as stark as many people believe. Even though early images of World War II portrayed soldiers as disciplined, brave, and patriotic, darker images reflecting the horrors of war began to emerge before the war ended. By the end of the Korean and Vietnam Wars, soldiers were depicted in the media as “frustrated, disillusioned, isolated, and embittered.”[1]  Yet, each of these wars began as a good war and its soldiers had been perceived as virtuous warriors, but events destroyed those images.

Huebner argues that images of foot soldiers in American culture from the 1940s through the 1970s have evolved over time, but warriors in all three wars have been portrayed as both heroes and victims. News photography, advertisements, propaganda, films, magazines, novels, and poetry all contributed to these changing images. His book features only males, most of whom are white. He uses terms such as soldier, veteran, warrior, serviceman, and GI broadly to include members of all military branches, but ignores airmen, seamen, medics, and those who served at headquarters or behind the lines because most of the war-related imagery in this period featured the infantry.[2] Huebner’s interpretations of how American warriors have been characterized comes primarily from depictions of soldiers and veterans in Hollywood films, but also in popular novels, magazines, television, and advertisements.[3]

Huebner contends that the most important element of war imagery relates to how these images elicit public sympathy for and identification with the soldiers, rather than how they work to promote the war effort. He writes, “The primary role of the media in wartime in the Anglo-American world has long been to maintain the ties of sentiment between the soldiers in the field and the home front.”[4] However, audience emotions can be manipulated for various purposes.

The OWI (Office of War Information) worked to influence popular publications’ portrayals of wounded soldiers by discouraging the public from pitying disabled veterans.[5] In an article published in Ladies Home Journal in July 1944, women were warned against sentimentality, “Men allowed to pity themselves will, in time, be disqualified from normal life and will end their days in veterans’ hospitals.”[6] Typical wartime photos that were published in magazines and newspapers showed beautiful women kissing and embracing their severely wounded fiancés, which reassured soldiers that such affection would be the reward for their sacrifices.[7] Advertisements in popular magazines followed suit. For example, an ad for Pullman sleeping cars showed cheerful wounded soldiers on trains being waited on by attractive nurses.[8]

However, the OWI changed their standards according to their needs. Huebner shows that censorship was loosened when public attention began to wane. Beginning in 1943, the government began releasing grisly photos to motivate the public. These photos had previously been consigned to the War Department’s “Chamber of Horrors” file.[9] OWI even requested that advertisers include images of dead U.S. soldiers to help raise money for the war effort even though depictions of fallen soldiers challenged the image of manly invulnerability. Huebner notes Christina Jarvis’ discussion of wounded soldiers in The Male Body at War: American Masculinity During World War II, “War produces alternative or ‘abject’ masculinities that exist alongside and in opposition to dominant cultural representations.”[10] In other words, even though Americans visualized soldiers, nation, and manhood to be invincible, war made them confront more sobering and realistic images.

[1] Andrew J. Huebner, Warrior Image: Soldiers in American Culture from the Second World War to the Vietnam Era (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008), 11.

[2] Ibid., 8.

[3] For information on Hollywood and the military, see David L. Robb, Operation Hollywood: How the Pentagon Shapes and Censors the Movies (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 2004); Carl Boggs and Tom Pollard, Hollywood War Machine: U.S. Militarism and Popular Culture (Boulder: Paradigm Pub., 2007); Matthew Alford and Michael Parenti, Reel Power: Hollywood Cinema and American Supremacy (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010); Geoff Martin and Erin Steuter, Pop Culture Goes to War: Enlisting and Resisting Militarism in the War on Terror (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2010).

[4] Huebner, 11. The book does not provide any information about public attitudes toward war, which would have helped to solidify his points.

[5] Ibid., 26-29.

[6] Ibid., 27.

[7] Ibid., 28.

[8] Ibid., 29.

[9] Ibid., 29-32.

[10] Ibid., 32; Christina S. Jarvis, The Male Body at War: American Masculinity During World War II (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2004), 88.

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